“I’ve been lucky that my career has been focused in things that improve the community and align with my core values,” says Ben Romo in a rare moment of seriousness during our laugh-out-loud lunch.
There’s something delightfully refreshing about being in the presence of Ben. He’s a hard-working, determined community leader, but there’s a disarmingly mischievous quality about him. It’s obvious that he takes his work seriously, yet he’s able to joke around and poke fun at himself, a characteristic I completely relate to.
Earlier this year, Ben resigned as executive director of First Five Santa Barbara County Children and Families Commission to serve as a liaison between residents, nonprofits, and the county’s Office of Emergency Management for the recovery efforts that followed the Thomas Fire and the 1/9 Debris Flow in Montecito. During emergencies, all county employees are subject to activation, when they are called on to work beyond their normal roles.
“I’d normally activate for a week,” he explains. “With the Thomas Fire, I was working long shifts. I became the community and recovery engagement coordinator. I was helping coordinate recovery efforts, especially as it pertained to helping the community organizations and resources meet the need of those who were most impacted.” Among other moves, he opened the Montecito Center, a centralized place for people to get help.
Ben knew it was just supposed to be a short-lived position, but it was an important transition. “I was planning to leave First Five in a more thoughtful and planned way,” he says. “But the disaster increased that time frame.” He’s now starting a consulting firm “to do government relations, community engagement, and organizational change.”
Ben was born in Santa Barbara on the Upper East Side, the corner of State and Junipero, to be exact. He always had a money-making scheme in mind as a kid, including a terrible gardening business for neighbors and lemonade stands.
One such scheme was the hilarious Human Jukebox. “We would go to Reid’s Appliances and ask them for a refrigerator box,” he recalls. “I’d paint it blue, make a coin slot, and add a song list. I had a hatch on the box, and I’d be inside.” He would sing whatever song customers chose in his homemade kazoo, which was a plumbing pipe with wax paper held by a rubber band. He’d make $150 dollars during I Madonnari. He even made the papers.
During his time at Santa Barbara High School, Ben would buy and sell cars. He worked at the downtown parking lots and would spot cars with for sale signs. He and a friend created a business called “We Do Anything for Money,” and the telephone on the card was his parent’s home phone. They’d put the cards in parked cars on Coast Village Road. “Mom didn’t know if I was going to make it,” he tells me amusingly.
But Ben worked hard, holding simultaneous jobs at the aforementioned parking lots, Video Shmideo, and McConnell’s Ice Cream on State Street. “I was a true downtown kid,” he says. “I always worked within the same square mile.”
He was also involved in school government, and recalls an American government class with Peter van Duinwyk (currently on the Montecito Union School District Board) and being asked if he could trust a woman with the button for the nuclear bomb. “My response was ‘yes,’ “ he says. “More so than I would a man, because women give birth and therefore value life more, and would be less likely to blow up the world.”
After graduating high school in 1991, Ben wasn’t ready for college. His politically active parents, Mary and John Romo (former president of Santa Barbara City College), made him go to SBCC. He graduated on the president’s list, and applied at only one college: Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon, to study political science. Yet Ben kept up with his outrageous plots.
“I found a repo man, and he’d sell me cars wholesale for me to resell,” he says. He started a business called Junk Boy that cleaned out college apartments in exchange for keeping students’ discarded stuff, like furniture, and then sold that in the vacant lot across the street from his college home. “I had the biggest yard sale on that empty lot and make between $1,500 and $2,000 dollars,” says Ben, who also made and delivered pizza, and pumped gas at a station. “While I delivered pizza I’d pick up junk,” he says. “And while I was pumping gas I was buying and selling cars.”
When in college, Ben called Walter Capps in 1994 and asked for a job with his campaign. In 1996, Romo became a field organizer for the future congressman. “Walter was really inspirational,” he acknowledges. “He made my career, and why I’m in public service.”
Ben moved to Washington, D.C. with Capps. “Walter supported me despite my flaws,” he sys. “I worked my ass off, 18 hours a day, seven days a week.” When Capps died unexpectedly, Romo was the first person to start working on the campaign for his wife, Lois Capps. In 2000, he opened a consulting firm. “I was Lois’ primary political consultant,” he explains. “I mainly did campaigns, but worked for nonprofits and corporations doing government relations and communications and community engagement.”
