Last April, prominent Democratic Assemblymember Das Williams announced he would run for county supervisor just days after Salud Carbajal, current 1st District supervisor, declared his candidacy for Congress. It was not until six months later that Jennifer Christensen, the county’s investment officer, emerged as his sole contender.
At face value, the race between Williams and Christensen could not be more of a mismatch. Williams is a high-profile Democratic politician who grew up in Ojai, Isla Vista, and Santa Barbara before entering the public eye at age 29, when he ran for Santa Barbara City Council. He’s been raising money since announcing — with considerable support from several unions and tribal governments — and outpaces Christensen with $341,200 on hand.
But Christensen, a largely unknown independent voter, has raised enough money to penetrate the airwaves in recent weeks; she’s spent $164,000 this year and still has another $112,500 left. Her TV ads champion a message of fiscal restraint and accountability as she has worked for the County Counsel and the Auditor-Controller’s office for the past 15 years.
To the extent she can tackle Williams — a serious political fighter— Christensen has taken him to task for always looking for a greener political seat, playing on the current political atmosphere that certainly favors outsiders.
But pundits emphasize the science in political science. Democrats have a stronghold on the 1st District — made up of Santa Barbara, Montecito, Carpinteria, and Cuyama. Of its 41,900 registered voters, nearly 48 percent are registered Democrats, and 22 percent are registered Republicans; 24 percent are registered no party preference, but most lean Democrat.
In fact, the 1st District bleeds so green it was the only supervisorial district to approve Measure P, the controversial ban on unconventional oil drilling (fracking, cyclic steam injection, etc.) that was shot down by 62 percent of voters countywide. Many Democrats and environmentalists lingered before backing Measure P, but Williams led the charge and functioned as campaign crusader.
Regardless of the outcome of the 1st District race, the election symbolizes the end of an era in county politics: Carbajal, who has held the seat for three terms after a decade as the chief of staff for former 1st District supervisor Naomi Schwartz, is stepping down. Though the two have had a complicated political friendship over the years, Carbajal endorsed Williams.
Williams, 41, who terms out of the Assembly this year, had recently moved to Carpinteria, and he and his wife had a baby girl last September. A progressive Democrat who was first elected to the Santa Barbara City Council in 2003, Williams is regarded as hardworking, creative, ambitious, and, critics contend, annoyingly opportunistic. Before he had even completed his first City Council term, Williams ran for 2nd District supervisor and lost to Janet Wolf, who currently represents the district. (Wolf, incidentally, just endorsed him.)
Because Williams is backed by the Democratic Party and has high name recognition — he said his polling indicates 85 percent of people in the district know him — some Republicans question Christensen’s ability to beat him. However, Dan Secord, a doctor and former county supervisorial candidate, said he believes Christensen has a good chance. “She doesn’t owe anybody anything,” he said. Electing Williams as a supervisor, Secord argued, is not in the best interest of the county. Former unsuccessful City Council candidate Sharon Bryne is running Christensen’s campaign.
A fifth-generation Californian from the Los Angeles area, Jennifer Christensen, 43, moved to Santa Barbara County in 2001, when former county counsel Shane Stark hired her for an entry-level position. Stark recalled she was smart, funny, ambitious, and feisty at times. Christensen, who has a law degree and MBA from USC, went on to work for the Auditor-Controller’s office before becoming the investment officer three years ago.
She is seeking to move to the other side of the dais, she said, because Williams’s candidacy gave her “reason for concern about our county finances — even more than I had before.” Christensen further contended Williams’s contributed to the near depletion of city’s reserves mostly due to salary and benefit increases. “We can’t afford that kind of decision making,” she said.
For his part, Williams argues the council balanced the budget in the midst of the Great Recession — while protecting fire, police, and youth programs. “That’s what reserves are for,” he said. Williams has been generously backed by unions his entire political career, a fact his critics have emphasized.
Christensen also cites the county’s $1 billion in unfunded liabilities, including $700 million in pensions and $350 million in roads, parks, and facilities maintenance backlog, as motivating her decision.
