My Two Cents
By all accounts, Monday night’s candidate debate at Hahn Hall was a rousing success. Over 300 of Montecito’s finest showed up and packed the house to hear First District Supervisor Das Williams and challenger Laura Capps respond to questions from community leaders and to hear the candidates make their case why he or she should get our vote in the upcoming election.
We tend to see political debates as a gladiator sport, and want to walk away with a clear winner. In that regard Monday night’s debate may have been less than satisfying. I’m not sure anyone who arrived as a Das or Laura supporter left changed, myself included. If there was any winner last night, it was Montecito.
Having run for political office and participated in political debates (UCLA Student Body President, Montecito Union School Board), I know that candidates have good nights and bad nights. And sometimes, the best campaigners are not the best leaders and vice versa. Laura came off stronger in the first half of the debate, hitting on important issues such as integrity, the need for election reform, and how cannabis – no matter how you feel about the crop – has high-jacked the focus of our county government at the expense of other important planning-related issues, such as traffic, public safety, environmental resilience, infrastructure, etc.
On the other hand, Das had a stronger second half, as evidenced by the round of applause he evoked via his strong answer regarding traffic, and his assertion that the southbound freeway entrance at Hot Springs should be reopened. One cannot overstate the impact Montecito’s traffic issues are having on the lives of residents and businesses alike. Das has spent years in public office at the state and local level and there is no question he has more facts at his fingertips than Laura does on a plethora of issues.
It was notable that when asked about the issues that are important to Montecito residents, neither candidate mentioned two of our most pressing concerns: unaffordable insurance rates post-debris flow, and the ag businesses such as avocado, citrus and grape growers who can’t adequately protect their crops for fear of being sued by cannabis growers. Both candidates should incorporate those issues into their talking points and their thinking.
Our County Supervisors have arguably more impact on our daily lives than any other elected official, so it’s important to get this right. Full disclosure: Laura Capps is my friend. Not my best friend, but I invited her to my birthday celebration and she invited me to hers; we socialize. For this reason, I’ve stayed away from her campaign events and I’ve not personally contributed to her effort.
That said, I have decided, after much thought, to back Laura, and here’s why:
For starters, the County Democratic Party did not even meet with such a serious candidate as Laura before endorsing Das prior to the filing deadline. This says to me unelected party leaders are playing the role of “king-makers.” By pre-selecting Das without so much as looking at other candidates they disregard one of the most fundamental principles of democracy: that the best ideas and the best candidates should be given the chance to prove their mettle.
Character Informs Action
If I learned anything from my 20-year stint as a screenwriter, it’s that character informs action… and it’s for this reason I come down on the side of Laura Capps.
Das is a dedicated public servant who cares about the communities he represents. He has helped many people here, myself included. And I do believe he has tried to be here for us post-disaster. A good example of this is his close work with the Bucket Brigade and his support of the Randall Road debris basin, for which we’re also indebted to folks like Tom Fayram and John Frye at County Flood Control, Scott McGolpin, and others. He’s been a good Supervisor.
But here’s what gives me pause. A few months after the debris flow, for example, Das announced he was going to engage the community about how best to serve the various stakeholders by asking those who wanted to be leaders in the rebuilding process to sign up for committees, etc. This plan then morphed into a “plan to have a plan”… which then morphed into a community survey… which over the course of many months morphed into a study… which to the best of my knowledge has not been completed or disseminated… certainly not in any kind of timeframe to be of much use. Das may have changed his perspective on how such a leadership group should come about, but a little communication on that would have helped.
Another factor that supports my endorsement of Laura is my experience as a founding member of The Project for Resilient Communities (I am not speaking for the Board). Today, TPRC is seen as the successful “nets group” that deployed debris catching nets on our mountains. But what a lot of folks don’t know is that much harder than the literal high-wire act of deploying the nets was getting the entitlements for those nets – a process Das was slow to put his full support behind until it looked like our efforts would actually succeed. But if our leaders are not willing to risk losing, we can never really win.
By contrast, very early on, only days after the debris flow, our congressman Salud Carbajal met with us, late at night in the back room of the IHOP on Upper State and opened up his contact list to us. This support proved critical in getting us out of the starting gate. Without Salud’s help and his connections, it would have been much harder to get the job done. Salud helped us because it was the right thing to do, not because we had momentum, which at that point we definitely did not. That is good leadership rather than waiting-and-seeing. That’s representing.
It’s impossible to know how Laura would have handled such a moment, but I’ve watched how she listens, how deeply she takes on complicated issues and finds solutions. I’ve seen her roll up her sleeves and meet with stakeholders to build consensus around difficult topics. I’ve seen her do this with environmentalists and with community members around issues of sustainability in the public schools. I’ve admired her courage to be the lone dissenting vote when a challenging issue came before the school board related to leadership at San Marcos High.
A Nod to Capps
While this is not an official Montecito Journal endorsement, for me this Supervisor election is about being proactive and expecting more of our leaders in terms of how we do business. We deserve brave and ethical leaders who believe in and practice inclusion, transparency, and even some out-of-the-box thinking. If we don’t demand that, we will never get it. I like Das and I appreciate his long-standing public service. But he’s had four years in this position, and I think it’s well worth seeing what Laura can do.