Laird-Blakeslee debate marks only local face-off in long-running contest.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Aptos Democrat John Laird finally faces off against Republican Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee in a debate on his home turf – at Cabrillo College – Aug. 12 in the home stretch of the special election battle to replace now-Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado in the state senate.
Blakeslee nearly won the 50 percent he needed to take the seat outright in the June 22 primary, while Laird trailed with 41 percent. Blakeslee strategist Jim Nygren says a post-primary poll showed his candidate leading by 11 points. With everything to lose, the frontrunner has been accused of ducking debates, particularly in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties where Laird is strong, a charge Blakeslee denies.
Still, the Cabrillo College outing is Blakeslee’s only local appearance with Laird, and comes after many voters have already cast ballots. Nearly 70 percent of the 15th district electorate, from Northern Santa Barbara County to parts of Santa Clara County, votes by mail.
Laird has touted his ability to win support in face-to-face encounters, pointing out that after a San Luis Obispo forum, two Republican Atascadero school trustees threw their support to him. He also boasts an endorsement from President Barack Obama and a long list of local political backers.
But with little in-person sparring, the two candidates have had scant opportunity to hash out the biggest issue in the race – how to plug a $19 billion state budget gap. Blakeslee has said he favors a state spending limit, which Laird rejects as too rigid, while Laird proposes an oil extraction tax to bring cash to California coffers. Blakeslee opposes such a tax.
The most prominent feature of the under-the-radar campaign has been Chamber of Commerce-funded TV spots smearing Laird with the tax-and-spend liberal label, while early Laird ads portrayed Blakeslee, a former Exxon scientist and strategic planner as a tool of big oil. The Chamber’s independent expenditure committee, JobsPAC, poured $1.3 million in contributions from oil, insurance and banking interests among others into the race, most of it before the June 22 primary.
Although Laird leads Blakeslee in fundraising with 1.8 million to his rival’s nearly $1.4 million, the infusion of cash from JobsPAC has given the Republican the resources edge.
The Aug. 17 race has attracted big bucks because if Laird wins, the Democrats would be within one vote of a state senate supermajority, which would allow them to pass budgets and raise taxes without Republican approval.