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Supes up: Two SLO County supervisor seats, two very different races

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With a wide sphere of influence and control over a budget in the hundreds of millions, the five-person Board of Supervisors is one of the most influential fulcrums of power in SLO County.

ILLUSTRATION BY RUSSELL HODIN
  • ILLUSTRATION BY
    RUSSELL HODIN

It’s been a battle of political ideologies over the last several years with conservatives Lynn Compton (4th District) and Debbie Arnold (5th District) on one side of the five member board, liberals Adam Hill (3rd District) and Bruce Gibson (2nd District) on the other, and the lone moderate Frank Mecham (1st District) stuck on the fence. 

Mecham swings from one side to the other of that political divide, but the way the board votes could change in 2017. He’s done in December, and his seat in the 1st District is up for grabs this election season. 

Hill’s spot on the dais is also open, and while he’s still in the running to claim that 3rd District seat for himself, it’s not a sure thing. 

The tenor of the two races is as different as the districts themselves. In the SLO 3rd District, home to many of the county’s urban population centers, the tone is combative and personal. In District 1, home to the northern city of Paso Robles and a wide swath of rural unincorporated territory, the contest is genteel but just as competitive.

As different as they are, the outcome of both races will have a wide-ranging impact on the future direction of the county and its residents.

Below the belt

The websites of the two men vying for SLO County’s 3rd District Supervisor seat paint a pretty picture.

Both are filled with photos of each respective candidate smiling, talking with residents, or posing on some scenic vista along the Central Coast. On incumbent Adam Hill’s website, visitors are greeted with a large photo of Hill smiling down at two children over a box of oranges. His opponent Dan Carpenter’s site features a slide show with photos of the smiling candidate walking among a trellise of grape vines or pensively looking out at the ocean from Pismo Beach’s pier.

DAN CARPENTER: - PHOTO COURTESY OF  COMMITTEE TO ELECT DAN CARPENTER
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF COMMITTEE TO ELECT DAN CARPENTER
  • DAN CARPENTER:

While they’re nice to look at, those placid photos belie the reality of the contest, which has become more known for acrimony and mudslinging between the two candidates than any one policy or issue in the 3rd District.

While Hill and Carpenter trade blows with one another, they both agree that the race is one of the most contentious that either has participated in previously.

“This is the fourth campaign I’ve been in, and I’ve never had this kind of negativity come from an opponent,” Carpenter, a current SLO City Council member, told New Times. “I’m not used to it.”

The race became personal almost immediately. Carpenter’s biggest platform has been running against Hill’s character. He took the position against Hill early, criticizing Hill’s behavior on the dais toward other supervisors and, on occasion, members of the public who came to speak at the meetings.

“I feel the character issue has taken over the campaign,” Carpenter said.

Hill also agreed that the race has been acrimonious, but he believes that criticism of his character isn’t confined to the back-and-forth between the two campaigns. Instead, he believes it has been disseminated online via a network of his enemies, who are spreading false and personal attacks against him and his family.

“It’s weird how all the people who are haters find each other,” Hill told New Times.

In addition to taking fire from Carpenter, Hill has long faced criticism from local radio host Dave Congalton and the CalCoastNews website, which has written hundreds of stories about Hill, many of which he says are false or misleading.

“I have to raise a lot more money because I’m not just running against people like Dan Carpenter,” he said.

In the run-up to the District 3 primary election, an anonymously run website and Facebook group “Fire Adam Hill 2016,” emerged. The site, which Hill says he’s tried to get the California Fair Political Practices Commission to look into, has been home to some the more aggressive and personal attacks against him.

“Did Adam Hill use social services to kidnap a reporter’s grandchildren?” on of the group’s Facebook post asked. The website also called on Hill to divulge the last time he “used mood altering substances.”

Hill calls it an “empire of hate” that is spending thousands of dollars to unseat him, and it’s that empire that Hill accuses Carpenter of rubbing elbows with.

“It’s been ugly in that sense that Dan has aligned himself with people whose interest is spreading toxic discourse throughout the community,” he said. 

Hill’s campaign has hit back, and those following the race are likely to find mailers and even a website criticizing Carpenter’s votes as a City Council member. The website, donothingdan.com, lists a lengthy number of votes Carpenter has made against various projects in the city, including the Los Osos Valley Road Bike Path project, a measure to publically finance city elections, and a rental inspection ordinance that he vocally opposes.

