Joni Lee Gray, who served 14 years representing Orcutt and Santa Maria on the County Board of Supervisors, died suddenly last week, reportedly of an aortic aneurism. She was 75.
A private attorney, Gray was one of a very few lawyers in California to pass the state bar exam without having attended law school. A self-described child of Santa Maria’s oil patch — her father cofounded the well-known oil service company Engel & Gray — Joni Gray was a staunch supporter of oil development while on the Board of Supervisors. It was as if oil, commented one of her fellow supervisors, ran in her veins.
Gray was also a dependable vote in favor of property rights. Smart, outspoken, charming, and funny, Gray started her political career — first as a school boardmember, then as a planning commissioner, and ultimately as a supervisor — as a strident critic of the South Coast environmental majority then calling the shots. But Gray would also enjoy political life in the driver’s seat, part of the pro-growth conservative majority on the board that also included 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno and 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone.
Early in her career, Gray was known to throw more than a few procedural sucker punches at her South Coast foes. But when the tables were turned and Gray found herself on the receiving end, she was quick to shrug off such slights, accepting them as part of the job. Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf recalled making some harshly critical remarks against the conservative majority when she first ran for office. Gray, she said, proved warmly accepting. “We didn’t agree on much of anything, but I grew to like her a lot as a person,” Wolf said. “I still can’t believe she’s gone.”
Over time, Gray softened her rhetorical edges. North County conservatives grew disenchanted, even though she always voted their way. “She got by being quick and charming, but she didn’t raise a ruckus,” said COLAB (Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business) spokesperson and right-wing property rights warrior Andy Caldwell. “But then I’m always in a fighting mood.” Although Gray met every Monday morning with Caldwell to discuss that week’s supervisors’ agenda, the two were never close. He’d chastise her for not stirring the pot enough. Gray didn’t just quietly take it. “She liked to tell me there’s no hill I wouldn’t die on,” Caldwell recounted.
Gray grew up in Santa Maria, where she marched in her first rodeo parade at age 4. A lifelong supporter of the Elks, Gray was famous for her rodeo parties. And as a lifelong sports enthusiast, she played a major role in launching the North County Athletic Round Table. Gray qualified as a hard-core sports nut, going so far as to schedule board meetings so she could get back to Santa Maria in time to anchor a sports talk-radio show.
Over time, Gray developed strong relationships with South County supervisors like Wolf and Susan Rose. But she failed to tend enough to her own political base. When a nonprofit housing and development company — for which her husband served as chief legal counsel and her top administrative officer served as board president — became engulfed in a serious scandal in 2012, losing 255 units of affordable housing and causing the closure of two homeless shelters, Gray found herself seriously singed by the backlash.
Radical conservatives, bristling at Gray’s lack of outrage and apparent engagement, seized the moment. Peter Adam, as outspoken a critic of government regulation as could be found, took her on. Gray failed to take the challenge seriously, and on Election Day, Adam bested her by 500 votes for the 4th District seat. Even so, she remained active in community affairs to the very end. “She had a great laugh,” recalled Cory Bantilan, 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino’s administrative assistant. “And she laughed a lot.”