Bennett SOARS Into Local Spotlight

Times Staff Writer

Pink streaks color the morning sky as Steve Bennett pulls on his running shoes.

Exercise, like many things in Bennett's disciplined life, is the common-sense thing to do. And if dawn is the only time to fit a run into his schedule, he will rise with the birds.

Constituents know the Ventura County supervisor as a champion of populist political views, especially his founding role in a citizens' movement that put the brakes on runaway growth and made Ventura County a nationwide model for anti-sprawl initiatives.

But the Ivy League-educated economist, who turned down corporate posts to teach high school students in rural Ojai, runs deeper than that. If his demeanor suggests a cautious policy wonk, it belies a steely determination to achieve a goal, whether it's rallying bored students, starting a political movement or keeping fit.

Bennett is determined, confidantes say, to forge the same exacting standards in public office.

"Steve's trying to do it right; he's giving it his best shot," said his wife, Leslie Ogden. "He's hopeful that he can do it and not succumb to the pressures of that office."

Since his election to the Ventura-based supervisor's seat two years ago, Bennett, 52, has shown he is gutsy, hard-working and shrewd: a strategist with a heart of green -- for the environment -- and perhaps the most influential local politician.

He had barely warmed his seat as a newly sworn supervisor before taking on the county's powerful law enforcement lobby and casting a critical third vote to cut public safety funding.

A few months later, he called for a ban on extra pay supervisors receive for serving on special commissions, so angering two colleagues that one of them tried to outlaw "grandstanding."

As the county's point man in fighting urban sprawl, he helped shoot down ballot measures last fall that would have allowed 3,900 new homes in Ventura and Santa Paula. The grass-roots group that rallied against the developments -- put together by Bennett -- can raise the money and foot soldiers to fight future growth battles.

The group has already succeeded in passing tough growth-control laws in every major city in the county, putting the region on the map as one of the most growth-averse in the nation.

His behind-the-scenes work on campaigns in the November election helped produce new slow-growth majorities on the Thousand Oaks and Santa Paula city councils. When environmental ally Linda Parks joins the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Bennett's influence in stemming growth and pushing through government reforms may be even greater.

Even opponents acknowledge the success of Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources, or SOAR, the 2,000-member anti-sprawl group that Bennett and Oxnard attorney Richard Francis founded seven years ago.

"They have an issue that seems to have struck pay dirt," said Rob Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Assn. and a frequent SOAR critic. "And Steve's been quite adept at putting that network together."

Bennett's unflinching style has earned him plenty of detractors. Critics call him rigid and uncompromising, attributes that work well for an activist but less so for a politician, they say.

His determination to win can blind him to reasonable alternatives, critics say.

"He works hard to get people to believe that his point of view is the correct point of view," said Ventura Mayor Ray Di Guilio. "It's kind of a fight to the death: Do it my way or you're going to be defeated."

Some find Bennett's Eagle Scout persona hard to take and resent the "good government" lectures he is prone to offer from the board dais. "Controlling" is a word used by some colleagues to describe him.

His severest criticism came when SOAR challenged the legality of Measure A -- a November initiative that asked voters to approve construction of 1,390 homes in the canyons north of Ventura.

Public approval of the project was required by the SOAR growth control laws that Bennett co-wrote. But when developers tried to place the measure on the ballot, SOAR went to court to kill it.

Bennett and Francis argued that the project should go through the city's planning process before facing a public vote. But the development's backers said the lawsuit proved SOAR's leaders are hypocrites who don't really trust voters.

Parting Ways

A judge turned down SOAR's request and the housing project was overwhelmingly defeated.

But the fight left a trail of bitterness. Downtown merchant Doug Halter, a one-time admirer of Bennett, parted ways with him over Measure A.

"We need leaders who know what developments to say yes to," said Halter, who believed that Measure A offered an intelligent mix of homes and open space. "This was a project that did exactly what SOAR said it was supposed to do."

In the November election, Bennett worked hard to help out his candidates and causes.

It was Bennett who crafted the political mailers opposing Measure A, said Bill Fulton, a Ventura planning expert who worked beside him on the campaign. He spent a lot of time thinking about what the message should be, Fulton said.

"He's a brilliant campaign strategist -- the best one in the county," Fulton said. "He understands what kind of issues hit the public in the gut."

