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A Crowded Field in County Supes, Assembly Races

Democratic Party Food Fights over Supervisorial Districts and Assembly

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams. | Credit: Paul Wellman

To the extent Santa Barbara ever had a monolithic Democratic Party “machine” remains open to debate; what’s becoming clearer by the day, however, is the extent to which the local Democratic Party is riven by many of the same generational and ideological fissures that define its national counterpart. This became obvious with the outpouring of filing statements submitted by candidates running for three of the county supervisorial seats in this March’s election, not to mention the packed house vying for the South Coast’s soon-to-be vacant seat in the State Assembly. 

Most obvious is the intraparty food fight now picking up steam for 1st District supervisor between incumbent Das Williams and challenger Laura Capps, both card-carrying progressive Democrats. Where Williams enjoys stronger ties within the party establishment and the unions, Capps — a member of the Santa Barbara school board — has long enjoyed strong support from the local women’s movement. 

The putative pinch point that propelled Capps into this race is cannabis and the extent to which — she claims — Williams and the county supervisors opened their arms too wide and too fast to a new industry that has yet to get its odor issues in check. Capps is pushing to place new limits on campaign donations, charging that such contributions give special interests undue access and influence. 

By contrast, the race for the 3rd Supervisorial District — which encompasses parts of Goleta, Isla Vista, and much of the Santa Ynez Valley — was expected to be something of a snooze as incumbent Joan Hartmann fought off a challenge from Bruce Porter, the Santa Ynez businessperson and former school boardmember she beat four years ago. Such expectations were unceremoniously dashed this past week, as Hartmann — a former EPA administrator who enjoys strong support from the county’s environmental establishment — discovered last Friday that Isla Vista activist and member of Eco Vista Jessica Alvarez Parfrey was challenging her as well. 

Parfrey, who has yet to return calls for comment, made her announcement at a Climate Strike event hosted last Friday hosted by the Sunrise Movement, strong supporters of the Green New Deal. Hartmann, who spoke earlier at the event, was never notified that Parfrey’s announcement was to be the event’s final act. Parfrey had been hired by Hartmann to run her campaign operations in Isla Vista but was reportedly let go a few weeks ago. 

Photo: Paul WellmanLaura Capps

The Isla Vista voting block has long been key to the outcome of battles for the 3rd District, which in turn has long been key to the ideological tilt of the board. Parfrey commented on that at Friday’s event; given the importance of Isla Vista voters, she argued, the district should be represented by an Isla Vista resident. 

While Santa Barbara’s environmental establishment strongly backs Hartmann, some of the younger and more radical environmental activists affiliated with organizations like the Sunrise Movement have faulted her for not doing more to promote the Green New Deal. It’s not enough that Hartmann voted — as part of a 3-2 majority — to endorse the Green New Deal, they’ve argued; the supervisors need to actually implement its program.

Parfrey has never run for office before, and her announcement caught not just Hartmann but the South Coast’s environmental and political communities by total surprise. While her odds of prevailing would appear slim, her candidacy could hurt Hartmann’s chances of winning the election outright in the March primary and push the contest to a November run-off. 

In the meantime, Hartmann’s chief rival, Porter — the onetime U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Commander and Santa Ynez businessperson — has dropped his affiliation with the Republican Party and is seeking to run as an Independent. (Porter has not responded to repeated calls for comment.) This time around, Porter intends to campaign against the supervisors’ policies regarding cannabis — which he’s described as a “debacle” — and in a clear pitch for the Isla Vista vote, to end food insecurity for college students. 

Porter’s sailing, however, will be anything but smooth. Joining the 3rd District Race is Karen “Snakebite” Jones, a libertarian-minded Republican known to be enthusiastically outspoken when it comes to denouncing Porter. Jones described herself as a “tea-party Republican, a free-the-slaves Republican, and an I’m-for-gay-marriage-Republican-if-I-don’t-have-to-make-your-wedding-cake Republican.” Porter, she dismissed as a “Chamber of Commerce, get-off-my-lawn sort of Republican,” if even that, given his declined-to-state status. 

Jones ran for the district seat four years ago, sparing little verbal ire when it came to Porter. Rumors abounded of Republican efforts to talk Jones — who serves on the Santa Ynez airport board — out of the race to give Porter a better chance. Clearly, those efforts were for naught. 

By contrast, the race for the 4th Supervisorial District — centered in Orcutt — seems positively restrained. Running to fill the vacancy created by the imminent departure of Supervisor Peter Adam, perhaps the most outspokenly conservative supervisor the board has seen in decades, is Adam’s longtime administrative assistant Bob Nelson. 

Where Adam has famously worn his heart on his sleeve, Nelson has played a quiet, behind-the-scenes role as the congenially enigmatic conservative who got things done. For months, it appeared Nelson might run unopposed in the 4th, which is considered the most conservative voting district in the county. But this past week, Diana Perez — an education administrator who for the past five years has served on the Santa Maria school board — took out papers as well. 

In the meantime, the race for the Assembly seat is beginning to resemble a starting lineup for the Boston Marathon, with so many Democratic Party hopefuls running against each other that the party has been effectively precluded from endorsing any one candidate. 

Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo would seem the de facto frontrunner given her years in office, name recognition, and strong ties to the union wing of the party machine. But the field is populated with Democrats long seen as promising and formidable. Of those, Jonathan Abboud, longtime Isla Vista activist and City College trustee, is the most immediately obvious. But for more than 20 years, Elsa Granados quietly kept afloat Standing Together to End Sexual Assault (formerly known as the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center) and has generated considerable goodwill in that capacity. 

Although Jason Dominguez just lost his reelection bid for the Santa Barbara City Council by just eight votes, he too has name recognition and a demonstrated ability to campaign hard. Dominguez will court the more moderate wing of the party. 

The Assembly district includes much of Ventura, and Stephen Blum, an attorney based in Ventura, has jumped in. Blum has impressed with his comedic gifts. Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett has not yet taken out papers but is reported to be giving the race serious consideration. 

Running as no-party-preference is Anastasia Stone from Goleta. 

To date, the only Republican to enter the fray is a 22-year-old named Charles Walton Cole of Alston Road. 

Given state election rules, the top two vote-getters in the March primary — regardless of party affiliation — will face off in November.

Correction: This story was revised on Dec. 18 to reflect that Bruce Porter is not currently a school boardmember, the Santa Ynez airport has no advisory board, and Karen Jones’s correct handle is “Snakebite,” not “Snakebit.”

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