John Hager believes he has a very crucial qualification that can help propel his upstart campaign for Congress.

“I have no political experience,” he said, “and I think that will help.”

The 61-year-old Hager is a Santa Barbara civil litigation attorney, a Republican turned Democrat turned Decline-to-State voter who this week formally launched a decidedly long-shot bid to unseat Rep. Lois Capps. He’s running as an Independent in the 23rd Congressional District on a promise to “protect our budget, protect our environment.”

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Articulate and thoughtful, Hager is a fiscally conservative anti-politician who views Washington as corrupted by special-interest money. It’s a political stance he shares with Tom Watson, who’s campaigning as a Tea Party Republican in the coastal district, which has a voter registration profile tailor-made for Democrats like Capps.

But in a year of national political uncertainty, when concerns over government spending and debt and the cost of health-care reform and bailouts for Wall Street banks have created widespread anger at special-interest politicians and frustration with the status quo, Hager believes his nonpartisan, community-citizen appeal will resonate with voters.

Over coffee at an outdoor table at the Daily Grind a few days before announcing his campaign on Tuesday, Hager cited Capps’s support of the bailout, the health-care bill, and the Tranquillon Ridge offshore drilling project as three issues on which he sharply disagrees with her.

“She hasn’t dialogued with members of the opposite party,” he said, criticizing Capps for what he views as excessive partisanship. “I don’t know that she understands these core issues.”

Born in Indiana and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, Hager got his undergraduate and law degrees at USC, then practiced in L.A. before moving to Santa Barbara in the ’90s after winning a big judgment against Chevron in a wrongful death case. He and his wife, who works as a hospice nurse, have five children, and he discussed the pros and cons of making a run at length with his family before deciding.

Still, it came as a surprise. Hager recalled being on a plane bound for Graceland, a trip with which he’d surprised his wife for Valentine’s Day, when he dropped the news: “She was very quiet” for quite a while, Hager remembered, before telling him, “I didn’t think you were serious.”

Hager’s first challenge is to gather 9,758 valid voter signatures by an August 6 deadline in order to qualify for the November ballot. Strongly in favor of campaign finance reform, he said he’s imposed a $250 limit on campaign contributions, although being awash in political donations is unlikely to be a major problem.

“You can’t get the message out without having lots of money, and that’s going to be my biggest challenge,” Hager said. “I have to rely on volunteer support. If I don’t get the volunteer support then I don’t deserve to win.”

THE POLITICS OF OIL: At press time, the special election primary to select a successor for former state senator Abel Maldonado seemed headed for an August 17 runoff between Republican Assemblymember Sam Blakeslee and former Democratic Assemblymember John Laird, with Santa Barbara’s contentious Tranquillon Ridge project a central issue in the race. Blakeslee led Laird, 49.7 to 41.2 percent, agonizingly close to the majority needed to win outright; it is possible uncounted absentee and provisional ballots might yet push him over the threshold.

Special interests funneled more than $2 million total to the candidates and to independent expenditure committees supporting each. Democrats are trying to seize control of the once safely Republican seat, left vacant when Maldonado was appointed lieutenant governor, representing a vast coastal district that stretches through five counties, from Santa Maria nearly to San Jose.

With the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico raising the stakes on the issue of offshore oil drilling, Laird portrayed Blakeslee in a TV ad as a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Oil, in large part because the Republican aggressively but unsuccessfully pushed legislation to overturn a State Lands Commission decision rejecting the controversial T-Ridge plan, which was forged between the PXP oil company and Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Center. Laird also noted Blakeslee’s major contributions from big oil companies, including BP.

The framework of the T-Ridge debate was an interesting political turnabout from the just-completed Democratic primary for Santa Barbara’s 35th Assembly District seat, where Das Williams defeated Susan Jordan. In that race, Democrats were bitterly divided on the T-Ridge issue; in the Senate campaign, they united to attack Blakeslee as a champion of expanded offshore drilling because he backed the plan.


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