In the first truly competitive race in 30 years, seven candidates are vying to represent California’s 37th District. All but one are registered Democrats — reflecting the district’s registered voters: 46.26 percent are Democrats, and 23.11 percent are Republicans.
Incumbent Assemblymember Monique Limón, who was elected in 2016, seesawed for months on running for reelection in 2020 or giving up her seat for a shot at State Senate. When she finally announced she was set on the latter, Santa Barbara and Ventura candidates jumped at the chance to snag her spot.
In the past, the local Democratic Party has endorsed one candidate far in advance of the primary. That candidate always won by a landslide. This year, the party didn’t make an endorsement, so the 2020 race could go one of many ways.
The district covers all of Santa Barbara County and much of Ventura County. Five of the seven candidates are Santa Barbarans. Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo has the best name recognition and, despite not getting the early Democratic endorsement, has racked up a long list of endorsements from key groups such as the California Labor Federation and from elected officials such as California State Controller Betty Yee.
Of the two Ventura candidates, Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett has wide name recognition as a progressive on the Ventura Board of Supervisors and an environmental veteran. He has the Sierra Club endorsement and that of the California Professional Firefighters despite also having a strong reputation for fiscal responsibility.
The March 3 election will select the top two candidates from any party, who will run against each other in the November election. That winner will become the next 37th District’s assemblymember.
When Cathy Murillo was elected to the Santa Barbara City Council in 2011, she was the first Latina to sit on the dais. Now three years into her first term as mayor, she has strong support from labor unions, support that has given her the largest campaign chest in the race at $135,046.99 in 129 contributions.
“I am the only candidate that has leadership experience over a full-service city,” Murillo said. “And on top of that, I’ve been the mayor through fires, the 1/9 Debris Flow.”
Murillo, 58, moved to Santa Barbara at 17 to obtain her bachelor’s in stage acting from UC Santa Barbara when she fell in love with the community, ultimately making it her permanent home. The progressive Democrat, known for her tight ties with the local party, is a self-described social activist.
Murillo’s top issues include improving public education, protecting the environment, moving toward a fossil-fuel-free state, and improving economic opportunity for working families and individuals.
Murillo wants to increase access to pre-kindergarten and improve the quality of the overall education system. “To address the achievement gap, children need to be reading at grade level by 3rd grade, or we’ve lost them,” Murillo explained. “The state is already beginning to address the early education piece, though. The tricky part will be increasing enrollment in universities.”
Murillo cited Santa Barbara’s goal of using 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030 as one of her prouder environmental accomplishments that she hopes to take to Sacramento. She wants to see investment in job training for people now working in the fossil fuel industry so that they won’t be left behind in the transition to renewable energy.
Murillo, like almost every other candidate, is a proponent of the “housing first” method when it comes to tackling the statewide homeless issue. This means securing a place for someone to live before helping them find a job or complete a treatment program to get sober from drugs or alcohol.
“Housing first is the way to go, but there must also be wrap-around services,” she said. “Social workers need to be checking in on them regularly, and medical services need to be provided, all of that.”
Steve Bennett first became recognized statewide in 1995, when he coauthored and successfully championed the SOAR (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources) initiatives in Ventura County. At a time when urban sprawl was threatening the Central Coast, from Ventura to San Luis Obispo, SOAR was the first initiative to protect agricultural and open-space lands from development by requiring a vote of the people before those lands can be rezoned.
Bennett, who is finishing out his fifth term as a Ventura County supervisor, has had a long career in public service: first in education as a teacher of high school economics and American history, and then as a member of the Ventura City Council, before being elected to the Ventura Board of Supervisors. He said his more than 20 years of experience as an elected official has taught him about fiscal responsibility in the political world.
“You have to do this work independent of special-interest groups,” Bennett explained. “I realized when the first SOAR initiative came to the city council in the ’90s that I had to stand up to special-interest groups.” He authored a bill that did just that. One of the strictest campaign finance reform laws in the state, the bill limits contributions to any campaign for local office to $750 from any individual or group.
