Since 1997, Lois Capps has run for her congressional seat no less than 19 times. This Monday, Capps — the nine-term Democrat representing Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties in Congress — announced that she would not seek reelection. “For everything there is a time and season,” said Capps, a onetime Yale divinity student not to mention former high school nurse, during an interview at her Santa Barbara home. “Lo and behold, it’s been 17 years since I’ve been in Congress. If anyone told me I would be here that long, I would never have believed them.”
Capps, now 77, declined to offer many specifics as to what guided her announcement. “I don’t make decisions based on lightning bolts,” she noted. “I’ve been thinking on this a while, and it just feels right to me. No one called up and said, ‘You have to go now.’”
Since filling the Congressional vacancy created when her husband Walter died of a heart attack in 1997, Capps has emerged as a potent, abiding force in the course of Santa Barbara politics. The substantial get-out-the-vote efforts she’s waged, especially in Isla Vista, have helped not just her own campaigns but those of untold Democrats; to an unusual degree, Capps’s endorsements have always carried weight. Republicans, it should be noted, held a 47-year lock on the district until Walter was elected in 1996. Over the years, a string of Republican candidates have been quick to dismiss Capps as “a nice lady” only to have her clean their clocks.
In Congress, Capps has played the role of team player and party loyalist. She’s also enjoyed profound family ties to the Obama administration. Hers has been a reliable vote on issues relating to health care, education, coastal oil drilling, environmental protection, gender equity, and gay rights.
Though Capps’s name is attached to no landmark legislation, she takes intense pride in the role she played getting the Affordable Care Act passed out of the Energy and Commerce Committee on which she sits. “Thirty-three thousand people now have health care in Santa Barbara County who didn’t before,” she said. “Maybe that doesn’t get a lot of headlines, but I think it’s a pretty big deal.” Almost as big — at least at the time — was Capps’s vote not to authorize President George Bush to wage war against Iraq. Only a handful of congressmembers voted to oppose the war.
Capps’s announcement has long been the subject of intense anticipation in Democratic circles, especially among younger political figures impatient to further the trajectory of their elected careers. First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal has been so overt about his congressional intentions that they’ve become fodder for jokes on the political roast circuit. Less conspicuous has been Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, but she too has been making noises common to congressional campaigns. And then there’s Capps’s daughter, Laura, whose return to Santa Barbara from the nation’s capitol — where she and her husband, Bill Burton, ranked as a certified über power couple — have given rise to much speculation about political dynasties.
There’s been no shortage of Republican names about which to speculate, either. Leading the list is San Luis Obispo State Assemblymember Katcho Achadjian, but Justin Fareed — who lost the Republican primary to perennial candidate Chris Mitchum — has re-activated his campaign committee. Santa Barbara City Councilmember Dale Francisco — just elected head of the Republican Central Committee — said he’s “ruminating” whether to run.
Capps declined to comment on who she might endorse, if she will, or when. “Give me a little space,” she said in mock exasperation.
Certainly Capps’s last year in office ranked among her hardest. Once again, she found herself a member of the minority party in a gridlocked institution where many Republicans demonstrated a willingness to shut the federal government down. Even Capps, known for the resolute determination of her optimism, conceded the critical mass of partisan rancor has made political life difficult.
On the eve of last November’s election, the federal government agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a DUI hit-and-run death case involving Capps’s employee Raymond Morua. Morua had gotten drunk at a Christmas Party the year before hosted by The Santa Barbara Independent and killed Mallory Dies, a popular bartender in town. On the advice of counsel, Capps insisted that Morua was not on the clock at the time of the accident and that he was not representing her when he attended the party.
The Dies family was incensed and accused Capps of ducking. They dogged her at public events. How could Capps not know, they demanded, that Morua had a history of DUIs and hit-and-runs? Capps said she tried calling the family the day after the accident. “They were not in a position to take my call,” she said. As for Morua, Capps said she thought she knew him. “This is a vet. This is a guy who starts a veterans group on campus when he comes back. He worked as an intern for me,” she said. “There’s never been a formal screening process before. Now there is.”
By any reckoning, Capps’s campaign against Republican challenger Christopher Mitchum last November should have been a cakewalk. It was anything but. Given predictions of low voter turnout and the backlash against an anti-fracking ballot measure, Capps’s pollsters reckoned the race was dead even. Pulling out the stops, Capps aired attack ads quoting Mitchum saying he wasn’t running “to represent the 24th congressional district.” In fact, he had said he wasn’t running to secure baseball diamonds for the district.
