If early fundraising is a guide, look for at least one superheated contest in the 2008 SLO County Board of Supervisors race. Still 10 months before the primary elections, recent campaign reports indicate that the contest for the Third District seat could be on pace to set records.
Three of the five board seats are open, but only two have challengers. Supervisor Jim Patterson, with no challenger as of yet, didn't raise or spend anything. And First District Supervisor Harry Ovitt, who is facing a serious challenge from Paso Robles Mayor Frank Mecham, raised just $3,449.
But Third District Supervisor Jerry Lenthall set a torrid pace he reported raising $74,195, though he spent a third of that on a Madonna Inn fundraiser.
Lenthall, a former police officer, is being challenged by Cal Poly lecturer Adam Hill, who raised $48,161, though he loaned himself $10,300 of that figure.
All of the money-seeking phone calls, coffee klatches, letters, and formal fundraisers that it took to raise the funds have come months before the traditional Labor Day start of campaign season.
Hill emphasized that his fundraising demonstrates broad support, noting that it came largely from small donations, with only three topping $1,000. The largest came from the law firm of SLO attorney Jim Duenow, who gave $5,099. Many of Hill's donors had ties to Cal Poly, including $100 from College of Liberal Arts Dean Linda Halisky.
Hill noted that some of Lenthall's donors represent interest groups and businesses with issues before the board, ranging from people interested in the Cayucos viewshed to those invested in Chevron's "Fossil Point" land in Avila Beach.
"I think that's problematic for Jerry," Hill said. Still, he said he wouldn't turn down money from people who might have interests before the board. "I think the problem is with government, not businesses," he said.
Lenthall had dozens of donations of $1,000, many from area business owners and several from the campaigns of prominent Republican office-holders, including U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee. Other donors included John Madonna Construction and the Dalidio family.
Lenthall noted that his reports show donations from 185 contributors, compared to about 100 contributors from Hill.
"So for someone to make a statement that 'I'm more in tune in the community based on what their fundraising shows,' I'd ask what is that based on? How do you quantify that?" Lenthall asked. "In this case, I had more contributors than he did, so what does that show?"
The figures only represent donations of more than $100, Hill noted. The names of people who give less aren't reported, and Hill noted that he raised more than $5,000 from such donors, compared to about $500 for Lenthall.
Regardless, the early pace and tone of the campaign indicates that it will be hard fought.
The other contested race for the First District seat of Supervisor Ovitt saw Paso Robles Mayor Mecham raise $49,408 in a matter of weeks. And he said he did it without any formal fundraisers.
"As soon as [Ovitt] decided he would run again I had to come out and show him that he'd be in a race," Mecham said of his fundraising.
Indeed, Ovitt and Mecham are considered to have philosophically similar viewpoints Mecham said they've been friends since high school and may be drawing from the same pool of potential donors.
Among the largest was the Airport Road Business Park in Paso Robles, which donated $2,500 to Mecham's campaign. Other donors included ranchers, people in the financial services industry, and the building trades.
All of that fundraising is for the right to hold a job that pays $79,004.
There are few restrictions on fundraising by candidates in Board of Supervisors races especially as compared to city and federal elections.
But both candidates for Third District indicated support for fundraising limits, if only self-imposed ones.
Lenthall said he generally limits donations to $1,000, but makes exceptions in the case of groups, noting he's taken larger donations from the Deputy Sheriff's Association.
Hill said he'd support a package of campaign reforms if elected, but he said he wouldn't abide by a self-i mposed limit during the campaign.
"To sort of put myself even further behind would, I think, make it very difficult for me to get my message out there," he said. "I do make it clear that there are no strings attached."
The first major contest will be the primary election in June. But if no candidates reach a majority, the contest falls to a runoff election in November, 2008.
Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at email@example.com.