Assemblymember Sam Blakeslee insisted he was much too busy to debate his rivals in the race for a North County state senate seat Monday night, doing vital, urgent work on the budget in Sacramento.

The only problem with the Republican lawmaker’s explanation: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said earlier in the day that a budget deal was at least “weeks away” and that an agreement might well have to wait until January, when his successor is sworn into office.

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As a practical matter, Blakeslee’s absence from the League of Women Voters event in San Luis Obispo, the first and, most likely, only true debate before the August 17 special election for the coastal 15th State Senate District, seemed to have far more to do with politics than with policy. In last month’s primary, he came tantalizingly close to outright winning the seat, formerly held by Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado. Since then, Blakeslee sightings have been rare on the campaign trail; as the frontrunner, he’s so far seemed content to follow a strategy of avoiding face-to-face meetings with his foes, chiefly Democrat John Laird, who finished second to him in the primary, 49-42 percent.

None of this has gone unnoticed by news organizations covering the campaign in the district, which takes in vast stretches of five coastal counties between Santa Maria and San Jose: the S.L.O. Tribune, Santa Cruz Sentinel, San Jose Mercury News, and KSBW-TV all have run editorials bashing him for his disappearing act. In an on-air commentary that captured the tone of the media’s frustration, KSBW general manager Joseph Heston compared the candidate’s behavior to the “very rare occurrence” of a recent gathering of blue and humpback whales in Monterey Bay:

“What’s also a very rare occurrence — a politician so eager to slip into the shadows the way a blue whale slips beneath the waves,” Heston said. “But such is the case with state senate Republican candidate Sam Blakeslee … For weeks now, our news department has been chasing Blakeslee like Captain Ahab chased that elusive white whale Moby Dick … as far as we can tell, Blakeslee hasn’t made any public appearances on our Central Coast!”

A Blakeslee strategist told The Independent that while his candidate missed Monday’s debate (Laird showed, along with the Libertarian and independent contenders), he has accepted several other invitations closer to the election. These include a joint appearance with Laird at a members-only event before a Silicon Valley industry group and two other open-to-the-public events, in San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz: “The Laird campaign wants to complain about debates as a way of getting attention,” said campaign director Kevin Sweeney.

Sweeney said that Blakeslee was, in fact, in a budget meeting Monday night; with no substantive activity taking place on the issue (the morning after the debate, a headline on the budget story by the Sacramento Bee, the newspaper of record in such matters, read “All quiet in the Capitol”), it’s hard to imagine, however, he couldn’t have stolen away for a few hours to talk to voters somewhere other than TV ads.

“Interestingly,” Laird told an outdoor rally in Watsonville on Sunday, “by stepping to the microphone, I just did something my opponent has not done in the entire campaign — I’m appearing in public.”

THE POLITICS OF OIL: One key difference between Blakeslee and Laird, a former assemblymember who was an expert on budget matters during his time in Sacramento, is their disagreement on imposing a new per-barrel extraction tax on oil companies in the state.

The oil severance tax, which would generate at least $1 billion annually, is a crucial issue in the current partisan standoff over the budget. Laird supports it, arguing it will help avoid deeper cuts in education and welfare programs, while Blakeslee opposes it, as do all of his Republican colleagues, saying it is foolish to raise taxes during a recession.

Although GOP members are the minority in both legislative houses, the current requirement for a two-thirds vote for budget passage gives them veto power in support of their no-new-taxes stance. Democrats are now backing Proposition 25, a November ballot initiative which would reduce the threshold for a budget to a simple majority vote.

Schwarzenegger announced his opposition to Prop. 25 this week, as he also made clear this year’s deadlock may last indefinitely: “If I do not get all of the things that we need, … I will not sign a budget, and it could actually drag out until the next governor gets into office.”

Under the constitution, the budget was due June 15; the new fiscal year started July 1.


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