Salinas Mayor Alan Styles tries to pass incumbent Peter Frusetta in the 28th Assembly race.
Thursday, October 8, 1998
Hestunned conventional wisdom by twice defeating Lily Cervantes to win elections in the heavily Democratic 28th Assembly District as a self-styled political outsider and man of the people.
But now, as Republican incumbent Peter Frusetta tries for his third term against Democratic challenger and Salinas Mayor Alan Styles, political observers are wondering whether two-term incumbent Frusetta has established a sufficient legislative record to garner re-election, and whether the "Cowboy in the Capitol" can still legitimately run on his image as the perpetual political outsider.
"I don''t think Frusetta''s unbeatable," says John Laird, a longtime political observer and former chair of the Democratic Party in Santa Cruz County, a portion of which lies in the 28th district. "He [Frusetta] has taken advantage of incumbency and used it to redefine himself as a good old country boy and everyone''s nice old uncle."
From Laird''s perspective, given Frusetta''s conservative voting record and lackluster legislative performance in a district that is 52 percent Democratic, Frusetta may have little choice but to run a campaign based on his down-home personality.
"While I don''t think he''s been a disaster for the district, Frusetta has not distinguished himself particularly as a legislator," says Laird.
But as far as Monterey County Republican Chair Brett Landon is concerned, both Frusetta''s legislative record and ingenuous personality should guarantee Frusetta election to a third term.
"Peter''s done a terrific job responding to the needs of his constituents, and for that reason they''ll return him," says Landon, who cites Frusetta''s drive-by shooting bill and co-authorship of the classroom size reduction bill as key pieces of legislation that should help Frusetta get re-elected.
Landon insists that Frusetta''s performance in office allows him to still legitimately claim to be a political outsider despite his two terms in the Assembly.
"I don''t know if I could call him an insider," says Landon. "Normally you can tell when someone is cozying up to work up the political chain, but Peter doesn''t do that. He''s an independent type of guy who works with the people around him and they respect him. I don''t see him as ambitious but as a guy who wants to serve.
"Peter''s strength is people, he''s not much of an ideologue, and he''s a person who pays attention to what the people hired him to do," adds Landon. "It''s not often you get a politician who answers letters back."
While Frusetta may be responding to constituent letters, he did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with Coast Weekly to discuss his record and campaign strategy. Based on a review of Assembly bills sponsored and/or co-authored by Frusetta listed on his Website, he has backed several pieces of legislation that do address local voter concerns, and which may enable him to win voter endorsement for a third term.
Among the bills Frusetta lists on the Web are AB 1030, which requires that fruits, vegetables and meat produced outside the U.S. be labeled as produced in the country of origin; AB 1031, which requires juvenile and adult gang members to register with local police when released from jail; and AB 207, which prohibits release of a witness''s phone number or address during the discovery portion of a criminal trial.
In addition to--or perhaps despite--his legislative record, Frusetta''s re-election bid continues to emphasize his homespun image as a simple and forthright man of the people who refuses to trade principle for politics.
But questions over the degree to which Frusetta may be taking his image a little too seriously have arisen in recent weeks in regard to his constituent newsletter, "Cowboy in the Capitol," and his overblown reaction to a perceived slight in a recent campaign brochure by Alan Styles, leaving many voters baffled and a little uneasy about Frusetta''s focus on the issues.
Where "Cowboy in the Capitol" was once an informative, if overly folksy newsletter on relevant legislative issues and policy matters, it has more recently drifted off into an oftentimes nonsensical screed full of bizarre, uplifting homilies and pseudo-religious sermonizing on the meaning of life. In addition, reports of increasingly bizarre comments from Frusetta have been cropping up in recent years, including published newspaper reports that the Assemblymember cited Adolf Hitler in a talk with local schoolchildren as an example of someone who had made something of himself.
Frusetta''s reliance on his "cowboy" image is most readily observed in his current television ad campaign showing himself entering the state capitol behind a slew of fat cat limos on his trusty steed Billy. While the commercial makes for entertaining television, it falls far short on being informative on the issues.
Frusetta''s horse has also been the focus of a contentious debate over whether Styles insulted Billy in recent campaign literature. Frusetta used the purported insult as a sanctimonious pretext not to debate Styles, but as of this week, Frusetta had agreed to participate in several scheduled candidates'' forums, one scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 8 at 7pm at the Prunedale Chamber of Commerce, and one the following week at 7pm at the San Benito County Farm Bureau.
