Former Assembly GOP Leader Sam Blakeslee took over one of the most moderate districts in the state when he won an August special election to replace Abel Maldonado in the 15th Senate District. While Blakeslee was never known for being as centrist as Maldonado, there are early indications that he may be carving out a more moderate image for himself.
One of Blakeslee’s first moves in office was to set up a brand-new subcommittee — complete with a coveted paid staffer — which he hopes will foster more bipartisan agreement in the Legislature, including addressing the problem of terminally late budgets.
Then last week, he took the unusual step of hiring a Democrat as his press secretary. Erin Shaw is herself a moderate who has served under both Maldonado and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But her appointment still risks alienating some of the many Republican staffers who walked precincts for Blakeslee in the heat of July and August — many of whom will be looking for new jobs come November.
Blakeslee, from San Luis Obispo, was sworn into the Senate on Aug. 23, six days after besting Democratic former Assemblyman John Laird by fewer than five points in a runoff election. According to the latest voter registration statistics from the Secretary of State’s office, Democrats hold a 40.6 percent to 35.5 percent registration advantage in the district.
Laird is openly gay, and some on the Democratic side have speculated that this hurt him in some of the more rural parts of the district. While Laird won big in Santa Cruz, he lost by 20 points in San Luis Obispo County.
Two days after the election, Blakeslee was named to chair a new Senate Subcommittee on Recovery, Reform and Realignment. The committee has a broad-based mission: improving the job situation, reforming the tax code, and realigning “revenues and responsibilities between state and local government to improve accountability,” according to Blakeslee’s office
The committee also comes with a full-time staff slot. That staffer will be Erin Guerrero, who most-recently served as a senior aide to former Senate Republican leader Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno, at a salary of $95,136.
“She is highly regarded in the Capitol and has a stellar reputation for reaching across the aisle on such complex issues as water and budget,” said Blakeslee’s new press secretary, Erin Shaw.
No other members of the committee have yet been named, but Shaw said, “Senator Blakeslee will be reaching out to members throughout the fall and upon resumption of the session for the committee.”
Shaw also said the committee is intended as a place where bipartisan cooperation can happen — including on the budget, hopefully leading to a better performance than this year’s 100-day late agreement. She also added that the new committee predated this year’s budget deal and had nothing to do with it.
Rumor around the Capitol was that some Republican staffers were grumbling after Blakeslee tapped a Democrat. However, off the record sources indicated that some Republican staffers were interviewed.
Shaw, 30, also isn’t your standard Democrat. She’s worked for elected officials from both parties, and received appointments from both Schwarzenegger and former Gov. Gray Davis. She came to work for Davis as a press assistant in 2003, worked as a writer for the Schwarzenegger administration from 2006 to 2008, then moved on to the press shop of the State and Consumer Services Agency (SCSA) in 2008 and 2009. Most recently, she worked for Maldonado in the Lieutenant Governor’s office.
“I base hiring decisions solely on merit,” said Blakeslee’s chief of staff, Christine Robertson. “Our team looks for staff who are bright, hard working, ethical, and passionate about making a difference. Frankly, it never occurred to me to inquire about party registration or any other non work-related attribute. Knowing someone is a Republican, Democrat, or DTS is about as important as knowing if they are right-handed, left-handed, or ambidextrous. What really matters is their effectiveness and ability to adopt the shared goals and objectives of our legislative team.”
She also should not be confused for the Capitol’s other Erin Shaw, a legislative assistant to Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City — though that Erin Shaw had her Assembly email account cancelled briefly by mistake when the other Erin Shaw moved over to Blakeslee’s office.
Shaw also confirmed that she was not hired via a job listing for a press secretary that Blakeslee posted on Craigslist on Aug. 20, three days after he was elected. That posting itself caused some grumbling in the Capitol. Of 14 sitting GOP Senators, four are termed out. Cogdill chose not to run for re-election, and Sen. Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, died of cancer in July and will be replaced in a special election that same day as the Nov. 2 general election. All told, up to 40 percent of Senate GOP staffers will be looking for new jobs in November or soon after.
Blakeslee, meanwhile, is likely to be looking at a very different district when he runs for reelection in 2012. The current SD 15 sprawls across five counties, from Laird’s liberal Santa Cruz home turf in the north to Santa Barbara in the south. After this year’s Senate, the state is due to be redistricted, most likely by the Citizens Redistricting Commission created by Proposition 11 in 2008. Maldonado, incidentally, was a key supporter of that initiative.
According to an analysis by Democratic consultant Paul Mitchell of Paul Mitchell Public Affairs, the current SD 15 violates many of the main rules the Commission will be seeking in the new maps. It is neither “geographically compact,” nor does it keep cities and counties together.
Applying these rules to the district would likely shift it either north or south, which could lead to heavy Democratic or Republican advantages, respectively. While there have been rumors that Blakeslee could get a primary challenge from the right if he ends up in a heavily Republican district, Mitchell’s analysis found that this is unlikely. His ideal district, Mitchell said, would be one that includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and the northern sections of Ventura County, resulting in a five percent GOP registration advantage.
“If Blakeslee wants to hold this seat he should continue to be seen as a moderate, even a progressive on environmental issues,” Mitchell said. “He should also find allies that will persuade the commission to combine Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito into a Democratic seat to ensure his seat heads only south.”