Seven Assembly Candidates Battle for Votes at Election Forum

Six Democrats and One Republican Field Questions, Struggle to Stand Out in Competitive Race

Credit: Delaney Smith

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Even off of the Santa Barbara City Council, ex-councilmember Jason Dominguez took another shot at Mayor Cathy Murillo from a new dais Tuesday night — the 37th Assembly District League of Women Voters election forum held at Carpinteria City Hall.

“Campaign. Finance. Reform,” Dominguez said when asked how he would build affordable housing if elected to the seat. “My opponent [Murillo] routinely takes money from developers even when they have projects in front of the council: 711 North Milpas is a prime example. She took money from that developer and then voted on it.”

Murillo did not take money from the referenced 711 developer.

Dominguez was immediately shut down by moderator David Maron and told he could only emphasize his own strengths and values — so he found a way around it. 

“I introduced inclusionary housing in 2016 with my colleague Bendy White,” Dominguez said. “I won’t say who opposed it,” he said in reference to Murillo, “but I had to create a housing task force, and that’s how we got inclusionary housing. I pushed for 15 percent and had had four council votes for it, but someone [Murillo] pushed for 10 percent and that’s where we ended up. These are just facts.”

Dominguez and Murillo, who did not respond to Dominguez’s attacks, are just two of the seven candidates battling to be the next 37th District representative in what has turned out to be the most competitive Assembly race in decades. Six of them are Democrats with such similar values it appears track records and personalities are all that set them apart. 

“As you’ve listened to us tonight you can see that there are many candidates up here with progressive values,” said Steve Bennett, a candidate for Assembly and a Ventura County supervisor. “I think the question facing Santa Barbara County voters is not who has the most progressive values, but who is going to be effective and implement those progressive values.”

Bennett is an environmental veteran known for his role as the co-author of the SOAR (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources) initiatives in Ventura County, which protect agricultural land and open space from urban development. His decades of experience tended to push him ahead of the pack when it came to questions regarding environmental policy, though all six Democratic candidates agreed on multiple points, most notably decreasing fossil fuel emissions through more robust public transit. 

Charles Cole, the lone Republican in the race, had a different stance than his opponents. 

“My thoughts on climate change is that the climate has always changed, and it will continue to always change, regardless of if you try to mitigate it through policy or anything like that,” 22-year-old Cole said. “Climate changes; that’s why we have fossils of palm trees and rainforests in the desert and the Sahara.

“Now to help fix the ‘sea-level rise,’” he said, using air quotes, “the sea levels are going to rise and fall regardless. They were 450 feet lower than they were today in the last ice age. To mitigate that, you need to either move farther away from the ocean or add sand or more land. I don’t know what to do.”

Most of Cole’s answers did not appear to have any factual basis, but he has a real chance at making the run-off election because he is the only conservative running.

For the past several decades, the 37th District winner had been picked by the local Democratic Party far in advance and won by a landslide. With seven candidates in the race and no pre-Democratic Party endorsement, anyone could make the two-candidate runoff.

Elsa Granados is the only other candidate in the race besides Cole who does not have experience as an elected official. Her more than 30 years as a public servant — 22 years of which have been spent as the executive director of Standing Together to End Sexual Assault (formerly the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center) — gives her an understanding of what constituents in the district need and the complexities of social issues in the education system, housing crisis, and the homelessness crisis.

“Housing is a national crisis, and we’ve left it up to local government and nonprofits to deal with it,” Granados said. “We need a federal, local, and state partnership along with nonprofits who can provide additional support services, not just a home … We need a plan that involves looking at the various reasons people are homeless … Some have to do with poverty; some have to do with domestic violence.”

Jonathan Abboud, who is currently serving in his fifth year as a Santa Barbara City College trustee and is the executive director of the Isla Vista Community Services District, was the only candidate who is running on universal pre-K and free tuition at all two-year colleges and trade schools.

Abboud came in his walking sneakers because a main tenet of his campaign involves hours of daily canvassing and talking to voters face-to-face rather than via social media. During his closing statements, he gave out his personal cell and welcomed voters to call and meet him.

Murillo, like Abboud, has strong ties to the local Democratic Party. She also has strong labor union backing and name recognition as mayor of Santa Barbara, making her the likely frontrunner in the race. She cited the city’s high-density housing program as one of her prouder accomplishments and said she would push similar initiatives if she made it to Sacramento.

Steve Blum, the only other candidate from Ventura besides Bennett, brought his sense of humor and ability to collaborate with others to the table. He described himself as always being able to bring others together and work on teams. What differentiated him most from the other candidates was his stance on creating jobs.

“I think it’s kind of a myth that all of these businesses are leaving California,” Blum said. “Some are leaving, some are coming, and most are staying. California is a paradise, and people and businesses want to come here … We need to keep our roaring economy going. As you know, we would have the fifth largest economy in the world if California was a country, so when they say businesses are not doing good here, that’s preposterous.”

To watch the full two-hour debate with Murillo, Cole, Dominguez, Granados, Abboud, Blum, and Bennett, click here. 

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