Democrats suggest über-conservative — and maintenance crusader — 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam encouraged Christensen to get in the race, which Christensen adamantly denies. “It’s kind of offensive to not be treated as someone who is a capable independent woman who makes decisions on her own,” she said. “Especially one who frankly knows more about the finances than the county supervisors, including Peter.” Adam’s family business, Adam Brothers Farming, donated $9,000 to her campaign.
Christensen was elected to the county’s employee retirement system board, and she serves on the city’s Fire and Police Commission. “Public safety is near and dear to my heart,” she said at a recent forum. Her husband, Conn Abel, is a 34-year retired sheriff’s deputy and Thomas Guerry Award recipient who worked in every substation in Santa Barbara County.
Resonating with many 1st District voters, Christensen points out Williams opened an account titled Senate 2020, a fact he has had to address multiple times in recent weeks. Christensen charges Williams’s entire expertise is as an elected official, generating anger among those who believe he will skip town after just one term.
Williams responded the reason he opened the committee — which had $42,500 in it and is now empty — was to raise money for his political allies “so I am not using local people’s money” to elect Democrats across the state.
At a Montecito Association–sponsored debate last Friday, Williams said he would have opened an account titled Senate 2016, but State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (who is running for reelection) felt uncomfortable with that. In an interview, Jackson acknowledged the issue could confuse people, but said she thought “the public just shouldn’t make too much of this.”
Jackson, known to be Williams’s key political mentor and personal friend, said, “He certainly knows the issues.” She said his legislation has focused on local issues, and that for Williams, as a new dad, “It’s not easy to leave your family on a Sunday night.”
Asked if he plans to run for higher office, Williams said, “I’m sure someday I will want to broaden my ability to affect change. But right now there are so many things that are happening at the county level that directly relate to work that I was doing at the state.”
Supporter and Montecito Planning Commissioner J’Amy Brown added, “My guess is he can get more done at four years on the job than most people can get done in eight.” Others contend it takes years for the supervisors to get acclimated to many issues.
One topic that recently formed a wedge between Williams and Christensen was the controversial Highway 101 widening project. Williams contended the project needed to move on. “Is it perfect?” he asked. “No.” He called it “unproductive to delay the inevitable” as “tens of thousands of people are sitting in traffic.” He added just two people on SBCAG (Santa Barbara County Association of Governments) voted against the project.
Christensen — who received about $30,000 from freeway-widening opponents Bob Short and Ron Pulice — noted a judge recently ruled the analysis of street congestion that would be inflicted on several Santa Barbara city intersections caused by the additional freeway was inadequate. Caltrans, she charged, failed in part to abide by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). “Caltrans and SBCAG missed a major opportunity with the alternative studies and plans” and instead approved a plan that was not affordable, legally sound, or well designed.
Williams shot back: “Will we get anything better through the CEQA lawsuit?” He then said, we needed to “get on with it.”
On vacation rentals, Williams argued the county should not go as far as an outright ban. “We should minimize it in places where it competes with housing stock and permanent rentals.” Christensen noted cities are left to institute their own policies.
Asked what grade they would give county supervisors’ performances, Williams gave them an A- to B+. Christensen said C+. She objected to the supervisors’ deciding (on a 4-1 vote) to give most county employees — “of which I am one, by the way” — four paid vacation days during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, costing, she claimed, $6 million. Williams objected that the funds were not discretionary to spend on other things. Contacted after the debate, budget director Tom Alvarez said it’s not really a financial issue as the county was planning to pay everyone those days. However, he said, “You have the productivity cost.”
To the extent he could adjust his Sacramento experience to the county level, Williams said he would look to fix an ordinance that — due to “bureaucratic inertia” — limits solar in the Cuyama Valley.
Ultimately, it’s Williams’s race to lose. County insiders — even those who tend to agree with him — question whether his political brashness will play out every Tuesday on the 4th floor of the County Administration Building.