At the famous tourist trap Pea Soup Andersen’s in Buellton, the Santa Barbara County Democratic Central Committee voted Thursday to endorse Gregg Hart in the race for 2nd District supervisor. It was reportedly very close.
The committee had a choice between two Democrats: Hart, a Santa Barbara City councilmember, and Susan Epstein, a Goleta school boardmember. Thus far, they are the only two candidates in the race, and no one else appears interested — Democrat or Republican. (In fact, Hart has not formally announced his candidacy. There was speculation he would not run if he did not win the Democratic Party endorsement. As a practical matter, the party nod translates to considerable resources, such as campaign volunteers and mailers.)
The 2nd District spans the Goleta Valley and parts of the City of Santa Barbara, and is deeply blue. Registered Democrats hold a 23 percent advantage over Republicans; independent voters make up 24 percent.
Sitting around a U-shaped table in the Andersen’s banquet room, 31 committee members munched on fries and sandwiches. Perhaps only one person ate pea soup. They listened to both candidates give 15-minute pitches. While all registered Democrats were invited to listen to the interviews, observers were asked to leave during the committee’s deliberations. The party received pushback during last year’s Santa Barbara City Council election for endorsing what critics said was too early.
The central committee is made up of mostly longtime Santa Barbara Democrats representing different Democratic “clubs.” On the first Thursday of every month, they meet at Andersen’s — also the spot for the Republican Central Committee.
Both Hart and Epstein are, as one member put it, formidable candidates. Both have been endorsed by the party several times in the past. Both grew up with mothers who were public school teachers. Both have been involved with the party for many years (Hart for about 35 years; Epstein for 14).
But similarities might end there. On Thursday, Epstein had asked to go first. Hart had asked to go second. Epstein held large note cards that had her speech printed on them. Hart spoke off the cuff.
In her speech, Epstein painted a picture of perseverance. Growing up in the Los Angeles area, Epstein lost her mom when she was 11 years old. Her dad took on a second job, and friends and neighbors stepped in to help raise her, she said. “As a result, I thrived,” she said. “I learned the power of a strong working community.” She learned to “dream big.” Epstein offered other life details — labor law school in Chicago, a seminar in racism and the law with Barack Obama, a first gig with the American Civil Liberties Union, and a career in the nonprofit sector. She spoke with conviction.
Hart’s tone, on the other hand, was casual. He said several times he is a “team player,” adding the evening felt “a little bit like Thanksgiving.” He’s been involved in the Democratic Party for more than three decades. Born and raised in Santa Barbara, he has lived in the 2nd District his entire life, save for the years he spent in Isla Vista while attending UC Santa Barbara. He got into politics working as an aide for Jack O’Connell and Gary Hart. He served on the California Coastal Commission and the Santa Barbara City Council. He works on transportation issues at the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments.
Overall, neither really criticized the other. In one subtle jab, however, Epstein said she has already raised more than $100,000 “for this seat specifically.” Hart was recently reelected to the Santa Barbara City Council, and critics complain he raised so much so he could transfer the money to his supervisorial campaign coffers. Campaign finance reports filed with the City of Santa Barbara show he raised $43,000 in November and December. He has $115,000 cash on hand. (The latest available campaign finance reports show Epstein raised about $54,500 through December 31. She also loaned herself $20,000.)
For his part, Hart said outgoing Supervisor Janet Wolf told him about a year ago that she was actually going to go for reelection. After she changed her mind, Hart said, he decided to run. He added that he gave the decision serious thought before jumping in. (Wolf has endorsed Epstein.)
Hart also said the deadly Montecito storm compelled him to run for county supervisor because he has land-use knowledge and great experience in government. “We are not going to recover in six months,” he said. “It’ll take years.” Asked if he would commit to serving the entire four-year term, Hart said, “Absolutely. This is going to be the last job I’ll have.”