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State’s bellwether voters want more attention paid to issues

Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman go round and round: quibbling over the slur someone in Brown’s camp used to describe Whitman and how offensive it was (or wasn’t) and whether Brown should (or shouldn’t) be more contrite. This drives Kim DuPont crazy.

DuPont, a political independent and Whitman supporter, said after Brown apologized in their last debate, “She should have just accepted, and they both should have gotten on with it.”

DuPont ticks off her concerns: jobs, the economy, making Sacramento more business-friendly. “Those are the issues affecting the state and our place in the world,” said DuPont, 50, a financial consultant in the agriculture industry. “Those are what matter.”

The race for governor has been long, contentious and, by far, the most expensive in history. To many in this rural stretch of Central California, it has also been a disappointment: feeding their cynicism, taxing their patience — they long ago tuned out the incessant advertising — and instilling little faith that either candidate can deal with the state’s paralyzing dysfunction.

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The last several weeks of the campaign, dominated by debate over an inadvertently recorded epithet and Whitman’s illegal immigrant housekeeper, have seemed especially pointless.

“A sideshow,” said Margo Michael, a cook. “Silly,” said Jerry Caperton, a retired firefighter.

For the last 16 years, San Benito County has been California’s political bellwether, a slice of rich farmland just south of the San Francisco Bay Area with an unparalleled record of matching statewide voter sentiment. In 2002, Gray Davis won reelection with 47% of the vote; in San Benito County he received 49%. In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cruised to victory with 57% support. In San Benito County, he got 56%.

If the pattern holds this November, and if San Benito again speaks for the rest of the state, then neither candidate will run away with the contest.

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Democrat Brown and Republican Whitman have their partisans: people who believe political experience (in Brown’s case) or business acumen (cited by Whitman backers) would be just what’s needed to shake up Sacramento (the way politicians always pledge).

But many more voters echoed Chuck Obeso-Bradley, who was not particularly enamored of either candidate and regarded their promises, and their charges and countercharges, with a good dose of skepticism.

A Democrat, he leans toward Brown (“holding my nose a bit”). But he thinks it will be some time before the state cycles from recession to recovery, regardless of the outcome Nov. 2. “I’ll support whoever wins and wish them both Godspeed,” said Obeso-Bradley, 56, the sales manager for a software company. “They’re going to need it.”

With about 55,000 residents, roughly the population of Arcadia or Cerritos, San Benito is more rural and Latino than California as a whole. There are relatively fewer college graduates and a slightly higher proportion of registered Democrats.

But the economic hardship — the bankruptcies, jobs lost, homes foreclosed, businesses hanging by the merest of threads — are familiar to many Californians battered by the Great Recession.

In some ways, San Benito County had it worse. Even before the housing bubble burst, regulators imposed a local building moratorium until a new sewage plant was built. The work was finished just in time for the recession, which devastated the construction industry. Unemployment, always subject to the vagaries of the agricultural season, peaked near 22% in February.

There have been hopeful signs of late. Unemployment was 14.8% in August (compared to 12.4% statewide.) A long-awaited expansion of the Hollister airport may finally go forward, and the county could land a new solar farm, with the promise of as many as 650 jobs.

Still, not one person in more than 40 interviewed felt good about the direction things were headed, a contrast with 2006, when business was robust and state lawmakers passed a budget the day before the July 1 start of the fiscal year — with a surplus.

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“Sacramento keeps rolling on, like it always has, but things are out of control,” said William McDonald, 39, a courier for the San Benito County Health Department and an undecided independent. “It’s October, and they’re just now barely passing a budget?”

Even though Schwarzenegger is not on the ballot, the governor loomed large in the minds of many. That has not helped Whitman. She is running on the same outsider message Schwarzenegger used in the 2003 recall election, and several voters suggested his years in office didn’t work out too well.

“He was new. He was fresh. I thought, give it a shot,” said Bob Rowlands, 59, a Democrat who sells evidence-tracking software to police agencies. “Now Whitman is talking about running Sacramento like a business, but running a business and running the government aren’t the same. Brown may not have all the answers, but at least he knows the lay of the land.”

Whitman has spent more than $140 million on the campaign — the vast majority from her own pocketbook — and that alone has put some people off, including Peggy Neubauer, a Republican who may vote Democratic for the first time in her life.

“It’s all about feeding her ego: ‘I’m going to be the governor of the biggest state in the union,’ ” said Neubauer, 55, who owns a struggling real estate and property management firm. “Well, you can’t buy it. And if she gets there, she’s going to have all the problems Arnold had, without his finesse.”

The controversy over Whitman’s illegal immigrant housekeeper — the candidate said she did not know her status until just before the woman was fired — apparently swayed few people. Mary Martinez, 67, a retired bookkeeper and political independent, was ready to back Whitman but will skip voting in the governor’s race. “I don’t like the way she was treated,” said Martinez, referring to the maid’s brusque dismissal after nine years of employment.

But most of those interviewed waved off the matter as a diversion cooked up by Democrats. That included many Brown supporters, like Lauretta Avina, 46, who suggested that candidates “do what it takes to get elected. They play dirty on both sides.”

While Schwarzenegger shadows Whitman’s campaign, Brown has to contend with the record of another California governor: himself.

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“I remember him saying they weren’t going to spray for the Medfly, and then all those planes came overhead spraying all over the place,” said Jan Van Erven, referring to Brown’s equivocating stance during the 1980s agricultural infestation. Van Erven also remembered Rose Bird, the state Supreme Court justice who overturned 64 death penalty convictions and became a soft-on-crime symbol to Brown critics.

“Brown had his shot,” said Van Erven, 62, a Republican-leaning independent. “I think Whitman could do a better job dealing with the Legislature, which is nothing but a bunch of hard-core liberal Democrats.”

Unless asked, no one talked about the latest campaign flap involving someone close to Brown using the word “whore” to describe Whitman for allegedly cutting a deal to win an endorsement. The private conversation was picked up on voicemail, after Brown thought he had hung up the phone.

Caperton, 70, the retired firefighter, was typical of the overwhelming majority who rolled their eyes or simply shrugged off the remark. “You have to wonder what she calls him back in her office when no one’s listening,” he said, laughing. Unhappy with the choices, he may not vote for anyone for governor.

mark.barabak@latimes.com


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