Tony Strickland made his political bones at the age of 10, when he performed a star turn as Ronald Reagan in his fourth-grade class’s 1980 presidential election. “I ran against one kid who was Jimmy Carter and another who played John Anderson,” he recalled. “I won because I promised not to back down from the Russians.”
Today, Strickland is the Republican nominee, and the early front-runner over Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson, in the volatile race for the 19th State Senate District seat-and his politics haven’t changed all that much. A 38-year-old protege of Tom McClintock, the hardcore conservative who now holds the seat, Strickland is a former three-term assemblymember, state controller candidate, and college basketball star (small forward at Whittier, Richard Nixon’s alma mater). He combines a 6’5″ frame, an easy way with the schmooze, and a streetwise knowledge of campaign mechanics, which he earned managing Republican races in Southern California.
In a white shirt and yellow power tie, he chowed down on a spinach Caesar salad last week to talk about his education in politics and key differences he has with Jackson in the race for the sprawling 19th Senate District. The stage for California’s most closely watched legislative race, it includes large chunks of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties that were parts of the two Assembly districts that the rivals respectively represented from 1999-2004.
“I’ll do better in Santa Barbara than Hannah-Beth will in Ventura,” the Moorpark Republican predicted. “Her philosophy is not the majority philosophy of the district.”
Strickland’s father was an Army drill sergeant and his mother a German immigrant whom his dad met while stationed in Europe. Central to his well-disciplined childhood was a strict paternal dictum to be on time: Last week, Strickland became the first politician in history to be early for lunch with a reporter, having settled into a booth at the Chase Bar & Grill by the time I arrived 60 seconds late. Growing up, “Every minute I was late, I was grounded for a week,” he informed me.
His father hooked up Strickland with a Ventura businessman active in politics who helped the son pursue his early fascination with the game. At 12, Strickland hung house signs for McClintock’s first campaign for the Legislature; McClintock took him under his wing, giving him more responsibility each time he ran for re-election. “I learned everything about running campaigns,” Strickland said. “But I got into campaigns because I wanted to serve in elected office.”
McClintock was in the wedding party when Strickland married his wife, Audra, who now holds her husband’s old Assembly seat. By 1996, he had joined McClintock’s legislative staff; two years later he was elected on his own to the Assembly. His 15 minutes came during California’s brown-outs of the 1990s, when he sued then-Governor Gray Davis to force disclosure of energy contracts the state had negotiated in secret with power companies.
While serving concurrently, Strickland and Jackson reliably voted on opposite sides of issues (more recently, the two split over the NBA championship, as Strickland lost a lunch bet by picking the Lakers over Jackson’s hometown Celtics). Their mirror-image politics show in polarized positions on some key issues, offering 19th District voters a clear choice in November:
the state deficit, Strickland strikes a no-new-taxes stance; Jackson says a “combination” of taxes and program cuts is needed but stops short of backing the $11.5 billion in new taxes incumbent Senate Democrats have proposed.
• On the budget, Jackson believes the current two-thirds vote needed to pass a budget and tax bills should be reduced to 55 percent; Strickland opposes such a measure.
• On gay rights, Jackson opposes a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to ban gay marriage; Strickland supports it.
• On abortion rights, Jackson takes a strong pro-choice position, while Strickland consistently voted the pro-life position as a legislator.
• On education, Strickland argues that public schools have enough money but that it is poorly managed; Jackson says that schools are underfunded and need more.
“Less government is better government,” Strickland said. “Hannah-Beth looks at California residents as an ATM for whatever program she thinks is needed. She wants to tell people how to live their lives, and I believe in the individual.”
Jerry Roberts covers the state of the Golden State on the Capitol Letters Blog, which is updated regularly at independent.com/capitol-letters. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and not of his employer, UCSB.