By Daryl Kelley
It’s been 22 years since Ventura County voters first sent Simi Valley real estate broker Elton Gallegly to the House of Representatives. Since then, he has swept to victory 10 more times, although Ojai has voted against him regularly.
And the 64-year-old Republican incumbent says he expects the same result this year, despite an anti-Bush backlash that has cut Gallegly’s voter registration advantage and has already wrested three House seats from other conservative Republicans in supposedly safe GOP districts.
Those recent special-election losses in Louisiana and Mississippi have prompted some Republican leaders to recommend that candidates distance themselves from the least popular U.S. President since Richard Nixon.
But Gallegly says he remains a Bush stalwart on many issues and a friend (the president phoned Gallegly’s wife, Janice, in January to wish her a happy birthday).
“I think he’s a good man,” Gallegly said of Bush in a recent interview. “But I think he’s made some mistakes, and I haven’t agreed with him on everything.”
For example, Gallegly said he still believes the Iraq War was the right move and must be fought until the United States is assured terrorism cannot flourish there. But the congressman criticizes the administration’s immigration reform plan, favoring instead a crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers and a strengthening of border security.
“I take every campaign seriously,” Gallegly said. “But this time, there are a lot of issues we’ve not had to deal with before. There are a lot of issues Republicans have to pay attention to. And if we can’t market them correctly, we’ll end up having them eat our lunch.”
Count among them the Iraq War, the struggling economy, the soaring budget deficit, surging energy prices, illegal immigration, inaction on global warming, Washington bribery scandals and the administration’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina.
Gallegly’s opponents say he can’t market his position on those issues very well.
The incumbent is even challenged by another Republican on the June 3 primary ballot. Harvard-educated business lawyer Michael Tenenbaum, 39, insists Gallegly has abandoned the bedrock Republican principles of fiscal responsibility and small government.
“He has gone the way of so many incumbents in Washington,” said Tenenbaum of Thousand Oaks. “The Republican Party is supposed to be the party of fiscal conservatism, but it has added $1 trillion in (annual) spending just under George W. Bush … No one can define victory in Iraq … And I have a huge difference with the congressman on immigration.”
Gallegly has about $910,000 in his campaign account, while Tenenbaum claims about $100,000. Gallegly has already spent more than $400,000, far more than he anticipated.
Tenenbaum was routed in his primary challenge to Gallegly two years ago, gaining only 20 percent of the vote. And this time, Gallegly is still supported by a bulwark of local business and law enforcement leaders.
If he prevails June 3, Gallegly will probably take on either Jill Martinez of Oxnard or Mary Pallant of Oak Park, a pair of very different Democrats who both see the incumbent as essentially a Bush clone.
A third Democratic candidate, Martha Jorgensen of Solvang dropped out of the race last month and endorsed Martinez. But last week, Jorgensen re-entered the race, saying her Santa Barbara County backers wanted her as an option.
“I really do believe I have a chance to beat (Gallegly),” said Martinez, 57, a consultant on affordable housing who lost to him in 2006, receiving only about 38 percent of the vote. “People are embarrassed about being Republican right now. And it’s embarrassing having our person in the House being someone who votes lockstep with the administration.”
Pallant, 47, a part-time insurance agent who chairs the Ventura County Commission for Women, said Gallegly is vulnerable.
“Absolutely,” she said. “Just look at the national trend, and we’re seeing it reflected in this district as well. The Republican Party has failed on all counts.”
This year, records show that Republicans have lost ground in Gallegly’s 24th District, which snakes from the south of Ventura County to the north of Santa Barbara County, excluding most coastal areas.
Democrats made up only 34.4 percent of registered voters on Jan. 1, but accounted for 36.22 by April, an increase of about 6,300 voters. Republicans, meanwhile, gained only about 3,100 new voters. So, the percentage of registered voters who were Republican actually dropped from 43.3 percent to 43.02 in the first quarter. Voters who declined to state a party affiliation also shifted from 17.82 percent to 17.29.
In Ojai, Democrats hold a plurality of registered voters, 45.4 percent to Republicans’ 31.05 percent, while 17.36 percent of voters are undecided.
Yet, Gallegly insisted that he had seen no deterioration in support. And he said the three recent Republican losses in the South were the result of bad candidates or bad strategy. He said neither is an issue in his district.
“I’m not queasy at all,” he said. “The thing that keeps me confident is the support we get from people who want our signs on their lawns and the number of unsolicited (small) contributions.
“I’ll be in Ojai (this week),” he said. “And I’ll bet I get more votes than my Republican registration there. And I’ve always gotten about 80 percent of the independent voters.”
After a stunning upset rout of comic Bob Hope’s well-funded son in the Republican primary in 1986, Gallegly, then the mayor of Simi Valley, has rolled to victory every two years.
Though challenged by solid candidates with strong Democratic Party backing in 1992 and 2000, he still won by about 13 percentage points each time. And with a reconfigured district since 2000, he has dominated even more.
But even Gallegly acknowledges that some things have changed this time, and he has spent about $479,000 this year. Still, he said he’ll have close to $1 million for the race to November.
“I take nothing for granted,” he said.
Gallegly bristles at the charge that he is an unwavering Bush ally on all things.
“I don’t believe I’m lockstep with anyone on anything,” he said.
He is unapologetic about his continued support for the Iraq War: “I am not going to leave the young (men and) women who are dedicating their lives to this country in the lurch and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in the lurch either.”
Tenenbaum agrees that troops should not be withdrawn until Iraq is stabilized, although he criticizes the administration for failing to define what victory would be in that embattled nation or to effectively plan how to get there.