Bennett squeezed in campaign duties after his regular work hours as a supervisor.

"The amount of work he did was phenomenal," he said.

Bennett was like an air traffic controller, headphones clamped to ears, keeping all the planes flying and avoiding last-minute crashes, Francis said.

At the County Government Center, he is known for bringing frozen meals so he can work through lunch. He drives a 1988 Mazda sedan with 233,000 miles on it. Most weekends, he can be found at his tastefully decorated county office catching up on paperwork.

Francis attributes Bennett's drive to a "strong Type-A personality" and his determination to do the right thing.

"Steve is the most ethical person I know," he said.

Bennett grew up in an Irish working-class suburb of Indianapolis, the middle of five children of a policeman father and draftsman mother.

The family lived in GI tract housing and Bennett attended the local Catholic school. His father worked long hours and was often absent, so the job of raising the children fell largely to his mother, Bennett said.

Watching her struggle with a full-time job drawing blueprints while raising the kids made a lasting impression on him. Despite the strain, it was a boisterous home filled with neighborhood children.

"She took on the task and did it with such calm dignity," he said.

Bennett excelled in academics, graduating with honors with a degree in economics from Brown University. As captain of the football team, he was an all-Ivy League linebacker, which some people find hard to believe when they see the lean 6-foot politician of today.

While finishing up a master's degree in education at Butler University, Bennett came out West for a friend's wedding and met Ogden. Their 25-year union is his sanctuary from daily pressures, he said. In their free time, the couple go hiking, kayaking and cross-country skiing.

For 28 years, Bennett taught economics and honors history at Nordhoff High School, where his wife is still a teacher. Bennett has said he would return to teaching if he ever leaves politics.

His political activism began in the mid-'80s when he noticed subdivisions leapfrogging out from Ventura's east end. Around the same time, a proposal to build a state university on a grassy bluff overlooking the ocean on the city's west end prompted fears of further sprawl.

He worked behind the scenes to get other candidates elected to the Ventura City Council before successfully running himself. However, as a minority vote, Bennett had little success stopping projects. So he and Francis, a former Ventura mayor, decided to bypass government and go directly to voters.

In 1995, an overwhelming majority of Ventura voters enacted the county's first SOAR growth-control law. Bennett left his council seat after one term and worked to enact similar measures in the county's six other major cities and its unincorporated territory.

The laws require a public vote before any development can take place on farmland or open space outside of a city's boundaries. The goal, Bennett said, is not to stop all growth but to confine it to urban areas. He pointed to his vote last year as a member of the Local Agency Formation Commission that allowed a 3,000-home development in Oxnard as evidence he is not against all development.

Though the measures received overwhelming support, controversy over them has not abated. Bitter landowners see the laws, which have survived appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, as a legal taking of their property rights.

Farmers say it's harder to get crop loans because the speculative value of their land has dropped.

Some business leaders blame the laws for a tight housing market and say they are having a hard time attracting employees to the area.

Bennett contends ballot-box planning became necessary because elected leaders weren't responding to what residents wanted.

"There are times when you should compromise and times when you shouldn't," he said.

As supervisor, Bennett has shown a hawk's eye for fiscal waste, challenging the county's policy of padding managers' retirement pay with bonuses. He has also sought to make government more environmentally correct, supporting the purchase of high-mileage hybrid vehicles for the county's fleet and the creation of a land conservation district.

Bennett is also passionate about what he calls "leveling the playing field in politics." For him, that means limiting political contributions, thereby restricting the influence of business, unions and other special-interest groups.A lifelong Democrat, Bennett says government has an important role to play but is too often exploited by insiders.

"People who take advantage of government -- that's what bugs me," he said.

Bennett usually gets support from fellow Supervisors Judy Mikels and Kathy Long.

But Supervisor John Flynn and former Supervisor Frank Schillo have attacked him as an egotistical grandstander, particularly after Bennett attempted to ban the stipends they received for serving on community boards.

Flynn said they have since made amends.

"I rather enjoy him right now," said Flynn, 69, the board's longest-standing member. "From time to time he will send a subtle knife in the back, but I usually catch it. And then I say something that has no subtlety at all."

Bennett is frequently asked whether he will seek higher office, but so far has rejected the notion. Still, he hasn't completely closed the door.

"One thing I've learned is that you never say never," he said.

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