Gregg Hart got a standing ovation from his fellow county supervisors this Tuesday, and everything but a 21-gun salute and a kiss on the cheek. Next week, Hart — a 40-year veteran of local politics — will get sworn in as the state assemblymember representing Santa Barbara County and the 37th Assembly District. In so doing, Hart will wind up, in effect, right back where he started, having begun his political career working as an aide to former Assemblymember Jack O’Connell. Hart, a mainstay of the local Democratic Party, ran against Republican standard-bearer Mike Stoker, beating him by nearly 25,000 votes, or 20 percent.
Hart chaired the board during the depths of the COVID crisis, during which time he held regular Friday evening press briefings, typically alongside former Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso and Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg. Hart’s gift was to be open, accessible, and informative while also remaining on point. As board chair, Hart resisted calls for stricter enforcement, pushing instead for more public education and outreach. Do-Reynoso described Hart as “the embodiment of diplomacy and kindness,” adding that he was “intentionally inclusive.” Supervisor Steve Lavagnino expressed envy that Hart had no really harsh critics. “I wish I knew what that was like,” he said. Supervisor Bob Nelson described Hart as “the captain of the team.” Even though they differed politically, Nelson noted Hart made a point making him know “my opinion matters.” Supervisor Das Williams said Hart didn’t let the loudest voices in the room distract him from his long-term goals. And Board Chair Joan Hartmann said Hart “bestowed dignity” on the county’s ship of state.
Hart expressed gratitude for the “kindness, generosity, and courage” of his colleagues, but noted that “As calm as I may appear here, I’m not so calm in my office.” Hart sparred openly with Sheriff Bill Brown and District Attorney Joyce Dudley over changes he insisted should be made to the way people were charged with criminal offenses. Hundreds of people, Hart vehemently insisted, could be diverted from jail without increased risk to the public. The pandemic — and its attendant drop in jail population — proved that, he said. Brown and Dudley disagreed just as vehemently, and the clashes took their toll on all parties.
This Tuesday, the supervisors ratified a lunchbox full of measures pushed by Hart that are designed to incentivize child care operators and lighten the regulatory burden of operators trying to open centers with 50 kids or fewer. The COVID pandemic reminded everyone, he said, of just how devastating the lack of affordable child care was to the local economy.
Later this week, the supervisors will vote to ratify a much-fought-over project labor agreement that will ensure all county construction projects valued at $10 million or more will be populated by workers screened by the local construction trade unions. Hart, who enjoyed strong support from labor unions throughout his entire political career, pushed hard for such an agreement almost from the day he was sworn in as supervisor. Hart has experienced significant resistance and pushback from county public works officials, and at times, his frustration and exasperation was evident even to casual observers. Hart was not the only supervisor to champion the deal, but he was perhaps the most ardent. Ever the pragmatist, Hart struck a last-minute deal. Had he not, a new state law that prohibits elected officials from voting on matters for which they’d received campaign donations of $250 or more would have gone into effect — on January 1 — and the supervisors who supported the measure would have been precluded from voting. As Hart explained, “It’s just as simple as: Deadlines make deals.”