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During his first two decades as a teacher of high school economics and history, Steve Bennett says he mostly ignored local politics. “I didn’t even know who was on the city council,” says Bennett, a resident of Ventura, California. “I was just so focused on teaching and what was going on in my school.” But as he watched subdivisions spill into surrounding farmland and orchards, Bennett became increasingly alarmed. Then he got involved.

In 1993, after campaigning to get other candidates elected to the Ventura city council, Bennett won his own seat. He worked to pass laws limiting development but soon became frustrated by his and the council’s inability to curb growth. Instead, Bennett and a local attorney decided to take their antisprawl arguments straight to the voters by founding Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR). The group scored its first victory in Bennett’s hometown by winning passage of a ballot measure limiting development. Led by Bennett, SOAR fought to get similar initiatives approved countywide. Emboldened, Bennett quit his teaching job in 1998 to campaign for a seat on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. He won with more than 62 percent of the vote.

As a county supervisor, Bennett has fought to cut government waste, taking on a vacation policy that allowed city managers to pad their pensions. Recently, Bennett has focused on campaign finance reform, an issue he became concerned with during battles with developers over SOAR-sponsored initiatives. “We’re getting locally elected officials that don’t represent the core value of the citizens they represent,” he says. “They’re too responsive to the campaign contributions and the moneyed interests that bankroll many of these local campaigns.” In March, the Ventura supervisors approved a tough ordinance limiting contributions to county election campaigns and increasing financial reporting requirements.

Bennett’s populist politics can be traced to his childhood in a working-class Irish neighborhood in Indianapolis. At Brown he studied economics and served as cocaptain of the football team, earning All Ivy honors as a linebacker. His tenacity and cleverness have served him well ever since. In January, the Los Angeles Times described him as “perhaps the most influential local politician” in Ventura County.





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