The monstrosity that is California’s 15th state Senate District stretches over strategic portions of Santa Clara County, Monterey County, Santa Cruz County and San Luis Obispo County, clear into Santa Barbara County. And for many, including the Democratic former assemblymember running to represent the district, this poster child for bizarre gerrymandering is a good illustration of everything that’s wrong with California politics.

“This district shouldn’t be a district,” Laird said during a debate with Republican Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee in Santa Clara last week. “There should not be a Senate district that has Saratoga and Santa Maria in it together. That shouldn’t have existed, and we need reform on that.”

The Aug. 5 event, hosted by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, was the first official face off between the two candidates—Blakeslee had declined previous invitations to debate. Both agreed that some serious changes need to take place to fix the logjam at the state capital.

Blakeslee said he hears a common complaint from constituents: “‘We understand that you want to raise taxes again in Sacramento, but could you please take a look at reform? Could you please look at a way of doing business differently? Could you please look at a way to be more like a business, by delivering a service on time the way that the customer wants it?’ That’s what I’m fighting for.”

The two candidates are in a contest to replace Abel Maldonado, who was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the lieutenant governor’s spot in April. Rather than hold the vote during the regular November election, Schwarzenegger declared a special election Aug. 17.

The Laird camp protested this move as a Republican ploy—and not the first politically motivated maneuver the heavily gerrymandered district has seen. 

The controversy surrounding District 15 goes back to 2001, when legislative leaders agreed to redraw California’s state Senate districts. By picking and choosing historically conservative voting areas from Santa Barbara to San Jose, politicians in Sacramento were able to reposition the area as a Republican stronghold.

This resulted in a huge, oddly shaped concoction that lumps together locales such as Pismo Beach and Santa Maria with portions of San Jose, Monterey, Los Gatos and Morgan Hill.

The move also effectively left much of the South Bay Area and Central Coast without a representative. Ever since District 15 was created, politicians from the large conservative voting base in Southern California (including Santa Maria native Maldonado) have came out on top in elections—a fact that has surely kept San Luis Obispo–born Blakeslee warm at night.

“The powers that be wanted this to be a Republican district, so they gerrymandered it starting with Abel Maldonado’s home in Santa Maria and going to Saratoga and trying to take every Republican precinct along the way,” Laird said Monday. “I think Abel Maldonado didn’t really visit the northern part of the district very much, and Sam Blakeslee basically hasn’t visited anywhere except in the south.”

At press time, Blakeslee was unavailable to respond.

Keystone District

This race is of vital importance to the Democratic Party. If Laird wins, the Democrats will be one vote away from securing a two-thirds supermajority in the state Senate. That fact hasn’t gone unnoticed—President Barack Obama endorsed Laird in a mail piece that started landing in mailboxes all over District 15 last Thursday.

“I’m working hard to fix our economy and create new jobs, but in Congress, the Republicans are trying to block almost everything I propose,” Obama is quoted as saying on the mailer. “The same is true in Sacramento. On Aug. 17th, your vote for John Laird can make a difference in fixing California’s economy.”

Blakeslee is the apparent front-runner. He came up only several hundreds votes shy of securing a 50 percent win over Laird, Libertarian Mark Hinkle and Independent Jim Fitzgerald in the primary election. Laird, who received 41 percent of the vote., admits that the primary winner is almost always guaranteed to get the seat in California state Senate races.

“It’s been redistricted so tightly that the primary is the only race that is ever contested,” Laird says. “That’s part of the reason, that and term limits and the two-thirds budget vote, and you’ve got this recipe for gridlock in Sacramento.”

With the run-off election closing in next week, Laird said he was glad to finally get to debate Blakeslee. The former Assembly Republican leader bowed out of their first scheduled debate, a July 26 forum in San Luis Obispo, at the last minute, saying that budget work at the state capital was keeping him too busy to talk.

Laird has denounced Blakeslee for avoiding public appearances until the 11th hour, and instead letting 30-second negative campaign commercials do the talking for him. Laird has also defended himself against a barrage of Blakeslee-funded negative mailers that he says “distort my record and demean voters.”

“He has just been hiding,” Laird says.

Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by 6 percent in District 15. But Republicans are statistically more likely to cast ballots during a special election. Laird says that getting Democrats to the polls on Aug. 17 is his number one priority.

“I have noted this is our first joint appearance, and over 90,000 people have already voted in this election,” Laird said last week. “That’s a very interesting statistic, because turnout is running ahead of what it was in the primaries. Different people are voting, and they are voting in greater numbers.”

The debate was sponsored by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG) and was held at the offices of SVB Financial in Santa Clara. Though not open to the public, SVLG members asked the candidate’s questions on topics ranging from affordable housing to transportation funding to Prop. 24, health care and education.

Both Blakeslee and Laird spoke of the importance of reaching across the aisle to get things done. “When I was the minority leader, I was very proud that I crossed party lines, and I worked with [former Assembly Speaker] Karen Bass,” Blakeslee said at the SVLG forum. “On a 68 to 0 vote, [we] passed a budget solution on Jan. 25 of 2009. I broke with the governor. I broke with the Senate Republicans. But I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Laird also promised to end the “dogma” of party squabbling in Sacramento. “I feel like I’m a fit with who you are, which is a broad-based group that is trying to do the best for education and transportation and water, as well as the business climate,” Laird said in his closing statements. “That’s what I want to do: work hard, be involved and get things done.”

Laird and Blakeslee will be back in the Bay Area on Aug. 12.

That’s when they’ll square off at Cabrillo College in Aptos in a forum sponsored by Santa Cruz Weekly and the League of Women Voters, and telecast live throughout the district on KION TV and its affiliates.
Read more at San Jose Inside.