North Coast Journal bannerCOVER STORY

WHAT ABOUT THE ISSUES?

by ROSEMARY EDMISTON

IN VERMONT, A FOUR-TERM U.S. senator is running against a plain-talking 79-year-old retired dairy farmer in what some voters say is a race that has rekindled a certain civility in political campaigns. The two candidates make public appearances together, dine together and will likely vote for each other. It's a race miles apart from the state Senate contest now raging between John Jordan and Wesley Chesbro on the North Coast.


(Photos of Wes Chesbro and John Jordan from campaign brochures)


Not since Rep. Frank Riggs and Michela Alioto ran for Congress two years ago has so much money been spent on a North Coast campaign. And the mudslinging is reminiscent of the Democratic primary for governor where millionaire Al Checchi went to battle with Jane Harmon.

Only this time the campaign has almost a comical air to it, with one candidate filling the air waves with catchy jingles and erecting billboards that some voters have mistaken for his opponent's.

Through the barrage of radio and television advertisements and constant flow of slick mailers, voters have wondered aloud: "What about the issues?"

Less than a month away from Election Day, it appeared the race had just two central issues where Chesbro was residing and banning assault weapons disenfranchising many voters and leaving them to repeatedly ask, "Who cares?"

Earlier this month the candidates offered some explanation for their campaign strategies, and promised their methods would be changing.

"I know that there are a number of issues, issues that are very important to people, that will be discussed in no uncertain terms. I can promise you that," Jordan said during a recent visit to Arcata.

Heir to a natural gas, oil and wine fortune, the 26-year-old Jordan has pumped $1.3 million of his own money into his campaign, primarily using the funds to bash Chesbro, 47, over his position as a member of the state Solid Waste Management Board. Chesbro earns $100,000 a year and, since accepting the job eight years ago, has lived with his wife and two sons in Sacramento, facts Jordan has tried to capitalize on and Chesbro says have been distorted.

"It's the classic big lie technique," Chesbro said recently. "It's to take one small fact out of context and blow it up and try to make it look like something meaningful, and it's basically a big lie."

But Jordan said it goes to character, pointing out that Chesbro claims a $7,000 homeowners' exemption on his Arcata residence while living in Sacramento. Jordan has run billboards of a smiling Chesbro which read, "Greetings from Sacramento."

Some of Chesbro's supporters have mistaken the advertisements for his, he said, adding that one supporter said, "It's the classiest and funniest response to an attack I've ever seen."

For his part, Chesbro has latched on to the assault weapons ban issue, running repetitive advertisements outlining his position while ignoring other matters.

Asked why he chose assault weapons in a region that has not been plagued by inner-city violence nor schoolyard shootings, Chesbro said, "Because it is an issue that Jordan has taken a clear stand on that I can strongly disagree with. ... It clearly demonstrates more about who he is and who I am."

But has Jordan taken a stand?

In an interview, Jordan said rather than banning assault weapons, leaders should attach "real consequences to an act," such as the "three strikes" law which mandates a 25-year-to-life sentence for three-time felons and the death penalty. But, he added, "It's easy to say let's ban assault weapons. I mean, who could argue with that? I mean everybody wants to keep kids safe, and talk about the kids that get mowed down. Come on, that's not dealing with the problem. That's politics."

In his first bid for elected office, Jordan matter of factly suggests that he sees the campaign as a type of game, requiring that he participate.

"In order to get to the point where you can discuss issues, you have to be elected. And so you have to endure this. This is the price you pay," he said.

Since the Santa Rosa resident made that comment, he and Chesbro have begun to discuss issues in their advertisements, often appearing to agree. It's the subtleties in what they say or don't say that truly reveal where the candidates stand.

For example, on the Endangered Species Act, Jordan said he feels strongly about protecting the coho salmon (he's fished in Humboldt and Del Norte counties) but is skeptical about so-called scientific data when it comes to other controversial forest creatures.

"I'm not enamored with that program. It hasn't been very successful," he said of the species act. "I'm disinclined to increase spending on that."

A Republican, Jordan says he's pro-choice, anti-school voucher and opposed Proposition 227, the initiative banning bilingual education views which are clearly contrary to his party's majority.

On the death penalty, Democrat Chesbro said during a recent televised debate, he became a supporter "the day I saw Richard Allen Davis flip off the world" after being convicted several years ago of kidnapping and murdering Polly Klaas, the 12-year-old from Petaluma. To that statement, made during a recent debate, Jordan responded that he was glad to see Chesbro taking a tougher stance on crime and punishment.

On the Endangered Species Act, Chesbro says he wants to "build collaborative solutions" but not at the expense of business. He says he's supported by the timber industry and environmentalists, and has declined to state his position on use of pepper spray because "he wants to be a healer" rather than take sides.

On recognizing same-sex marriages, the candidates avoided the touchy subject by saying they don't believe the state will adopt such a law any time soon, but that tolerance is important.

Each says the other's views illustrate their opponent's conveniently changing positions.

Chesbro calls Jordan "a Republican trying to conform his political views to a heavily Democratic district." While Jordan sees Chesbro as an environmental extremist who has toned down his rhetoric to run for Senate.

"He's a professional politician. He's politically gifted," Jordan said of Chesbro before the June primary. "You know he's done this his whole life and he is good and he knows that the hard green line isn't going to sell district wide and so now he's trying to move to the center, saying, `I've grown up.'"

"When an issue forces its way into the spotlight," writes veteran Press Democrat political writer James Sweeney, "both candidates tend toward broad answers, long on themes but short on details."

For eight years the 2nd Senate District seat has been held by Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who is being forced out by term limits and is running for, and expected to easily win, Riggs' Congressional seat.

State Democratic leaders had chosen Assemblywoman Valerie Brown of Kenwood as their choice to succeed Thompson when she made a surprise decision to quit politics. After Sonoma County Supervisor Tim Smith stepped out of the race, Chesbro was left the front runner.

And the stakes are high. With the ever-popular Thompson out of the picture, Republicans are eyeing the seat, but Democrats have vowed to retain it. Already Democratic Party leaders have poured nearly $1 million into Chesbro's campaign, and the Republican party gave Jordan $140,000, with promises of more contributions in the final weeks of the campaign.

If Jordan is elected, he would be the youngest member of the state Senate in 48 years.

That fact and Jordan's lack of experience has been a rallying cry for Chesbro, who was elected to two terms on the Arcata City Council and three terms on the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors.

The 21-year age difference between the two men was never more apparent than during a KEET Channel 13 debate Monday night. Chesbro appeared confident, while Jordan sometimes stuttered and often repeated portions of Chesbro's statements in his answers.

But Jordan sees his age as an advantage. "I'm young, I have a lot of energy and I have a lot of interest," he has said. And, he said, if elected he wouldn't be the first person to join the state Senate without having the experience of holding elected office. He points to Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin and Sen. Tom Hayden, an ally of Chesbro's, as examples of people whose first elected positions were in the Senate.

Clearly well-schooled (he attended prep school at Pebble Beach and studied economics at a private Southern California college), Jordan would like to be president some day, according to a Sonoma Business Journal article, but for now has lowered his sights.

In a Press Democrat article he explained his position: "It's at the state level where I think a lot of the most important work needs to be done. Up until 1994, I probably would have been more interested in the federal level."

Jordan founded a political action committee called Sonoma Republicans United and sits on the boards of the Humane Society, the Salvation Army and the Council on Aging.

If elected, he would work to reduce school class size, promote local control in education, return tax revenue to local governments, seek funding to widen U.S. Highway 101 and fight to see that the gasoline additive MTBE is "removed from our fuel supply because it is polluting our ground water."

In 1967, his junior year of high school in South Pasadena, Chesbro dropped out of school and saw America first hand by hitchhiking around the country. One of the places he passed through was Arcata, where he spent one night.

"But I came to my senses and went back, went to night school, worked my little rear end off my senior year and graduated with my class in 1969," he told the Journal last year. He entered Humboldt State College that year and spent the next five years more active in the community than in school.

He was executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center from 1971-74, founder and director of the Arcata Recycling Center, campaign manager for the successful campaign to stop the Butler Valley Dam, and was co-chair of the 1972 campaign to establish the California Coastal Commission.

In 1974 he was elected to the Arcata City Council and quit college. (He finally received a degree, in organizational behavior, in 1996 from the University of San Francisco's branch campus in Sacramento.)

If elected, Chesbro said he will fight for better training and pay for teachers, promote health care reforms, protect seniors in retirement, return property tax revenues transferred by the state to counties and refuse the legislature's 25 percent pay raise set for next year.

Some campaign watchdogs have said the race is a toss up, while others say Chesbro faces an easy win. Neither candidate will reveal what his polls say.

Although Democrats enjoy an edge over Republicans in the district, the open primary saw Jordan and Mendocino County Supervisor John Pinches earn more votes than Democrats Chesbro and Tim Stoen.

A third-party candidate, Peace and Freedom's Brian Garay, received nearly 6,000 votes in the primary. But he isn't expected to do as well in November, having recently been released from the Mendocino County Jail after serving a 60-day term for petty theft and drug possession.

"As a result, the fall contest could turn on the supporters of iconoclasts Pinches, who is well to the left of the GOP mainstream, and Stoen, who is well to the right of the Democratic mainstream," reporter Sweeney writes.

"It's anybody's guess where those voters end up."


Comments? E-mail the Journal: ncjour@northcoast.com


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