President Bush unwittingly ignited a congressional race last week by setting the entire California coast off-limits to oil drilling until the next decade except areas near the Santa Barbara and Ventura coastlines.
Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura), who does not oppose offshore drilling, said the President's decision realized his worst fears by concentrating all of California's offshore oil exploration within his congressional district.
Lagomarsino's Democratic challenger, Anita Perez Ferguson, wasted no time in trying to pin the blame on the 16-year incumbent who has never joined the rest of the state congressional delegation in seeking a statewide moratorium on offshore leasing to oil companies.
"He has been the odd man out on this one," Ferguson said. "Lagomarsino just sat there and watched the whole thing go by. He didn't protect us when we needed him."
Although Lagomarsino fiercely defends his environmental record, most political strategists agree that Bush has handed Ferguson a potent campaign issue in a coastal area that is increasingly concerned about the environment.
"It is one of the top issues in the race and it can be used effectively against him," said Howard Schloss, a spokesman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a fund-raising and strategy office that helps elect Democrats to the House of Representatives.
Gary Koops of the GOP's counterpart office, the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he does not yet view Lagomarsino in "political danger" over this issue. "Certainly, we will keep an eye on that district, given the kind of race he has had."
In 1988, Lagomarsino squeaked by in one of the toughest and most expensive congressional races in the nation. He defeated his challenger, state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), by fewer than 4,000 votes in the 19th Congressional District, which includes Santa Barbara County and the northwestern portion of Ventura County.
Ferguson, a former aide to Hart, was widely believed by leaders of both parties to be holding a place in this election season for her former boss, a popular politician.
But recent events have strengthened her chances, including having a woman, Dianne Feinstein, head the Democratic ticket in the race for governor.
For instance, recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have made abortion rights advocates more politically active could win more votes for Ferguson, who favors a woman's right to an abortion. Lagomarsino opposes abortion.
Also, pollsters say incumbents across the country are measuring lower favorability ratings than they have had in decades. Polls show that the reduced communist threat makes some voters focus more sharply on quality-of-life issues such as education and the environment. Democrats traditionally score higher in polls than Republicans in handling these issues.
On Tuesday, President Bush elevated the environment to issue status in the area by announcing his long-awaited decision on the future of oil drilling in federal waters, which begin three miles off the California coast.
The President banned new oil leases off 99% of the coast until the year 2000. But he excluded 87 tracts in the Santa Barbara Channel and the Santa Maria Basin because of their high potential for oil exploitation.
Bush said these tracts, situated off the Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county coastlines, would be available for leasing in 1996, provided that drilling could be done in an environmentally safe manner.
Lagomarsino said the decision left him feeling "a little bit" forsaken by the leader of his party. "I can understand why he did it. It is easy politically. Most other areas don't care as long as it doesn't affect them."
At a White House barbecue held the same day as the announcement, Lagomarsino said he had a brief opportunity to express his displeasure to the President. "I told him it was unfair," Lagomarsino said. "Why should they pick on one area? If they want to go ahead with oil drilling there are plenty of places along the coast."
The congressman said Bush appeared surprised he wasn't happy with the outcome. "My impression is that he thought everybody would be pleased with it."
Lagomarsino has been one of the few coastal members of the California delegation who has not joined the annual rite in Congress of placing a yearlong moratorium on all leasing off the state's coastline. The ritual, repeated every year, began in the early 1980s after former Department of the Interior Secretary James Watt tried to open the whole coastline for offshore oil development.
Lagomarsino said he considers it irresponsible to oppose all offshore oil drilling while the nation is importing more than 50% of its oil. But he said the burden should be spread around, not be focused solely on his district.
"I'm not necessarily against it, if it is in the right place and you have the proper safeguards and the air quality is taken care of," he said. "There are far greater safety hazards with tankers than drilling for oil and bringing it ashore with a pipeline."
If elected, Ferguson said she would join other California Democrats in pushing for a permanent ban on oil drilling off the state's coast.
Lagomarsino, she said, has failed to protect his area of the coastline even though he claims to have the President's ear and is one of the ranking members of the House Interior Committee, which oversees offshore drilling.
"He has tried to cultivate this environmental image," Ferguson said. "But when you look at his voting record, it doesn't really measure up." She cites various poor ratings from environmental groups.
Last year, for instance, the League of Conservation Voters gave Lagomarsino a 50% rating on what its coalition of environmental groups considered key votes. "We are happy that he has gone up from 38%, but 50% is still a failing grade," said Bennett Hinkley, a league spokesman.
Lagomarsino dismisses environmental ratings as political tools of the Democratic Party. As for the offshore oil debate, he cites three significant accomplishments in protecting this section of the coastline.
In 1980, Congress approved his bill to turn the Channel Islands into a national park. Earlier this year, he persuaded oil companies to divert their tankers outside the Channel Islands as a precaution against spills such as those that occurred off Alaska and Orange County.
Last month he joined with two other California congressmen to amend the House version of the Clean Air Act so offshore oil rigs would have to comply with stricter air pollution standards enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency.
"I've never heard of anything that she has done," Lagomarsino said of his opponent.
The Sierra Club and some state Democratic leaders have accused President Bush of timing and shaping the offshore oil announcement to help Republican Sen. Pete Wilson in his gubernatorial race against Feinstein, a Democrat and former mayor of San Francisco.
Wilson, a longtime foe of offshore drilling, has urged Bush to postpone all new leasing. "We have worked real hard to give the President the information to compel another look at the drilling program," said Otto Bos, Wilson's top campaign strategist.
But just as the Republican White House's plan to protect 99% of the coast might help Wilson, the decision to leave open 1% could hurt Lagomarsino, said John Davies, a political consultant in Santa Barbara.
The Sierra Club is considering endorsing Ferguson, and Bob Hattoy, the group's regional director in Los Angeles, said he expects an election issue to emerge from Bush turning the Santa Barbara Channel into a "national sacrifice area."
"I think it is fair to ask the question, 'Why is it that despite a 99% ban, the 1% that is being drilled is in Lagomarsino's district?' " Hattoy said. "I've sat in many conference rooms where those who didn't object got drilling."
One reason cited for singling out the Ventura and Santa Barbara coastlines is that these areas have more offshore rigs than anywhere else in the state.
Santa Barbara County residents have been more vocal in objecting to drilling than those in Ventura County. "Oil drilling is just not compatible with the lifestyle of the central coast," Hattoy said.
But demographics are changing in Ventura County, which 40 years ago was ruled by the oil companies.
In the '40s and '50s, a majority of county residents had some connection to the oil industry. Last year, state statistics showed only 2,400 residents worked for firms extracting or producing gas, oil or other minerals.
Big oil's political visibility has further diminished in recent years. In 1986, the industry organized a rally with 4,000 workers in Ventura County to greet Donald P. Hodel, then the secretary of the interior, on a statewide tour of prospective offshore oil fields.
But last week, the President's decision to postpone leasing on 99% of these same tracts was met with near resignation by the industry.
"The surprise was the extent of the ban," said Terry Covington, executive director of the California Coastal Operators Group, an industry association representing nine major oil companies from San Luis Obispo to Ventura County. "The industry overall is disappointed in how much land has been put out of reach."
Ed Bedwell, a former Lagomarsino campaign manager who prides himself on being able to measure the pulse of the district, senses a "changing political climate in Ventura County." In the past year, he said, slow-growth candidates have won elections across the county with environmental messages.