When Jim Patterson and Debbie Arnold and their supporters filtered into a small back room of The Carlton Hotel in Atascadero two weeks ago to exchange political views, the event had an air of familiarity, like old pals getting together.
And well it should. Patterson, the Atascadero nurseryman, and Arnold, the Pozo rancher, have been going at each other for three election cycles over eight years, although Arnold has been a candidate in only two of them.
Their first encounter was in 2004, when Patterson ran against — and defeated — Arnold’s boss, then-5th District Supervisor Mike Ryan. Four years later, Patterson fended off a challenge from Arnold herself.Now Arnold is hoping the third time will work for her.
Although there are new subtleties and nuances in the campaign this time around, the overarching themes have not changed greatly. This election, like those that preceded it, is a faceoff between a candidate who believes government and its regulations continue to grow too rapidly and another who believes some regulation is necessary to halt runaway growth.
The key difference this time is that Patterson, 62, is in his eighth year as a county supervisor, and has compiled a substantial track record, for good or ill.
He thinks it is a good one. Arnold, 57, disagrees.
When Patterson was sworn in for his first term in January 2005, the United States was inching toward recession, but, as Patterson puts it, “nobody knew the economy was going to fall off the cliff.”
He says he and his colleagues rose to the challenge that crisis created, and he cites many examples of their actions. Among them: changes in scandal-plagued top county management to make it more responsive and efficient, as well as a frontal attack on the cost of county pensions.
The centerpiece of the pension battle has been the institution by a unified Board of Supervisors of a two-tier system under which new employees earn lesser benefits than those locked in under previous contracts.
Patterson and his colleagues go out of their way to praise county employees for working collegially with the board. The workforce has dropped by 10 percent, but without anyone being laid off.
Patterson also takes pride in new solar power projects on the Carrizo Plain and the jobs they have created, as well as the new Willow Road interchange on Highway 101 in Nipomo, the new Creston fire station, the Los Osos sewer, libraries and a women’s jail.
Arnold, by contrast, says the solar power jobs are temporary and the plants have taken “tens of thousands of acres of productive agricultural land off the tax rolls.”
She said pension costs remain a burden, and the county is still “not living within our means or saving for a rainy day.”
Arnold noted that the current board’s budget priorities are, first, to pay for mandates required by law, then pay off legal debt, and, third, to provide for public safety.
“This is wrong and unsustainable,” she wrote in response to questions from The Tribune. “I will prioritize public safety, road maintenance, health services and programs vital to the orderly operation of the county.”
Arnold also has criticized particular expenditures of the board, including hiring a specialist to fight childhood obesity. The health education specialist has a salary range that starts at $40,000 a year and tops out at $48,000 a year.
Arnold’s central campaign argument, one she returns to time and time again, is that the government is strangling the private sector and free market, creating unemployment while damaging the economy.
Government overreach, she says, is “making it harder to recover. Create more prosperity in the county, and that will solve a lot of those problems. Let the free market take its course.”
Arnold applies that framework to most government challenges.
For example, when asked about the county’s approach to affordable housing, Arnold said she would prefer to enable the private sector to create jobs, which in turn would create opportunities for people to earn enough money to afford their own homes.
Similarly, she wants to roll back government smart-growth policies, which, she said, will “urbanize our small towns.” Smart-growth policies try to encourage growth next to big cities and existing urban areas.
Patterson says the government has a legitimate role of working with residents of smaller communities to decide how to grow effectively, and has done so.
He also notes the county has worked with home builders to find ways to climb out of the recession. He says the board has taken a leading role in the Economic Vitality Corp., which seeks to lure new employers and otherwise bolster private-public sector cooperation on the economy.
The issue of political independence has come up frequently in the campaign, with Arnold’s backers saying Patterson is too close to environmentalists and Patterson’s camp warning that Arnold will be controlled by such conservative groups as the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business and the Tea Party.
Each denies the other’s accusations.
Asked during a Tribune editorial board interview whether they ever had angered their political “bases,” Patterson jokingly offered to show the scars. He lost the Sierra Club endorsement this year in large part because he supported solar power on the pristine Carrizo Plain.
Arnold could not think of a stance she had taken that differed from a position taken by COLAB, whose members have been working for her election. But she took issue with being linked with the Tea Party.
A conservative organization that has scored national political successes, the Tea Party and its rank and file oppose regulation and taxation.
Some of its leaders and members, however, also take extreme positions on such issues as whether President Barack Obama is a United States citizen.
Earlier this year, Arnold went to two Tea Party rallies, one of them as a guest speaker.
The speaker introducing her said, “If we elect Debbie, we get control of the county, we will have a say in what goes in the county.”
Arnold said she spoke because she was asked to speak and does not subscribe to extremist views such as the “birther” notion that Obama is not a U.S. citizen.