“Dan Carpenter has voted against virtually every issue that has made our quality of life better. And he can’t wait to get his hands on SLO County to do the same!” the site, which is openly funded by the Friends of Adam Hill re-election committee, warns visitors.

ADAM HILL: - PHOTO COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF ADAM HILL
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF ADAM HILL
  • ADAM HILL:

Carpenter defended his voting record, and indicated that his votes were principled stands against the other members of the council who are often ideologically aligned.

“I take my strong stance. In this particular council, I’m the only council member who’s pushed back on some of the staff recommendations,” he said. “The other four seem to be going along with the staff most of the time, so I get labeled as the contrarian, or I get labeled as the one who is anti-everything because I’m the one who’s pushing back.”

The mudslinging has gotten bad enough that the two candidates haven’t participated together in a formal debate since the primary election, with each one claiming the other has turned down the chance to participate in forums down for various reasons. Carpenter said he wasn’t sure if the debates would have any value to voters, as the three primary debates between the two were widely reported to be contentious.

“I don’t think it serves the public to have he and I in that type of environment,” Carpenter said. 

Hill disagreed.

“I think it’s a disservice to the public at large, to the voters, to deny them the right to hear you speak in that format,” Hill said.

But while the 3rd District race has become known for its contentiousness, just how much it’s actually on the minds of voters is, like so many other things in an election season, up for debate.

Hill indicated that the reported ugliness of the discourse in the race, a narrative pushed and published by much of the local media, was limited.

“I’m walking precincts all the time, in Grover Beach for instance, and they don’t read any paper, to be honest. They are very busy with their lives,” Hill said. “They tell you that they’re going to vote for you because you’ve taken the time to talk to them.”

Hill could be right. After all, conflict makes for more interesting narratives and for all the county’s size, the bubble of the local media market isn’t that large. Hill posited that those most impacted by the toxic nature of the discourse are those involved in the discourse themselves.

“I think it unfortunately disrupts the people who usually are the people in the discourse, whether that’s elected officials, activists, heads of nonprofits, the media,” Hill said. “It’s undermined it to an extent and I think, quite frankly, people are afraid of it.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Carpenter sees things differently. According to him, many of the people he talks to while canvassing specifically mention the character issues he’s raised about Hill.

“They don’t talk about [Hill’s] voting,” he said. “When I go door to door, they talk about his behavior.”

In fact, Carpenter said he sees Hill downplaying the character questions as a sign that Hill’s hold on his incumbent seat is weakened.

“He’s trying to drag my character down to his, and that’s why it’s gotten so divisive,” Carpenter said. “If you were comfortable and confident in the job you’ve been doing, you’d disregard anything coming from your opponent. … I think he’s fearful based on his actions and behavior.”

But while Hill and Carpenter duke it out in the gutter for the 3rd District, the contest for SLO County’s 1st District seat is its polar opposite.

A cordial affair

First District supervisor candidates Steve Martin and John Peschong like to avoid combative campaign tactics.

They don’t take stabs at one another, poke holes in the other’s record, or run negative ads. No websites or Facebook groups were formed in opposition to either man.

JOHN PESCHONG: - PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN PESCHONG
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN PESCHONG
  • JOHN PESCHONG:

Peschong, a Templeton-based political strategist running for his first elected office, called the handful of supervisor candidate forums held before the primaries, “cordial affairs.”

“I don’t need to say anything about [Martin] and he doesn’t need to say anything about me because we have distinct philosophies,” Peschong told New Times. “There’s a contrast there.”

While cordiality is the theme of the District 1 contest, it’s a tone no less politically motivated than Hill and Carpenter’s mudslinging. Below the surface of this quiet gentlemen’s race are two experienced and savvy politicians seeking a critical, influential seat on the Board of Supervisors.

Outgoing 1st District Supervisor Frank Mecham, who has frequently cast the decisive swing vote on major board decisions, articulated the stakes to New Times.

“In 2012, I was put right in the middle [of Arnold and Compton and Hill and Gibson],” Mecham said. “Whoever takes my seat may be in that same swing-vote position.”

If campaign donations and political capital are accurate indicators of a front runner, Martin, the mayor of Paso Robles, faces an uphill battle.

According to public campaign finance data, Peschong has raised more than $230,000 for his campaign compared to Martin’s $48,000. More than $70,000 of Peschong’s donations came from outside of the county. Money flows to Peschong from all corners of the U.S. (from Washington state, to Texas, to Virginia) and from a variety of sources, including the California Petroleum PAC; the Cattlemen’s PAC; and Linda Lingle, the former governor of Hawaii, to name just a few.

