Arnold plans to offer voters 'a choice'

Critics pounce on her niche group that never materialized


ARNOLD ANNOUNCES :  Flanked by supporters, Debbie Arnold announced her plans to run for the 5th District supervisor seat at a Jan. 11 rally on the steps of SLO's Old Courthouse. - PHOTO BY PATRICK HOWE
  • ARNOLD ANNOUNCES : Flanked by supporters, Debbie Arnold announced her plans to run for the 5th District supervisor seat at a Jan. 11 rally on the steps of SLO's Old Courthouse.

# Debbie Arnold, who is taking on Jim Patterson for the 5th District supervisor seat in San Luis Obispo County, already has her coffee in front of her and is checking off to-do items in her well-worn planner when a reporter shows up at Peet's in SLO for their interview.

Wearing a plum-colored skirt and jacket and a genuine smile, she's sitting at a table just feet away from mixed martial arts star Chuck Liddell but, despite a steady stream of fans complimenting him on his latest fight, she doesn't recognize him until a reporter points him out. Even then--he was the only guy with a Mohawk there--she asks which one he is.

But as she talks about why she's running for the seat, the disconnect from one of SLO County's more famous citizens becomes more easily understood: Arnold seems at all times to have her head and her heart in agriculture, rural areas, and open spaces.

Indeed, she talks about agriculture so much that at one point she feels the need to stress that she isn't a single-issue candidate. Yet she keeps returning to the topic, talking with passion about the burdens that view-protection measures and plans for trails on private lands can impose on county landowners.

That's no surprise. Arnold's husband, Steve, is an at-large director for the Farm Bureau and together they raise cattle and grow grapes on their Pozo ranch. When she announced her candidacy on the steps of the old courthouse, cowboy hats and boots were well represented among the crowd.

The district covers an inland territory that links San Luis Obispo, Atascadero, and vast open spaces including the California Valley, making it the near-perfect territory for clashes between environmental protections and property rights.

And when she told that crowd of her intent to "protect the environment and open space with sensible laws while protecting the property rights of the people who live and work here," it was the latter part about property rights that got the big applause.

Arnold served as an aide to Mike Ryan, the man Patterson won the seat from, and she went on to work for Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee.

She highlights those jobs, as well as her experience running an Atascadero daycare for 17 years, as chief items in her resume for supervisor.

Although county supervisor races are technically nonpartisan, it's clear that Arnold is aiming to be the Republican choice to Patterson's Democratic leanings.

By most accounts, Arnold is a nice lady. So much so that people talked to for this story repeatedly questioned whether she's ready for the hurly-burly of supervisor politics. But she says she's not troubled about whatever may come and stresses her intention to keep the race focused on policies instead of personalities.

Ryan, who employed Arnold as a legislative aide for four years, said that he's not concerned about Arnold's moxie.

"On the surface, she's very friendly, but when she gets set to going somewhere, she is going to go that direction," he said.

Still, her opponents are already looking for missteps to exploit. Arnold had been a rumored candidate well before her announcement, so in the days before her official announcement, several people contacted New Times to question the legitimacy of one item on her public record.

When she left Blakeslee's office, the press release announcing her departure said she was doing so to open a San Luis Obispo chapter of a group called "Women for Agriculture, Open Space and Workforce Housing."

What, skeptics wondered, was the group? With a name that so perfectly fit into the political niches of SLO County, how could it have gone unheard of until then? Was this to be a political action committee that would aid her campaign?

In fact, there was no such group, and despite the suggestion of her press release, Arnold freely acknowledges that it never existed. Arnold said she was considering starting such a group to lobby on issues she cared about, but quickly abandoned plans in favor of working toward the supervisors' race.

Still, critics said it reflects poorly on Arnold.

Former Supervisor Dave Blakely, a Patterson supporter who held the 5th District seat before Ryan, said that Arnold should have been forthright about why she was leaving the job with Blakeslee.

"I think the real reason was obvious, and in hindsight now she should have articulated that in an honest fashion," he said. "I believe the real reason she left Assemblyman Blakeslee's office had to do with the fact she wanted to spend more time on her campaign, and she should have told us."

As for the race, Ryan said the 5th District is a political tossup. He won two races by narrow margins and eventually lost to Patterson by about 6 percent.

"In the 5th, any given day it could go one way or another," he said. "You just look at the history and it goes back and forth like that."

Despite his bedrock support for her, however, Ryan said he won't be taking a prominent role in Arnold's campaign. He said he doesn't want her bid to be complicated by issues relating to his prior races.

"She's her own person and she can handle all that by herself. And she needs to," he said.

Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at [email protected].


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