It’s the largest coastal district in California’s Legislature, stretching 200 miles from south San Jose past San Luis Obispo, and taking in Santa Cruz beaches, Big Sur and the coastal plains near Hearst Castle.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that, as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history fills the news, offshore oil drilling has become the centerpiece of a close race to fill the former state Senate seat of Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado in the 15th Senate District.
On Monday, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups demonstrated at an ARCO station on Camden Avenue in San Jose to support the Democratic candidate, former Assemblyman John Laird of Santa Cruz.
They blasted the Republican candidate, Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, a former Exxon employee, for taking tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron and other oil companies, and for supporting new oil drilling off Southern California.
“Make no mistake about it,” said Sara Wan, a member of the California Coastal Commission. “Voting for Blakeslee is voting for big oil to destroy our coast.”
The protest’s message echoed a demonstration held in San Luis Obispo last Friday night at the entry to the Madonna Inn. While Blakeslee attended a campaign fundraiser, a local group, Democratic Voters of the Central Coast, protested what it called his ties to the oil industry and his recent support of a drilling project proposed off Santa Barbara County.
Last month, Laird began airing TV ads showing the burning BP platform in Louisiana as a somber voice said: “Even as the oil slick harms the Gulf Coast, politicians like former Exxon executive and current state Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee are still saying, ‘Drill baby, drill.’”
Blakeslee, first elected to the Assembly in 2004, says he’s being unfairly tarred.
“Their assertion is that by virtue of the fact that I once worked for Exxon that somehow makes me a bad person,” he said. “But I have been an environmental Republican throughout my service. I’ve never wavered on my protection of the coast.”
Blakeslee, 54, earned a doctorate in geophysics from UCSB and took a job with Exxon in Texas developing tools to create images of oil formations. He was later promoted into management. He eventually returned to his hometown in San Luis Obispo to run the family financial services business, Blakeslee and Blakeslee.
He noted that in 2008, as Sarah Palin and John McCain led chants at GOP events for more oil drilling, he was the only Republican in the Assembly to support a resolution calling for President George Bush to keep in place a moratorium on new drilling in California waters.
Environmentalists on Monday cited his low votes on Sierra Club legislative scorecards — an average of 25 out of 100 since 2005, compared with Laird’s 100 out of 100. They criticized Blakeslee’s support for a deal last year that would have allowed a Houston company, PXP, to drill from an existing platform in federal waters off Santa Barbara into an oil field called Tranquillon Ridge in state waters.
But Blakeslee notes that numerous environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, supported the deal, too, signing a letter Jan. 27, 2009, to the State Lands Commission praising it because PXP agreed to take down four platforms in the area by 2022.
“Sadly, some people believe it’s OK to win campaigns by demonizing people through association or by exploiting a tragedy in the gulf,” he said.Said Laird: “This is comparative. There’s a fundamental difference between us on environmental issues.”
State Sierra Club director Bill Magavern said his organization dropped support for the project after it became clear PXP couldn’t guarantee a future president wouldn’t allow another company to drill there. Even after that became clear, he said, Blakeslee still led efforts to push the deal in Sacramento.
Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped his support for the deal, citing the Louisiana spill.
Schwarzenegger chose the June 22 special election date after Maldonado was sworn in as lieutenant governor in April. Democrats hold a 41 to 35 percent edge over Republicans in the district. Expected low turnout will help Blakeslee, said Larry Gerston, a political-science professor at San Jose State University, because GOP voters vote more reliably.
“This mess in the Gulf is a gift to John Laird,” Gerston said. “It seems to be without end. There’s a public sense of despair and real anger.”
Laird has raised $930,000, much of it from the Democratic Party and labor unions, while Blakeslee has raised $637,000, with contributions from oil, insurance and other corporations. He’s also benefitted from $771,000 spent on his behalf by organizations funded by Chevron, BP, Shell and Exxon, along with pharmaceutical, chemical and other industrial firms.
Blakeslee has attempted to portray Laird, a former mayor of Santa Cruz and chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, as too willing to raise taxes.
If nobody wins a majority next Tuesday, a runoff will take place Aug. 17.
“The key will be which side can best mobilize their voters,” Gerston said. “A few hundred votes could make the difference.”
Tribune Managing Editor Tad Weber contributed to this report.