Editor’s note: This story is one in a series on the June 7 primary. For more coverage, visit vcstar.com/news/elections.
In what’s shaping up to be the most crucial Ventura County supervisor’s race in decades, two Republicans are attempting to sink a Thousand Oaks councilwoman’s bid to succeed the board’s longtime environmental champion, Linda Parks.
The election could flip the Board of Supervisors’ 3-2 votes on environmental issues if a conservative majority is elected in June or in a November runoff.
“Voters will have the decision on whether the values of the board held for the last 40 years will continue or whether they will take a radical departure,” said Steven Auclair, chairman of the Ventura County Democratic Party.
He said the board’s pro-environment and public health stance that began in the early 1980s could be lost in this election.
“We fully expect oil and developers will try to influence this election to gain control of the Board of Supervisors,” Auclair said.
Jeff Gorell, one of two Republicans running for the Thousand Oaks-based District 2 seat, has said Dr. Robert Levin, the county public health officer who ordered pandemic-related closures and masking, should be replaced, along with other county officials at the helm.
“We’ve got to toss our Board of Supervisors and we need to replace the leadership of the Department of Public Health and all the leadership positions at the county level,” he said at a March candidates forum held at Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park.
Republican members of the board have consistently supported the county’s health care system but have voted against environmental policies they saw as hurting business. With a conservative majority, the board could become more supportive of law enforcement and business, said John Andersen, chairman of the county Republican Party.
Gorell came out swinging at the conservative Newbury Park gathering, asking for support to elect a GOP majority to the board and stop the “Linda Parks machine,” a reference to Parks’ repeated election successes.
The board has been dominated for two decades by Democrats and Parks, an independent and former Republican who votes predictably for environmental causes. But it has been a bare majority of three — Parks and former supervisors Steve Bennett and John Zaragoza — that has passed several key land-use proposals in recent years.
On those 3-2 votes the board approved the county’s general plan over the objections of many in the business community, favored new permit requirements for oil drilling and voted for protections for movement of wildlife that some conservatives saw as a threat to business.
Parks has endorsed longtime Thousand Oaks Councilwoman Claudia Bill de-la Peña, 55, who declared her candidacy last summer.
Tim McCarthy, 56, a businessman and Republican activist who opposes mask orders and other pandemic-related mandates, declared about the same time and was her only known opponent for months. But then Gorell, 51, a former state legislator and deputy to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for more than six years, announced he was running in February.
Gorell jumped into the race after the board shifted boundaries to equalize populations in the county’s five districts and create a second majority Latino territory to enhance voting rights. The new lines also created an opportunity for Gorell because his residence in Camarillo is now in the populous swing district.
“Claudia has definitely got a race on her hands,” said Herb Gooch, a retired political science professor and longtime Thousand Oaks resident.
Claudia Bill de-la Peña
Bill de-la Peña’s 20 years on the City Council have been marked by slow-growth positions, fiscal restraint and a willingness to break from the council majority on key votes.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Germany, Bill de-la Peña holds a master’s degree in public administration from California Lutheran University and made a career as a television news writer. She left the news business in 2012 to raise twin sons.
Bill de-la Peña traces the beginning of her public service career to her involvement in efforts to penalize a developer who reportedly bulldozed a stream bed and cut oak trees without city permits.
That work caught the attention of then-Thousand Oaks Mayor Ed Masry, who appointed her to the city’s planning commission and then asked her to run for city council. Although reluctant to run because she had a full-time job with a Los Angeles television station, she took it on.
Bill de-la Peña barely won that first year but has coasted to victory ever since.
She says her 27 years in the community give her a shot at winning the supervisor’s post in the primary, avoiding a runoff against Gorell or McCarthy.
“I have my finger on the pulse of the community,” she said. “When you have been a public servant for a long time, people know your record and what you stand for. People know I really want to be fair to everyone and approach issues with common sense.”
The councilwoman said she wants to take on the much bigger job of supervisor because of the issues bearing down on the county.
“I find that climate change is extremely pressing,” she said, adding that she also wants to work on homelessness, increase access to mental health treatment and foster economic growth.
Gorell joined the race late but began making waves within weeks.
In the March appearance at Godspeak, he cast the election as a “once-in-a-generation chance to flip the Board of Supervisors on its ear” and make it a majority conservative Republican board.
In an interview with The Star, Gorell said he wants to evaluate county government leadership across the board.
Everything should be “on the table” given the harassment claims surrounding the departure of County Executive Mike Powers — “right under” the board’s nose, he said.
Powers retired abruptly in March after the board received a report that supported claims he had sexually harassed a female county employee. Powers denied the accusation.
Gorell reiterated his call for a review of top managers Tuesday night at an online candidates’ forum sponsored by the local League of Women Voters. Bill de-la Peña shot back that supervisors lack the authority to fire County Health Officer Levin or any county department heads, saying that’s up to the county executive officer. Levin works under a county contract that either party can terminate.
