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Every election year, the Santa Barbara Independent researches the issues and the candidates as carefully as possible. In the races where we see clear choices, we make endorsements. We do not endorse in every race, but in those we do, we do so with confidence, or at least with a clear understanding of why we support one candidate or one ballot initiative over another. Whether you agree with our choices or not, we urge you to vote. For over three decades, we have been covering elections in Santa Barbara County, and there is one thing we can say with absolute certainty: Every vote really does count.
For Santa Barbara County Supervisorial District 1
Endorsing a candidate in the current 1st Supervisorial District race has been among the most difficult decisions the Santa Barbara Independent has struggled to make in our 34 years. In it, we face an excruciating choice between two progressive, environmentally minded candidates, incumbent Das Williams and challenger Laura Capps. Both are serious people; both have demonstrated a serious commitment to public service. Both are clearly politically ambitious.
As unfortunately happens when such likeminded opponents square off, campaigns tend to get ugly. In the heat of battle, one side’s “facts” are the other side’s “lies.” In this campaign, we have seen enough of both to last us a few lifetimes.
In taking on Williams, an established incumbent with 17 years of elected office, Capps has relentlessly challenged his ethics, casting him as a willing stooge for the cannabis industry and special interests. In response, Williams’s supporters struck back, creating an independent expenditure committee to “set the record straight.” Bad idea. They sent out literature that only succeeded in making Williams look as bad as Capps says he is — not to mention sullying their own reputations in the process.
All that being acknowledged, we have decided to endorse Das Williams for a second term as county supervisor. Our decision rests on the arc of consistency Williams has demonstrated over his 17 years in public life. We are endorsing Williams because of his notable record of accomplishments on environmental protection, climate change, and social justice. He has acquired a deep knowledge of the issues, a wide range of personal and political relationships, and has developed strong working ties with county staff and his board colleagues. Given the urgency of the issues before us — climate change, disaster preparedness, housing, and homelessness, to name just four — these assets matter profoundly.
But we also have serious concerns and significant reservations about Das Williams — the politician and the man.
Before we address such concerns, let’s highlight some of Williams’s more recent achievements. In the past year, the Board of Supervisors voted — finally — in favor of Community Choice, a massively significant green energy measure that will allow county residents to buy renewably produced energy. Williams was in the trenches, fighting to help make this happen. That Williams has developed a close working relationship with North County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino — normally a fiscal skeptic about green energy proposals — helped secure Lavagnino’s vote.
When a union that had strongly backed Williams came out against the biggest wind energy proposal in county history, Williams broke with the union to support the project. He also played a significant role in creating a process that will allow more solar and wind projects than current zoning permits.
In the aftermath of the debris flow following the Thomas Fire, Williams made sure bottled water got passed out to households without such basic services. He led the county’s efforts to facilitate the building of a new debris basin proposed by homeowners on Montecito’s devastated Randall Road. Even two days before the disaster, Williams got Flood Control teams to work day and night clearing the Santa Monica Debris Basin of boulders so that it functioned properly during the deluge, most likely saving lives.
While still in the Assembly, Williams stumbled onto a scheme by the state National Guard to sell its downtown Armory. He intervened, and the Santa Barbara School District was able to secure this invaluable real estate for public use. While in Sacramento he also helped push legislation that created the desperately needed Isla Vista Community Service District.
In person, Williams often comes across as a weird blend of eco-minded flag-waver, evangelical Christian, and ego-driven careerist. Admirers see in Williams the personification of the causes they support. His detractors see in him a calculating political opportunist. On his good days, he can appear stalwart and resolute; on bad days, however, he seems tone deaf and arrogant.
That arrogance — both real and perceived — has finally landed Williams in serious hot water. When constituents in his hometown of Carpinteria raised the alarm over the odors and other very real problems caused by cannabis cultivation, Williams never showed much compassion or regret for the fallout. He dismissed critics as prohibitionists, and when the Carpinteria City Council held a special meeting to discuss the impacts of cannabis, Williams, astonishingly, did not show up.
The Independent endorsed Proposition 64, the legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes, in 2016. Legalization offered the promise of erasing much black-market cultivation and product, making it safer for human consumption. Also, the emergence of cannabis as a new cash crop is positive, but it is one fraught with complicated challenges. If the federal government eventually legalizes the interstate commerce of cannabis, Santa Barbara County will be in an excellent position to reap needed tax revenues, but until then, it falls to county government to sort out how to regulate the industry.
Unfortunately, it has become clear that the Board of Supervisors opened the doors to cannabis agriculture and trade way too wide, way too fast. In hindsight, a more gradual approach would have resulted in far less collateral damage to the grape industry, to the avocado industry, and to the many residents who find the terpene-rich vapors that carry the plant’s skunk-like aromas an invasive assault.
To be fair, the supervisors were under an extreme time pressure. They had to adopt a county ordinance within one year, or they’d have to accept a one-size-fits-all solution adopted by Sacramento regulators, or not allow cannabis crops or commerce in the county.
