Forum planned in Arroyo Grande for California state Senate candidates

County voters will have their first chance to see all four candidates for a vacant state Senate seat together during a Friday evening public forum Aug. 6 in Arroyo Grande.

Republican Sam Blakeslee, Democrat John Laird, Libertarian Mark Hinkle, and Independent Jim Fitzgerald will attend the event, scheduled from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the South County Regional Center, 800 West Branch St.

The four are running in a special election Aug. 17 to fill the 15th District state Senate seat vacated in May when Abel Maldonado resigned to accept Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appointment to the lieutenant governorship.

The League of Women Voters held a forum Monday but Blakeslee did not attend because, he said, he is busy on Mondays with the Republican working group in Sacramento that is trying to deal with the state’s $19 billion budget deficit.

As a former Assembly minority leader and one-time member of the so-called Gang of Five — the governor along with the Senate and Assembly leaders of the two major parties — Blakeslee has been a key player in budget actions over the past several years.

Despite Blakeslee’s absence Monday, Laird almost skipped his first chance to debate face-to-face locally Aug. 6 because he was chary about the heavy involvement of COLAB in the event.

The Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business is openly partisan toward Blakeslee and last week took out an advertisement in the Santa Maria Sun excoriating Laird, saying he “scares me to death.” In addition, COLAB was involved with a Santa Maria fundraiser for Blakeslee on Sunday.

However, COLAB’s executive director Andy Caldwell said it was the Santa Barbara County COLAB, not the San Luis Obispo County group, that took out the advertisement and was involved with the fundraiser at the home of former Assembly candidate Etta Waterfield.

Laird praised the selection of Arturo Santiago of KCOY and Ben Heighes of KUHL AM 1440 as moderators.

The San Luis Obispo County Cattlemen’s Association and the Home Builders Association of the Central Coast will co-sponsor, and their participation will naturally focus the forum on questions that affect their constituencies.

In an invitation to the event, COLAB wrote that topics will include the new Arizona immigration law; Proposition 23, a measure on the November ballot; and state budget and pension reform.

It is not clear whether candidates will get to outline their stands on other issues. At the League of Women Voters forum, the announced focus was education and children’s health issues, but the moderator allowed other topics.However, that forum lasted two hours; the event in Arroyo Grande is scheduled for one hour.