When Jim Dantona ran for county supervisor last year, he lost the race by less than 900 votes in a largely Republican district.

To the self-described “centrist Democrat,” this was promising. (Although the office was nonpartisan, charges flew from the Democratic camp that Dantona’s opponent, Peter Foy, was responsible for sending out mailers with images featuring Dantona with prominent Democrats.)

“It was a district that was 20 percent more Republican than Democrat,” said Dantona. “In the past it’s been [a district] that Democrats have had a hard time making in-roads in.”

It was also a race which he felt garnered a lot of attention from the state Legislature.

“They looked at it as a test of, ‘Is Dantona the kind of candidate who could swing the kind of district like the 19th?’ ”

After gauging the political climate for himself by doing a fair amount of pavement-pounding and speaking to prominent “Sacramento folks,” Dantona decided to throw his cap in the state Senate ring to represent a district that encompasses Northwestern Los Angeles County, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, Simi Valley (of which Dantona is a resident), Camarillo, Ventura, Ojai and parts of Santa Barbara County, including Santa Barbara, Lompoc, Carpinteria, Buellton and Solvang.

And he names as his supporters State Senate President pro Tem Don Perata (D–East Bay), Sen. Alex Padilla (D–San Fernando Valley) and State Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D–Los Angeles).

“Every democratic senator up there is going to participate in this race,” said Dantona. “It’s the most important race for them. It’s going to be expensive, the hardest fought. It’s going to be the race.”

A life more political

Dantona’s political career began more than 30 years ago, when, after five years of teaching elementary and high school, he got a job offer from within the state legislature.

He had met State Sen. David Roberti at a community event, and the two maintained contact, with Dantona expressing an interest in politics.

“I was a big admirer of Sen. Roberti,” Dantona said. “He was really a progressive who cared about the working class.”

Roberti eventually hired Dantona as a field representative, and within six months, Dantona was his chief of staff. It was a position he would hold for the next 10 years.

After leaving Sacramento, Dantona tapped into his quick career in the Chicago Cubs, which had spanned all of 1969. He was released after spring training, but his passion for baseball was untainted, and 17 years ago he founded Baseballers Against Drugs, an outreach program to put major league athletes — many of them recovered addicts — in front of kids to discuss the importance of staying focused and staying sober.

Says the single father of three now grown children, \\\”I saw what kids were going through today that I never went through by age 59, and so I wanted to do something. I put my $10,000 in the organization.\\\”

Upping the ante

Dantona’s “hard-fought” prediction is echoed by the current sole Republican candidate, former State Assemblymember Tony Strickland.

But Mike Osborn, chairman of the Ventura County Republican Party, is confident that Ventura will remain a Republican county within a Republican district.

“Obviously, our issues are the health of the state, fiscal responsibility — things that Republicans have always considered to be our main focus,” Osborn said. “We seem to have a tremendous amount of support.”

Strickland himself named “fiscal responsibility, public safety, education and transportation issues” among his chief issues.

“We’re going to focus in on taxes and government spending — we’re spending more than we’re taking in,” he said.

He also plans to salvage the high school exit exam he helped co-author.

“Right now there’s a fight to throw it out the window,” Strickland said. “I actually think an exit exam is very important so kids can succeed in reading and math skills. So they can succeed when they go on the job market.”

He will continue to back the “Three Strikes Law,” which he credits with driving down the state’s crime rate.

Fiscally, he would consider a two-year budget cycle to combat the “stalemate and fluctuation” that he sees happening in Sacramento.

“You’re going to have more consistency and less spikes if you adopt a two-year plan,” Strickland explained.

Osborn reported that Strickland had nearly half a million dollars in his war chest.

(In the period ending July 31, it was reported that Strickland had received $443,641 in contributions, with an ending total of $380,563.02 after expenditures.)

While both sides consider their candidates centrist, Dantona was quick to classify Strickland as far right, catering to the extreme of the conservative party, to the exclusion of his more moderate constituents.

“Unless you can get someone up there to work with Perata and all of the leadership [in Sacramento] you’re not going to be able to get anything effective done for your district,” Dantona said, later adding, “I can assure you that my opponent, Mr. Strickland, will never be working with leadership. His philosophy is in a totally different region than the leaders in the state.”

Osborn viewed Dantona’s “liberal baggage” as a considerable drawback to his candidacy.

“I think he’s a flawed candidate,” Osborn said. “He’s been a liberal Democrat, and he’s worked for Gray Davis and Roberti, and been a consultant.”

But what might be to Strickland’s backers a drawback is seen as relevant experience to a local Democratic committee.

“He’s a great Democrat,” said Bill Gallaher, Ventura County Democratic Central Committee chair. “He’s worked on many Democratic campaigns and worked real closely with the Democratic Party for a very long time. Just not here locally.”

Dantona’s consulting firm, Governmental Impact, was founded after Dantona first left the Legislature to offer services to governmental, corporate and private sectors. Through his firm, he offers resources on everything from understanding California law to working-class issues to securing government funding, and includes corporations, nonprofits, politicians and individuals among his client base.

Interestingly, Governmental Impact lists among its clients one Tony Strickland.

According to Dantona, he was hired to help Strickland better understand Democratic policy. Dantona maintains that none of his services were related to Strickland’s campaign.

“He gave the appearance he wanted to move more toward the Democratic philosophy,” said Dantona. “In his first term, he really didn’t know how Democratic leadership thought, and at the time he was trying to, you might say, get himself into a position where he would be welcomed into the assembly by Democratic leadership … It was a futile effort. It was a short-term thing. He did endorse me for supervisor, then pulled his endorsement back.”

