Helene Schneider
Paul Wellman (file)

As America gets closer to possibly electing the first woman president, the sense of urgency to elect a woman to represent the 24th Congressional District appears eroded among some area female politicos.

Of the nine candidates in the race, just one, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, is a woman. Schneider has appeared restrained in playing the gender card; political insiders expected she would have garnered much more support with women given she is a liberal mayor of a high-profile city.

Strikingly, a number of organizations whose mission focuses entirely on supporting women are sitting out this primary race: the local chapter of Planned Parenthood, where Schneider worked in a high-level management position for more than a decade; the political action committee Emily’s List; and the local Women’s Political Committee, which Schneider served as its president.

Other women are not merely sitting out; they are backing her chief contender, County Supervisor Salud Carbajal. Perhaps most notably is Representative Lois Capps, who has held the seat for 18 years and served with Schneider on the Women’s Political Committee before she went to D.C. Capps brought along House minority leader Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement, too. Attorney General Kamala Harris also endorsed Carbajal. And last year, the Democratic Women of Santa Barbara County narrowly voted to support him.

“It’s been no secret he’s been planning to run for this seat for a long time,” Schneider said. Asked about Capps’s support for Carbajal, she said, “I think there was a plan made a long time ago, and for whatever reason an arrangement was made when it was made … Should I make it through this primary, there’s not going to be a problem connecting to Lois and people who care about [liberal issues].”

That is not to say Schneider has no women supporting her. State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson could not have been more enthusiastic in her endorsement declaration. In addition, Schneider has support from California’s NOW (National Organization for Women), the Feminist Majority, and the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Schneider argues women cooperate to pass legislation at a higher rate than men do. But she also says a man can be a feminist. Asked if the silence from Emily’s List ​— ​with a singular criteria to back pro-choice Democratic women ​— ​is a setback, Schneider said, “Frankly, they deal with the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee].” (The DCCC, as it’s known, backed Carbajal two months ago.) As for Planned Parenthood, Schneider said, they’ve “been through so much. The last thing they wanted to do was to get into messy politics.”

Schneider and Carbajal have distinct political styles. Schneider is prepared and articulate, brimming with facts and figures. Carbajal is politically savvy, known for providing stellar constituent services and working well behind the scenes. Schneider said critically, “He says ‘win-win’ all the time.” Carbajal embraces the phrase.

Their stances are nearly identical on many key issues: ​the environment, immigration, college debt, etc. The exception is the controversial Highway 101 widening project. In fact, her opposition effectively blocked Schneider from assuming her rotating position as chair of SBCAG (Santa Barbara County Association of Governments) in 2014. Among those leading the charge were prominent politicos Sara Miller McCune, Susan Rose, Gail Marshall, and Mickey Flacks. Schneider ferociously maintained she was trying to prevent the city streets and intersections from further congestion that 101 widening would cause if not adequately mitigated. Her critics contend her obstructive criticism could put millions of motorists in perpetual gridlock.

It could be Santa Barbara women are less taken with women in politics as there have been many successes: Capps, countless county supervisors and school boardmembers, and city mayors. Former UCSB chancellor Barbara Uehling, appointed in 1987, was the first female chancellor at a UC campus.

In the congressional district ​— ​representing Santa Barbara County, San Luis Obispo County, and a small slice of Ventura ​— ​there are 6 percent more women registered to vote than men (gender is unknown for 2 percent).

If the notion “politics is personal” is true, it is especially so in Santa Barbara. Several people typically comfortable talking to the press declined to speak on the record for this article. They spoke about the fact Schneider and Carbajal are well known in Santa Barbara Dem circles, and they felt awkward endorsing one over the other, partly for fear they would run into them.

Ten years ago, Schneider aggravated many Dems ​— ​including Carbajal ​— ​when she endorsed now-Assemblymember Das Williams over the ultimate winner in the race for 2nd District supervisor, Janet Wolf. At the time, Schneider told the Santa Barbara News-Press while she believed women should be given opportunities to hold elected office “… just endorsing someone because she is a woman is not appropriate.”

In the same article, Carbajal stated he was disappointed in Schneider’s decision. “I’m trying to understand how a feminist does not support another feminist who shares the same values.”

Asked about the issue recently, Carbajal said, “All I can do is focus on the work I have done … my record is clear.” He received the Planned Parenthood Action Fund “Giraffe Award” for “sticking his neck out for choice,” and served on the local chapter of the Planned Parenthood board.

On one point, Schneider and Carbajal agree: They are voting for Hillary Clinton, as they both did in 2008.


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