Blakeslee of SLO may not seek re-election

Republican senator likely won’t run if court upholds Democrat-favoring boundaries of district

bmorem@thetribunenews.comJanuary 3, 2012 

If the California Supreme Court upholds redistricting boundaries hammered out by a voter-mandated citizens’ commission, Republican Sam Blakeslee said he likely won’t run for a second term in November as state senator of the 15th District.

A GOP-backed referendum to overturn the boundaries is pending at the California Secretary of State’s Office. It could qualify for an upcoming ballot, but probably not in time for the June primary or November general election. The Supreme Court this month could decide what Senate districts to use in those elections.

If the court chooses the redistricting commission’s lines, Blakeslee’s district would include more of liberal Santa Cruz County while losing conservative-leaning northern Santa Barbara County.

In fact, the new district would contain about 17 percent more Democrats than Republicans. That’s a chasm that the Republican senator from San Luis Obispo said he isn’t willing to try to span. His ultimate decision, though, will be dictated by the court determination and a talk with his wife, Kara.

“I want my community to understand that by making this decision, I’m not walking away from a fight,” he said in an interview during the Legislature’s holiday recess. “But I’m not willing to lose the entire last year in office in (a vain) pursuit of office. I’m 100 percent engaged to make sure this last year is the most impactful as it possibly can be.”

That’s pure Blakeslee, say friends, colleagues and staff of the 56-year-old: After seven years in office, his biggest thrill in politics is trying to find solutions to intractable problems.

Independent reputation

Blakeslee has earned a reputation among his own party as being independent if not contrarian when it comes to taking marching orders from his GOP colleagues.

Although he signed the Grover Norquist No Tax Pledge when he ran for the Assembly in 2004, he refused to do so in 2010 when he successfully campaigned for Abel Maldonado’s Senate seat after Maldonado was appointed lieutenant governor by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Saying that tax and pension reforms were key to getting the state’s fiscal house in order, he was the first Republican candidate for state or federal office from California to break from the lockstep pledge — a move that earned him the ire of his party’s leadership and scorn from right-wing political pundits and radio hosts.

In a similar vein, he and four other Republican state senators, known as the GOP 5, broke from the Republican ranks and tried to forge a compromise with Gov. Jerry Brown that would have incorporated the Democrat’s ballot proposal to raise taxes if reforms were also initiated. The special election effort ultimately failed to gain traction and was shelved.

Report cards

Ironically, in an either-or political environment, Blakeslee’s fiscal moderation has drawn positive notice from such tax hawks as Cal Tax — which gave Blakeslee a 100 percent rating — and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which has given him an “A” for his efforts. Further evidence of his policy of compromise is found in how environmental and business groups have rated him.

For example, the California Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters have both named him the top-ranked Republican in the Senate or Assembly. He also has received 100 percent ratings from the California Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business and the California Farm Bureau.

Bill success

According to Christine Robertson, Blakeslee’s chief of staff, the diversity of approval and compromise that Blakeslee created while in the Legislature is illustrated by the fact that in 2005 he had more bills signed into law than any other freshman Republican; in 2006, he had more bills signed than any other GOP Assembly member; in 2007-2008, he had more bills signed than any other Republican in both the Assembly and Senate.

Robertson believes it is Blakeslee’s penchant for seeking out diverse opinions and positions on issues.

Of all the 120 members who comprise both the Assembly and Senate, Blakeslee may be the only one who has a bipartisan staff of Republicans, Democrats and those who decline to state, Robertson said. “He definitely isn’t functioning in an echo chamber,” Robertson said.

Jim Brabeck, president and CEO of Farm Supply Co. in San Luis Obispo, said of Blakeslee: “I have known Sam for well over 30 years. When he makes a decision, it is not based on party loyalties, it is based on what he feels is in the best interests of his constituents.”

Political balance

If Blakeslee decides not to run, the farthest-reaching effect will be that Republicans will be down to 14 seats in the Senate, which means that Democrats will only need to capture one other seat in order to be able to raise taxes on a straight up vote with no need to negotiate with GOP members.

It’s a possibility that bothers Blakeslee, yet he seems ready to get out of politics and “come home whole rather than broken.”

As to future plans, “I still have a passion for public service. Toward that end, I’ve always been moved by the intersection of the economy, environment and energy. Perhaps putting together a nonprofit with students and policy leaders in Sacramento and Silicon Valley for a cleaner, greener economy. Resource conservation is as important as fiscal conservation.”

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