CARPINTERIA — A cluster of oil-drilling platforms shrouded in fog lurks just a couple miles off the coast of this charming beach town, known for its harbor seal rookery, legendary surf break and the gentle curves of its sandy beach.
For Northern California coastal residents, used to pristine ocean views and sanctuary-protected waters, it’s hard to imagine, but the oil industry is generally tolerated here on the Central Coast — even championed as a source of jobs. This is a region in which people defy political stereotypes, owing to a combination of history, geography and recent migration.
On the Central Coast, Democrats and Republicans often don’t march in lock-step with their counterparts in places like the Bay Area and Orange County. Here, you find Republicans who are devoted to environmental protection and Democrats who support oil drilling off the coast as a patriotic mission.
And in the razor-tight races for governor and U.S. Senate, that makes Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties a key battleground for both parties. The counties are the focus of the last part of a San Jose Mercury News series exploring politically contested areas away from the more traditional, heavily populated battlegrounds.
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Greg Gandrud, a former Carpinteria councilman, symbolizes the area’s political duality. A gay man who chairs the Santa Barbara County GOP, he considers himself an environmentalist but has few problems with oil drilling.
“Oil production has been around as long as Europeans have been in the Santa Barbara area,” he said. “What’s changed is the technology and the politics.”
Once solidly Republican, Santa Barbara County is now mostly Democratic; legions of liberals and environmentalists settled here as UCSB grew. But it’s also an extremely diverse county, the home of Vandenberg Air Force Base, farms, cattle ranches and, of course, the wineries made famous by the quirky 2004 flick “Sideways.”
The politics are “redder” in San Luis Obispo County to the north, which has leaned Republican for decades. The twin counties represent an intriguing amalgam of Bay Area-style progressivism and no-nonsense Central Valley-esque conservatism, with a dash of tea party mixed in.
Probably no one knows that better than Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican who represented the area for 61⁄2 years in the oddly shaped 15th state Senate district — which stretches from Saratoga to Santa Maria in northern Santa Barbara County.
A Santa Maria farmer, Maldonado often walked a tightrope in the Legislature trying to keep businesspeople and environmentalists happy.
“You paddle a little bit to the right and a little bit to the left, but you stay right in the middle,” he said with a laugh. There’s no doubt that a different breed of Republican lives by the water, Maldonado said. Lots of them are former Angelenos who moved north to get away from the noise and traffic. They bought their piece of paradise and want their new neighborhood to stay just the way it is.
“We call them beach Republicans,” said Maldonado, now in a tight race with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to keep his job. “They’re still fiscally very conservative, but they also care very much about the environment.”
But there are also coastal Republicans like cattle ranchers Mike McCormick and Marianne Friedl of Santa Maria. For two decades, McCormick, 64, and Friedl, 49, ran a demolition business, but found themselves strangled by an ever-tightening noose of regulations.
“We had the health department, the hazardous- materials people from the fire department, the air pollution control district,” McCormick said. “And everybody thought they knew our business better than we did.”
So, several years ago, the couple went into ranching full time. But McCormick and Friedl, both tea party supporters, now fear AB 32 — California’s 4-year-old global-warming law — will drive them out of business by requiring them to buy cleaner-burning trucks, tractors, generators and other equipment.
Gandrud, the county GOP chair, feels the ranchers’ pain.
An accountant with a libertarian bent, he still chafes that Carpinteria voters in June overwhelmingly rejected an onshore drilling facility proposed by the oil company Veneco. Backers said it would have created jobs and would have provided royalty revenue for local government. But Gandrud believes the measure was sunk by BP’s oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in April.
He contends that environmentalism-gone-wild will further drive California’s economy into the ground, so he’s impressed that Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina is in favor of drilling and against the global-warming law. Fiorina’s opponent, Sen. Barbara Boxer, has taken opposite stands.
Still, Gandrud doesn’t mind that Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor who he thinks “gets it” on job creation, is against drilling and has come out against Proposition 23, which would indefinitely suspend AB 32.
“It’s probably smart politics for her,” he said, since polls show Proposition 23 likely to lose.
On the other side of the aisle, not all coastal Democrats oppose drilling.
“It’s the risk you have to take” for energy independence, said Judy Prato, a Democrat who lives in a senior-housing complex in the liberal bastion of Santa Barbara.
She takes that stand even though she was living in Santa Barbara during the massive 1969 oil spill and vividly remembers “the mess” it created: Up to 100,000 barrels of crude flowed into the Pacific, killing thousands of seabirds and dozens of seals and dolphins.
But her neighbor, Rose Hand, 76, couldn’t disagree more. “The environment was ruined once,” said Hand, who’s backing Democrat Jerry Brown for governor. “Why would we want to ruin it again?”
Walter Heath of Morro Bay is in charge of making “voter contact” with thousands of decline-to-state voters in the 33rd Assembly District campaign of Hilda Zacarias, a moderate Democrat. She’s running against San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Katcho Achadjian, a Republican gas station owner who favors drilling and vows to make California “the business-friendly state we once were.”
Heath says polling for his candidate — an accountant and Santa Maria councilwoman who’s against drilling and in favor of keeping the global-warming law — has indicated that a third of San Luis Obispo County’s voters peg the economy as the No. 1 issue. Another third say the environment; the last third say education.
But decline-to-state voters, Heath said, overwhelmingly think creating “head of household” jobs is what’s needed most.
Zacarias agrees, so she’s arguing that the region has the potential to land thousands of green jobs, as entrepreneurial scientists emerge from UCSB and Cal Poly to launch businesses.
It’s a message crafted to appeal both to environmental passions and economic concerns. And in a state where voters are being asked to decide if its landmark global-warming law is a boon or a blight to the economy, it’s the kind of balancing act that could pay Election Day dividends.