The wave of Democratic candidates running for office across the country is apparently not trickling down to Santa Barbara County politics. Steve Lavagnino, a traditional Republican, is coasting into a third term unopposed. Even though his small Santa Maria district is home to significantly more registered Democrats, no one filed to contest before the March 9 deadline.
“I guess the ego side of me would say people think I’m doing a good job,” he said. “I would hope that’s it.”
Democrats hold a 15-point advantage in the 5th District, home to about 27,000 voters. A quarter of them are declined-to-state voters. Santa Maria Democrats, however, tend to resemble Blue Dog Democrats — they have a conservative voting record in a more rural area.
Lavagnino spent much of his childhood in Santa Maria, where his father, Larry Lavagnino, served as mayor from 2002-2012. The younger Lavagnino worked in the aerospace and defense industries before getting into politics. He served as an aide for former Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado before going to work for Congressmember Elton Gallegly at his Solvang district office.
In 2010, he was elected county supervisor. After 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf steps down next year, at age 54, he will be the most senior member on the board.
When he entered office, Steve Lavagnino was thought to be a hard-line conservative who valued tight budgets and public safety. In some ways, that hasn’t changed. He maintains a small office staff and often encourages his colleagues to approve oil drilling projects, evoking the need for tax revenue to repair roads and county buildings.
In other ways, Lavagnino comes across somewhat moderate. He supported increasing the county’s Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT). He worked with former county supervisor Salud Carbajal — a Democrat and now Santa Barbara’s congressperson — to fund a local truancy program. He collaborated closely with progressive Democrat Supervisor Das Williams to draft the county’s cannabis ordinance. And he is one of few Republicans who enjoys support from the county employee labor union, SEIU 620, as well as the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association and the firefighters union.
“He is the first on to say he is concerned about social services,” said 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, adding, “He’s married to a woman who [is] a Democrat, and he lives with his mother-in-law who [is] a Democrat.” Hartmann added he is a smart, fun, and enjoyable to work with.
But he is no bleeding-heart liberal. Lavagnino voted against a $1 million health-insurance plan for undocumented children. He has consistently voted against symbolic resolutions in support of Planned Parenthood or to combat climate change, saying he likes to keep national or state politics separate from county business.
Every fall, Lavagnino holds a massive event, Veterans Stand Down, in Santa Maria at which hundreds of homeless vets receive clothes, a haircut, food, medical screenings, and referrals to government services. Every February, he hosts a fundraising comedy show where he performs stand-up.
On the dais, he is usually first to crack a joke. A few weeks ago he sarcastically suggested retail cannabis storefronts might open in Tepusquet, where many angry residents sporting purple visors regularly showed up to protest pot farms in their neighbor.
Lavagnino has about $165,000 in campaign cash, according to his office. He said he has no plans to give to other candidates. “I am probably just going to hold on to it for a future run for something,” he said, noting he has no aspirations to run to Congress. He also noted the resurgence of people running for seats throughout the country: “Maybe we’re losing the idea of serving locally first.”
Meanwhile, in the race to represent the 2nd District, Democrat Gregg Hart now finds himself unopposed after his challenger Susan Epstein unexpectedly dropped out last month, breeding unanswered questions among Santa Barbara political junkies. Lavagnino expressed optimism at Hart’s sudden victory. “We get along very well,” he said. “I feel like he will be an open mind and an open door.”