For Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee endorsement would have appeared a slam dunk in her current campaign to replace Lois Capps as Santa Barbara’s representative in the U.S. Congress. Since announcing her candidacy a few months ago, Schneider has made her feminist credentials the centerpiece of her campaign. More than that, Schneider had served as president of the Women’s Political Committee in years past and had long been a strong and influential figure on its board. In essence, the committee is where Schneider cut her teeth politically; it’s her backyard. Yet Wednesday night, it was only by the skin of Schneider’s teeth that the committee did not endorse 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal — a fellow liberal Democrat — who is running hard against Schneider for Congress. After much debate and discussion, the votes weren’t there for either of the candidates to win the endorsement.
In a meeting described by participants as being pin-droppingly suspenseful and breath-suckingly intense, it was Carbajal, not Schneider, who won the recommendation of the group’s five-person candidates’ assessment team. Tipping the balance in Carbajal’s favor with the assessment team were his positions on immigration reform and the gang injunction, which had been unsuccessfully pursued by the City of Santa Barbara under Schneider’s mayorality. (Schneider supported the injunction; Carbajal had spoken against it and the Women’s Political Committee vocally opposed the injunction before it was tossed out of court last summer by Judge Colleen Sterne.)
The endorsement was not up to the assessment team, however, but to the board of directors. Neither of the two candidates could muster enough votes from the board to meet the committee’s two-thirds requirement for any endorsement.
For Schneider, the results have to be seen as a serious close call. What influence this non-endorsement might have on other key like-minded organizations, like the Democratic Women of Santa Barbara, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, or — more nationally — Emily’s List, is a matter of speculation, but Wednesday night’s action strongly suggests that the road ahead for Schneider runs steeply uphill. (Earlier this week, Carbajal announced he’s raised $623,000 in his bid for the office; Schneider reported $225,000. And Katcho Achadjian — one of two Republicans running — reported raising $120,000.)
In response, Schneider’s campaign manager Dave Jacobson issued a written response highlighting the numerous endorsements Schneider received from many past presidents of the Women’s Political Committee, not to mention the head California’s National Organization for Women and the director of the Feminist Majority.
Though Schneider was not available for comment, several attending the meeting reported she expressed frustration she’d never been given an opportunity — either in written statements or oral interviews — to respond to the organization’s concern about the gang injunction. (In an interview afterward, Carol Keator, president of the organization, did not dispute Schneider’s contention, but she added that Schneider never responded to the group when it came out against the injunction.) Likewise, Schneider reportedly took exception to how her position on immigration had been characterized by the assessment team. According to second-hand reports, the team found Schneider’s concerns about immigrants crossing the border less sensitive to the complexity of what drives immigration than Carbajal — a member of the Women’s Political Committee for more than 20 years and one of only six lifetime members — whose campaign narrative revolves in large measure around his experience as the child of immigrants. Both Schneider and Carbajal were given an opportunity to address the committee before the vote; Schneider reportedly clarified that her intent had been that the economies of nations with large migrating populations needed to be improved.
The meeting took place at the Eastside Library; about 11 board members of the Women’s Political Committee were present as well as 15 members. Only board members were allowed to vote. The assessment team was made up of five members, and they reportedly spent hours processing the results of the candidates’ written statements, oral interviews, and background research. “It was a really painful process,” said Keator. “It was a tough call to make.”
According to the assessment team, both candidates reflected the values of the organization, founded in 1988 to get women candidates elected as well as male candidates pushing feminist agendas. Carbajal was given the edge for mentoring more women and appointing more to positions of power and responsibility. As county supervisor, it was noted that Carbajal enjoys greater latitude in making individual appointments than the mayor, who makes appointments in conjunction with the entire city council. Carbajal also got the nod in terms of immigration and sensitivity to profiling and discrimination. Schneider — long active with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund (though she just stepped off the board) — enjoyed an advantage on matters of reproductive choice. Both were regarded as strong supporters of LGBT issues.
Speaking on behalf of Carbajal were Santa Barbara City Councilmember Cathy Murillo and Laura Burton Capps, daughter of Congressmember Lois Capps. Capps stressed Carbajal’s position on immigration. Murillo extolled Carbajal’s abilities to create regional consensus, citing his support for the Caltrans freeway-widening project, a source of bitter acrimony between Schneider and Carbajal. (Schneider has been outspoken in her criticism of the widening project, arguing — among other things — its second-hand effects will choke city streets with congestion. Speaking on behalf of Schneider was former Goleta mayor Margaret Connell, who highlighted Schneider’s accomplishments and expertise on homeless issues. Linda Toohey, Schneider’s longtime campaign treasurer, reminded committee members of Schneider’s long history with the organization. (She served on the assessment team, for example, that initially backed Lois Capps for Congress after Capps’s husband, Walter Capps, died while in office.) And Vicki Allen argued that women remain dramatically underrepresented in positions of elected office.
Although William Ostrander of San Luis Obispo is also running as a Democrat for the 24th Congressional District, the Women’s Political Committee did not regard his candidacy as viable enough to vet for endorsement.