“I’ve been blessed,” Peschong said.

Running a winning campaign is how Peschong makes a living. His career as a political strategist includes a stint on former President Ronald Reagan’s communications team, as a senior strategist for George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, and as executive director of the California Republican Party. He currently owns Meridian Pacific, a political consulting firm headquartered in Sacramento.

Locally, Peschong was behind the campaigns for current supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton, and District Attorney Dan Dow. He’s received endorsements from all three, and campaign donations from Arnold and Compton.

Peschong said he felt compelled to step in front of the curtain and run for supervisor because, “there were some issues and ideas that I didn’t believe were being discussed.” Those issues include gang activity in North County, drugs, lowering taxes and fees, and fixing road infrastructure.

Despite his background as a staunch Republican partisan, Peschong says being a supervisor isn’t all about sticking to party lines. 

“There’s no political party, no one candidate has all the right issues and ideas. They come from all over the place,” he said. “We need to find those things that are going to make [people’s] lives easier and help the government do its job in a less intrusive way in the community.”

Martin, a lifelong North County resident and longtime member of the Paso Robles City Council, showed restraint when New Times asked him about Peschong’s deep pockets and outsider financing.

“It is an amazing amount of money,” Martin conceded. “You have to make your own judgment about that. All I can say is my history in the area is clear and accountable, my motives are clear and accountable, and my money is modest.”

An Atascadero native, Martin is campaigning on his extensive record as an elected official in North County. He first arrived to the Paso City Council in 1987 and stayed on until an election loss in 1996. Martin then worked on the Atascadero Main Street Association for 10 years before being elected back onto the City Council in 2012. He’s served two terms as mayor—16 years apart.

“I’ve been accountable to the public for more than a decade,” Martin said. “I’ve literally been in thousands of meetings over the years working on a tremendous variety of issues.”

STEVE MARTIN: - PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE MARTIN
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE MARTIN
  • STEVE MARTIN:

Martin saw Mecham’s departure from the board as an opportunity to take his public service “one step further” by running for supervisor.

“I’ve always aspired to a higher level of service,” he said. “The City Council has been the only place where I felt I could use every talent God gave me.”

As supervisor, Martin said he would prioritize the District 1 issues of water, economic development, infrastructure, homelessness, public safety, and civil discourse.

As evidenced by the way Martin runs meetings in City Hall, his leadership style is methodical and unassuming. Many in Paso Robles know him as a consensus-builder.

“I’m a moderate,” Martin said. “I’m going to be the guy who lets the facts get in the way.”

Peschong and Martin differ on a few hot-button issues, like Measure J, the proposed half-cent sales tax increase to fund local road projects. Peschong is of the opinion that North County tax dollars tend to “go down the hill” and thinks Measure J sends too much money to bike paths in South County. He’d rather see the county make roads a higher priority.

Martin, on the other hand, calls the measure a “modest tax” that addresses a multitude of transportation needs. As far as bike paths go, he said, “we can’t just blow off” the biking community.

Peschong opposed the special water district for the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin that was rejected by voters in 2016 while Martin supported it.

Both candidates have expressed tentative support for the controversial Phillips 66 rail spur extension project. But if Peschong’s elected, his opinion may not matter. Since Peschong’s company received $262,000 from Phillips 66 for consulting services, he has said he’ll recuse himself from voting on the rail spur if it comes before the Board of Supervisors.

If Peschong and Martin are lockstep in one respect, it’s that they’re both skilled communicators. That’s perhaps why the men have remained cordial throughout the campaign season.

“My opponent and I have made our positions clear,” Martin said. “We’ve done our jobs.”

Balancing act

Whether they win by running a genteel campaign of ideas, or via a down-and-dirty political street fight, the winners of the supervisorial elections could bring SLO County a very different Board of Supervisors.

That board will not only take on some of the county’s most hotly contested and controversial projects, like the Phillips 66 rail spur proposal, but will have to tackle the more mundane votes that, while they many not make headlines, are necessary to keep the county running smoothly. 

United or divided by their own political rhetoric, the board’s ability to take on such tasks will be determined by how well they can work together. Hill, the lone incumbent, said he believed there was an important difference between a candidate and a supervisor.

“To my mind, you get better as a supervisor the more you’re able to distance yourself as a candidate, when you transition more into governing,” he said.

Early voting for the 2016 election begins Oct. 11. 

Staff Writers Chris McGuinness and Peter Johnson can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com and pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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