The two used to be friends. Before Muril Clift retired, he was Bruce Gibson’s insurance agent and political supporter.
Then politics came between them.
Now, Clift, a 71-year-old resident of Cambria, is challenging Gibson, the two-term incumbent District 2 supervisor. It started as a feud between the Cambria Community Services District (on which Clift sits as a director) and San Luis Obispo County, and developed into an electoral platform. And so, as local politics go, many of the issues at hand come down to splitting hairs on particulars. Factor in Cambria’s recent history of severe water problems, an ongoing ordeal in which frustrations and finger pointing abound, and you have a hot mess of a race.
In a nutshell, Cambria has struggled with long-term solutions to its lingering water woes. For two decades, some Cambrians have had ambitions for a desalination plant. Sharp lines were drawn over viability, cost, and environmental impacts—and, to make a long story short—hopes were stalled when the California Coastal Commission made a key denial in 2011.
Meanwhile, the reliability of existing wells has fluctuated, especially with record-low rainfall totals. The drought has drastically exacerbated the water situation. In order to avert the potential crisis of running out of the precious stuff as early as October or November, the town is scrambling to conserve every last drop while looking for every possible supply method, including current full-steam-ahead efforts to implement a brackish water treatment unit that separates fresh water from areas affected by salt water intrusion to eventually augment the existing supply. Underneath it all, bitter tastes remain about how Cambria got to this dry patch in the first place. Some residents say that the town’s thin safety net was overstretched as officials chased a pipe dream to the desalination option, while others condemn the county and the California Coastal Commission for being overbearing.
Clift was, in recent years, among decision makers who wanted the county to loosen a building moratorium on Cambria that was instituted after the CSD declared a water emergency nearly 10 years ago, and to issue 10 new permits, each with a $20,000 connection fee, creating revenue that would help reduce infrastructure costs for residents, thus moving the CCSD one step closer to a long-term solution. But Gibson said the county wasn’t convinced that the plan was legally sound, and remained skeptical that it wouldn’t just result in more demand without the addition of new infrastructure.
As the two overlapping entities butted heads, Clift—who’d previously supported Gibson for his progressive views on land use—started getting irked by what he described as the county’s tendency to be controlling, which circled back to Gibson.
“Over the last two or three years, it’s become apparent that [Gibson] really has been kind of a controlling obstructionist to anything we wanted to do up here,” Clift told New Times in October after he announced his candidacy. “He expounds the concepts of smart growth, but if you look at the results, it’s no growth.”
Clift hasn’t only carried that tune ever since, he’s hinging his campaign on a stream of steady accusations that Gibson is solely responsible for not letting Cambria get its way.
So far, whenever the sitting supervisor has been asked about these accusations, Gibson has politely disagreed with Clift, opting instead to say “I don’t agree with that assessment,” and offering to deconstruct the circumstances involved. From Gibson’s perspective, Clift wanted to “build his way out of the problem” in Cambria.
“I don’t see how my request to document the existing water supply and provide analysis is an obstructionist position,” Gibson said.
That’s were this all gets tricky, and the Cambria example begins to feel like a chicken-or-the-egg question.
The informal debate has begun to reveal some philosophical divergence between the two, with Clift generally a bit more laissez faire with the county’s role in various cases, and Gibson a bit more pragmatic with the particulars.
Clift has drawn some points from Los Osos, where there’s still much ire and division in the community from the decades-long sewer saga. A recent construction contract award caused a stir after two companies that use local union electricians were passed over because of errant bid proposals, causing a flare-up of deep-seated tensions. Out of that mess came an endorsement for Clift from the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union, which had previously endorsed Gibson. The union gave Clift $2,500, according to campaign disclosure forms, and has also begun helping with the campaign.
But as far as campaign funding and legwork goes, no matter how much Clift’s campaign tries to leverage the “anybody but Bruce” base, the newcomer faces an uphill battle that underscores the most basic tenet in politics: Nothing is more challenging than defeating an incumbent.
It would be difficult for anybody to unseat Gibson, who’s held the position for two terms after garnering just less than 57 percent of the vote to defeat Roger Anderson for an open seat in 2006. That election saw two candidates more ideologically opposed than this round (Anderson was a registered Republican; both Gibson and Clift are registered Democrats). In 2010, Gibson was challenged by then Los Osos Community Service District President Marshall Ochylski, who, like Clift, also waged a campaign over qualms with the county, in that case regarding the Los Osos sewer project. With 69.5 percent of the vote in that election, Gibson settled comfortably into his seat.
“My feeling is that my values fit the values of District 2 very well,” Gibson said, citing his “emphasis on protecting our natural resources and growing in a smart way, and at the same time being very financially responsible.”
Whether it’s that fit or his incumbency, Gibson seems to be in a safe position. Gibson’s campaign has raised 4 1/2 times more funds than Clift’s, bringing in a total of $50,318, including $2,500 and an endorsement from the SLO County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, $1,500 and an endorsement from the SLO County Democratic Party, $2,000 from himself, and a long list of smaller donations from across the county. Gibson has received endorsements from Congresswomen Lois Capps; various mayors and city council members from San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, and South County; and four former county supervisors.
Clift has raised $11,078, which includes the $2,500 and an endorsement from the IBEW Local 639 (the Tri-Counties Building and Construction Trades Council and the Tri-Counties Central Labor Council have also endorsed Clift); $1,000 from farmer Michael Broadhurst; $2,000 from wife Vicki Clift; and various smaller donations, mostly coming from Cambria, some from Los Osos, and a few others from around the county. Clift’s endorsements are a bit more localized than Gibson’s, including three Cambria Community Service District directors; three San Simeon CSD directors; Morro Bay City Councilwoman Nancy Johnson; and various members of community agencies throughout District 2. The SLO County Cattlemen’s Association Political Action Committee also endorsed Clift.
Regardless of the disparate bank accounts and the slope of the field, Clift expressed some optimism. Playing to his base in Cambria could pay off, as can the enclaves of support he’s found in Los Osos. Based on the 2010 election, Clift is going to need to pull around 2,000 votes from Gibson to close the gap in the June 3 election—though Cambrians gave him mixed reviews.
Even if he doesn’t pull this one out, Clift hopes the race will ultimately help Cambria. During an April 21 candidate forum, during which the two candidates spoke, at the North Coast Farm Center in Cambria, Clift told the audience that he felt the campaign may have snagged Gibson’s attention.
“I guess what I will say is that I may not win this election, but it will be a win for Cambria, if we finally force a change in the no-growth mentality to at least assistance for our residents to have an acceptable water supply,” Clift said.
Contact staff writer Jono Kinkade at email@example.com.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay