In the ranch houses that remain among the lemon and orange groves, the Lagomarsino name rings of the time when citrus was king on the coastal flats and narrow valleys of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. The family has ranched and raised sons here for decades, and for nearly 15 years Robert J. Lagomarsino has been the Republican congressman.
But this piece of coast is turning relentlessly suburban, the fields giving way to office parks and shopping malls, the home prices surpassing many parts of Los Angeles. It is among the prosperous new arrivals, who appreciate the white beaches and Channel Island views, where Democrats think they can deal President Ronald Reagan a personal blow in the Nov. 8 election.
Lagomarsino, a former Ojai mayor, is one of Reagan’s chief drum beaters on foreign policy in the House, especially on behalf of aid to Nicaraguan rebels. He has also represented Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo in the Santa Barbara foothills, and Reagan has repaid his loyalty with occasional favors including an appearance at Lagomarsino’s fund-raiser this summer.
The Democrats’ answer is the opposition candidacy of State Sen. Gary K. Hart, the author of California’s laws that require high school students to prove they can read and write before graduating and that set minimum skills for new teachers. Hart, in the Legislature since 1974, only recently began stressing the middle initial--about the time former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart’s presidential campaign fell to pieces. “Please don’t confuse me with the other Gary Hart, the former presidential candidate from Colorado,” the Santa Barbara Hart wrote in a recent mailing.
Hart has spent $1 million so far to give Lagomarsino his first tough campaign since 1974, when he was the only Republican to overcome the Watergate backlash and win a special election. Together they will spend more than $2 million to put on what may be the purest test of voter sentiment in California this year.
Both men are popular politicians in the 19th Congressional District, which covers all of Santa Barbara County and the coastal half of Ventura County. But it is hard to figure why.
Lagomarsino is a conservative who says that protecting the district’s 60,000 defense jobs is a good reason to support the MX missile and other programs on the Pentagon wish list. Hart is a liberal who opposes Contra aid and favors cutting fat from the defense budget even if it hurts at home.
Disagree on Many Issues
They disagree on so many issues--the death penalty, abortion, federal aid to education, school prayer--that the only characteristic they share may be a proven ability to win in one of California’s most independent areas.
Democrats have a slight edge in party registration, but that has never hurt Lagomarsino. Hart’s Senate district has the lowest Democratic registration of any senator in his party, but he still wins handily. In statewide races for governor and U.S. senator the district wavers back and forth. A large bloc--about 13% of the voters--choose not to identify with either party. Perhaps most important to Hart, the voters have displayed a taste for change, kicking two Republican Santa Barbara County supervisors from office in June and replacing them with two Democrats who back Hart.
Lagomarsino prefers to fight the race on simple grounds. “Gary is still thinking in terms of the 1970s as we go into the 1990s,” he said at their only debate, last week in Santa Maria. Afterwards, he added: “You can put it down to two words, I think--liberal and conservative.”
At every chance, Lagomarsino hits on Hart’s opposition to capital punishment and support for defense cuts. He also has tried to appeal to the voters’ independent streak with a mailing that charges Hart with being under the influence of “outside political bosses” for accepting help from Reps. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles and Howard L. Berman of Panorama City, the Jewish Democratic leaders from the Westside of Los Angeles.
Lagomarsino Mailing Cited
“West Los Angeles Doesn’t Need Another Congressman,” the Lagomarsino mailing screams. Another piece of Lagomarsino literature complains that supporters of the Rev. Jesse Jackson have come into Santa Barbara registering Democrats.
Hart, meanwhile, is gambling that voters have grown tired of Lagomarsino and will be happy to “pass the torch of leadership to a new generation.” The incumbent has become complacent and passive, and is dragging the country into economic troubles by backing costly weapons systems such as the MX missile and Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars” idea, Hart charges. “It’s dangerously flawed,” Hart says of Star Wars.
Besides the budget deficit, Hart’s chief issue is the environment. The beaches and open spaces are what attracted many people to the area, and many people--Democrats and Republicans alike--still remember the 1969 oil rig blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel that severely fouled beaches.
Hart, who has the endorsement of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, opposes any new drilling off the California coast. He charges Lagomarsino was slow to call for closure of the Casmalia toxic waste dump near Santa Maria. Hart also supported Proposition 65, the toxics initiative, in 1986 while Lagomarsino opposed it.
Refuses to Concede Issue
Lagomarsino, meanwhile, has not conceded the environmental issue. He sent a brochure to voters claiming that “if the seals, pelicans and island foxes could vote . . .” they would back his reelection. He has supported blocking new oil drilling off Santa Barbara, although he favors drilling off other parts of California to share the burden, and backed legislation to create the Channel Islands National Park and protect some Northern California wild rivers from damming.
“For a Republican he’s an environmentalist,” said Ed Bedwell, Lagomarsino’s campaign manager. “If he were a Democrat he probably wouldn’t be considered one.”
But Hart’s staff gleefully circulates a report by the group Environmental Action that rates Lagomarsino among the worst “dirty dozen” anti-environmental members of Congress. The group rated Lagomarsino on the wrong side of bills to reduce air pollution and acid rain, and said he opposed measures to require polluters to publicly report emissions of hazardous chemicals and allow victims of toxic waste to sue in federal court. He got plus marks only for not joining as a co-sponsor of a bill to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling.
Marched in Rights Protests
Hart, who does not dispute the liberal tag, traces his political inspiration to President John F. Kennedy. Hart was teaching at a black college in Mississippi at the time James Meredith, a black student, was shot at the University of Mississippi. Hart marched in civil rights protests in the South and later joined the anti-Vietnam War push by former Sen. Eugene McCarthy that helped force President Lyndon B. Johnson from the White House.
In 1970, as a 25-year-old idealist full of anti-war fervor, Hart ran for Congress and lost to Republican Charles Teague. He finally won an Assembly seat in 1974, became known as an education reformer, and went to the state Senate in 1982.
Lagomarsino, who had been a state senator for 13 years, won the seat in Congress after Teague died. As he has gained seniority, he has become known as a hard-working member of the Republican minority and an Administration voice on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
At their only debate, last week in Santa Maria, the first question from the audience raised an old issue Lagomarsino is trying to use. In 1967, Hart mailed his draft card back to his draft board to protest the Vietnam War. Hart was later called for induction and was exempted because of a stomach disorder, but critics have portrayed the draft card protest as a character flaw.
Meanwhile, Hart has complained that Lagomarsino won’t agree to a series of eight debates in the district. He also has charged Lagomarsino with abusing his franking privilege by sending free newsletters to voters since the spring.