Photo by: Randy Tunnell; Photo: Troubled Waters: John Laird thinks a water shortage could be California''s next power crisis.

It would be hard to feign a case of nerves going into Tuesday if you were John Laird. His opponents for the 27th District Assembly seat are perennial losers with no experience in public office. Libertarian Gordon Sachtjen and Republican Chuck Carter have failed to show up for all but one candidates'' forum, leaving Laird to debate empty chairs or stand-ins.

Laird, on the other hand, has a long history of success in the political arena. He was a Santa Cruz councilmember and mayor during the 1980s. Fellow Democrats have sent him to the national convention six times.

He ran unsuccessfully for Assembly in 1993-losing the primary to then-Santa Cruz supervisor Gary Patton. But this year saw him running a one-man race in March. Years on the radio as a host of KUSP''s "Talk of the Bay" has earned him easy name recognition among the cognescenti.

Laird doesn''t try to pretend it''s a nail-biter.

"This campaign is going, on every level, exactly the way I''ve wanted it to," he says. "I was the only one in the state to run unopposed in the primary, I''ve raised a lot of money, and I''ve been able to send some of it back to help other Democrats."

Laird raised $350,000 this year and sent $65,000 to the state Democratic Central Committee. This is certain to help him make friends in Sacramento. He''s already composing his Assembly committee-assignment wish list (he wants five-most members get three).

"John has been wanting to do this for a very long time," says termed-out 27th District Assemblymember Fred Keeley, who has endorsed Laird for his soon-to-be-former job. "He''s going to hit the ground running in Sacramento."

Keeley also points out that Laird is likely to get more attention than most freshmen.

"He''s going to be in a certain kind of spotlight because he''ll be one of the ''firsts'' elected to office in Sacramento-the first openly gay man in the Assembly," observes Keeley. (Mark Leno, candidate for San Francisco''s 13th Assembly District seat, is also gay, but Keeley jokes that San Francisco "can''t count ballots to save their life," so he predicts the distinction will go to Laird.) "He''ll be under some national pressure. It happened to [lesbian state senator] Sheila Kuehl, it happens to every Latino who is elected, every African-American who is elected... it''s just a fact of political life."

Laird''s sexual orientation has not figured prominently in this campaign, but neither has it been buried. At the bottom of Laird''s snazzy fold-out mailer is a two-sentence bio. The second sentence reads, "A nationally recognized civil rights leader, he lives on the westside of Santa Cruz with his partner John Flores."

It might have been a bigger deal if Laird''s knowledge of the issues and his political acumen hadn''t been so apparent. Laird is a big-picture thinker who knows Sacramento''s players and understands its complexities.

"You thought this year''s budget was bad, with a $24 billion shortfall?" he asks, bringing up the sore subject of this year''s deficit. "Next year''s is going to be $8-10 billion. And Gov. Davis pushed back everything he could this year until next year."

Laird favors a combination of revenue increases and budget cuts to stanch the flow of hemorrhaging funds.

He also recommends "structural" changes. Before Prop 13, he says, property taxes were "a relatively sizeable percentage of the budget-and they were stable." Now, he says, sales and income taxes form the budget''s core, and those both worsen when the economy goes bad, fueling a downward spiral. There''s talk of a special committee next year that will examine the budget''s structure. Laird hopes to be on it.

He cites as his major causes maintaining diversity in the region, protecting the environment and providing affordable housing. And on the subject of education, Laird, an eight-year Cabrillo College trustee, warns that California''s schools are headed for a crisis as one million more students prepare to join the K-UC system in the next 10 years. The system is already strapped for money. "I think we''re gonna have to take it to the voters and find some ways to come up with money," he says.

These are all current issues. But two other potential calamities on the scale of the energy crisis loom just beyond the horizon, says Laird: health care and water.

As a student majoring in politics at UCSC, Laird wrote his honors thesis on the history of water development in California-an excellent primer for getting out in front of the water issue the way Fred Keeley was on the energy issue.

Laird wants to see more and smaller water projects scattered around the state, instead of sending all the big bonds to address the Delta and the Colorado River, the two primary vehicles for getting water to the state''s dry and populous southern half.

As for the Peninsula''s water problems, Laird says he''ll continue Keeley''s efforts to search for solutions that satisfy both the anti-dam contingent and those who want more water. "You have to be looking for solutions," he says. "Just being against something isn''t enough."

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