The Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce's intent to endorse Das Williams (right) in the race for 1st District County Supervisor set off a writing campaign by supporters of his opponent, Jen Christensen; both are pictured here at an April forum.
Paul Wellman (file)

Chamber of Commerce bigwigs, reeling from an insurgency among outraged chamber members, are still deliberating whether to endorse State Assemblymember Das Williams for 1st District County Supervisor — as it appeared they were going to do — or beat a strategic retreat and sit this particular election out. Given the tsunami of political weirdness now washing over American politics, the attempted endorsement of Williams — designated by the California Chamber of Commerce as a “job killer” with one of the worst pro-business voting records in Sacramento — qualifies as a tempest in a teapot. Even so, the outraged reaction and debate within the chamber has generated quite a splash.

“If the Chamber of Commerce endorses Das Williams, then Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center will write COLAB a great big check,” exclaimed Andy Caldwell, COLAB (Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business) executive director and Santa Barbara County’s loudest and longest-serving pro-business political agitator. “I mean Das has the second-worst voting record in the Assembly when it comes to business bills,” he added. “That means there’s only one person with a worse record.”

Santa Barbara City Councilmember Randy Rowse — a downtown restaurant owner and active member of the Downtown Organization — expressed surprise that the chamber would seek to endorse Williams, an outspoken champion of environmental legislation in Sacramento and supportive of the new $15-an-hour minimum wage. “That was an eye opener for me,” he said. “Wow! On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give that a 9 or 10.”

And Joe Armendariz of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association — for whom ascerbic hyperventilation is a folk-art form — stated, “They’ve just endorsed the most anti-business politician in the history of western civilization.” Armendariz added that he just used “a re-usable bag at the grocery store for the first time in my life. I’m officially a greenie,” arguing that were he to run for mayor of Santa Barbara, he should also expect the chamber’s endorsement.

Ken Oplinger
Paul Wellman (file)

Were it not for the upwelling of opposition, Chamber Chief Ken Oplinger said his organization would have endorsed Williams — a polarizing political figure known for his strong environmental advocacy — over Jennifer Chistensen, a decline-to-state fiscal conservative whose back-to-basics, limited government platform would seem to be more in sync with the chamber’s pro-business agenda. Oplinger said he’s been deluged with phone calls, emails, faxes, and even “carrier pigeons” from chamber members upset that their organization might endorse Williams.

Oplinger said both candidates are solid but that Williams was preferable because of his unequivocal support for the freeway widening, which he termed, “the single most important issue to the business community, bar none.” While Christensen — a first-time candidate and professional lawyer and bean counter with the county’s tax collector’s office — has also expressed support for the freeway widening, she’s been more conditional and has voiced concerns about missing elements from the project’s design, its fiscal soundness, and its environmental flaws.

For chamber leadership, this difference was the deal killer regarding Christensen, whose position, Oplinger wrote in a draft endorsement, “is well-intentioned but comes with too many conditions to an already well-considered plan and will lead to further delay — and cost — of this urgent matter.”

Chistensen said she vehemently wanted to see the freeway widened and the congestion relieved, but that the negative impacts to 12 downtown intersections need to be addressed and mitigated. “I’m hardly alone in this. I’m no oracle,” she said. “Judge [Thomas] Anderle said the same thing when he ruled Caltrans and SBCAG needed to fix their EIR.” To the extent the freeway widening has been delayed, Christensen said it’s the fault of Caltrans and SBCAG for resisting in advance the environmental analysis that the court ultimately ordered done.

Christensen expressed surprise the local chamber would think of endorsing Williams. She added, “I know the freeway is an important issue to the business community, but it’s hardly the only issue important to the business community. There are many issues important to the business community, and I hope the Chamber will consider all of them in their totality.”

Christensen’s campaign received a copy of Oplinger’s draft and circulated it far and wide throughout the email universe with a note headlined, “I need your help.” She apparently got it. Talk-show host and right-wing political activist Andy Caldwell sent out an email of his own, objecting to an endorsement of Williams, with whom he has frequently crossed swords, saying, “No good can come from this.” Oplinger said he’s never seen anything that rivals this response. The endorsement decision — that otherwise would have been announced yesterday or today — was put off until the executive committee of the Government Relations Committee could reconvene Friday morning. It’s conceivable the chamber may affirm its endorsement of Williams, Oplinger said, but it’s quite possible the organization could opt not to endorse at all.

Christensen’s reservations to the freeway widening sound strikingly similar to those expressed by Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, a liberal Democrat now running for Congress. Her chief Democratic rival Salud Carbajal also just sent out a campaign mailer blasting Schneider for insisting the project description be changed now to address some of the negative environmental consequences of the freeway widening. Carbajal claimed Schneider’s changes would cost taxpayers $28 million and delay the project. Schneider said Carbajal has endorsed many of the same changes she’s demanded, though he’s shied away from including them as part of the project description, a seemingly wonky distinction but one of critical longterm importance.

In response to the backlash, the chamber leadership’s special meeting Friday morning was to discuss whether to retract the endorsement of Williams, make no endorsement, or endorse Christensen. That meeting began at 10:30 in the morning. As of 4:30 in the afternoon, no decision had been rendered, and Oplinger said an announcement might be forthcoming in the coming week.

Williams’s campaign manager Patrick Dennis said the chamber’s endorsement reflected that body’s awareness that Williams has been in public service since 2003, giving him the depth and breadth of experience to be an effective representative on a host of issues. Some chamber members argued because Williams enjoys an overwhelming advantage over Christensen in name recognition, political experience, political donations, and get-out-the-vote know-how in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, his election was all but preordained. Why spit in the wind, they questioned, and back a candidate with little chance of winning when Williams was in sync with the chamber over the freeway widening?

Whether the Chamber of Commerce were to endorse or not, it’s unclear how much impact it would have, given that the election is just 12 days away.

In the meantime, Williams just picked up an endorsement by the Deputy District Attorney Association.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story has been updated.


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