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Fisticuffs in The 15th

An acrimonious state Senate race pits the only Republican who could possibly win against the only Demo who could possibly lose

By Michael Mechanic

THE INCREASINGLY NASTY DISTRICT 15 race for Henry Mello's California Senate seat--escalated by Democrat Rusty Areias' incessant attacks on the record of his Republican rival, Assemblymember Bruce McPherson--seems to have become more about partisan politics and smear tactics than reality.

The major candidates are hitting voters with a virtual barrage of negative campaigning. Areias mailers accuse McPherson of being an NRA pawn, try to link him to ultraconservative colleagues and accuse him of silence in the face of the right-wing agenda. "Areias is trying to paint a moderate Republican as too conservative for the district, and that's real hard to do with Bruce McPherson," says Susan Rasky, who teaches political and government reporting at UC-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. "McPherson is a Tom Campbell-style moderate, well-liked in the district and ideologically suited to a large piece of it."

McPherson has responded by attacking Areias' own record on gun control and the challenger's low integrity ratings in a strictly unscientific survey of capital insiders conducted by the nonpartisan California Journal, a state political magazine. McPherson brings up his opponent's past contributions from the oil and tobacco industries, and the assemblymember's latest postal jab revives allegations that Areias was insensitive to a female staffer's complaints that she was being sexually harassed by Areias' chief of staff.

The truth is that voters are unlikely to hear the whole truth from either campaign. Both parties are already fixated on the outcome of the 1998 elections--in which the Republicans have a good crack at taking the Senate. Party leaders are thus doing whatever it takes to win this swing seat.

"I think if [Senate President Pro-tem and Democrat] Bill Lockyer had his choice and didn't have to worry about partisan aspects, he would much prefer to have McPherson," comments Rasky, "but that's not the way things are--he needs a Democrat. ... The Republicans will fund [McPherson] with whatever it takes, although he doesn't sing the tune of [ultraconservative Senate Republican leader] Rob Hurtt."

This unpredictable race has local political insiders agitated and voters confused. About 52 percent of district voters are registered Democrats, but nearly 18 percent are nonpartisan or third-party members, and the possibility that progressive Demos may defect has prompted visits from liberal icon Tom Hayden on Areias' behalf. Observers say Areias, who represented the district's more conservative eastern half during his 12 years as an assemblymember, could conceivably lose enough votes to Green candidate E. Craig Coffin to swing the election McPherson's way. "If McPherson wins this race, it will be because the Green Party candidate got 10 percent or more of the vote," says John Borland, associate editor of the California Journal. "Areias hasn't been popular with progressive voters, and if they flee to the Greens, he's in trouble."

Stand-Alone Republican

A LONGTIME Santa Cruzan and editor, McPherson--whose family founded the Santa Cruz County Sentinel--won his seat in a 1993 special election and successfully defended it in 1994. He says his most important accomplishments have been votes to reduce class size and to increase spending on public education by $3.7 billion this year over last. He co-authored the bill that created the California State University at Monterey Bay and another requiring that schools in low-wealth school districts receive the same basic per-student funding as wealthier districts.

McPherson heralds his deciding vote to ban offshore oil-drilling along the California coast, noting that he was the sole Republican to do so. Areias, who, unlike McPherson, accepts money from oil interests, did not vote on the bill. Areias says he does not remember why, but insists he has always opposed offshore drilling. "If you represent the Central Coast, that's not courage, that's survival," Areias says, scoffing at McPherson's "accomplishment."

While Areias and McPherson differ little in their positions on key issues, each attacks the other's record. Areias points to McPherson's yes vote on AB 638, which allows law-abiding citizens to apply for concealed-weapons permits. Areias trumpets his own deciding vote on an assault-weapons ban signed by then-Gov. George Deukmejian.

"It was a tough vote in my district," says Areias. "I had 7,000 NRA members in parts of San Benito County, where camouflage with a holster strapped to your thigh is considered formal wear."

