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ELECTIONS / COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS : Co-Workers Battle to Succeed Kildee

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

She is a former president of the Camarillo Chamber of Commerce. He is a past Santa Paula city councilman. She operates in the private sector. He has spent most of his life working for public agencies.

But Kathy Long and Al Escoto have at least two things in common:

Both work for Ventura County Supervisor Maggie Kildee. And both are competing for their boss’s job, since Kildee has said that she will retire next year.

Other candidates in the 3rd Supervisorial District, which stretches from Piru to Camarillo, include Fillmore Councilman Roger Campbell and Camarillo Mayor Mike Morgan.

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Yet Long and Escoto’s rivalry has its own peculiarity because the two must work side by side on a daily basis.

So what is it like to sit next to your political rival at work?

“It’s very awkward,” Escoto said. “We all just try to sort of smile at one another.”

To be sure, theirs is not the first odd-couple race in the county.

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In 1990, Vicky Howard and Bill Davis--both members of the Simi Valley City Council and longtime next-door neighbors--clashed in a bitter and costly battle for a vacant supervisor’s seat.

Howard won the race. But her relationship with Davis never quite recovered.

“We’re very cordial,” Davis said in an interview four years later. “But did we patch it up and become close friends again? No.”

While Long and Escoto try hard to put the best face on a difficult situation, the two readily acknowledge that they have never been particularly close, despite having worked together for four years. They said they never socialize outside the office.

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“We don’t go to lunch,” said Long, 44. “Al and I have never done that. We don’t have much time for lunch.”

And at times when their campaigns cross paths, things can get a little tense.

Long, for example, declined to have her picture taken with Escoto for this story. “We’re separate individuals, and I’d prefer not to,” she said.

Escoto, 55, said he had no objections to posing together.

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“I’m a good sport,” he said. “It’s no big deal.”

Even Long and Escoto’s job titles can be a touchy issue, lest one give an advantage over the other.

A Long campaign worker, for instance, called a reporter on one occasion to remind him that Long’s title is “chief of staff” and Escoto’s is “administrative assistant.”

Long said her job involves more responsibility.

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“I’m supposed to have a handle on everything going on in the district,” said Long, who was promoted administrative assistant earlier this year. “I also have to make sure that things are on track and that Maggie’s getting the reports she needs.”

Escoto takes another view.

“I haven’t noticed anything different,” he said. “To me she’s doing the same thing she was doing before.”

Kildee herself says, “There is no formal title in the county as chief of staff.” But she said that Long had been named her senior assistant and is the person who helps her write speeches and who works on policy matters.

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“She is the first person that I talk to,” Kildee said. “A senior aide also makes scheduling decisions when I’m not here. So that person is my real right arm.”

Kildee has no plans to endorse any candidate in the race. And she maintains a neutral position on the subject of Long and Escoto.

“I think they’re both capable,” she said. “I think they’ve both done a good job, both are loyal and both are hard workers.”

Still, their dual candidacies at times can put Kildee in awkward situations, she said.

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It can be tough, for instance, deciding who gets what assignment. After all, Kildee said, they can use those assignments--such as sitting in for the supervisor at a meeting or some other governmental function--to increase their own visibility in the district.

“I sometimes have a hard time choosing who will represent me,” Kildee said. “I think sometimes it can give an advantage to whoever goes. But they’ve been very professional about it.”

When she receives an invitation to a social event, such as a Chamber of Commerce mixer, Kildee said that she makes sure both see the invitation so they each can attend if they choose.

“I want to be fair to both of them,” she said.

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Of the two candidates, Escoto was the first to enter the race. In fact, Escoto announced he was running the same day Kildee called a press conference in June to say that she planned to retire next year.

One month later, Long followed with her own announcement.

Since then, both candidates, who hold similar views on issues ranging from farmland protection to improving the county’s business climate, have tried to draw distinctions between their candidacies by touting their varied public and private experience.

Escoto spent 27 years working in the planning and engineering divisions of the county’s Public Works Agency before being hired by Kildee in 1988. Born and raised in Santa Paula, Escoto was elected to the City Council in 1984 and served one four-year term before losing reelection.

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Escoto said he believes his vast government experience gives him an advantage, rather than a liability, in the race. He said he believes it can help him easily slip into the job of supervisor.

“I’m familiar with every department of county government,” he said.

Long, on the other hand, worked as an assistant to former Los Angeles Councilwoman Pat Russell from 1982 to 1988 before moving to Ventura County. She quickly became active in the community and was hired by Kildee after serving as president of the Camarillo Chamber of Commerce in 1991.

In addition to her government experience, Long and her husband, Randy, operate a flea extermination business and a carpet cleaning service.

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Long said she believes her public and private sector experience give her a more balanced view of government’s role.

“I feel I have a better grasp of regional issues, the big picture,” she said.

Meanwhile, both candidates said that their jobs in Kildee’s office remain their top priority and that they do not want politics to interfere with that.

“So far, it’s been fine,” Long said, “and we’re doing our best to keep it that way.”

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