Bruce Gibson was the victim of gerrymandering, mud-slinging and dark money. He won anyway

They threw every dirty trick at their disposal at Bruce Gibson, but in the end, San Luis Obispo County’s Republican Party leaders could not bring down the North Coast’s veteran supervisor, who defied many predictions by winning a fifth term.

His reelection not only assures his continued presence in county government, it also flips the board, putting Democrats in control for the first time in eight years.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for San Luis Obispo County, which has been ruled by a Republican majority oftentimes more committed to its conservative base than to the general welfare of all constituents.

As the board’s leading liberal member, Gibson had a target on his back long before the June primary, in which he was the top vote-getter but was unable to secure enough votes to avoid a runoff in the general election.

The elaborately orchestrated campaign to oust Gibson began last year, when the Republican Party and its proxy Richard Patten unveiled an audaciously drawn map during the redistricting process.

Bruce Jones campaign to file for recount in District 2 supervisor race

Toeing the party line, the three conservatives on the board adopted the new map that radically redrew the boundaries of Gibson’s reliably liberal coastal district to include the conservative city of Atascadero. Suddenly, Gibson found himself in a Republican-leaning district where, as of Dec. 5, the GOP outnumbered Democrats by 1,414 registered voters.

The shameless gerrymandering was so blatant that the chosen map came to be known as the “get Gibson out of office” version. It also led to the filing of a lawsuit currently making its way through court.

As if changing the playing field weren’t enough, Republicans doubled down on their disingenuity, following up with a nasty campaign that accused Gibson of corruption — based primarily on his association with the late Supervisor Adam Hill, who was accused of accepting a bribe from a cannabis grower — of being “pro-crime,” and of siding with “water pirates.” Old news about his affair with and his later marriage to his administrative assistant was also recirculated.

Attack ads targeting Supervisor Bruce Gibson, financed by the Back the Badge political action committee.
Attack ads targeting Supervisor Bruce Gibson, financed by the Back the Badge political action committee.

PAC money financed some of the attacks, including $25,000 that District Attorney Dan Dow gift-wrapped from his own campaign chest.

Dow piled on additional criticisms, including complaints that Gibson had refused invitations to take a tour of the District Attorney’s Office and had taken “personal potshots” at him.

Despite all that, Gibson prevailed, squeaking to victory by the narrowest of margins: Just 13 votes separated him from Dr. Bruce Jones, a political neophyte from Missouri who won the endorsement of the Republican Party despite his lack of experience and name recognition.

The validity of the final vote will no doubt be questioned.

That was already starting on Wednesday, with a report in Cal Coast News that alleged — without evidence, attribution or explanation — that hundreds of mail-in ballots had not been counted and that several poll workers ordered voters to turn in mail-in ballots without envelopes, which meant that dozens more ballots were not tallied.

Republican Party spokesman Erik Gorham went on Dave Congalton’s radio show Wednesday evening to confirm that a recount would be requested.

For his part, Jones declined to comment on the results.

“I’m just trying to figure out what’s happening,” he told Tribune reporter Stephanie Zappelli, shortly after the final results were posted.

Assuming those numbers stand, Gibson’s reelection, along with the victories of Democrats Jimmy Paulding in District 4 and Dawn Ortiz-Legg in District 3, will bring clear policy changes, especially in areas such as homeless services, affordable housing, health care, child care and climate action. Those have not always been high priorities with conservatives on the board.

It also could lead to reconsideration of redistricting, which the court could return to the board for further review.

And just think: This would not be the case had 13 votes gone the other way.

Not only has this been a lesson in the power of democracy — and the ability of good candidates to prevail despite the odds being stacked against them — it’s a reminder that every single vote matters.

So congratulations, Bruce Gibson.

And thank you, District 2 voters.

You have given us the opportunity to move forward from the cheating and lies that have become the standard operating procedure for leaders of the far right here.

They would be wise to take heed. For the last two years, the cynical manipulators tried to pull every lever they could in a futile attempt to maintain their grip on power.

But the people of SLO County saw through the charade, and now, they have sent the charlatans packing.