Tom Fulks

Once reliably red, SLO County has turned blue

San Luis Obispo County isn’t a red county anymore, not after local Democrats turned in their own Blue Wave on Election Day.

According to unofficial results (as of Nov. 16), SLO County voters preferred Democrat Gavin Newsom for governor 51-49 percent over Republican John Cox. And they chose Salud Carbajal (D) for Congress 54-46 percent over three-time loser Justin Fareed (R).

Republicans, meanwhile, had some modest if predictable successes. Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R) sailed to re-election, finishing 10 percentage points ahead of Democrat Bill Ostrander in SLO County. Republican majorities will again preside over the city councils in Atascadero and Paso Robles, which re-elected Mayor Steve Martin, a Democrat.

While local city council and county supervisor seats are ostensibly nonpartisan, party politics has quietly played a role for decades. In this age of Trumpism and divisiveness, the partisanship was simply forced out of the closet this cycle.

Some local races remain close until vote-by-mail counting ends. Given that, candidates endorsed by the SLO County Democratic Central Committee appear poised to sweep into or maintain majorities on the city councils in San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande, Morro Bay and Grover Beach. The one Dem running for City Council in Atascadero, Susan Funk, also won.

San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon, seeking her second term after winning by a handful of votes two years ago, smashed challenger T. Keith Gurnee 63-35 percent. Harmon, one of the founders of the local Progressives, was endorsed by the local Democratic Party and SLO Progressives.

Running in a heavily Democratic city, the ever-slippery Gurnee switched registration from Republican to Democrat before the election, then boldly sought the endorsement of the SLO Progressives, causing some teeth gnashing inside the organization after securing about 10 percent of the Progressives’ endorsement vote.

While Gurnee’s campaign put a bit of a fright into the local left, it caused political opposites such as former SLO Mayor Jan Marx and former SLO Chamber of Commerce CEO Dave Garth to coalesce around Harmon. (Disclosure – I donated $300 to the Harmon campaign.)

Incumbent councilmember Carlyn Christianson and newcomer Erica Stewart, both endorsed by the local Dem Party, took the two seats being sought by a slate of slow-growth candidates campaigning against the direction the city’s taken recently to address next-generation housing, urban mobility and climate change. (Disclosure – I donated $100 each to Christianson and Stewart.)

The Arroyo Grande result is particularly notable due to Democrat Caren Ray’s thumping of incumbent Mayor Jim Hill (R), 53-47 percent, and the City Council victories of Jimmy Paulding and Keith Storton, who were both supported by local Democrats and Progressives.

As well, every measure on local city ballots seeking approval of cannabis sales taxes won. Conversely, the statewide Prop. 6 – a Republican Party-backed measure that would have killed the recently adopted Senate Bill 1 fuel tax hikes for repairing crumbling roads and bridges – was rejected by SLO County voters 54-46 percent.

The blue victories locally are tempered by the reality that Big Oil’s multi-million dollar spending campaign defeated Measure G, 54-46 percent. Now, all Big Oil needs to start drilling off the SLO County coast is a lot of money to circumvent Measure A of 1986, requiring voter approval of any permits for onshore support facilities such as pipelines, piers and processing plants.

Given Trump’s fossil fuel fetish and our 3-2 Tea Party majority on the county Board of Supervisors, expect this issue to rear its ugly head in the next couple of years.

No one should believe our coast is protected from offshore oil drilling by Measure A, as claimed by county supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton last year when denying SLO County’s participation in seeking national marine sanctuary status for our county’s coast. Measure A’s effective defenses against Big Oil are paper thin. We can thank the current majority on our county Board of Supervisors for leaving us exposed and vulnerable.

Fifth District Supervisor Arnold is up for re-election in 2020, as is 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill. It’s uncertain at this point what either will choose to do about re-election.

One thing is certain: The days of Republican dominance of local elected offices are over, at least for the foreseeable future.

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks serves on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee. His column runs every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Andrea Seastrand.

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