This race was never supposed to happen.
San Luis Obispo County’s 4th District—which includes Arroyo Grande, Oceano, Nipomo, and small communities along Highway 166—was firmly in the grasp of Supervisor Paul Teixeira.
Like Katcho Achadjian before him, Teixeira was a beloved South County moderate Republican who represented his district with folksy aplomb. It was widely assumed he would be a strong candidate for re-election in 2014.
That all changed on June 26, 2013, when Teixeira unexpectedly died after suffering a heart attack.
As the county mourned, political wheels on both sides started spinning—rapidly.
After interviewing a number of candidates, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Arroyo Grande City Councilwoman Caren Ray, a Democrat, to fill Teixeira’s seat on Oct. 8.
The very next day after Ray’s appointment, Nipomo businesswoman Lynn Compton, a Republican, announced her candidacy for the District 4 seat. As expected, Ray also announced her intent to run for the seat, on Nov. 22. On Jan. 8, 2014, Arroyo Grande real estate broker Mike Byrd, a Democrat, entered the race as well. The field was set.
The months since have been dominated by fundraisers, polls, events, speeches, and strategizing. As the political clock accelerates in the final 60-day period before the June 3 primary election, the three supervisor candidates have started to flood South County with mailers, fliers, and yard signs.
To be blunt and oversimplify the situation a tad, what’s at stake in the District 4 race is the balance of the entire Board of Supervisors. By and large, supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill are solidly aligned on the left, with supervisors Frank Mecham and Debbie Arnold likewise on the right.
Seeking insight into this hotly contested and complicated race, New Times sat down for in-depth interviews with each of the three candidates. Subjects of discussion included their backgrounds, District 4 issues, countywide problems, partisan politics, hopes, fears, and predictions.
As images of Lynn Compton and her family flash on the screen and a dramatic drumbeat throbs, the words appear: “In the life of every winner, there comes a moment of truth.”
All of a sudden, there are vividly red SLO County strawberries and images of Compton walking in a field. “Heroes will rise,” the words read, “Stars will fall.” The video transitions to show Michael Reagan, son of Ronald, speaking at a Compton event.
“Lets [sic] win one for the Gipper with Lynn,” the text exhorts, and the video ends, only 45 seconds after it began.
- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- LYNN COMPTON : With the longest tenure and most money in the race, Nipomo agricultural businesswoman Lynn Compton said she wants to do whatever it takes to win the District 4 “swing seat.”
The campaign video—posted to YouTube and proudly displayed on Compton’s website—is the candidate encapsulated. Though she’s only been on the political scene for what feels like 45 seconds, she’s unabashed, unabashedly Republican, and determined to win the District 4 seat.
“I’m not going to hide that I’m a Republican, and I’m going to tell you what I think,” Compton told New Times. “There are two different directions the Board [of Supervisors] can go right now for the next 10 years, and I don’t want to see it go the other way.”
Compton, who arrived to a New Times interview at her Arroyo Grande campaign office in a truck proudly displaying her name and visage, is a professed political outsider running on the strength of her business experience.
Compton, 50, has lived in Nipomo for 19 years and originally hails from rural Indiana. She has a bachelor’s degree in agri-business, and worked various jobs for agricultural and pharmaceutical titans Monsanto, Pfizer, and Merck for almost her entire adult life.
In her spare time, Compton is the mother of 12-year-old twin daughters, recently obtained a juris doctor (J.D.) law degree, and has co-run Valley Farm Supply Inc.—a Santa Maria-based agricultural supply company—with her husband Pete for 17 years.
“I think it’s a good thing if you haven’t been in the government trough for years,” Compton said. “I’m from the private sector, and there are a lot of people out there who are sick of bureaucrats never changing anything.”
Though Compton touts her memberships in local organization like the California Cattlemen’s Association; the Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, and Nipomo chambers of commerce; and the California Farm Bureau, she’s admittedly never held any public office.
“I don’t think my lack of government experience is going to hurt me,” Compton said. “It’s all stuff you can learn if you’re bright—none of it is rocket science, and a lot of it is common sense.”
Far and away, Compton is leading the three candidates in fundraising, receiving $136,577 in cash, non-monetary donations, and loans from the campaign’s outset through March 17, according to campaign disclosures.
Of that sum, more than $35,000 in total has come solely from Compton and her husband Pete. Other major donors to Compton’s campaign thus far include conservative groups like the Republican-leaning Lincoln Club of SLO ($5,000), and agricultural interests like Paso Robles vintner Kathleen Maas ($6,269).
“I have received more money in District 4 than the other candidates,” Compton said. “Fundraising is the part I like the least, and I hate asking people for money, but that’s just the way it is.”
