A gallon of gas cost less than $2 the last time a Democrat represented San Luis Obispo County in the state Senate.
The year was 2003, and Jack O’Connell, the popular Democrat from San Luis Obispo, was finishing his second term in the upper house of the Legislature.
Republican representation followed, with Abel Maldonado and then Sam Blakeslee overseeing the county’s interests in the Senate.
But now, thanks largely to a citizens’ commission on redistricting, the newly drawn boundaries of the 17th District strongly favor the Democrats once again. And for the first time since 2003, the county will be represented by a senator living well outside the area.
Democrats hold a nearly 16-point lead in party registration over Republicans in the sprawling 17th District, a coastal entity that runs from San Jose south to Nipomo and includes the cities of Santa Cruz, Monterey and Gilroy, along with all of San Luis Obispo County.
The redistricting led Blakeslee to conclude he could not win re-election, and it was the motivating factor pushing Assembly Democrat Bill Monning into the race.
The Carmel legislator, who is completing his second term in the Assembly, acknowledged that “the stars aligned well for us.”
Said Monning: “The lines for the 17th Senate District were drawn in a manner that does favor Democrat registration. The time seemed opportune to throw my hat in the ring instead of waiting four years and the uncertainty that might bring.”
Additionally, his current 27th Assembly District covers the northern part of the new Senate district.
Opposing him is Republican Larry Beaman, who is finishing his first term on a small school district board near Santa Cruz. While the 39-year-old understands the registration disadvantage, he is undaunted.
“Most definitely, I am giving this a run and intend to win,” Beaman said. “With ‘decline to states’ (voters who decline to give a party preference) and independents, it will be a lot closer.”
The June primary results would suggest otherwise. Monning beat Beaman in the four-county district 59.4 percent to 40.6 percent. The only county Beaman carried was San Luis Obispo, which is also the only county where the Republicans outnumber Democrats.
A lawyer who taught classes at the Monterey College of Law before election to the Assembly in 2008,
Monning has strong liberal credentials: He once worked as a staff lawyer for the United Farm Workers and for California Rural Legal Assistance, organizations devoted to helping field workers and Hispanic immigrants.
He also backs environmental issues. In its 2011 report card for the Legislature, the Sierra Club found
Monning took its position on nine of 11 measures — giving him an 82 percent score.
But Monning is among a group of four Assembly members judged by the California Chamber of Commerce with having the worst voting records in 2012. On its “best business votes” list, the chamber says Monning has supported its position only twice among 11 bills that were studied.
Blakeslee, by contrast, voted with the chamber nine times out of 10 (he did not vote on the 11th bill).
Monning says creating jobs and strengthening the economy are important to him. One area he supports is green energy. He took a recent tour of the two large solar plants being constructed in California Valley, on the county’s eastern fringe, and was impressed with the hundreds of jobs created in construction trades.
He also recognizes tourism as a key part of the district’s economy and pledges to offer assistance when needed. For example, he has enlisted the aid of Sen. Dianne Feinstein,
D-Calif., and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz, to clear up visa issues keeping Chinese tourists from visiting California. “When they cannot get a visa, they end up in Europe,” he pointed out.
Monning stresses his ability to work with Republicans, as well as his experience with helping opposing sides find common ground. He founded and led Global Majority, an organization in Monterey that focuses on nonviolent conflict resolution.
Referring to San Luis Obispo County’s Republican Assemblyman, Katcho Achadjian, Monning said, “Katcho and I answer the same way — over 70 percent of the votes we take have bipartisan support.
There is a lot more collaboration than many voters and taxpayers are aware of.”
A key area in which he said he will diverge from the GOP is the state budget.
“We have lost the capacity in the state Legislature on budget issues because we don’t enjoy the engagement in negotiations that happened just 15 years ago. (Then) Speaker Willie Brown (a Democrat from San Francisco) was well known for bringing the sides together and banging heads.
“We have a minority party taking the approach to not negotiate on issues that deal with revenue. It violates the oath of office. We should have an open mind to come up with solutions for the people of California. That is my commitment.”
While he appears on the ballot as the Republican candidate, Beaman said that doesn’t really explain who he is politically.
“I am labeled as Republican. But I am more in the middle, like an independent,” said Beaman, who owns an insurance agency in Scotts Valley.
As an example of his ability to bring various sides together, Beaman cited a temporary parcel tax that was passed by 76 percent of voters in the Scotts Valley Unified School District in June.
As school board president, Beaman reached out to business owners and seniors as well as education supporters. “We had zero opposition,” he said.
One reason he is running stems from cuts schools have endured in the past few years because of state budget woes.
Rather than slash money to schools, Beaman wants a thorough review of state spending to find other places where reductions can be made.
“Our legislators need to step up and do what is right for our children,” he said. “Let’s look at the big picture, all of the other programs, and not just the largest part, which is education.”
Besides serving on the school board, Beaman is a member of the Scotts Valley Chamber of Commerce, as well as the local Kiwanis club, and has coached youth soccer for eight years.