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Riverside vacancy sets off Capitol GOP firestorm

The resignation of a longtime Riverside County supervisor has set of a round of intense political jockeying and speculation around the Capitol.

Last week’s resignation of Supervisor Roy Wilson creates a vacancy on the board that must now be filled by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. And a full-blown lobbying effort has begun by lawmakers, current and former, who are angling for the appointment.

Chief among them is Sen. John Benoit, R-Palm Desert, who was just elected to the Senate last year, after an intense primary battle against former Assemblyman Russ Bogh. Although he has another seven years of Senate eligibility, Benoit and his allies are pushing the governor to name him to the board.

But others are pushing hard for former Sen. Jim Battin, R-Yucaipa. Battin contemplated running against Wilson in 2006, but ultimately demurred. Since leaving office, Battin has continued to run a political consulting company that buys television air time for political campaigns.

Former Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City, also is a contender and is considered a favorite of Schwarzenegger, who appointed her to the Unemployment Appeals Board by Schwarzenegger when she left office in 2007.

Battin also is under contract with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association as a political strategist. The prison guards union has tangled mightily with the Schwarzenegger administration since 2003. It was unclear whether Battin’s association with the union would be a strike against him in his quest for the nomination.

Battin did not return calls seeking comment for this story. But other reports indicate Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno, are among those lobbying the governor on Battin’s behalf. Cogdill, a former Republican leader who was ousted by his caucus in a heated budget battle earlier this year, “has a favor to cash in with the administration, and hasn’t asked for anything but this,” said one Capitol source.

Publicly, Cogdill is remaining neutral. Sources close to the former Senate Republican leader say he is close to both Battin and Benoit, and that the rivalry between the two has put Cogdill in an awkward position.

Garcia is a former Battin aide, and sources close to her say she would not be a candidate for the job as long as Battin is being considered. But, the sources say, Garcia would be interested in the job is Battin is passed over by the governor.

Former Assembly candidate Gary Jeandron also is lobbying for the post.

The intense Capitol jockeying for the supervisor’s job underscores a growing truth about California government: Seats in the California Legislature have become less desirable than many city and county openings. Riverside supervisors earn $143,000 annually, plus transportation and staffing benefits, nearly $30,000 more than rank-and-file state lawmakers and $10,000 more than the Senate and Assembly’s top leaders.

Along with the higher salaries, on many city councils or boards of supervisors, like Riverside, there are no term limits as there are in the Legidslature. Local offices often have fewer regulations on campaign fundraising, as well. In fact, some state lawmakers have even resorted to opening county supervisorial campaign committees as a way to raise money without the contribution limits that apply to state accounts.

So who will Schwarzenegger pick? That remains a mystery.

Spokeswoman Rachel Cameron said the process is confidential, but that the governor is “looking to fill the vacancy as quickly as possible with the most well-qualified candidate.”

Others are not so sure. One Schwarzenegger adviser said he expects the governor to wait until after the legislative session ends, on Sept 11, before making the appointment. The thinking, according to this adviser, is that a potential appointment would keep Benoit “on good behavior” on key policy proposals favored by the governor in the closing days of the legislative year.

Allies of Battin have begun a whisper campaign that includes a message of fiscal austerity as a reason to not appoint Benoit. If Benoit’s Senate seat becomes vacant, they say, the state will have to foot the bill for a special election. And if one of the three interested Assemblymembers wins the Senate seat, that would create another vacancy, and another special election, at an additional cost to the state.

For now, Schwarzenegger remains mum, though he is hearing pitches from all sides.

Benoit has the blessing of the outgoing supervisor, Wilson, and the rest of the board. On Tuesday, the board called a special meeting to pass a resolution urging Schwarzenegger to appoint Benoit to fill the vacancy.

At least three Assemblymen are already exploring the possibility of a run for Benoit’s potentially vacant Senate seat. Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, whose brother works for Benoit, is interested, as are Republicans Jeff Miller of Corona and Kevin Jefferies of Riverside. Bogh is also considering a run for the seat he lost in 2008.

Even the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, is bracing for the fallout. On her Facebook page this week, Bowen wrote, “Anticipating another special election, in Riverside, if Senator John Benoit is appointed to fill a vacancy on the board of supervisors.”


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