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SACRAMENTO OR BUST: John Laird (right) with Watsonville Councilman Manuel Bersamin (left) and attorney Todd McFarren at the opening of Laird's Santa Cruz County campaign headquarters in Watsonville.

Footrace for the 15th

John Laird's sprint to the June 22 special election

By Jessica Lussenhop

ON FRIDAY, June 11, former Assemblymember John Laird left his home in Aptos at 6:45am and drove three hours south to San Luis Obispo, did an editorial board meeting, stopped by his campaign office there, raced 2 1/2 hours north to Monterey for two more editorial board meetings, stopped at the Monterey campaign office, and then spoke for an hour and a half at a live radio town hall before driving home.

"I'm barely recovering," he says the next day, which is, by comparison, a cakewalk: Greet a group of 100 California Young Democrats at the Santa Clara campaign office and send them off to knock on doors, walk the east Los Gatos precinct with District 10 San Jose City Councilmember Nancy Pyle, meet with the residents of a mobile home park in Los Gatos, then head up to San Francisco for a 5pm fundraiser. Above all the appointments on his iPhone calendar is a counter that reads "10 D.U.E."—10 days until election, when he faces off with 33rd District Assemblymember Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) for the District 15 state Senate seat. Mark Hinkle, a Libertarian, and Jim Fitzgerald, an independent, are the small dogs in the fight.

"The hardest thing about this," Laird says, "is that there are just under 500,000 voters in the Senate district and my opponent won't agree to any joint appearances." (Though Blakeslee acknowledges he has not tried to arrange joint appearances, he claims he's not heard from Laird's camp.)

That's not the only challenge. Overshadowed in the press by the June 8 primary and squashed into just 53 days by an order for a special election from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the inevitably tiny June 22 turnout does not diminish the significance of this race. Democrats are just two seats away from a two-thirds supermajority in the state Senate. If Laird should pick it off of the Republicans, breaking up the yearly budget logjam could be that much easier. So as the final days tick down, it's little wonder that Laird says he's run up almost 10,000 miles on his car in two months.

"This is one of our top priorities," says CYD president Alissa Ko, who has brought in volunteers from as far away as Sacramento to stump for Laird. "It is really frustrating that they rushed this election. They really did disenfranchise people." The special election, ordered by Schwarzenegger after Abel Maldonado vacated his seat in order to become lieutenant governor in late April, is viewed by many as an effort to keep turnout low—a condition thought to favor Republican candidates. A lawsuit filed in San Jose last month sought to delay the election until November on the grounds that the counties don't have enough time to prepare for yet another election, but it ultimately failed.

Santa Clara County is in some ways a principal battleground, since voters in Almaden, Monte Sereno and Saratoga have never been represented by Laird nor his opponent. Early polling indicated that 32 percent of voters districtwide will go with Laird, with support concentrated in his home turf of Monterey, Santa Cruz and South Santa Clara counties, and 33 percent will go Blakeslee, mostly in San Luis Obispo County and Santa Maria.

Though the district was gerrymandered for Republican control in 2001, its voters went for Obama and against Proposition 8 in 2008. Laird will capture the seat if those voters turn out for him. If neither candidate captures 50 percent—a possibility since two others are competing in the contest—it will go to an August runoff.

"Any extra minute I talk is a minute you're not talking to voters," he tells the Young Democrats before sending them out the door. "We have a real shot at winning this if we turn out our voters. Santa Clara is in part the swing area."

The students troop out to their cars with a map and list of every Democrat in their assigned area, followed by Laird. It's tough keeping up with him—both while following his silver Hybrid Camry with the "A 27" license plates as he races toward east Los Gatos and after he arrives in the precinct, beating a path up the hills between the plush homes in heavy-sounding dress shoes.

For the most part, the people who are home recognize Laird as he approaches, clearing his throat with a little "ahem" at each door. One woman spraying her plants stops to take Laird's flier and says, "I've seen the negative ads. They've been pretty nasty, so you can tell they're not true."

"Bless you for that," says Laird. The barrage of ads blasting Laird as a "train wreck" for taking pay raises while in the Assembly and voting for taxes hit the airwaves last week, an indication, Laird believes, that Blakeslee has seen polling that indicates the race is slipping from his grasp. Laird credits that in some measure to his own ads linking Blakeslee—at a particularly newsworthy time—to offshore oil drilling and his one-time employment with Exxon.

Blakeslee says Laird is distorting his record. "I have consistently fought to protect the coast," he says, citing his votes to extend a symbolic moratorium on offshore drilling, and defending his "yes" vote on the Tranquillon Ridge project, which he says would have prevented the expansion of some oil drilling platforms.

Both candidates are also playing up their commitment to budget solutions and to saving the California education system. Laird is critical of Blakeslee's hard spending-cap proposal—which is a cornerstone of Blakeslee's budget fix strategy, including a rainy day fund—saying it would completely freeze any ability to shift money to education, and of his signature on the Grover Norquist Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

For his part, Blakeslee says, "High and punitive taxes we currently exact have been ruinous to our economy and cause many head-of-household jobs to flee." Blakeslee accuses Laird of wasting taxpayer money by taking a job at the Waste Management Board, which was later disbanded, and his "F" grade from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. But in such a rushed election, the only letter the 15 to 20 percent of likely voters will be paying attention to is the R or D at the end of each candidate's name.

After tromping around east Los Gatos, spokesman Bill Maxfield hustles Laird back to his car in order to make it to the mobile home park in time, but there's a problem: no one has directions. While Laird fusses in his Camry with his GPS, Maxfield says wasted time "is the only time he really gets frustrated." This is not the smooth, well-oiled machine Laird is accustomed to running.

The party finally moves to Bonnie View, where only three residents have turned up. Seemingly unfazed, Laird sits down on the worn couches in the park's rec center and talks genealogy before shifting seamlessly into his record of supporting rent control. It's not a total wash. "I'm really glad he did come, " says Julia Cole, a 28-year park resident who'd never heard of Laird before. "We're grateful we have someone out there fighting for us." The three leave as Laird-boosters.

As the harsh afternoon softens into a milder early evening, Laird takes off for San Francisco. As for predictions about what happens next Tuesday, Laird says, "I have no idea yet. I've always assumed it's going to a run-off."

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