Steve Lavagnino has long been my favorite local Republican. Now, no more. All bets are off.
For the past eight years, Lavagnino — Santa Barbara being a first-name kind of town, he’s known in political circles merely as “Steve” — has represented the über–North County and the 5th District on the Board of Supervisors. There, he’s been smart, easygoing, prepared, rational, serious, pragmatic, comfortable in his own skin, and unusually accessible. On top of that, Lavagnino’s also seriously funny. In fact, he does some stand-up on the side.
To this day, Lavagnino remains all those things. But as of June 28, Steve Lavagnino — a dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying member of the Republican Party — quietly walked away from the Grand Old Party. He quit. He pulled the plug. On that date, county records indicate, Lavagnino reregistered as a decline-to-state (aka no party preference) voter.
On any other planet and in any other universe, Lavagnino would be a rising star within his party. If the GOP had any sachems worth a damn, they’d be staying awake nights figuring out just how far Lavagnino could go. He’s just won reelection to a third term on the Board of Supervisors, having run unopposed. Prior to that, he paid his dues working as a staffer for Republican Abel Maldonado, the former lieutenant governor, state senator, assemblymember, and Santa Maria mayor who is now cultivating cannabis and hemp. Lavagnino also worked for former congressmember Elton Gallegly, an unrepentant, right-wing knuckle dragger so singularly devoid of social graces that his own friends reportedly do not like him.
Lavagnino’s decision to bolt was a long time coming. First there was the Tea Party insurrection. Then there were the elbows famously exchanged several years ago with 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam, a take-no-prisoners conservative and enthusiastic Trump supporter. And then there was Trump. “He definitely made it a lot more difficult,” Lavagnino said. “I’ve got gay relatives. My wife is Hispanic. I just got tired of saying, ‘Hey, I’m not that guy,’ at family gatherings,” Lavagnino explained.
Like a lot of Republicans, Lavagnino got turned on politically by Ronald Reagan. He was 16 at the time. He liked Reagan’s positive message and positive personality, he said. He also liked the fact Reagan won 49 of 50 states. Lavagnino said he was drawn to the party line that emphasized personal responsibility, fiscal restraint, and national defense. The Republicans used to be famous for their big tent. “Now they just hate each other,” Lavagnino said. “It’s not that the other guy is wrong,” he said. “It’s that they’re evil. They’re going to hell.”
Lavagnino’s been there before. When he was 9 years old, his parents split up. His father became mayor of Santa Maria. His mother joined a heretical Catholic cult whose bishop referred to the Pope, the Vatican, and mainstream Catholicism as “the Church of the Beast.” Masses were said in Latin, women and men sat on opposite aisles of the church, and women always covered their heads and wore modestly long dresses. Lavagnino attended cult schools in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where his instructors argued — among other things — the Holocaust was a hoax. When Lavagnino pushed back, he said he was ordered, “Lavagnino, kneel.”
Cults have a way of imploding. Lavagnino’s bishop — a charismatic wack job named Francis K. Schuckardt — would become embroiled in all the usual scandals. He was accused of stealing money and having sex with boys by a fellow member of the cult. Naturally, Schuckardt denied everything, but was ousted anyway.
The Republican Party, said Lavagnino, now has all the trappings of a cult. The Democrats, he added, are hardly immune. Commenting on the attempted-rape allegations swirling over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Lavagnino asked, “All Republicans believe that his accuser was lying and all Democrats believe she’s telling the truth. How is that even possible?”
Lavagnino’s decision to re-register as a decline-to-state says everything anyone needs to know as to why Republican candidates haven’t won a single statewide executive office in the past 12 years. It also illustrates why, as of June, there are now more decline-to-state voters in the state of California than registered Republicans. That’s a first.
Those same trends are alive and well in Santa Barbara. In three of the five supervisorial districts, the number of decline-to-state registered voters exceeds that of registered Republicans. Lavagnino’s 5th District is not one of them, but it’s pretty damn close.
Countywide, 53,584 of Santa Barbara County’s 206,734 registered voters are decline-to-states, just slightly less than the 55,202 Republicans and 87,495 Democrats. In 2010, 20.35 percent of county voters were decline-to-states; today, 25.92 percent are.
Clearly, Republicans have brought this on themselves, but Democrats have little to gloat about. Not only are they just as prone to eat their own as Republicans, but Democrats — at least locally — have a demonstrated propensity for eating the wrong one. In actual practice, one-party rule tends to get ugly pretty fast.
On the board, Lavagnino has famously teamed up with Das Williams — far more the pragmatist than his reputation as fire-breathing eco-lefty Democrat would suggest — to make stuff happen, most notably the county’s now-famous cannabis ordinance. Lavagnino radiates the good-natured humor of someone who understands the essential absurdity of his undertaking yet remains committed to it nonetheless. He remains a pro-oil, pro-law-and-order fiscal conservative. Every year, he hosts a massive one-stop-shop event offering a wide array of services for homeless veterans.
“I’m still the same guy,” he said. “I still believe the same things.” By leaving the GOP, Lavagnino acknowledged he now has no political future. “This is like a death sentence,” he said. “But if it’s going to happen, I’d rather it be self-imposed.” In the meantime, the beat goes on. “Both sides are leery of me now, but both sides can work with me,” he said. “That’s a good place to be.”