Pallant and Martinez said they’d begin to withdraw troops immediately.
In fact, Pallant has made ending the war a hallmark of her campaign.
“The Iraq War has got to end without delay,” she said. “There’s been a slaughter since we’ve been there, and we have to tell Iraq’s neighbors we’re withdrawing and it’s important that they be involved. It’s not a military solution, it’s a diplomatic and political solution. There’s no way to fix it while we are there.”
Pallant’s Ojai supporters are sponsoring a special screening of Phil Donahue’s newly released documentary, “Body of War,” which profiles the life of a young wounded Iraq War veteran, at the Ojai Playhouse this Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
Martinez said the U.S. needs to withdraw, “but I think it would take a couple of years.”
Tenenbaum’s criticisms of Gallegly begin with what he said is Gallegly’s broken promise not to run again this year.
Indeed, the incumbent said he was retiring two years ago, citing health probems, but then re-entered the primary race after he said further examinations showed his health was fine. He is running again this year, he said, at the urging of GOP colleagues who fear losses in November.
Tenenbaum’s primary campaign hinges on what he sees as the incumbent’s abandonment of Republican principles of a balanced budget and a small federal government. Gallegly has repeatedly voted for “pork” projects as well as increases in education and Medicare funding that break the budget while making incumbents look good, Tennebaum said.
But Gallegly said that he will not apologize for his success in bringing needed projects to Ventura County, including freeway and port improvements and law enforcement grants.
And he said nearly all of the additional spending since 2001 has been the result of heightened security and military needs prompted by the attack of September 11.
“The world has changed. We’ve got terrorism all over the world,” Gallegly said. “And we’ve had to respond to it.”
Tenenbaum also said he also disagrees with Gallegly’s strategy to enforce fines against employers who hire illegal immigrants. “It’s not workable,” he said. And he said Gallegly is still backed by farmers who count on those workers every day.
“If (Gallegly) was doing his job he’d sit down with business leaders and ask what are your labor needs? And then you’d bring those people in legally,” Tenenbaum said.
But Gallegly, who has led fights to halt illegal immigration for two decades, said there would be no illegal immigrant problem today if Republicans and Democrats had enforced sanctions on employers that were part of the 1986 amnesty program that made millions of workers legal residents.
“I’ve got scar tissues all over my body from employers who hire these workers,” he said. “A lot of them don’t let me put my signs on their property any more.”
On the Democratic side, Martinez agreed with Tenebaum that the nation must secure its borders as a security measure, while Pallant said the problem is primarily the failure of the government to enforce employer sanctions.
“We don’t have an illegal immigration problem,” she said. “We have an illegal employer problem. Corporations hire undocumented workers, they abuse them and that drives down wages.”
All candidates said U.S. energy policies are a huge issue this election.
Gallegly and Tenenbaum said they’re not convinced that carbon emissions are causing global warming and back Bush’s withdrawal from the Clinton-backed Kyoto accords that would cut emissions from many major polluting nations. Pallant and Martinez said global warming is based on carbon emissions and the nation’s focus should be on alternative fuels.
Gallegly said the U.S. should drill for oil wherever it is, including the Alaskan wilderness. And he chided environmentalists for getting in the way of such production.
“This isn’t going to resonate too well with the people of Ojai,” he said. “But you can grow more grass on the asphalt of the (landing strip) at ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) than you can on the tundra. I didn’t see one animal while I was there.”
Tankers that bring oil from around the world to the U.S. pose a greater environmental hazard than would oil exploration in Alaska, he said.
But Gallegly said he is not necessarily opposed to taxing oil companies on record profits they’re reaping on the run-up in the price of crude, and perhaps directing that money to develop alternative sources of energy.
“All these things are on the table,” he said.
While Tenenbaum and Gallegly elbow for advantage on conservative issues, Martinez and Pallant have sparred over who could best carry the Demcratic mantle against the incumbent in November.
“Jill ran against Elton in 2006 and she lost 37 percent to 62 percent,” Pallant said. “She had her shot.”
“It’s time for a new direction,” Pallant added, “to get back to our basic principles of supporting opportunity for all and not just the well connected. I’m running as a strong Democrat, not Republican light. That doesn’t work.”
Pallant, who said she’s running in the tradition of American progressive reformers, is backed by labor organizations, including the California Nurses Association, and is a member of numerous Democratic party organizations and environmental and civil rights groups, including the Sierra Club and the American Civil Liberties Union.
She holds a liberal arts degree and a master’s in psychology from Antioch University. She ran her own insurance business in Los Angeles from 1987 to 1997, and still works part time in the field, while participating in politics and civic organizations. She is the founder of a speaker series that has recently brought prominent figures to Ventura County.
Martinez also holds endorsements by labor groups, including the California Teachers Association and she has been active in party and community improvement groups for decades, she said. She said her varied professional experience sets her apart from Pallant.
“Every time we’ve gone to a debate, I’ve really shown the difference with my résumé, 35 years of experience that resonates with people,” she said. “I haven’t seen any demonstrated experience by my opponent. And when she answers questions, I don’t see her as equipped to do this job.”
Before Martinez moved to Ventura County 14 years ago to work on affordable housing projects, she was director of support services at a satellite California State University campus in Stockton. And before that she worked as a Presbyterian minister at an interfaith ministry that helped poor people along the Mexican border.
“Now my ministry is affordable housing,” she said.
Both Martinez and Pallant said they had raised about $20,000 for the campaign so far, while Martinez still owes more than $90,000 from the 2006 race against Gallegly.
By Daryl Kelley