Forgive the gross simplification, but in many ways, the race for the State Senate’s 19th District seat is like trying to choose between beer and coffee, two beverages whose basic commonalities are only exceeded by their obvious differences.
On one side you have high-energy Democrat and former state assemblymember Hannah-Beth Jackson, a quick-talking and sound-byte savvy candidate who narrowly lost the 19th in 2008 by half a percentage point to Tony Strickland. Squaring her up on the ballot is once-upon-a-time Santa Barbara County supervisor Mike Stoker, a well-worn and likable area Republican who went home without a seat in 2010 after losing to Das Williams in the 35th District State Assembly race. With a possible Democrat-led supermajority in California’s upper house hanging in the balance, one of these two longtime Santa Barbara County political players is guaranteed to break a losing streak come November 6.
When voters last had a chance to decide who represents the 19th District, the rules of engagement were a bit different. Then, the district was a geographical hodgepodge that included all of coastal Santa Barbara County, the City of Ventura, and large inland areas like Simi Valley, the Santa Ynez Valley, Thousand Oaks, and roughly a third of Santa Clarita. Now, after 2011’s redistricting, the new 19th includes all of Santa Barbara County, the City of Oxnard, and more than 60 percent of Ventura County, a reconstituting that favors Democrats by roughly 10 percentage points. Further, after the seat was left wide open earlier this year by a departing Strickland, who opted to take a run at the 26th District’s U.S Congressional slot, the stage was set for the Stoker-versus-Jackson showdown by way of an open primary that saw Stoker edge out Jackson by three points and the distant third-place finisher, Democrat Jason Hodge, by more than 30 points.
And while, for even the most casual of Santa Barbara–area voters, both Jackson and Stoker were familiar — if not predictable — candidates long before their mailers started showing up in mailboxes earlier this fall, their views on issues like budget and regulatory reform, the environment, and partisanship — as well as their assessments of each other and themselves — offer insight into a local race that could mean big things for the state at large. What follows are one man’s findings after sitting down and talking shop with the candidates.
Catching a mid-morning cup of coffee with Hannah-Beth Jackson is no joke. Not only is her attention in high demand — the roughly one block walk to and from the coffee shop and the hour-plus interview were both peppered with numerous handshakes and pleasantries exchanged with folks aged 6 months to 65 years — but she goes into campaign stumping mode with breakneck speed. After a quick lament about her opponent’s preference to not go on the record with his feelings about assorted state ballot initiatives and what she sees as Stoker’s connection with big corporate interests, Jackson jumps into describing what she stands for as a candidate in colorful election-season speak.
“I believe every person is entitled to a basic level of dignity,” said Jackson. “I believe in respect and clean air and clean water and an environment that doesn’t cause us health risks. I believe in a hand up, not handouts.” A six-year veteran of the State Assembly (1998-2004) who enjoys endorsements from the California Teachers Association, the Nurses Association, the Highway Patrol union, and the firefighters of both Santa Barbara and Ventura, Jackson views the current situation in Sacramento as “totally dysfunctional” and rife with an “attitude of division” on both sides of the aisle, something she thinks she is uniquely qualified to help fix. Jackson makes her case by pointing to bipartisan legislation that she helped craft such as the Teacher Retention Tax Credit bill and a ban on pesticide applications near schools. “I am used to sitting down with colleagues with an R next to their name and talking and finding common ground,” she said. “I am a problem solver, and my record shows it.” She explained all this before her third sip of coffee.
When it comes to the future, Jackson, who is a mother and a grandmother, preaches the gospel of doing things that are “in the best interest of our children.” She calls jobs her number- one priority, blames the economic hell of the past half-decade on the “greed of Wall Street,” sees the “inability to make long-term plans” as the real problem facing small-business owners, considers the fact that prison-related business is the fastest-growing industry in the state an “extraordinary waste of money,” hopes to revisit currently chilled plans to establish a functional commuter rail service between Santa Barbara and Ventura and Santa Maria, and vows to pursue an oil-severance tax to the tune of $2 billion annually. Offering that such a tax is commonplace in every other oil-producing state in the country, Jackson said that $1 billion of the tax would be earmarked for K-12 education with the other half going to higher education and helping reduce student debt. Jackson riffs on all of this before our drinks are half-empty.
But perhaps the biggest question hanging over Jackson’s candidacy, at least for hard-core politicos and those with memories of her last stint in office, is what, if anything, has changed about the way she does business. This question becomes even more pressing when you consider the possible state of affairs in Sacramento should the Dems win a supermajority in November. Asked about the biggest difference in her as a candidate this time around, Jackson, who has survived breast cancer since her last shift in public office, answered with a smile, “I still stand for all of the things [I did then], courage and honesty and independence and operating in the best interest of the people of California. But you also get a little wiser as you get older. No man or woman is an island.”