As we part, Ben charmingly tells me, “I prefer a meaningful conversation over exchanging pleasantries.”
Ben Romo answers the Proust Questionnaire.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Winston Churchill. He was a drunk and he was really funny. He didn’t sugar coat things. He told his country that they might lose the war, that they might lose the island. He didn’t wrap it up in pleasantries or spin it to make people feel better. He trusted them to be strong and capable and mature because he knew humans can be amazing, and as a result, they were. They survived the blitz, and then the Americans came and saved the day. We should be proud of that history but we can’t rest on our laurels.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Joyful cynicism that leads to concrete action. Without the action, they’re just babies who want to be congratulated for thinking something.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Big ears and a gapped tooth. I have an abnormally long middle finger. I could go on….
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I learned the true meaning of love.
What do you like most about your job?
That I presently don’t have one.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I take issue with the concept. It sounds like a fantasy created by people with too much time on their hands. Let’s be honest with each other, life is hard. As a species, we suck in many and shameful ways. I find happiness in seeing fellow human beings doing good work, serving, and being wonderful and amazing.
I consider myself to be a happy person, but I am not always happy, and that’s just fine by me, because it’s reality. I’d rather live in honest reality, with sadness and pain and the things that should drive us to be better, than float along in some fantasy land where we merrily go about life thinking everything is roses and lollipops. Ain’t nothing new or better gonna come from that.
Where would you most like to live?
Half-time in June Lake, California and half-time on a boat in the Santa Barbara Harbor with a good portion of the year traveling/adventuring.
What is your greatest fear?
The death of my daughter.
Who do you most admire?
I admire homeless people who live on the streets, especially those with mental illnesses. They live in a world that does not accept how their brain works and they pay a heavy price for that. Many of them are just wasting away on the streets as we walk by them, step around them, looking with blissful ignorance right past their desperation: boils and rashes ravaging their skin, the signs of chronic sleep deprivation, people shitting themselves on the street.
I admire that they can even stand to live among us, in a community with so much wealth that for the most part ignores them. We’re too busy crying and complaining about panhandling, and plastic straws. We care more about what Taylor Swift, Kanye, or Trump say than we do about the woman dying right before our eyes on the streets of our own community. I admire them for surviving and not giving up despite what I assume is a life of near total isolation and despair.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I drink too much Diet Dr. Pepper. My hippy friends tell me it’s gonna rot my brain, but my pal Dr. Charity Dean, the County Health Officer who was just appointed the Assistant Director of the California Department of Health, told me it’s okay. She knows I quit drinking booze nine years ago and she said if this is my only vice, then I’m doing pretty damn good. I’ll trust Dr. Dean over my hippy friends any day of the week, especially if it means I can still drink a boat load of Diet Dr. Pepper.
What is your current state of mind?
I am all jacked up on 128 ounces of Diet Dr. Pepper…and I really need to pee.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
People who claim to care about other people and tout their liberal/progressive beliefs but who:
Don’t actually do anything to improve the world or help anybody. And/or: Abandon their compassion/progressive views when helping others might lead to even the slightest change in their comfortable life and/or world view
What do you most value in friends?
I have very few friends and I value that very much.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Nutball, ding-dong, idiot.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I would like to be able to ride a motorcycle really well and for one reason. There is this great scene in First Blood where John Rambo has escaped jail, is running from the fuzz, and there’s some dude on a motorcycle riding toward him. While the motorcycle is in motion, Rambo grabs the guy, throws him off, gets on the motorcycle, and speeds away. It was badass. I would like to learn how to ride a motorcycle so I can perfect that move. Also, a motorcycle is the best form of escape if some calamitous event befalls us and my daughter and I have to run for the hills to survive.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I don’t know. There are lots of things I work on that are nobody’s business, but right now, I have reached a point in my life where I am pretty glad I’m me.
What is you most trusted possession?
My Benchmade mini-griptilian knife.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My friends, my daughter, her mom, and our dog Gingersnap.
What is your motto?
Take care of yourself, take care of other people, and don’t be an asshole.
On what occasion do you lie?
I will lie to trick or defeat a liar, especially in pursuit of a just cause. I think that kind of lie is okay. Sometimes I tell exceedingly outlandish lies to strangers, sometimes people I know, just to see if I can get them to believe me. That’s more of a joke though.