Asked to identify key issues in District 4 as she sees them, Compton briefly touched on groundwater management, the Phillips 66 rail spur project, the dust dispute in the Oceano Dunes, and local government rules and regulations that she said are “killing” small businesses.
“I believe in letting the free markets work, having fewer taxes, and having less government in general,” Compton said. “I see some of the ‘solutions’ coming out of San Luis Obispo and the Board of Supervisors, and I don’t think they’ll work in the South County.”
When asked if her views on government aligned with the Tea Party, Compton said she is not a Tea Party member and was unsure if people were even able to become “members” of the Tea Party.
“People keep trying to say that I’m a Tea Party person in blogs and in the paper, and I don’t know what they are trying to say when they say that,” Compton said. “I don’t necessarily believe in everything that my supporters believe.”
Ultimately, Compton said that she’s the “best qualified” for the District 4 seat, and added that “the people need to decide” who they want, rather than just having a Jerry Brown appointee.
“This is the swing seat on the board,” Compton said. “I want to do everything I can to win.”
“To paraphrase LBJ,” Mike Byrd said while seated at a card table in his spartan campaign office in Arroyo Grande, “I would give everything I have not to stand here today.”
Those are hardly words you’d expect from a candidate running for a highly sought-after political position. Then again, Byrd isn’t your typical candidate.
- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- MIKE BYRD : Though he said he’s a “lousy politician,” Arroyo Grande real estate broker Mike Byrd is counting on harnessing the independent spirit of District 4 to win the seat, even as an admitted “third guy” in the race.
“I’d much rather have it be Paul [Teixeira] running, but, when Paul passed away, I saw people scurrying around and lining up behind the two parties, and that was really disappointing,” Byrd said. “Local government is supposed to be nonpartisan, and for good reason.”
Though Byrd, 62, is a registered Democrat, he said he hates “overly simplistic” partisan terminology and considers himself to be “extremely independent.”
Byrd was born and raised in Bakersfield, spent time as a journalist and editor at a small newspaper, worked as an assistant to a Kern County district supervisor for eight years, and has been a real estate broker ever since that stint ended. He moved to Arroyo Grande in the late ’80s.
“I’ve been here a long time, I know the people of South County, and I’m very similar to these people,” Byrd said. “I’m very independent in my thinking, and the voters of this district have shown themselves to be the same way—making issue-based judgments on a case-by-case basis.”
Interestingly, Byrd’s interpretation of the importance of the District 4 seat is markedly different from Compton’s.
“I don’t want to be the swing vote. I will consider myself a failure if I’m elected and that happens,” Byrd said. “I want to be the person who can craft decisions on key issues and bring everybody together, causing more unanimous votes. Only then would I consider myself successful.”
While his rhetoric may be lofty, Byrd said he’s keenly aware of being “the third guy” in the District 4 race, which he largely chalked up to his lack of partisan pandering.
“I’m a lousy politician,” Byrd said. “I am very open, and I’ve given a lot of frank opinions that have cost me votes and support.”
The numbers bear out Byrd’s opinion, as he’s received just $49,407 in cash, non-monetary donations, and loans from the campaign’s outset through March 17, according to campaign disclosures.
Byrd’s main donors are a host of real estate agents, real estate organizations, and Peter Keith, the former mayor of Grover Beach and Byrd’s close friend, who has given $26,500 to the campaign thus far.
“Honestly, having a smaller amount of money probably hurts more than it helps,” Byrd said. “That said, my goal was to only raise enough to run the kind of campaign that I want to run and hope for the best, and I think I have done that.”
When asked about major District 4 issues, Byrd brought up most of the usual suspects, but noted that he’s unafraid to take a finite position.
On the Phillips 66 rail spur project: “I’m against it as currently proposed.”
On the Oceano Dunes dust dispute: “There is a serious pollution problem on the Mesa. The problem won’t go away if they just stop the vehicles, but the current measures that the state is taking are not enough. My hope is that we can now look seriously at the problem.”
On the countywide water crisis: “The extension of the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin ordinance was flawed big time, and they didn’t define vested rights well enough.”
When asked point-blank if he thinks he can overcome the odds to win the District 4 seat, Byrd didn’t hesitate.
“Yes, I think I can win. I am too old to be wasting my time tilting at windmills,” Byrd said. “Paul Teixeira surprised everybody back in 2010, and he didn’t have much money either.”
Byrd added that he “just hopes to be still standing on June 4.”
“It can’t be stressed enough how important it is that the county not become partisan like what Caren and Lynn would create. That would be a disaster,” Byrd said. “I think most people in District 4 are of like mind—they just need to hear from me.”