Now Dantona maintains that the 19th is in need of a “centrist” candidate, and he is confident that he can reach across the aisle to work across party lines.

“This district goes unnoticed because it’s represented by people who are out of the mainstream,” Dantona said, referring to current Sen. Tom McClintock.

Das Williams, Santa Barbara mayor pro tempore and legislative analyst for Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, predicted an “extremely chaotic” senate race.

“My sense of it is there will be several Republicans in the race, and that will be a brutal primary,” he said.

The race heats up

Dantona may not be the sole Democrat vying for an open senate seat. Asked to confirm whisperings that she would be throwing her cap into the race, former assemblymember Hannah Beth Jackson said she was “looking at the district” and would make up her mind in the next few weeks.

“Term limits essentially ended my opportunity to continue serving [this district], while the Senate would continue that opportunity in the upper houses, as they call it,” Jackson said.

On the topic of Dantona, Jackson admitted that she knew little about him.

“I wouldn’t be running against someone,” she said, “I would be running on the basis of my past record, the issues I feel very deeply about, which include reforming our healthcare system — which is in desperate need of reform — protecting the environment, protecting public health, public education. I have a long track record of working with local law enforcement in issues of public safety.”

After her stint in the assembly, Jackson began Speak Out California!, an online resource that formed with the goal “of educating and informing people in the whole process, encourage public participation in bringing new ideas and vision into California’s political landscape.”

A weekly Web log gives updates on pending legislation and encourages citizens’ participation in the state political process.

Jackson’s post-legislative career has involved an academic career teaching at UC Santa Barbara as the school’s first public policymaker in residence. Her lectures have focused on California politics and women’s role in modern politics.

“It’s been a very productive and interesting hiatus from the actual world of electoral politics, hence my continued interest in it,” she said.

Williams considers Jackson the strongest possible Democratic candidate.

“She’s the only person I’ve worked for who’s never disappointed me with either her commitment to making things better, her stance on issues and her work ethic, and I think that shows through to people.”

He does not predict that Republican voters will all stick to the party line.

“There are factions of the Republican Party that don’t want to give Strickland a pass. Strickland is a very divisive character in some ways. The chances of there being a contested primary I think are really high because of that.”

Tom may rise again

Meanwhile, McClintock is being termed out. Or is he? A ballot initiative known as Senate Constitutional Amendment 9, or the \\\”Term Limits and Legislative Reform Act,” could spice up the Republican ticket.

In 2008 McClintock will have reached the eight-year term limit imposed in 1990, one specifying that an official may serve no more than a total of 14 years in the state legislature (with a cap of eight years in the senate). The bill, introduced by Sen. Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield), seeks to extend term limits, which means McClintock could potentially keep his old job.

“I haven’t made a decision yet, but I would expect to run,” said McClintock. “I’ve always found wisdom in Winston Churchill’s response to a similar question: ‘I fight for my corner, and I leave when the pub closes.’ ”

McClintock declined to comment on potential opponent Strickland, who once worked on his staff. To observers on both sides of the spectrum, however, McClintock’s sudden eligibility would mean a quick exit for Strickland.

“In other words,” said Williams, “all bets are off if the term limits are extended.”

Williams believes the incumbency factor would work in McClintock’s favor, “unless there was an extremely strong challenge by the Democrats in the race.”

In his view, a state senate campaign absent the old guard could mean victory for the Democrats.

“It’s a Republican district, but I think there are a lot of very socially liberal Republicans and Independents in the district, with some strong Democratic areas in it as well. Even though the district leans Republican, I think the Democrats have a good shot at an open seat. I think that Strickland is so far to the right that … a lot of Republicans and definitely independents are going to be searching for an alternative.”

Dantona sounds off

In the lead-up to a more official declaration of candidacy, Dantona gives an interview that sounds more like a polished stump speech, anticipating questions and weaving his consulting experience into his platform.

Paramount is the health of the state, he says, and he means it in both a literal and economic sense: He connects the issues of employment and health care, using Countrywide’s recent lay-offs as an example.

“[Statewide], we now will have 12,000 people who are going to be out of jobs, what happens to those people when it comes to getting health care?”

The balance, he said, needs to be struck between the interests of the corporations and the employees. This extends to a recent trend of exporting work.

“You can’t let major corporations in this state or in this country be able to outsource jobs and at the same time have tax benefits as though these jobs were here in California,” he said. “Both at the national and in the state level, [companies] are still getting the tax benefits of having their headquarters in California.”

His position is neither liberal nor moderate, he says, but “centrist.”

“Centrists care about jobs, healthcare, education, putting food on the table.”

Dantona’s own working class background — born in a small flat in Chicago to a father who worked manual labor — has piqued his interest in representing the worker.

“I work with labor, there’s no secret here,” he said. “I work with United Food and Commercial Workers to make sure there’s a good rapport between government and these unions.”

These, he says, are universal concerns.

“Whether you’re Republican or Democrat,” Dantona said, “the one thing you care about is health — the health of your children, your parents.”

While he says he understands the limits of a state senator, his passionate objection to the Iraq War is something he feels he can better broadcast from a state seat, and he praises the recent Senate Bill 924, which, if passed, would allow voters to register whether the president should end occupation in Iraq.

“Will [objection to the war] be one of my mainstays? Not really, it can’t be,” he said. “I’m elected to represent the state of California, the 19th district. In that role, I have the ability to be heard, I have a podium and soapbox to speak from, I have no problem saying it’s time to get out of Iraq.”