Another issue he has worked on is affordable housing. “We need housing, but we need housing built in the right spot,” he said. “Building a mansion on agricultural land,” he thinks, isn’t part of the solution.
Bennett also helped initiate a number of programs in Ventura that help vulnerable community members, including farmworkers and seniors. He also started a unique foster respite program that gives those who don’t have the ability to become foster parents the opportunity to help current foster parents.
“It takes a village, and you have to see the most vulnerable as part of your responsibility for the village to function,” he said. Bennett believes he was able to help make these programs a successful reality because of his willingness to work together with those who hold competing views. He hopes to bring this skill to Sacramento if elected.
Jonathan Abboud, a progressive Isla Vista activist and Santa Barbara City College trustee, received the highest number of votes during the local Democratic party’s endorsement deliberations.
Though 27-year-old Abboud is the second-youngest candidate in the race, his political experience resembles that of the older candidates. He has served on SBCC’s Board of Trustees for five years as the youngest community college trustee in the state. He was also one of the lead organizers for the Isla Vista Community Services District, where he is now the general manager.
Like nearly all candidates vying for the seat, Abboud puts environmental protection, public education, housing, and homelessness at the top of his campaign issues. What sets him apart from Murillo and others, he said, are his specific plans and policies to address those issues.
“Like when it comes to global warming, it isn’t just about protecting the environment,” he said. “We aren’t going to solve climate change by protecting the beach. The beach is a positive side effect to tackling climate change.”
He supports adopting the Green New Deal, complete with more specific plans for the 37th District like increasing mass public transit, including an Amtrak line from Lompoc to Santa Barbara, and building clean water infrastructure.
He is also the only candidate running on for publicly financed campaigns because he says it is unsustainable to fund a campaign by “hustling to get donors.” Instead, he spends his time speaking with voters and canvasses the neighborhoods four hours each day, usually with his mother.
“I’m a community organizer; that’s who I am,” Abboud said. “Spending time hearing firsthand from voters what their biggest issues are is what my campaign is about.”
Among several other issues, Abboud’s stance on education is that it must be free and accessible to all. He supports universal pre-K and paid parental leave and is the only candidate supporting tuition-free public college and trade school.
Elsa Granados has never served as an elected official, though her endorsements show that her 30 years as a public servant have made her well-known and respected in the community.
“I am not a political insider,” Granados said. “Voters are hungry for someone who relates to them and won’t uphold the status quo. That’s me.”
Born and raised in East L.A., Granados moved to Santa Barbara in February 1997. She has always worked on issues involving interpersonal violence and violence against women, serving as the executive director of Standing Together to End Sexual Assault for nearly 25 years. Formerly known as the Rape Crisis Center, the nonprofit provides counseling and support services to survivors of sexual assault and their loved ones.
Her experience at the nonprofit has taught her to seek outside resources to help with problems the center can’t address, and she would apply this resourcefulness if elected.
For example, Granados said voters repeatedly cited affordable housing as a top issue when she canvassed neighborhoods in the district. Although she said she supports “building up” and “letting go of the white-picket lifestyle,” she knows from her experience that she needs to bring in others more experienced with the issues, too.
“I’m a leader that doesn’t lead alone,” Granados said. “I would look to the experts on housing and bring them into the discussion, too.”
Over half of the state’s budget is in education — Granados believes that still isn’t enough.
“Education shapes your future,” Granados said. “If we really cared about the kids, we’d put more funding into the schools. We used to implement the best practices, but sadly that is no longer true. I am very cognizant of the link between education and poverty.”
Though Granados hasn’t raised as much money as some of her opponents, she is endorsed by several local leaders, including District Attorney Joyce Dudley.
Environmental law is Jason Dominguez’s passion, and it’s at the heart of his campaign.
He received a master’s degree in environmental law from Heidelberg University, and Dominguez believes the state is not adequately enacting environmental policies, particularly concerning sea-level rise.