They say the head that wears the crown is heavy, but you’d never know that looking at Caren Ray.
Ray, 45, is the current District 4 Supervisor and mother of two sons. She’s running a fully fledged campaign on evenings and weekends, but remains replete with energy, passion, and a distinct competitive fire.
“I want to be respectful, but the county supervisors manage a $500 million budget, represent about 50,000 people each, make complex decisions every day, and the experience that I bring to this job, there’s no substitute for that,” Ray said. “This isn’t a job that you trust to somebody who has never been in government before.”
- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- CAREN RAY: Experience is the key word for current District 4 Supervisor Caren Ray, who said there’s “no substitute” for her time on the board since her appointment by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 8 last year.
Flitting around her historic Arroyo Grande home—into which she recently moved—Ray apologized for the boxes and general clutter.
“You’re definitely getting the unfiltered me,” she said, grinning.
Ray was born in Hollywood and moved to Arroyo Grande when she was 11 years old. Other than a four-year stint studying history at UCLA, she’s stayed in the South County ever since, teaching high school history, government, and economics, raising her family, and serving in various government positions since 2005.
Ray has been thrice appointed: to the Board of Supervisors, the Arroyo Grande Planning Commission, and the Arroyo Grande City Council.
She was appointed to the commission in 2005, and appointed to her City Council seat in 2010. Ray wasn’t challenged in the subsequent 2012 council election, which was canceled due to lack of opposition. Gov. Brown appointed Ray to the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 8 of last year.
“By the time the election happens, I will have eight months of a board record for people to look at,” Ray said. “No other candidate has even one vote.”
Although she’s also a registered Democrat, Ray said that she places “zero importance” on party as far as her supervisor job is concerned.
“I am a registered Democrat for reasons that have nothing to do with county issues,” Ray said. “Being a Democrat means that every person matters; it means tolerance, acceptance, and all of the things that I hold very dear in my personal value system.”
Although many local commentators, including Compton and Byrd, claim that Ray is attached at the hip to left-leaning supervisors Hill and Gibson in a liberal voting bloc, Ray said that perception is patently false.
“On the votes that have gone 3-2, I am exactly as likely to vote with Debbie and Frank as I am with Bruce and Adam. It’s been exactly equal,” Ray said. “Also, well over 90 percent of the votes we’ve taken since I’ve been on the board have been unanimous. People are trying to use partisan fear to give an advantage to a different candidate.
“It’s too bad that people would base a half-billion dollar decision on a D,” she said.
As far as fundraising goes, Ray is in the middle of the pack. Her campaign has raised $81,324 in cash, non-monetary donations, and loans from the campaign’s outset through March 17, according to campaign disclosures.
Many of Ray’s top donors thus far have been local developers, including Dalidio Ranch developer Gary Grossman ($14,386) and real estate developer Lori Mangano ($10,000).
When asked about her development-related donations, Ray said that donations are an “unfortunate reality of politics” and that she’s “not beholden” to any of her donors but also “representing all of them.”
“I have a record of land-use policy to stand on, and that’s why local developers, who are the biggest business in the county, are standing behind me,” Ray said.
Ray said she wishes the election season was saner, shorter, and that money, especially Compton’s money, could play a diminished role.
“In terms of intensive campaigning, I don’t have a choice,” Ray said. “If I don’t combat Compton’s money, then I would just be letting her buy this election. The amount of money being spent by her campaign is insane.”
Ray discussed the issues facing District 4 in depth with New Times—including groundwater management, potential oil drilling in Huasna Valley, the Oceano Dunes situation, and the Phillips 66 project in Nipomo—but said she couldn’t give a position on any of them.
“I’m quite sure that you will hear candidates take positions. I am not allowed to give you a position, because these could all potentially come before the dais, and I am a supervisor,” Ray said. “I am allowed to say what concerns me, though, and in a land-use area that is unwrapping itself every single day, anybody who’s made a decision already, I think they’ve made an extremely irresponsible choice.”
Ultimately, Ray said she has a long record of being a centrist, and that those who accuse her of anything else are “trying to spin something that’s just not there.”
“On June 3, truly, my hope is that people of District 4 will look at the job I’ve done, and they will determine that they want to keep me there,” Ray said. “I’m running against people who have zero experience, and I want to get to work.”
For residents of District 4, the primary election for the supervisorial seat, among other positions, will take place on June 3.
If any of the three District 4 candidates is able to claim 50 percent plus one vote, then he or she will be declared the winner outright. In the event that no candidate gains a plurality, the top two vote-getters will advance to a runoff general election on Nov. 4.
For more information about the candidates, the race, and campaign finance, visit the SLO County Clerk-Recorder’s website.
Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at email@example.com.