Race for 15th state Senate District seat coming to head

Two weeks after they nominated candidates for governor and other offices, Central Coast residents will vote for a new state senator Tuesday in what could be their last trip to the polls until November.

Four candidates are running to represent the 15th Senate District: Republican Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo; Democrat and former Assemblyman John Laird of Santa Cruz; Jim Fitzgerald of Nipomo, an independent who does not have party affiliation; and Libertarian Mark Hinkle of Morgan Hill.

If one of the four takes 50 percent of the vote plus one vote, he will win. Otherwise, there will be a runoff between the top two finishers Aug. 17.

The seat became vacant when Abel Maldonado, elected to it less than two years ago, left the job in May to become lieutenant governor.

Although Hinkle and Fitzgerald are on the ballot, Blakeslee and Laird have the financial backing of their respective political parties and are using that money to promote themselves and assail each other in what has become a daily barrage of television advertisements and mailbox brochures. Campaigns and independent groups have pumped more than $2 million into the race, financial filings show.

The election occurs as the nation is focused on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which has brought the environment to center stage.

Laird has, by all accounts, a solid environmental record and is backed by the Sierra Club and other major environmental organizations. His “legacy bill” when he was in the Assembly was the creation of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, which provides protections for the iconic mountains.

Blakeslee says he, too, has environmental credentials, but few would argue that they are as strong as Laird’s.

He has advocated for drilling in the Tranquillon Ridge in the Pacific Ocean off Lompoc, for example. Blakeslee says he did so in concert with an environmental group in Santa Barbara that backed the project. That endorsement split the environmental movement.

Blakeslee also is a former manager with Exxon. In this race, he has received oil company donations.

For his part, Blakeslee has attacked Laird’s tenure as chair of the Assembly Budget Committee. A much-repeated political ad on television depicts Laird as an engineer behind the state’s fiscal “train wreck.”

Blakeslee was deeply involved with state budgeting as well and served for several months as Assembly minority leader. But he is not mentioning any of that in this campaign and lists himself on the ballot as a businessman and not a legislator.

The duo have drawn criticism for the negative nature of their campaign advertisements, especially Blakeslee’s “train wreck” ad against Laird and Laird’s “Oil Man Sam” ad against Blakeslee.

Despite the contrary nature of the campaign, both men have a history of working with the other political party during their time in the Legislature.

The race has taken on a north-south flavor as well. The gerrymandered district includes parts of five counties. Blakeslee is well-known in its southern portions while Laird, a former mayor of Santa Cruz, is a familiar face to those in the north.