The race for the 35th State Assembly District seat has a seasoned local politician and business owner facing a San Luis Obispo environmental activist and political newcomer with far less cash, but a message that has attracted local support through a well-organized social media campaign.
In the Nov. 4 mid-term election, Republican incumbent Katcho Achadjian is facing Democratic challenger Heidi Harmon after both ran unopposed by members of their own party in the June primary.
The district includes San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties.
In June, Achadjian beat Harmon easily with 65 percent of the vote districtwide. Both candidates received about 70 percent of their support from San Luis Obispo County.
Harmon, who is running largely to champion action on climate change, said she knows she has an uphill battle if she wants to unseat a popular two-term incumbent who has promoted bipartisanship and raised more than $200,000 in campaign cash.
While Achadjian has done little campaigning, Harmon is relying on walking the district, creating a strong presence on social media and taking a hard line on a politically charged issue she hopes will attract Democratic voters to the polls.
While the two have yet to meet face to face, both say they’d welcome a debate before the Nov. 4 election.
A two-way race
Achadjian, 62, a former San Luis Obispo County supervisor, emigrated from Lebanon in the early 1970s and attended Cuesta College before earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration.
He became a U.S. citizen in 1982 and owns three gas stations in the South County.
Asked what he thinks his constituents care most about in this year’s election, Achadjian thought for only a moment. “Drought, jobs and the economy,” he replied.
He said his record has helped to better show that he can work across the aisle to craft a bill that actually has a shot at passing.
“Politics is like a marriage. You can’t just walk away the first time you disagree. You work through it,” Achadjian said. “Whether I agree or disagree, I always do so based on facts. That’s the only way to make a bill that can be successful.”
Harmon, 45, is a Pasadena native who moved to San Luis Obispo to attend school at Cuesta College and Cal Poly. She graduated from the latter with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and a history minor.
She is a former preschool teacher, artist and organizer of a weekly music program at Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo.
Harmon is active in a number of local organizations, including a chairmanship for the Sierra Club Santa Lucia Chapter’s Climate Change Task Force, as well as program director for the local chapter of 350.org and outreach ambassador for the local chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby.
But Harmon isn’t a one-issue candidate, she said. Rather, climate change is a reality that ripples through all aspects of life, she said.
“This is not a side issue. Our economy has already been negatively impacted by climate change. It impacts everything,” Harmon said. “This is clearly the issue of our time.”
Asked if she thinks climate change ranks high on the list of election year issues for Central Coast voters, Harmon said it depends.
“I think if you asked them, many will answer no. But if you asked another question, ‘Are you concerned about your future?’ They’re going to say yes,” she said.
Last month, Achadjian’s landmark legislation to create a water district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin wassigned into law
by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The bill, AB2453, found bipartisan support and established a “hybrid” board of directors composed of a combination of property owners and basin residents to manage scarce water resources.
Achadjian said it took a while to find compromise on the bill, adding that it’s an example of finding compromise in light of an emergency; more than 300 wells went dry in a five-month period this year, he said.
“I’ve lived here for 42 years, and every time we have a drought, it’s worse than the last,” Achadjian said. “It feels good to look back on something this sensitive and see we were able to get it passed,” he said. “Any which way you look at it, it’s a good thing.”
Harmon agreed the bill was a good start but questioned whether the board’s voting members represent a balance between large water consumers and average residents. She also said the problem should have been addressed before it became an emergency.
“He was (county) supervisor for years when we knew this basin was in trouble, and nobody did anything then,” Harmon said.
Harmon takes issue with Achadjian’s voting record on issues of the environment, gender equality and reproductive rights.
Echoing a proposal by Citizen’s Climate Lobby, Harmon has proposed a revenue-neutral carbon fee to encourage divestment in fossil fuels. The tax would be placed on fossil fuels based on their carbon dioxide content at points of sale such as ports, mines or wells.
