Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Sheila Blake, a supporter of San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill, wrote a letter to the editor criticizing Hill’s opponent, Ed Waage. Her letter did not criticize Waage.
On the surface, the races for county supervisor that voters will decide June 5 are clear-cut.
Those who base their decision on the issues will ask themselves whether incumbent Supervisors Jim Patterson and Adam Hill have done a good job ushering the county through the recession of the past half-decade.
If the answer is yes, Hill and Patterson will likely get their vote. If voters think over-regulation has hurt the local economy, they’ll probably go for Patterson challenger Debbie Arnold and Hill’s opponent, Ed Waage.
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But there is another campaign afoot — one that does not generally pop up at issue-oriented forums and does not deal with the more mundane issues of government that all four candidates say they want the campaign to be about — pension reform, homelessness, budgets, public safety.
This is the “other” election — conducted in whispers, tweets, Facebook pages, robo-calls, campaign literature.
This less-visible skirmish is important because people often base their votes on what they hear — which may not be true. As Machiavelli put it, “He who wishes to deceive will never fail in finding willing dupes.”
The subterranean contest includes an odd and intriguing mix of subject matter — prank phone calls, Tea Party politics, farming credentials, and combative speakers at public meetings.
The dirt under Jim Patterson’s fingernails
In the middle of a routine round of answering questions Friday at a political forum sponsored by the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, Arnold startled those present by saying she would prefer instead to ask Patterson about his remarks that he once farmed in Shandon.
Chamber moderator John Spatafore would not allow the candidate-to-candidate questioning.
But what was it about?
Patterson said she was questioning whether he had worked in agriculture in Shandon in the early 1980s, as he has claimed.
In a phone interview later with The Tribune, Arnold said she was “curious” about Patterson’s claim. She said she had been wondering about it since the 2008 election when she ran against Patterson and he made the same reference.
Why did she choose this time and place to question Patterson about it? Because it came up, she told The Tribune; it was spontaneous.
Because the discussion seemed to raise a question about Patterson’s agricultural credentials, The Tribune asked him to delineate them. He did, back to his youth.
“I grew up in the Palo Verde Valley along the Colorado River,” he wrote. “I worked in the fields and packing sheds all through high school.”
He came to Cal Poly, where he earned a degree in natural resources management with an emphasis in forestry and took courses in soils, range management, watershed management, tree farming, crops and other sciences.
He is a certified arborist and was a certified nurseryman.
But was Patterson on the level when he said he worked agriculture in Shandon?
He wrote that he managed and operated farming at Bergquist Ranch on Truesdale Road in Shandon, beginning in 1981, working for Vic and Lee Bergquist.
He eventually took over managing the ranch, “farm(ing) approximately 100 acres of alfalfa and 100 to 150 acres of dry land oats. They began building a registered herd of Brangus cattle and hired a cowboy to manage the herd.”
“I did manage the farming enterprise, determining what and how much to plant, operated and maintained all the equipment and helped market the hay,” he wrote.
Patterson included a great deal more detail about his agricultural background. He said Arnold introduced the issue as a diversion.Arnold now says she was merely asking a question that had vexed her and wants to move on to more substantive issues.
Arnold and Waage have been the targets of attempts to link them to extremist elements of the Tea Party.
A fundraising appeal put out last month by Patterson’s campaign shows Arnold at a Tea Party rally speaking in front of a North County Tea Party banner. “This will happen if we don’t act — right now,” the letter warns.
“If we don’t win this race on June 5th, the Tea Party will have a seat on the Board of Supervisors,” says the letter, signed by Patterson.
The problem is that being “linked to the Tea Party” means different things to different people.The Tea Party believes in smaller government and fewer regulations, which is why Arnold and Waage say they align themselves with it.
However, the Tea Party has members who espouse positions far outside the mainstream, such as the so-called “birther” movement’s incorrect belief that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, or that he is secretly a Muslim.
“I don’t associate myself with that radical stuff,” Arnold told The Tribune. “I just don’t.”
Asked whether he thought he was treating Arnold fairly, Patterson said simply that she has appeared at Tea Party rallies.Arnold says she went to the rallies because she was asked.
There have been similar attempts to link Waage to the Tea Party. Waage told The Tribune Editorial Board he is not a “birther.”Drawing the line
Waage has made a major campaign issue of what he calls “character,” accusing Hill of not listening to people. As a Pismo Beach City Council member, Waage says, he is courteous to all.
Hill concedes that he has been curt at times with people addressing the Board of Supervisors and has pledged to correct that behavior.
But he also has noted that the people he has had run-ins with are, for the most part, the anti-sewer contingent from Los Osos who routinely criticize and sometimes revile board members and county staff, and who have gotten into verbal wrangles with every board chairman for years.
Some of these folks have accused county employees of criminal activity and referenced their private lives and even the lives of their children.
The one time Hill cut off a speaker, he says, that speaker was talking in public about the minor children and married life of a county employee.
The Tribune asked Waage where he would draw the line. Would he allow personal remarks about county employees or their families, or slanderous comments about department heads?
“I don’t like to get into answering ‘what if’ questions,” he wrote. “The Brown Act is the controlling legislation regarding pubic comment and I would follow that.”
The act governs public meetings and when they need to be open or closed.
Taking a joke?
The oddest, most convoluted and most persistent of the 2012 nonpolicy campaign capers began in January as a prank phone call, and is making the rounds this month as a robo-call to voters engineered by controversial off-road activist Kevin P. Rice, who is trying his hand at conservative political action, including a speaking appearance at a Tea Party rally in March.
In January, Hill saw a letter to the editor in The Tribune from his supporter, Sheila Blake. He left a “joke” message on her voicemail asking whether she was a communist, expressing mock displeasure and, thinking she would recognize his voice, saying, “This is Ed Waage.”
To the wisecracking Hill, this is the sort of offhand remark friends and political allies make all the time. But Blake did not recognize his voice. She contacted Waage, who made an issue of it, calling the behavior inappropriate.
When she learned Hill had made the call, Blake called it “an innocent joke. It’s all a silly misunderstanding and not a diabolical plot. Let’s move on.”
Nevertheless, Waage has continued to bring up the voicemail. Keeping it out there against Blake’s wishes has, to some, raised questions about Waage’s own character. But he says that though he has since spoken with Blake and she has wished him well, he has not apologized for continuing to refer to the voicemail. He insists that the recording is part of a larger pattern of “questionable” behavior by Hill.
Hill, meanwhile, says Waage is using the issue to distract from what he calls his solid record.
The Blake tape appeared to be fading away until Rice popped up. He is now sending the recording to registered voters, with an anti-Hill message.
Rice is best known locally for his aggressive — some have said overly aggressive — tactics in defense of off-road riding in the Oceano Dunes state park. He has famously called the employers of, and complained about, people who have spoken or written publicly opposing his views.
Rice also looked up and disseminated histories of grand jury members who took a different view of things, and he once confronted an opponent at his home in the Sierra, telling the man that he happened to be in the neighborhood.
The calls replay Hill’s message to Blake, question his leadership, and stress that the calls were not initiated by Waage. Waage told The Tribune he did not realize Rice was sending the robo-calls. But he has not asked Rice to stop them.
Rice told The Tribune on Wednesday he has the voter registration list and is “working (his) way through it.”