For Capps — who routinely wins the nicest member of Congress award bestowed by congressional staffers — it was a departure. Ultimately, she won the race with a 4 percent cushion. But Mitchum sued, charging the ads not only cost him the election but constituted an infliction of intentional emotional distress. Capps dismissed the lawsuit — still pending — as “pretty frivolous.” Elections, she insisted, are not won or lost by TV ads but by grassroots campaigns. She had one. Mitchum did not.
Throughout her career, Capps has gloried in her get-out-the-vote efforts. She doesn’t endure them; she relishes them. She basks in the energy of young voters, casting ballots, perhaps, for the first time. “It doesn’t matter who they vote for,” she said. “It’s a habit they develop and carry on in life.” The trick, she explained, is creating a space that’s clean and fun. If it’s at a doughnut shop, so much the better. Provide lots of pizza. Work with young volunteers and party activists. Few people have ever matched Capps’s work ethic or prodigious stamina.
For Capps, that personal connection has always been at the core of her politics. “It’s all about relationships. It’s about the people you meet on the way to elevator,” she said. “It’s about building trust; it’s about ‘I’ll help you with a bill that affects you in your district if you’ll help me with one in mine.’” Many of the bills Capps touts are legislative responses to personal catastrophes — often of a medical nature — visited upon one or two families living in her district. In these, Capps makes a point to “reach across the aisle” to connect with a Republican — typically a woman — who has weathered similar storms.
For Capps, the possibility of politics is rarely found in the vast macro issues of war and peace. “It’s about the vet who walks in the door and is having difficulty getting services to which he’s entitled,” she said. “That’s where the real miracles take place.”
In the meantime, Capps has about 18 months left on her term. She’s mindful that few politicians get to go out at a time of their choosing and on their own terms. For that, she said she’s grateful. But also a little uncertain. “All this is new to me,” she said. “I’ve never done this before.”
Capps’s announcement prompted a flurry of messages Wednesday from politicians and organizations on both sides of the aisle. President Barack Obama also issued a statement.
President Barack Obama: “Lois Capps and her family have served the people of Southern California for almost four decades. For 20 years, she was a nurse and public health advocate while her husband Walter served in Congress. When Walter tragically passed away, Lois ran for his seat in Congress, and for the past 17 years she has continued his legacy of service while leaving a lasting legacy of her own. She has led efforts to increase access to health care, improve mental health services, detect and prevent domestic violence, protect our environment, and improve education—all while consistently being voted the “nicest member of Congress.” Her experience, optimism, and tenacity will be missed, but I look forward to working with Congresswoman Capps over the next two years, and Michelle and I wish her all the best in her future endeavors.”
Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal: “Congresswoman Capps has done an exemplary job of representing the Central Coast in Congress for the past 17 years, following her many years of service in our local schools. She has represented our communities with grace, and her leadership has led to progress in so many areas that are critical to our unique quality of life, including protecting our environment, enhancing our public health and safety and securing resources for local infrastructure improvements. It has been an honor to work with her and to be her constituent. I wish Congresswoman Capps all the best as she continues her advocacy on our behalf.”
U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer: “Lois Capps has devoted her life to fighting for the things that matter – expanding access to health care, improving education and protecting the pristine Central Coast. She is one of the finest and most beloved members of Congress, and the people of the Central Coast have been fortunate to have her as their representative for the last two decades.”
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein: “Lois Capps is a dedicated public servant, first as a nurse and educator and later representing the Central Coast in Congress for nearly 20 years. Lois has fought tirelessly to improve health care and education and protect the environment, and I was proud to work with her to prevent new oil drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. I wish Lois the best in her much-deserved retirement.”
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Zach Hunter: “The 24th District has been competitive for multiple cycles and instantly becomes a more likely pick up opportunity for Republicans in 2016 with Lois Capps’ retirement.”
League of Conservation Voters president Gene Karpinski: “Congresswoman Capps is a proven environmental champion who has worked tirelessly to protect California’s coast, combat climate change and grow our clean energy economy. Her stellar voting record has earned her an impressive 96% lifetime score on LCV’s National Environmental Scorecard. She has built a legacy of commonsense solutions that have helped make her district, her state and our country cleaner, healthier and more sustainable.”
EMILY’s List, a resource for women in politics: “Lois Capps has been a progressive champion for the California women and families she serves in Congress,” said Stephanie Schriock, President of EMILY’s List. “Her effective leadership on public health issues was critical in passing legislation to address the national nursing shortage, detect and prevent domestic violence against women, and bring CPR instruction to schools. The EMILY’s List community of over three million members thanks Lois for fighting for policies that give women and families a fair shot and looks forward to making sure that a pro-choice Democratic woman carries on her legacy in California’s 24th District.”