Tom Fulks

SLO County Democrats are strong for Bernie, but slow to rally for local liberal candidates

Tom Fulks
Tom Fulks

Local excitement for Bernie vs. Hillary didn’t translate into enthusiasm for San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors races farther down the ballot.

In fact, based on June 7 election results, San Luis Obispo County may turn blazing red while the state overall turns deeper blue.

Local progressives — many who are newly inspired by Bernie Sanders — better wake up to local races. November will be pivotal.

As it is, we’re poised to have a 4-1 conservative majority on the Board of Supervisors for the first time in decades.

This despite 8,588 more votes being cast in the county for Democrats than Republicans in the presidential primary.

As of June 15, Sanders won SLO County with nearly 51 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 47 percent. All told, Sanders, Clinton and minor potential presidential candidates for the Democratic Party collected 43,950 votes.

Donald Trump and all other Republican candidates garnered 35,362.

This 8,588-vote difference came despite Republicans outnumbering Democrats in the county 39-35 percent. Clearly, SLO county Dems were more fired up for the primary than Republicans, given their respective presidential choices.

That progressive passion should have done more for 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill, the liberal incumbent who collected 42 percent of the vote. He faces a November runoff against pro-developer Dan Carpenter, who snared 32 percent.

Progressives should have put Hill over the 50 percent line to re-election. He now faces a muddy slog to gain a third term against an unprincipled opponent.

Hill will have to aggressively counter the insidiously false, long-running narrative from Carpenter — abetted by anonymous online smear merchants — that he’s a “bully.”

Hill’s district today has a slight majority of Democrats, and over the past four decades it’s overwhelmingly voted for environmental candidates — with the one-term aberration of pro-developer Jerry Lenthall, who Hill ousted in 2008.

Hill’s going to need all the help he can get from local progressives who didn’t show up in numbers in the 3rd District primary. Whether the alarm of losing that seat to a Lenthall-lite — resulting in a 4-1 anti-environment board — translates into any kind of lefty activism remains to be seen.

Neither did the local Dem voter surge help 5th District challenger Eric Michielssen, who fell 46-53 percent to incumbent Debbie Arnold. Michielssen’s chances were slim to begin with, but he could have used more help from local environmentalists who seemed more interested in national politics than local.

Hanging in the balance come November is the fate of the highly controversial oil train project, the sure-to-be resurrected gravel quarry project in Santa Margarita and dozens of water-guzzling, traffic-choking development projects throughout the county.

When the left doesn’t vote in local contests, everyone’s way of life is affected. Fixation on national politics at the expense of local government policy is a recipe for discontent.

If the recent decimation of native oak stands at Justin Winery upsets local green advocates, they’d best understand these kind of things will only get worse if they don't translate their June enthusiasm for Bernie’s revolution into November activism — and votes — for local candidates.

They also need to broaden their view to help Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin in the 1st Dsitrict. A conservative “Democrat in name only,” he’s facing a runoff against political consultant John Peschong, who’s sullied SLO County with dark-money, Sacramento-style negative campaigns since moving here a few years ago.

Peshcong’s shtick worked to the detriment of low-key natives Martin and Paso City Councilman John Hamon. Peschong cruised by both June 7, in votes and money, and is practically guaranteed to overwhelm Martin in fundraising and campaign spending until the November runoff.

Up ticket, in spite of a strong showing by Democrat Dawn Ortiz-Legg in the 35th District Assembly race, that seat will remain in Republican hands after the November runoff without help.

It’s impressive that Ortiz-Legg took 47 percent of the SLO County vote — more than any prior Democrat (save Jack O’Connell) in the heavily Republican District. But she ran against two Republicans and a Libertarian.

If Republicans unite behind Jordan Cunningham, Ortiz-Legg will have a mighty struggle winning that seat. She’ll have no chance if activists who turnout out for local Bernie rallies stay home.

Bernie lost the war nationally, but he won the battle for SLO County. The question is: Will local progressives translate that into local political power in November?

If Berners don’t want to be stranded on a crimson-red island in an azure-blue sea, they’d better.

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks is a former reporter and opinion writer. He has been a political campaign consultant for many local races. His column runs in The Tribune every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Matthew Hoy.