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State Senate election a sneaky one this year

     The holidays are over and suddenly it’s … election season.
    At least it is in Calaveras County, where voters will go to the polls tomorrow to help pick a new state senator. Republican Ted Gaines, a Roseville Republican, is squaring off against Democrat Ken Cooley, a Rancho Cordova city councilman and former mayor, for the District 1 seat.
    The post opened up with the death of incumbent Dave Cox in July.
    The First District ranges from the Oregon border through all or parts of 12 Northern California counties to its southern terminus at the Mono-Inyo county line. It includes more than 482,000 registered voters, but it is a safe bet that a good percentage of them have no idea that an election is on the menu Tuesday.
        There have been no debates, no forums, little advertising and not much campaign coverage — mostly because both candidates realize that December is no time to wage a high-pressure campaign.
    “It’s a family holiday season,” observed Cooley. “The last thing people want to talk about is another campaign.”
   “It’s the holidays,” agreed a Gaines aide, “and California just went through a contentious election cycle.”
   In a similar Christmas season election campaign 20 years ago, Assemblyman Pat Johnston summed up the lesson Gaines and Cooley have apparently learned:
    “I’m not about to compete with Santa Claus,” said the Stockton Democrat, explaining his low-profile campaign. “People don’t want political mailers mixed up with their Christmas cards.”
    So, just as it was two decades ago, even political junkies have to look hard for evidence of a campaign this year.
 Still, voting remains important and, for Calaveras County, the District 1 senator can be a key voice in Sacramento. The late Dave Cox showed us how effective such a voice can be.
    A former Sacramento County supervisor and Sacramento Municipal Utility District director, Cox understood the needs of local government and worked well with his constituents.  He was the Assembly’s Republican leader before moving up to the State Senate. The California Sheriff’s Association named him 2007’s Outstanding Senator, and in 2008 he was reelected with more than 60 percent of the vote districtwide.
    Yes, Gov. Schwarzenegger could have pushed the special election for Cox’s replacement a month or two into the future, but that would have left Calaveras and the rest of the First District without representation.
    As it is, the newly elected District 1 senator will be sworn in just days after his election.
    On the down side, very few voters will likely decide the Gaines-Cooley contest. According to the California Secretary of State’s Office, turnouts for such special elections have been historically low, averaging about 24 percent. In Johnston’s 1990 win over Republican Phil Wallace, the districtwide turnout was just 23.5 percent.
    In contrast, turnout for the Nov. 2 District 1 primary was nearly 66 percent.
    Voting in the Jan. 4 election has not gone off to a speedy start: Of 16,243 senatorial election ballots mailed out in Calaveras County, just 743 (4.6 percent) had been returned.
    “A lot of voters aren’t even aware of the election at this point,” said Becky Andahl, the county’s election coordinator.
    But with more than 24 hours left until the polls close, there is still plenty of time left to exercise your civic duty, elect and new state senator and, just maybe, kick off 2011 by helping your county exceed all those low turnout expectations.

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