News Commentary: So Long, Lois

Capps Steps Down After 18 Years in Congressional Trenches

<b>BEST BUDS: </b> Lois Capps created a veritable political machine over her 18 years in office, getting out the vote and incubating new generations of political operatives. Here, she shares a light moment in Isla Vista with her successor, Salud Carbajal, whom she backed to the hilt.
Paul Wellman (file)

The word “nice” gets a bad rap. Nice guys, famously, don’t finish first. Centuries ago, the word meant to “not know,” its roots translating literally to “no science.” From there, “nice” morphed to describe “differences of no import,” landing eventually on today’s “blandly pleasant” meaning. But with the imminent onslaught of a Trump White House, the world is quickly learning ​— ​the scary way ​— ​that there are things far worse than being nice.

But Santa Barbara already knows that.

That’s because for the past 18 years, our community has been represented in Congress by Lois Capps, who just officially bowed out after 10 grueling terms in office. During Capps’s tenure, she was nominated “the nicest member of Congress” by Capitol Hill staffers so many times that Washingtonian magazine ​— ​which bestows the award ​— ​finally had to retire her jersey. In a profession where table banging is seen as an essential job skill, an accolade like this might be seen as a serious liability.

Not so for Lois. And for two reasons. The first is that her nice is bred-in-the-bone real. When Lois goes out to lunch, she brings cookies back to her staff. She knows the cafeteria workers and elevator operators in the Capitol by name. She says “please,” “thank you,” and apologizes for interrupting to ask questions. She doesn’t swear. She rarely raises her voice. And she works like a fiend. When a retirement party was held for Lois, marquee players from the Democratic Party leadership ​— ​Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer ​— ​showed up to express thanks. Even more striking were the large number of former staff workers who traveled from all over the country to do the same. There’s an unbridled ferocity to the loyalty and affection of Capps staffers past and present.

The other fact about Lois is she’s badass. But quietly. In terms of raw physical stamina, endurance, discipline, determination, and sustained, even-keeled, bulletproof, bomb-shelter-tough optimism in the face of overwhelming facts to the contrary, Lois makes Cal Ripken weep with despair.

Consider this: Every weekend Congress is in session, Lois hops on a plane from Washington, D.C., and flies back to Santa Barbara. There are no direct flights. That often means getting home at 2 a.m. Then she flies back. That often means leaving her home at 4 in the morning. Try doing that 18 years. Let’s see how Salud Carbajal, her successor and nearly 30 years younger, does with that.

Or consider this. In 18 years, Lois has run for office 19 times. Admittedly, for 10 years, she ran against a bunch of no-name, sacrificial lambs who on a good day would consider themselves lucky to be appointed to the Goleta West Sanitary District. That’s when the congressional district ​— ​known infamously as the “ribbon of shame” ​— ​had been egregiously gerrymandered to ensure Democrats outnumbered Republicans by about 20 percent.

Lois stepped into the reign after her husband, Walter Capps, died of a heart attack in 1997, just nine months after winning election in 1996. During that campaign ​— ​against a glinty-eyed, right-wing religious zealot named Andrea Seastrand, who blamed floods, famines, fires, and earthquakes on feminism, which she equated with Wicca ​— ​Walter and Lois suffered a head-on car crash with a drunk driver on Highway 154. With Walter’s bell badly rung, Lois emerged as surrogate candidate. Walter, a UCSB Religious Studies professor who turned his classroom into an emotionally cathartic safe space where Vietnam vets came to heal, combined the lofty rhetoric of Jeffersonian democracy with an impish humor that was as irresistible as it was unlikely in the hard-boiled world of politics. By contrast, Lois got stuff done. If Walter was the 150-watt bulb who marched down Main Street playing the tuba, Lois was the one to plug him in and make sure the brass gleamed. She was not merely impressive. She was formidable.

Within a year of Walter’s death, Lois would have to run no fewer than three times to hold on to a seat that Republicans had controlled since FDR was in the White House. Within three years, her eldest daughter, Lisa, would die of cancer mid-campaign. Lois took just two weeks off. Then she clobbered Republican challenger Mike Stoker, one of a long line of Republicans who would confuse kindness for weakness. George W. Bush won her district that year.