In their haste, the supervisors made some thoughtless blunders. They naively agreed to accept affidavits offered by cannabis operators swearing that they had been growing marijuana before January 2016. County administrators chose not to independently verify these claims, citing a staffing shortage. Bad call. Today, these legal non-conforming growers cultivate the bulk of Santa Barbara cannabis. So long as these farmers are going through the motions of obtaining the necessary permits, they cannot legally be shut down or sanctioned for behavior that would get other growers in serious trouble.
Supervisor Williams was one of four supervisors who led the charge on behalf of the new industry. His challenger Laura Capps has focused on campaign donations Williams has taken from cannabis operators, some within days of key votes on the board. It does not make an inspiring picture. But after following Williams’s position on cannabis legalization for years, we are convinced that Williams’s support for the new industry is not a politically corrupt one. As long as he has been in elected office, Williams has been a proponent of legalization, regulation, and taxation. He was that way when he served on the Santa Barbara City Council; he’s that way now.
Laura Capps has raised significant issues that deserve to be taken seriously, and we do. She has proposed strengthening county regulations on campaign financing and on establishing an ethics commission as ways to control the influence of special interests over issues before the board. She has worked on statewide and national organizations to combat climate change. She has made tough decisions in the face of intensely emotional controversies as a member of the Santa Barbara school board. She has played a leading role in the county’s fight against poverty and hunger, and she has long been an advocate for women and children. In short, she is a candidate worth supporting. But not this year, not in this race.
In deciding which candidate to endorse, we have weighed the concerns Capps has raised about Williams against his 17-year career. Is his behavior over the past three years a good enough reason to toss him overboard? We don’t think so. Do we wish he had disavowed these last-minute hit pieces immediately, instead of waiting for days? We do.
But we also believe Williams will learn to admit his mistakes quickly and with compassion, and that he will strive to repair relationships with those who have been his past allies. Most importantly, we are convinced that as the 1st District Supervisor, Das Williams will continue to push home the legislation, programs, and solutions to the challenges confronting Santa Barbara County.
This is an easy choice, though perhaps a cruel one. Voters should send Salud Carbajal back to Congress to represent Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in Washington D.C., a city that even on the best of days now qualifies a “hostile work environment.” A liberal Democrat, Carbajal is not in a position to sponsor major legislation. But Carbajal has used the bully pulpit at his disposal to bear witness against some of the more extreme cruelties of the Trump administration, standing tall, for example, in favor of the Affordable Care Act and speaking out against the reckless hate mongering that masquerades as White House immigration policy.
But Carbajal, a former county supervisor, has never been about ideology so much as he’s focused on constituent service. In that regard, he’s delivered big time, both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras. When it’s come to securing federal resources for fire protection and disaster relief in the wake of the Thomas Fire, Carbajal delivered the goods. Running for his third term, Carbajal now knows his way around Washington enough to qualify as a well-placed investment by district voters.
In this context, it would be foolhardy to consider replacing him with Andy Caldwell. For 20 years, Caldwell has been an indefatigable and often outrageous voice for COLAB, a right-wing organization that has never seen an environmental protection it didn’t hate. Although only Carbajal and Caldwell are the only two names to appear on the March ballot for this district, both men will have to face off for real in November. Our endorsement won’t change anything between now and then. But send a message: Send Salud Carbajal back to Washington.
For State Senate
This one is a no-brainer. State Assemblymember Monique Limón is running for State Senate to fill the massive void about to be created when the great Hannah-Beth Jackson is termed out of office. Send her there with your blessing; she’ll get there anyway. Since first running for the Santa Barbara school board 10 years ago, Limón has emerged as the political equivalent of the irresistible force, albeit a quietly contemplative one. Since hitting the statehouse in Sacramento, Limón has wowed party leaders and has landed choice assignments on powerful committees, like the Assembly Banking Committee.
Once ensconced in the Senate, Limón will go from being one of 80 to one of 40. Given her expertise in education policy — Limón had a master’s degree from Columbia University before serving on the school board — we expect her to exert positive sway on matters K-12 and higher education. In her four years in the Assembly, Limón established a reputation for carefully studying issues into submission. She was rarely one for quick responses to complicated problems. That’s a good thing. Vote for Monique Limón for State Senate.
3rd District County Supervisor
“Exemplary” is one of those high-minded words that should be bandied about with some care. With 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, however, such restraint should be tossed to the winds. Her first three years in office have been just that: exemplary.
Representing the most contradictory and challenging of all five county districts, Hartmann has consistently impressed. At first blush, her soft-spoken style seems to diminish her influence on the dais. But anyone paying attention quickly grasps the power of her intelligence. Her work ethic suggests the stamina of a long-distance runner, which Hartmann, not coincidentally, happens to be. Anyone representing the 3rd District — which encompasses parts of Goleta, all of Isla Vista, the majestic Gaviota Coast, and the rolling hills of Santa Ynez Valley — wields the key swing vote that defines which way the board will tilt on such issues as climate change, oil development, housing, and cannabis. On those, Hartmann has been reliably progressive, but by no means knee-jerk.