“We are so behind the ball on addressing sea-level rise,” Dominguez said. “If there is a big flood, Oakland airport could be underwater. Santa Barbara could be, too. … We need funding for more research on sea walls.”
As a teacher of more than 10 years, his stance on bettering the education system starts with environmental policy, too. He supports solar panels on the roof of all public schools, which he said will produce an immediate return on the investment and ultimately fund underfunded schools.
Local politicos, however, most often talk about his squabbles on the dais with Mayor Murillo during his four years as a Santa Barbara city councilmember. Their infamous feuds gave him the title of council contrarian, a reputation which might trouble him through this election.
His campaign for Assembly initially ran concurrent with his reelection campaign for City Council — which he lost in December 2019. Now he is focusing full force on his Assembly campaign.
When it comes to his stance on homelessness, Dominguez believes the solution requires phases due to the magnitude of the problem. “Phase one would be focusing on the 100 most vulnerable first — like seniors, mentally ill, or veterans,” he said. “Then phase two, we would go for the next 100, and so on.”
On the council, Dominguez said he was most proud of his efforts to get an inclusionary housing ordinance passed — restricting the amount of rent developers can charge to some tenants.
If he were to represent the 37th District in the State Assembly, he said he would continue his efforts toward affordable housing, but would also push strongly for rent-to-own programs rather than simply rentals.
Charles Cole is the youngest candidate at 22 years old, and the only Republican in the race.
Though he has little experience in government, the Santa Barbara High grad sees this as a strong point for his candidacy. “I’m running because I want to change the way the government works in California,” Cole said. “I think it serves itself and not the people.”
Though his website paints him as an inflexible, radical conservative, he says that is not the whole story. Though his father — also his campaign manager — is a Republican, Cole said his mother and stepfather are both Democrats with whom he enjoys discussing politics and alternative points of view. “I want to work with both sides so we can have a compromise,” Cole said. “We need to bring everyone together.”
As an example, he follows the Sierra Club’s motto to “protect and preserve the land,” though when it comes to oil drilling, he wants to keep it local because, he said, “at least we have regulations in place, whereas if we import it from Saudi Arabia, there would be no ethics and no local jobs.”
“I’m not a climate-change denier, but climates always change,” he said. “Scientists say the climate is changing, but they don’t provide the numbers — I’d be open to seeing that.”
Cole also believes the state is gravely mishandling the growing homelessness issue. Although not entirely familiar with the “housing first” concept, he said he would be fully supportive of funding additional mental-health programs and “helping the ones who are willing get into work programs.”
Stephen Blum is running what he calls a “positive, no negative” campaign — he is accepting no more than $100 in campaign donations from any group or individual. “I’m not taking more than that because I don’t want to sell my soul,” Blum said.
Blum’s unorthodox style is deeply rooted in his life experiences. Born in Compton and raised in Pomona in a family of five children by a single working mother on food stamps, he is a self-described “proud product of public schools.” He believes the state should level the playing field fiscally by putting more money into the poorer schools, but he doesn’t feel the state’s education system is failing as a whole.
“California is thriving because of our education system,” Blum said. “We see many success stories, but because the wealthy want to privatize our schools, they use test scores as a way to trash them and prove they are failing. They aren’t.”
Blum taught in the public school system from 1980 to 2000 before going on to teach at private universities and serve on the Ventura County Community College District Board of Trustees for 12 years and on the California Community College League’s State Board for five. “I never regretted a moment I was a teacher,” Blum said. “I never felt that I didn’t have enough money. What I’d like to see is for the job to be promoted and celebrated.”
When it comes to housing, Blum doesn’t agree that the state should be able to mandate housing. He said each local government needs to have a multipronged approach to the issue.
“Some cities are passing bonds to build specific workforce housing, like for the police force or for teachers, and then the rent payments pay back the bonds,” he said. “That sounds really promising. Building smaller housing, granny flats, and even mobile homes work really well.”
He is most passionate about the wage-inequality gap. “This country is slowing strangling itself with greed,” Blum said. “Raising the minimum wage is definitely a huge priority.”