In contrast to Frusetta''s image-oriented campaign, outgoing Salinas Mayor Alan Styles is focusing on his record in city government and a belief that past results are the best barometer of a candidate''s performance for the future.
As a former Alisal Elementary School board member, a former Salinas City Council member, and a three-term mayor of Salinas, Styles says his experience in city government will help the district get better representation on local issues up in Sacramento.
"As a politician, I have the ability to bring people together to come up with realistic solutions and get projects done. It''s something I''ve done effectively here in Salinas," says Styles, who cites his successful effort as vice chair of the Monterey County Mayors Association to negotiate an agreement with the Board of Supervisors to get some Prop. 172 funds returned to the cities as the type of skill he could bring to the district as Assemblyman.
"What is important from the standpoint of the [district] is bringing back local control of how our dollars are spent. Just having the experiences I''ve had coming through local government and understanding when you''re looking at bills and their effect on constituents, I''ll be taking that experience to Sacramento to talk about issues that involve the day-to-day activities of constituents, that''s what makes me different from Peter," adds Styles, who says that if elected he''ll be able to work well with Monterey County''s other Assemblymember, Democrat Fred Keeley.
As important as the 28th Assembly race is to local voters, it is of equal, if not greater importance to both state Republicans and Democrats in terms of strategic political control up in Sacramento.
According to Styles, state Democrats have targeted the 28th Assembly district as an important and potentially vulnerable seat, although he says he has yet to hear from the party in terms of direct financial or political support.
"Styles'' race early on was targeted statewide by the Democrats in Sacramento and I''m hoping that continues to be the case," says Laird. "It''s one of those three or four legislative seats that could go from Republican to Democrat. People are talking that this is the number two district targeted by Democrats in the state. Styles has got a shot at it and I hope this seat stays on the priority list."
"For our local party it is our top priority and we''re doing everything we can to help him win," says Landon, who doesn''t discount Styles'' effectiveness as a challenger.
"Alan has name recognition and will have finances from the party depending on whether they want to prioritize the district. I heard rumors both ways."
In a district that encompasses pieces of Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, Styles acknowledges that name recognition remains a critical issue.
"I''m very well known in Monterey County, and I think I have limited recognition in Santa Clara County around Gilroy and Morgan Hill," says Styles. "I''m working in Watsonville, where they know of me but don''t know me, and I haven''t written off [Frusetta''s home-turf of] San Benito County. We have gotten a lot of labor support, and plan on a massive door-to-door ground campaign and phone banking."
The issue in the race could well come down to turn-out. While the district favors Democratic registration, those Democrats will have to go to the polls and vote for Styles in order for him to win.
"Styles has a good image as somebody who gets things done and who is not a classic political insider," says Laird. "He has excellent name recognition in the Monterey County portion of the district, which is the majority. San Benito County is the smallest part and that is truly Frusetta territory. That makes the battleground fall into south Santa Clara County, and the Santa Cruz County portion of the district. If he has enough of a presence to break even or carry the Santa Cruz district, he could win."
Standing in the way of such a victory, says Laird, is Frusetta''s strength in the district as a local personality.
"The real difference between the Assembly districts is the coastal district [27th] is issue-oriented, while in the 28th, a lot of the politics is based on friendships and personal alliances as well as issues," explains Laird. "That''s one place where Frusetta has the advantage with incumbency."
Another advantage to incumbency is money, and in that department Frusetta has a distinct edge over Styles. As of the last reporting period that ended Sept. 30, Frusetta had raised $231,430 in contributions and spent $109,848. Styles had raised less than half Frusetta''s total--$146,717--and spent $105,102, although it is likely that state Democrats will try to even the score with contributions to Styles in an attempt to gain the 28th District seat,
Styles says his last-minute strategies include focusing on raising questions about what Frusetta has done to make the state work for the local community.
"Peter talks about local control but I''ve seen no evidence of him helping return local control," says Styles. "I think we need to move the state into a position as a resource to local communities, to look at how to get monetary resources back to the communities to make decisions on how money is spent. That is the key to everything we''re doing."