“The question here is do the candidates here believe in science,” she said. “I believe in science. I trust the experts to make the decision.”
If elected, Gorell said he wants to stop government overreach, boost public safety, protect quality of life and reduce homelessness. He says he is well qualified to do so because of his record as a problem solver who has worked at multiple levels of government.
The son of a naval officer, Gorell was raised around the world until his father’s last tour of duty in San Francisco, where he attended high school. He holds a law degree from the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and is a captain in the Navy Reserve who commands 22 units.
Gorell is currently on leave as director of homeland security at the Port of Los Angeles and says he will resign if elected supervisor.
He has won the endorsement of the county Republican Party over McCarthy, plus the support of firefighters and deputy sheriffs unions. He also has agricultural interests in his corner.
Gorell has $132,434 in cash donations, the most of among the three candidates, campaign finance statements show.
Bill-de la Peña reported $57,663 and McCarthy $21,136. The figures do not include loans from the candidates to their campaigns — $50,000 each for Bill-de la Peña and McCarthy, and $10,000 for Gorell. All have money left to spend.
The Service Employees International Union affiliate that represents thousands of county employees endorsed Bill-de la Peña. The councilwoman, who recently re-registered Democratic from no party preference, also has been endorsed by the county’s Democratic Party.
McCarthy has no union or party endorsements. He is endorsed by the county unit of the California Republican Assembly, which supports conservative Republican candidates.
Unlike his opponents, McCarthy has never held elected office and argues that serves to his advantage. He owns a security business in Thousand Oaks.
“A lot of people are sick of career politicians,” he said. “This is a perfect storm for a candidate like me.”
McCarthy is perhaps best known in political circles as the founder of Move the Needle, a political action committee that has held demonstrations over various causes, including the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. The group also tried unsuccessfully to recall Parks. He is no longer associated with the committee because he’s running for office, he said.
Last year, McCarthy urged the board to withdraw a Parks-initiated resolution condemning the January 2021 attack on the Capitol, claiming the document was inaccurate. The board made some corrections to reflect updated information but stood by the condemnation.
McCarthy said he’s running for supervisor to ensure the integrity of elections and to improve the local economy. He supports voter ID to confirm people’s identities and says ballots should be provided by mail only upon request.
Though Mark Lunn, the county’s elected registrar of voters, directly oversees elections, the supervisors control his budget.
“I think a lot of people, 50% of people don’t trust the elections process,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said he also wants to get more police on the streets. A conservative majority would be in a better position to prevent the county from descending into an economic depression, he said. Like his opponents, he wants to reduce homelessness.
He’s a strict constitutionalist, saying that all rights under the document and the Bill of Rights must be protected at all costs. “No situation should pause these rights, including viruses, threats, or disagreement with government,” says a statement on his campaign website.
He is not vaccinated and does not think masks work. Both his opponents are vaccinated.
Although county attorneys argued Levin had the right to close indoor operations at businesses and churches to protect the public during the pandemic, McCarthy and many of his followers say individual liberty should have prevailed.
“It is not their job to make sure nobody dies,” McCarthy said.
Raised in New Jersey and Florida, McCarthy has worked in the security business for more than 30 years. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing from the University of Phoenix.
Political analysts don’t give McCarthy much chance to win, but say he could be the spoiler who forces the race into a November runoff if neither Bill-de la Peña nor Gorell gets a majority of the vote.
McCarthy’s best chance is to point up the differences between him and Gorell to take Republican votes, said Tim Allison, a political scientist who studies local races.
With ballots going out Monday to homes in the district of almost 125,000 voters, Allison sees Gorell with the edge.
“The other two candidates have to play catchup,” said Allison, an adjunct professor at CSU Channel Islands.
For Bill-de la Peña to win, she has to run hard and show voters what’s at stake, he said.
He expects the balance on the board to stay pretty much the same if Bill-de la Peña captures the seat.
“The change would be if either of the other two is elected,” he said.
June 7 primary election
Ventura County will be conducting the election under a new California Voter’s Choice Act model that allows voters to choose how, when and where to cast their ballots.
Ballots: Mail-in ballots are sent to all registered voters starting May 9.
When and where to vote: Mail or drop off ballots by June 7 or vote in person May 28 – June 7 at county voting centers. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. except Election Day, when they run from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. You can vote early in person beginning May 9 at the Ventura County Elections Division office on the bottom floor of the county’s Hall of Administration, 800 S. Victoria Ave., Ventura.
Voter registration deadlines: Online by May 23 and in person through June 7.
To check registration status: voterstatus.sos.ca.gov
Learn more: venturavote.org
Latest election news: vcstar.com/news/elections/
Kathleen Wilson covers the Ventura County government, including the county health system, politics and social services. Reach her at email@example.com or 805-437-0271.