Talking with Mike Stoker is easy. He has an animated and informed yet easygoing way about him that seems well suited to striking up enjoyable conversations with strangers in bars. But make no mistake: He is also a serious and experienced political animal. A veteran of county, state, and federal races, Stoker reckons that, at this point in his campaign, he is more at peace than he ever has been with a race before. “Everything we can control, I feel good about,” summed up Stoker last week over late-morning iced teas.
With Santa Barbara County supervisor and California deputy secretary of state among his former job titles, Stoker is a self-described “different type of Republican” who has refused to sign a no-new-tax pledge and is on the record as favoring immigration reform but only if it comes with some sort of labor-friendly component. He is quick to cite laudatory statements from prominent area Democrats like Goleta City Councilmember Roger Aceves and former state assemblymember Pedro Nava as evidence of who is the real bipartisan-capable candidate in the 19th District. “Jackson just can’t make claims like that. … All she has is the Democratic machine,” said Stoker.
And when it comes to the important work of balancing the budget, Stoker — who once copped a regular paycheck as a spin doctor for the reviled Greka Energy Corporation after it ran afoul of regulators for its onshore oil-spilling habits — again argues that Jackson, due to party affiliation and endorsements, won’t be able to make the tough decisions. “It’s not even really a question. … Just look at her endorsements; she can’t and won’t cross the unions. There are things that just aren’t on the table for her,” argued Stoker, his iced tea long since sucked dry.
However, perhaps the biggest piece of his campaign is Stoker’s desire to duplicate in Sacramento the type of government streamlining that he led at the county level in the early 1990s when he reduced the number of public agencies from 38 to 27. (Of course, the history-hip voter will no doubt remember the aftermath of the reorganizing efforts, which included a damning Santa Barbara Grand Jury investigation and the subsequent dismantling of virtually all of the governance tweaks at a great cost, both monetary and psychological, to the county.)
According to him, there are some 5,800 different state-funded boards, agencies, and commissions that need to be reassessed and potentially reconfigured in the name of fiscal prudence and regulatory reform as the state faces down its monstrous multimillion-dollar deficit. Further, he adds, the many hundreds of business-related laws on the books in California that aren’t in place in any other state must also be reexamined and potentially repealed. “If we do these things, it will say to everyone, California is open for business again,” concluded Stoker with a hint of excitement.
With less than two weeks until Election Day, Jackson and Stoker will be going head-to-head in their third and final debate this Thursday, October 25, at 7:15 p.m. at the Congregation B’nai B’rith in Santa Barbara.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that Stoker was “quick to cite endorsements” from prominent areas Democrats like Goleta City Council’s Roger Aceves and former State Assembly member Pedro Nava. However, both Nava and Aceves have both denied technically “endorsing” 19th District Republican candidate Mike Stoker. Though quotes from the duo of Dems have been used widely in Stoker’s campaign efforts, not to mention the fact that Stoker himself has cited their favorable opinions about him as evidence of his bi-partisanship, Aceves and Nava took great exception to the statement describing them as actually endorsing Stoker for the seat. As Nava put it on Thursday morning, “It just is not true. I am not endorsing him and I have never endorsed him.”
The confusion stems from the use of quotes by both men on campaign mailers from the Stoker camp. In the case of Aceves, the councilman explained that he did give permission for Stoker to cite him but only in relation to their work together on non-profits. He added that he has been on the record from early on in the Stoker-Jackson race as not officially endorsing either of the candidates. He has since, he explained, asked Stoker to remove his name and quotes from any future campaigning efforts.
As for Nava, the former 35th District Assembly member corrected the record by explaining that the quote that was used as the meat of a Stoker campaign email blast sent on September 28 – in which Nava says, amongst other things, “If we had more people like Mike involved in Sacramento a whole lot more would get done on behalf of the people of the state of California” – was never meant to support a Stoker candidacy. Rather, he explained, it was something he said in a United Agribusiness League newsletter several years ago in relation to a Farm to School bill that he was working on at the time that Stoker, in his role with the League, helped out with.
For his part, Stoker too wished to set the record straight on Thursday morning. Explaining that while he does have official endorsements from several Democrats, Stoker said he has never claimed “endorsements” from Nava and Aceves but rather that they are Dems who simply “have good things to say about me.”