SACRAMENTO — The stakes are high and contrasts stark in Tuesday's special election to fill a vacant state Senate seat for a district that stretches from San Jose to Santa Maria, in Santa Barbara County.
Democrats can inch closer to a two-thirds majority in the Senate with a victory, a prospect that has pitted powerful interests against each other in a bruising and costly battle over who controls the Capitol.
The race features two candidates who represent the opposite ends of the partisan spectrum: former Assemblyman John Laird, an openly gay and liberal Democrat who is backed by labor unions and environmentalists, and Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, the former GOP leader and ex-oil company executive who has the backing of oil, insurance and other major industries.
"This race really puts the differences between the parties into sharp relief," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "It gives you a clear indication which economic interests stand to benefit from which sides' victory."
Big guns — big business on one side and labor unions on the other — have poured millions of dollars into the 15th District race. And, if neither candidate picks up more than 50 percent of the vote, more millions will be spent for an Aug. 17 runoff. Two other candidates are running, including Jim Fitzgerald, a conservative independent expected to take away some support from Blakeslee.
If Laird wins, Democrats would have possession of 26 seats in the 40-seat Senate, moving to within one vote of a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which would give them the ability to pass budgets and taxes without Republican votes. To achieve an outright two-thirds majority, Democrats are poised to turn their attention to the open 12th District seat in the fall, drawn to favor Democrats though it has been in Republican hands for eight years.
But to gain full control of the Legislature, Democrats would need to pick up three Republican Assembly seats in the fall.
Big corporations, worried about a shift in tax and regulatory policies, aren't waiting around to find out. Political action committees representing oil, insurance, real estate and other industries have pitched in $1.3 million in independent expenditures on Blakeslee's behalf and provided the bulk of the $756,787 he has received in direct campaign contributions.
Laird's campaign manager, Bill Maxfield, said the corporate support of Blakeslee was "obscene and outrageous" and was proof enough that "Big Oil, Big Tobacco and the banking industry" are trying to keep Blakeslee "in their pocket in Sacramento."
For conservatives, "this is critical," said John Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which has contributed $1,500 this year to Blakeslee. "It's probably one of the most important races for taxpayers this year."
This race, Coupal said, is just a precursor to the "battle of all battles" that will play out over the next few years between private industries and public employee labor organizations over revenues, taxation, and the size of government.
"This fight is a significant first skirmish in what is going to be a very long and bloody war," he said. "The fiscal health of our state is directly linked to the ability of decision-makers to control public employee unions. When they're too powerful, they end up sucking all the resources."
Labor groups believe the corporate culture has reigned for too long, thanks to the Republicans' ability to exploit the constitutional amendment that requires a two-thirds vote on taxes and budgets and stymie the majority party's agenda.
"If we win, it becomes an extremely different political landscape," said Steve Smith, director of communications for the California Federation of Labor. "When Republicans lose two-thirds, they lose their grip on power in Sacramento. That's why you've seen so much money come in from Big Oil, the insurance industry and other corporate interests. If they lose this thing, they know they're in trouble."
Laird has raised $931,000, much of which came from labor groups and the Democratic Party, while receiving $107,000 in independent expenditures.
Democrats hold a registration advantage of 41 percent to the GOP's 35 percent, but felt they were put at a disadvantage when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger decided against holding the special election in the fall, when a larger Democratic turnout is expected.
But the election's timing may prove fortuitous for Democrats, given Blakeslee's ties to the oil industry and the disastrous spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The oil issue is tailor-made for Democrats," said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State.
Blakeslee has countered that Laird has proved all too willing to approve taxes and wasteful spending.
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.