Ventura County's jobless rate soared in August to its highest point in nearly a decade, signaling a continuing economic slump that Republican and Democratic officials say could influence the outcome of the county's political contests this fall.
The jobless rate reached 9.4% in August, the worst monthly figure since unemployment hit 11% in January, 1983, according to a report released Friday by state labor officials.
"There are scary, scary statistics out there," said Jim Dantona, a Democratic consultant in Simi Valley. "People are pretty ticked off at incumbents."
With an estimated 36,600 people out work, the August rate recorded a sharp increase from July's 8.8% unemployment rate. It was nearly two points higher than the 7.5% jobless rate recorded a year ago, labor officials said.
Joblessness in Ventura County closely followed the trend for the hard-hit California economy, which experienced a 9.5% jobless rate in August. The national unemployment rate of 7.3% in August remained well below that of Ventura County and California, which have suffered a major loss of jobs in the defense industry and other sectors.
The rise in the local jobless rate reflected the loss of 6,500 jobs from the county's payroll in the last 12 months, including 1,600 manufacturing jobs and 2,100 jobs in the service industry.
Labor officials attributed much of the August decline in the county payroll to seasonal employment patterns, with over half of the monthly loss of 4,100 positions due to summer furloughs for teachers.
Not all the economic news, however, was negative. First-time claims for unemployment dropped by 10% in August in east Ventura County, said Larry Kennedy, who heads the state's employment office in Simi Valley.
"Our lobby is not as full as it has been," Kennedy said. He said it appears the economy has hit bottom, with employers beginning to add positions after trimming payrolls to the bone.
Republican and Democratic officials in Ventura County disagreed in their assessment of how the latest jobless figures might affect local races in November.
Richard Ferrier, chairman of the Ventura County Republican Central Committee, said high unemployment would probably hurt incumbents' reelection chances regardless of their political party. But he said any effect would be unwarranted.
"The public is altogether too concerned with momentary changes in the economy, and not concerned enough with the conditions that promote long-term prosperity," Ferrier said.
Ferrier attributed California's economic malaise to the changes caused by the end of the Cold War and the slowdown in defense industries, and compared it with the periods following World War I and World War II. "In both cases, there were transitional difficulties followed by long periods of prosperity."
Democratic political consultant Dantona predicted that news about high unemployment could have the greatest effect locally in the congressional race between incumbent Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) and Democratic challenger Anita Perez Ferguson.
Dantona said the close link that people perceive between their local representatives and federal policies will prompt voters to look closely at the results of President Bush's economic plan.
"People are going to look at the county and ask what Gallegly has done to stimulate the economy," Dantona said.
He predicted that the harsh unemployment picture would have less effect on races for state Legislature.
Dantona said Assemblywomen Paula Boland (R-Granada Hills) and Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) are running in legislative districts with safe Republican majorities, while Jack O'Connell (D-Carpinteria) has proven adept at addressing business interests.
For his part, Gallegly downplayed a possible backlash from voters worried about joblessness. "I have been working hard to bring jobs to the county and to enact legislation to get the economy moving again," Gallegly said Friday.
Gallegly recited a list of bills he has proposed to stimulate the local economy, but said they "have been bottled up by the liberal Democrats who control Congress."
Sam Rodriguez, campaign director for Perez Ferguson, said he predicts the jobless figures would affect the contest "in a very, very big way."
Voters have grown weary now that the jobless rate has continued to increase for more than a year after presidential economists declared the recession officially over, he said.
He also said he expects voter discontent to trickle down to congressional races. "People are going to know who's attached to George Bush and Dan Quayle and their failed economic policies."