McPherson says he voted for the concealed-weapons bill because the existing system amounted to "cronyism. If you know the sheriff and you want one, you'll probably get one. If the sheriff doesn't like you, you don't," he says.

Areias is hypocritical, McPherson says, given that he has taken NRA money ($1,500 during the 1980s, according to McPherson's camp), while McPherson has not. The assemblymember also points to Areias' vote against SB 1128, which would have banned high-capacity clips for assault weapons. (Actually, Areias is listed as "absent, abstaining or not voting" on SB1128, according to an employee in Senator Henry Mello's office.)

Areias did vote against AB 1105, which would have made possession of an illegal concealed weapon a felony, and failed to vote on bills that make transfer of ammunition and firearms to minors a felony. Areias contends he voted against AB 1105 because it was poorly drafted. "If somebody from Santa Cruz went over to Los Banos to go duck hunting and had their shotgun in their back seat under a duffel bag, and if they had been stopped by a highway patrolman, they would have been charged with a felony," explains Areias. "I'm not going to vote for a bill like that."

"Neither [candidate] is a pawn of the NRA, really," offers California Journal's Borland. "Both have taken the votes that are coming out in the mailers, but that's not necessarily a complete picture."

Coastal Watchdog

A FORMER LOS BANOS dairy farmer, Areias served in the state Assembly between 1982 and 1994. He lived in Los Banos while representing parts of Santa Clara, Monterey and San Benito counties in the 25th Assembly District, then moved to San Jose in 1992 to run in the reapportioned 28th District, which included the Pajaro Valley. In 1994, he lost a shot at state controller and was appointed to the Coastal Commission last year.

Areias names his top issues as education, the proliferation of guns and the environment. He points to his endorsement by the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters--which has given him higher ratings than McPherson, although Areias has been criticized for siding with Republicans in an attempt to scuttle the formation of the state Environmental Protection Agency and for trying to sell water rights from his Los Banos farm to LA's Metropolitan Water District.

Both candidates are pro-choice and oppose Prop. 209. Both want more money for public schools and both say they oppose school vouchers--though Areias points to McPherson's sponsorship of the Private Schools Authorization Act, which he says amounts to a voucher system.

One of Areias' big issues is partisan control of the legislature. He attacks McPherson for casting the deciding vote that gave the Assembly speakership to ultraconservative Curt Pringle, whose Coastal Commission appointments recently tried to oust longtime director Peter Douglas.

McPherson counters that he fought the appointments and the ouster attempt. "In reality, the push came from the governor's office, not Pringle," says McPherson. "The bottom line is, I played a big part in keeping Douglas there."

"Why didn't he extract a commitment from Curt Pringle to appoint certain kinds of people or to have veto power over who he appoints to the commission?" counters Areias. "That's what I would have done."

As a political newcomer to this part of District 15, Areias will have to convince local voters they are more important than his ambitions in Sacramento. California Public Interest Research Group recently reported that 97 percent of Areias' $460,000 campaign chest (now considerably larger) came from outside District 15. In contrast, McPherson received only 32 percent of his funds from outside. Areias plays down this fact, arguing that his contributions from statewide lobbies ultimately come from the dues of "real people" who live in the district.

Many local Democrats, while not fond of Areias, say they are backing him because they don't want the Republicans to take over the Senate in 1998, an attitude Areias has been nurturing with his campaign literature.

Borland agrees that a Republican takeover of the Senate in 1998 could have a big impact on policy. The President Pro-tem of the Senate, he notes, is the state's most powerful politician, with power to make appointments to state commissions and Senate committees, and to quash legislation.

"If [Rob] Hurtt is still in control of the caucus in 1998, eventually McPherson will have to make the choice whether to vote for Hurtt as Pro-tem," Borland says. "McPherson may have the guts to stand up to him. He is safer than many, in that respect, being the only Republican on earth who could win that district [the 15th]. ... If he opposed Hurtt and Hurtt still won Pro-tem, [McPherson] could be banished to a small office and worst committee assignments, but it would be hard for Hurtt to work against him within the district."

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From the October 31-November 6, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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