FIRST THINGS FIRST: Watching seven political candidates “debate” is sort of like seeing the crew of Star Wars: Episode VII perform Waiting for Godot.
Like Godot, Samuel Beckett’s famed two-man play, political debates are most worthwhile as mano-a-mano affairs — think Lincoln-Douglas, Kennedy-Nixon, or Donald Trump vs. himself.
By that measure, last week’s UCSB-student-sponsored affair for candidates seeking the congressional seat of retiring Representative Lois Capps, which featured four Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent, was a trifle overpopulated. In a race likely to be shaped by TV ads and perfidious mailers, however, it was a rare opportunity to see the field in person, talking issues and rationales for their candidacies.
COLUMNIST’S DISCLAIMER: Declaring who “won” and “lost” such a debate is a fool’s errand, best left to celebrity bloviators on cable. A somewhat more defensible approach: Did each candidate burnish or blemish his or her campaign?
One week before the filing deadline for the June 7 top-two primary, here’s the ringside scorecard of a registered independent voter and media geezer who’s squandered hundreds of precious hours reporting on such confabs:
Bill Ostrander. The Bernie Sanders of the field, the San Luis Obispo reformer put forth the clearest and most consistent message, thundering about the corrupting influence of special-interest money. With a shock of white hair, upright stance, and flurry of statistics (some of them, no doubt, true), Ostrander is an impressive figure, but he bangs too heavy on the keys, flinging his arms around like Bruce Lee and shouting at a volume that shook the ceiling tiles in Broida Hall. Grade: A-
Helene Schneider. Santa Barbara’s mayor is the most specific and crisp in the field, and her elevator pitch about being a pragmatic progressive who will work in Congress to connect local governments to Washington more effectively, while pressing social justice and women’s health concerns, is appealing. Trailing Democratic foe Salud Carbajal in money and endorsements, she’s trying some political jujitsu in styling herself as “an insurgent” — “I’m not a yes man” — but she’s neither aggressive nor forceful enough in sustaining that argument to put pressure on Salud. Grade: B+
Justin Fareed. A former footballer, the 27-year-old Republican upstart has the rhetorical style of a fullback, plowing straight ahead with bullheaded energy to sound a message of generational change, wrapped around some GOP talking points — i.e., blaming Democrats for enacting Obamacare on party-line votes while ignoring Republican obstructionism. He is much-improved from last fall, however, as campaign consultants Christiana Purves and Kayla Berube have reined in his logorrhea. Grade: B-.
Salud Carbajal*. Salud remains the favorite, due to prodigious fundraising and important endorsements (latest: Sierra Club and farmworker icon Dolores Huerta). But his mawkish recitation of personal narrative — “I know what it’s like to struggle” — is monotonous and tiresome; the claim that brokering bipartisan deals on the Board of Supervisors ensures his ability to work with right-wing Republicans in the toxic atmosphere of Congress is laughable, and his ongoing failure to cite a single disagreement with Lois Capps makes him look weak. Grade: C
Katcho Achadjian. Conventional wisdom says the Republican San Luis Obispo assemblymember is his party’s strongest candidate, due to name ID and a local political career predating his trek to Sacramento. In the Capitol, he’s known as the Democrats’ favorite Republican, but his message is largely mush — “I feel your pain,” he told students when asked about college debt — combined with standard GOP stances — i.e., he opposes “amnesty,” a k a “a path to citizenship,” for undocumented immigrants. Grade: C-
Jeff Oshins. The former House committee staffer is the guy you’d most like to have a beer with, but his mumbling delivery and grumpy, get-off-my-lawn style make him a less-than-ideal candidate. To his credit, Oshins has a detailed plan on his laser-focus issue, the financially crippling problem of college debt , is nothing if not candid — “Being named nicest person in Congress is not a compliment,” he said of Capps — and isn’t trying to fool anybody — “It’s highly unlikely I’m going to get past the primary.” Grade: D+
Steve Isakson. An Independent, Isakson is a honcho for a Los Osos outfit serving the military and aerospace industries, and it seemed at times as if he’d ended up in the wrong hall while searching for the Engineering Science Building. His key message: he’s “tired of the dysfunction” in Washington. Join the club, pal. Grade: F
- (Full disclosure: Carbajal named Independent Publisher Joe Cole to the Montecito Planning Commission; Cole has contributed to his campaign.)