WHINERS AND LOSERS: Normally I can’t stand election-night parties. Winners gloat, losers whine. That’s just the way it is. Strangely, this Tuesday night, I was feeling uncommonly magnanimous. But then it’s not every day you get to feel sorry for an oil company. I found myself consumed with concern for Venoco and its smart-tough-pugnacious spokesperson Lisa Rivas.
Fate was not kind to them. Of course, the company did itself no favors, either, by trying to pull an end-run around small-town Carpinteria’s normal environmental review process to secure approval for a gargantuan-sized industrial development. The company wants to drill up to 35 new wells onshore — right behind Carpinteria City Hall — that will extend into an offshore oil lease it already owns. To do this, it would need to erect a 140-foot-tall drilling rig overlooking Carpinteria’s nearby seal rookery, a major feel-good hit with anyone capable of recognizing their own image in a mirror. Venoco had all kinds of promises in its bag of tricks, mostly the hundreds of millions in oil revenues that critics derided as somewhere-over-the-rainbow money. It had all kinds of threats, too. But at the end of the day, nothing worked. The outcome wasn’t remotely close. It was Bambi vs. Godzilla all over again. This time Bambi kicked ass.
First, Venoco badly underestimated the opposition. There’s a reason why slow-growthers have held an uninterrupted hammerlock on Carpinteria City Hall for the past 20 years. The activists there drag unwilling candidates out of the woodwork, force them to run, train them in what to say, and get them elected. Then they show up to council meetings, en masse if need be, to make sure their friends do what they said they were going to do. And most amazing of all, they seem to have fun doing it. It’s like hardball politics fused with an ongoing neighborhood picnic. Even under the best of circumstances, Venoco would have found itself urinating up a very long rope. And in gale force winds.
But then BP hit. Carpinteria voters have been bombarded with the same horrific images we all have. And we all saw exactly what happens when the most modern, state-of-the-art oil technology gets put in the hands of error-prone humans, prone to be sneaky and to cut costs. Carp voters had been assured by Venoco experts that the odds of even a minor oil spill were less than one-in-a-million. Sadly for Venoco, it was BP’s feckless chief executive — prone to sudden and violent attacks of foot-in-mouth-itis — who gave the world a crash course in such disaster statistics.
By more than a two-thirds majority, Carpinteria voters declared they didn’t like those odds, leaving Venoco execs to lick their wounds and ponder their next step. In the process, Venoco rang up a campaign tab of $600,000; the other side barely mustered $80,000. In hindsight, the company would have done better if it had simply issued $45 checks to every man, woman, and child and told everyone to go out and have a good time.
I was feeling downright empathetic toward Republicans in general Tuesday night. This was supposed to be the night of their Big Bounce, when they grabbed the allegedly swinging pendulum and beat all the lefty libs and so-called secular socialists over the head with it. But the choice confronting Republicans in the governor’s race is enough to induce mass bulimia to all but the blind, deaf, and dumb.
Steve Poizner is a shameless opportunist and chameleon. Only a few years ago, he happily boasted a 100-percent approval rating from such nefarious groups as National Abortion Rights Action League. Now he’s hewing sharply to the right — he publicly derided opponent Meg Whitman for having listened to National Public Radio — and attempted to gain traction by beating up on immigrants. Had Poizner listened to NPR, he might have learned that any time Republicans have tried this approach — at least in California — they’ve paid dearly at the ballot box.
But Whitman hardly shines in contrast. Another former CEO whose vast personal wealth is exceeded only by delusions of grandiosity, Whitman, we have learned, could not spare a few seconds out of her busy schedule to even vote until just recently. But like Poizner, she does have lots of money, and the two of them spent more than $100 million ripping each other to shreds. Whitman is the last one standing because she started with the bigger pile of dough. With leaders like that, little wonder some Republicans have sought refuge with the Tea Party. Sure, they’re 100-percent wrong, but at least they stand for something.
I went to the The Nugget Tuesday night in hopes of encountering some wild and wooly Tea Party activists at the victory party of Republican congressional candidate Tom Watson, who won with the Tea Party’s wind at his back. Instead, I found the usual coterie of older Republican Party activists nursing their drinks, nibbling on the finger food, and making the same rounds I was. Watson himself seemed like a genuine guy, given more to calm understatement than hyperventilated fulminations. Like all five Republicans vying for a spot on the fight card against Democratic incumbent Lois Capps, Watson has never run for office before. That’s like winning the lottery to see who gets to dive headfirst into a wood chipper. Congrats are in order, I guess.
One of the big losers was Assemblymember Pedro Nava, whose fall from grace with South Coast Dems and Enviros over the past two years seemed more like a long walk off a short pier. Nava, termed out, was one of seven Democrats to run for attorney general. Despite the ferocious backing from the animal rights lobby, Nava came in second to last, winning only 9.9 percent of the vote. The only candidate he beat, Mike Schmier, was a no-chance, let-’er-rip lefty who campaigned against the death penalty, against three-strikes, and for legalization of pot, not usually winning positions in a race for the state’s top cop. Festering ill-will toward Nava — for reasons too complex to get into here — certainly didn’t help his wife, Susan Jordan, in her quest to replace Nava as our representative in Sacramento. In this case, being a politician’s spouse proved far more of a liability than a help. Nor did it help Jordan, a first-time candidate, that she was going up against Das Williams — a one-man political juggernaut with tons of energized volunteers — on his home turf.
One of the biggest winners was former Santa Maria mayor Abel Maldonado, who won the Republican Party nomination for lieutenant governor. Given that some Republicans seem intent on giving Apartheid a second chance and Maldonado happens to be a card-carrying Latino, that’s saying something. And if it weren’t for Maldonado’s bold political extortion last year — his gridlock-breaking vote for the budget last year in exchange for a ballot initiative of his choice this year — Prop. 14 would never have made it onto the ballot. Prop. 14, designed to get more moderates and fewer extremists elected, renders obsolete California’s current system of party primary elections. Despite intense opposition from nearly all political parties — or probably because of it — the measure won easily. Maldonado will likely lose to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in the fall run-off, but it will take lawyers from both parties a lot longer to figure out how to kill Prop. 14 in the courts.
To all the winners, congrats and condolences. To all the losers, just reverse the order.