Four years ago, no one observing the Board of Supervisors meetings would have guessed that the county leaders would become such good friends. Peter Adam, an archconservative rancher, had just been elected 4th District Supervisor, joining 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, a moderate Republican from Santa Maria, and the three South Coast liberals — Salud Carbajal, Janet Wolf, and Doreen Farr.
But now, Carbajal is jumping to Congress and Farr is retiring. Though the Board of Supervisors often splits 3-2 on ideological issues such as oil development, social services, and spending, the five distinct personalities seemed like they would actually miss each other. Their farewells were convincingly kind, and many packed the hearing room on Tuesday to listen to their lengthy remarks.
In his 12 years on the dais, Carbajal has embraced the phrase “win-win,” and on Tuesday, his colleagues endlessly teased him for it. Sometimes, they noted, he has gone so far as to proclaim, “win-win-win-win.” They had no problem heckling Carbajal; he is usually the jokester.
For instance, six years ago when he was first elected, Lavagnino recalled that Carbajal — already seasoned in county government — offered to take him out to lunch. “He said, ‘If you don’t listen to me, it’s going to be the hardest four years of your life,’” Lavagnino remembered. Similarly, Adam said, Carbajal told him over lunch that he would not be able to get anything done because he was in the minority. (Carbajal chimed in: “That’s not the story I remember.”)
It was lost on no one that Carbajal will soon be in the minority in the House of Representatives. State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson — who endorsed Carbajal in the general election but backed his Democratic challenger Helene Schneider in the primaries — wished him “congratulations and condolences.”
Wolf reminisced on the countless times the two drove together to board meetings in Santa Maria. “You’d be surprised,” Wolf said. “We’ve talked about everything.” She praised Carbajal for being a good family man.
Farr referenced the familial-like atmosphere of closed session meetings, adding Carbajal has been like a brother. “If there weren’t a cone of silence on some of the things that happened on the fourth floor, there are some stories I could tell you,” she said. Even Adam — who admitted, “We don’t do this stuff at the ranch”— said the board has really surprised him in many ways. “We are all friends,” he said. “We do make each other extremely angry occasionally, [but] it is difficult to see you go. I hate to say that, but I admit it. We’re going to pass into the next board and we’ll have to see how the chemistry works.”
The dynamic of the new board will certainly be different. Joan Hartmann, replacing Farr, is a political newbie from the Santa Ynez Valley. She spent her career in environmental law and academia. Also a strong environmentalist, former Assemblymember Das Williams, taking Carbajal’s seat, is hardly a beginner in politics. He started as a grassroots activist campaigning in Isla Vista. Both are considered fairly left-leaning.
For his part, Carbajal honored the late Supervisor Naomi Schwartz, who he worked for as a staffer for a decade before being elected to succeed her. He profusely thanked his own staff. “They are the ones making me look good,” he said. “I just hope at the end of the day we left the county a little better than we came in to it.”
Farr also received immense praise. “There is no one who cares more about the community,” Senator Jackson said. She recalled walking “hand-in-hand and heart-in-heart” with Farr immediately after the Isla Vista massacre in 2014. Jackson noted the diverseness of the 3rd district, and lauded Farr for representing the region with “a great deal of grace and a great deal of success.” “You listen,” Jackson said, “And it’s not always easy to listen.”
Farr’s colleagues, meanwhile, declared her excellently prepared, admitting they felt intimated sitting next to her on the dais. “She has sticky notes everywhere,” joked Lavagnino. “I highlight extra sometimes so I don’t look as unprepared.”
Adam later added, “It looks like she’s playing solitaire. She keeps moving them around and arranging them up and down and then across.” On a more serious note, he said, “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working together and getting to know you, and I’m going to miss you.”
Carbajal said he finds many of the traits he admired in former boss Schwartz in Farr. “It is amazing to see Doreen in action,” he said. “She is a policy wonk…I’ve learned a lot from you.”
Wolf agreed with Jackson’s use of the word “grace” to describe Farr. “You are so determined and so strong and so smart and exude this feeling of grace,” she said. “There is this aura around you.” Wolf acknowledged Farr has gone through a lot personally — her sister passed away last year and her adult son has struggled with mental health and substance abuse issues — but she always bounces back. “You are the strongest person,” she said.
Farr, whose mother was in the audience, also thanked her staff. After attending state conferences, Farr said, she recognized how lucky Santa Barbara County is to have smart, dedicated public servants.