“This is an essential piece of policy at the federal level,” Harmon said. “And I would be a strong advocate for that at the state level.”
Achadjian, who served a term on the California Coastal Commission, has low lifetime approval ratings from a number of environmental groups including a 28 percent rating from the California League of Conservation Voters.
“This is where I lose my grades. But I’m not anti-environment,” Achadjian said. “When you look at those rankings, you have to look at everything they entail — every vote.”
Achadjian said he does not deny the conventional wisdom on global warming but questions whether it’s caused by human impacts and what should be done about it.
“It’s called global warming, not California warming. Why is it our responsibility to save the world?” he said.
Rather, Achadjian said, the state needs to expedite the California Environmental Quality Act process to support economic development.
Women’s and workers’ rights
Harmon has challenged Achadjian on his voting record on legislation related to women’s and worker’s rights.
On women’s rights, Achadjian has a low rating from pro-choice groups. However, he defended his record with AB 65, known as the rape-by-fraud bill. The bill, which he co-authored in 2013 and was signed into law, closed a legal loophole by changing the legal definition of rape to include attackers who coerce their victim into sex by impersonating a significant other.
“This is one example of one newsworthy vote that overshadows an overall track record of voting against women’s rights,” Harmon said. “How much courage do you have to have to propose that? Are we really giving out badges for a bill that says rape is not acceptable? I think that should be pretty clear.”
Achadjian maintains a socially conservative voting record on reproductive rights.
“Are we improving (patients') lifestyle by making it easier to get an abortion?” Achadjian said. “Where do we draw the line?”
Achadjian also voted against a number of worker-related bills, including successful legislation requiring employer-provided sick pay for employees as well as the minimum wage increase, in 2014.
“If you want to earn more money, you work hard,” Achadjian said, noting his own experience. “My incentive was to get out of minimum wage and get an education. If the government’s going to step in, the incentive’s gone.”
Harmon argues his record shows that Achadjian is out of touch with the needs of working families. “Katcho, I hear he’s a really nice guy and a lot of people like him,” she said. “But how nice can you be if you’re voting against people’s ability to live?”
As of June 30, Achadjian had raised $92,550 since the election cycle began Jan. 1. He’s spent a total of $104,013 and has $228,990 remaining on hand.
His financial backers range widely from residents to public sector unions, and tribal governments to the oil and gas industry. He’s received sizable contributions from regular local political contributors such as PG&E and local law enforcement and firefighters associations, nationally recognized names such as Chevron, Phillips 66, Monsanto Co. and Koch Industries Inc., as well as local public figures such as county Supervisor Debbie Arnold, supervisor candidate Lynn Compton and District Attorney-elect Dan Dow.
“I think people recognize that I’m interested in working with everyone, not just one interest group,” Achadjian said. “And I’m appreciative of the support I’ve received.”
Harmon has raised just over $4,000 and spent $1,170, leaving her with $2,831 on hand.
Her donations have come from local residents and the California Democratic Party.
“It’s important people understand the relationship between money and votes,” Harmon. “And the only thing more powerful than money is people.”
The next financial disclosure deadline is Monday.
Room for debate?
Simply put, Achadjian is running on his experience, his recent landmark legislation and his reputation as a moderate conservative who plays well with and is respected by Democrats.
“People know me and know that I understand this community,” he said. “They know that I’m available to them and listen to them.”
Harmon said she is not running only to start a dialogue on climate change but to represent local voters who want more done at the state level to protect the environment, promote gender equality and divest from fossil fuels.
“I’m not just running against Katcho because, ultimately, he’s not that relevant,” Harmon said. “We’re talking about things so much bigger.”
Both candidates have expressed their willingness to debate, yet no event has been scheduled. Harmon said she has sent a letter to Achadjian’s office inviting a debate. Achadjian said Friday that he has received the letter but has not yet responded.
Achadjian said he is open to a debate so long as it’s hosted by an independent third party.