On climate change, Hartmann does far more than “virtue signal” by voting for feel-good resolutions embracing the Green New Deal, as her right-wing critics sniffishly contend. Hartmann and her capable staff continue to push for Community Choice, an important — if impenetrably named — initiative that will allow county energy consumers to buy their juice from renewable sources. But for her intervention, this initiative might have died on the vine. Hartmann also played a key role keeping the Strauss Wind Energy Project alive through tough deliberations. It finally passed just last week. When it comes to new onshore oil and gas development proposals, you can count on Hartmann to bird-dog greenhouse-gas emissions aggressively, pushing applicants toward solar installations as a more economically sensible choice. That choice has become more possible since Hartmann joined other supervisors in proposing zoning changes that, if adopted, will significantly expand where renewable energy projects can be built.
On cannabis, the hot-button issue du jour, Hartmann voted with the board majority in making the current mess, but she’s leading the charge to put the genie back in the bottle. To that end, Hartmann’s appointed planning commissioner, John Parke, has been tough and effective on the commission. Hartmann has tackled alternative transportation issues creatively by pushing such ideas as bike tourism.
As an elected official, Hartmann routinely goes beyond good intentions and what “experts” say is possible. She has an outstanding grasp of how the Rubik’s Cube of government bureaucracies fit together and how they don’t. Hartmann is not twitching with personal ambition; she’s not plotting her course up the political food chain. She’s all about right here, right now.
Of the other three candidates running, it’s worth noting that Jessica Alvarez Parfrey — an Isla Vista environmentalist — has dropped out of the race and endorsed Hartmann. As much as we admire Karen Jones, the only card-carrying Republican, for her candor and directness, we disagree with her on too many fundamental issues. Finally, there’s Bruce Porter. His positions on most issues are suspiciously vague, yet on one point he is clear: Bruce Porter has blatantly sought to discourage Isla Vista residents from voting in Isla Vista. In fact, he bragged about reducing the number of registered voters. If that isn’t voter suppression, what is?
Joan Hartmann has been an exemplary supervisor. You can’t do much better than that.
Of the seven individuals running to represent Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in the California Assembly, Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett holds the dramatic edge of experience. A 20-year veteran of Ventura’s county board of supervisors, he spearheaded the 1998 groundbreaking SOAR initiative that has protected Ventura’s rich farmlands to this day from urban sprawl. As a result of that measure’s success, it was just recently re-ratified. Bennett also helped energize the campaign to defeat a proposed liquefied natural gas plant off the coast of Ventura.
His long track record as an informed environmentalist assures us that he’ll stay true to those values in Sacramento. It’s a critical point since California, desperate to solve its statewide housing crisis, is trying to override regional governments’ land-use policies. Though much still needs to be done by local communities, a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution is dangerously wrong. Bennett will fight to hold the line.
Bennett — yes, a craggy, old white man — it turns out, is as much a pragmatist and leader as he is a flag waver. His mind works toward solving problems. He led the charge to improve foster care, recognizing that too often the homeless of tomorrow are the foster kids of today. And recently, he participated in a difficult but eventually successful effort to open a new homeless shelter in Ventura, the first in eons.
An ardent supporter of alternative transportation, he’s been a leader in regional efforts to create a network of bikeways along the coast to promote bicycle tourism. But he has also pushed his own public works department, when working on repaving road jobs, to create safer shoulders for cyclists. Bennett enlisted many in the business community — some of the same ones so angry about his SOAR initiative — to help lobby for the modest funding this crucial infrastructure needed. Such incremental improvements, while hardly sexy, go a long way toward enticing motorists out of their cars and onto their bikes. Little wonder he was endorsed by the Sierra Club.
After a long career as a high school teacher and school administrator, Bennett knows firsthand that how Sacramento made decisions about education policy will trickle down into the classrooms. Little wonder he was endorsed by the California Teachers Association.
But it is worth wondering why Ventura County Firefighters have endorsed Bennett, when in the wake of the Thomas Fire disaster, Bennett vigorously questioned how effectively firefighters had been deployed? When he got stonewalled, he sued on his own dime to get the information. Disaster response planning, he argued, is too crucial to give those in charge a free pass. It seems the firefighters agreed.
For readers of the Independent, it might seem strange to endorse so enthusiastically a candidate from Ventura for a seat so long held by Santa Barbara politicians. Certainly Cathy Murillo, Santa Barbara’s mayor the past two years and councilmember before that, is a viable candidate. On the council dais, Murillo has been a voice for neglected communities, an advocate for affordable housing, and a courageous spokesperson for endangered species such as the steelhead trout. But she will not have completed her first full term as mayor when the Assembly term begins. Her tenure as mayor got off to a very rocky start — she was sworn in the same day that the debris flow struck — and she then found herself enmeshed in chronic personality conflicts with councilmember Jason Dominguez, who is also running for this same seat. With Murillo’s nemesis now off the council, the tone and tenor of council proceedings is already much improved, and we’re confident Murillo will make the most of this new opportunity.
Steve Bennett, who has so much skill, intelligence, and experience, is ready to serve us all well in Sacramento. We are fortunate to have such a candidate to send to the state capital.