Over time, it became easy to take Lois for granted. A lot of people did. I did. For reporters, she was a challenge. On the campaign trail, Lois did not set the world on fire with her rhetoric. For writers looking for a good quote, Lois was hard work. There would be no pithy analysis of complex world affairs, no inside stories that would make Frank Underwood blush. How many times would she remind us that she’d been a high school nurse? And where ​— ​even her supporters wondered ​— ​were the all landmark bills that resulted from the bipartisan cooperation to which she so frequently alluded?

All fair questions. In response, Lois kept chipping away at the rock. When she first took office, President Bill Clinton was being impeached for lying under oath about sexual relations with a 22-year-old intern. Republican warlord Newt Gingrich was in his ascendancy and intent only on bringing government to a screeching halt. It was a new low in governmental dysfunction.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. That, we have since learned, was only getting started.

For 14 of her 18 years in Washington, Capps was a member of the minority party. Lois is deservedly famous for voting against authorizing the blank check to wage war on Iraq that George W. Bush demanded. Although Capps is hardly the only Democrat to vote no, party leaders such as Hillary Clinton, Dick Gephardt, and John Kerry all went along. The statement Lois issued explaining her reasons was uncommonly eloquent; the concerns she expressed ​— ​of the inevitable violence begat of regional destabilization ​— ​have been borne out with excruciating precision. Along the years, Lois also voted for some whoppers ​— ​the Bush bank bailout and the Bush tax cuts, to name two.

Along the way, Lois snagged an appointment to the Energy and Commerce Committee, which wields serious juice. There, she would bird-dog such issues as pipeline safety after Plains All American’s spectacular pipeline failure two years ago clearly demonstrated the dangers of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it came to pipeline enforcement. And at a time when many progressive Democrats in Santa Barbara were scurrying for cover, Lois ​— ​dutiful daughter of a Lutheran minister for whom Halloween and high school dances were off-limits ​— ​was rock solid for gay marriage and against the Defense of Marriage Act.

As a former school nurse ​— ​yes, I said it ​— ​Lois threw herself behind the passage of the Affordable Care Act, mindful as she was of its many shortcomings. When it appeared issues of birth control and abortion might deep-six Obamacare, it was Lois who sought to arm wrestle the American Conference of Bishops and their allies in Congress. Lois forged relationships with Catholic nuns ​— ​who disagreed with the bishops ​— ​in hopes of reaching compromise. Though those compromises did not survive in Congress, some made it into the version of the bill that was eventually passed.

For Capps, health care has been paramount. She has endlessly introduced bills to reward nursing students with financial incentives or to promote the creation of on-campus medical clinics at public schools located in medically underserved neighborhoods. When private consultants hired to audit Medicare payments denied payments to 99 percent of the claims filed by Santa Barbara’s Rehabilitation Institute back in 2007, Lois went ballistic. It was one of the rare times her staffers remember hearing Lois yell on the phone. The consultant, Lois would reveal, was paid a hefty commission for every claim denied, allowing the company to report an $18 million bump in revenues. That company got fired.

If you want to look at what “nice” doesn’t look like, take a gander at Georgia Congressmember Tom Price, the orthopedic surgeon Donald Trump just nominated as his new secretary of Health and Human Services. Price is as pro-life as Capps is pro-choice, as homophobic as she is pro gay rights. Capps is perhaps most proud of passing the Affordable Care Act, which she says gained health insurance for 33,000 of her constituents. It also got $123 million in additional federal Medi-Cal dollars pouring into Santa Barbara County annually. Even factoring in bloated inefficiencies, that buys a lot of treatment for a lot of sick people. By contrast, Price’s claim to fame are his detailed plans to take the Affordable Care Act apart, brick by brick.

The day before the final vote on Obamacare, Lois stood up in Congress to give a speech on its behalf. Every time Lois got two syllables out, Price shouted, “I object!” By the time Price was eventually ruled out of order, he’d interrupted Lois at least 10 times.

Like I said, there are a lot worse things than being nice.

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