Sitting Down with Salud

By Gwyn Lurie   |   February 6, 2020

I asked Salud Carbajal, our Congressman from the 24th district, if he would sit with me for an interview. Three plus years into his job in Washington, he is playing a far different role from the role he played for 12 years as our 1st district County Supervisor.

Salud Carbajal, Congressman from the 24th district, covering Santa Barbara to Santa Maria

These are challenging times for anyone in politics, but for a Santa Barbara “kid’ new to the rough and tumble streets of D.C., Salud has the mixed blessing of coming to his job with fresh eyes and boundless optimism. Today his eyes are arguably less fresh but his optimism, save for a healthy dose of cynicism, seems largely intact.

I also wanted to talk with Salud because he is up for re-election in November, being challenged by high profile government watchdog and long-time Carbajal critic, Andy Caldwell.

Salud met with me at my home where he arrived with Central Coast native, Erica Reyes, his District Director. Full disclosure, Salud endorsed me in my run for MUS School Board in 2010, he was a co-sponsor (along with former Supervisor, Janet Wolf) of the Child Safety Net Taskforce I chaired for the Board of Supervisors, and I hosted a fundraiser for him back in 2015 in his first successful run for Congress.

From previous conversations with Salud, I know that while he loves representing the Central Coast in Washington, there are things he misses about his days in local politics which, in retrospect, seem like simpler times – when he lived near work, met daily with his constituents, and when raising money was not an ever-present albatross.

Q. So, tell me, are you enjoying Congress?

A. It’s certainly a new endeavor… I still think it’s the best job in the world, to be in local government. You’re close to home. I saw my family every day. Certainly, it was busy as well in the evening, social events and weekends, and a lot of time away from home. But I was still with my family. And I was still seeing my constituents every day. And the Supervisors is a small body of five, so it’s easier to coalesce and find common ground and –

Keep your fingers on the pulse? [I have a bad habit of finishing peoples’ sentences.]

Yes, keep your finger on the pulse, but more importantly, get things done immediately. Not mañana, not a year from now. If I got a call from people needing the road paved, it got paved and relatively promptly. Washington could not be more the opposite.

Has that taken a toll? I don’t want to pry, but I would think that it could.

It took me a whole term just to get adapted. The first six months to a year, just getting used to the logistics and the rhythm and the pace of Washington, were challenging. It was a totally new life.

What’s your biggest frustration with Washington?

I’d say two important things. The brazen partisanship of it. And, the fact that everything takes so long to get done. In the minority it’s even worse, because my first two years were in the minority. This year was my first year in the majority. And even though now I’ve gotten a lot more done, it’s still not as much as you want to get done. Because everything takes so long.

What’s been your biggest surprise?

I would say… my biggest surprise has been that despite our differences, Republicans and Democrats, despite all that people witness, all the partisanship, overwhelmingly the members of Congress on both sides of the aisle tend to be very courteous and to at least come across as decent people.

Do both sides hate the partisanship?

There’s a few that love it and live for it. But overwhelmingly, I think if everybody had a magic wand, we would find a way of working together, more than working as part of the historic chaos and divisiveness of today’s Washington.

What is it in your opinion that keeps leaders from trying to make things run more effectively for the people?

I’ll give you one example: I’m part of the bi-partisan Problem Solvers Caucus made up of 48 members of Congress. Our goal is to work to change the rules in the House, so that it can lend itself to more bipartisanship and therefore more accurately reflect the will of the people. And to disrupt the current system that only promotes more partisanship and divisiveness.

Can you give me an example of a rule that stands in the way?

Well, one is for example now, if a bill gets so many votes… something like 290, it will automatically be brought to the floor for a vote. Whereas in the past, leadership could say, “I don’t care how many votes, or how many people have signed up, this isn’t going to come to the floor.”

So it takes some power out of the hands of the leadership?

It makes leadership acknowledge that when there’s a super majority behind certain bills that are bipartisan, that partisan gamesmanship doesn’t win out. As it did when I was in the minority. There were so many bills, Dream Act, and other bills that we had enough bipartisan to pass it… but Speaker Ryan refused to bring it forward for a vote. And that’s what prompted our Problem Solvers to negotiate as a bloc to change some of those rules.

The biggest surprise is the partisanship. That the leadership of the minority and the majority, their whole approach is to maintain power, or to gain power. And that’s whether you’re Republican or Democrat, that’s the nature of that institution – that whoever is in charge at that time, wants to keep power. The leadership. Not the rank and file. And whoever is in the minority wants to gain power. And that’s what drives the agenda. And that reality, for me, was a big eye-opener.

Why do you think there are fewer bipartisan partnerships and friendships than in the past?

Well, it’s my understanding that there was a time when members of Congress and their families used to live more in Washington. Kids went to the same schools. People went to the same churches. People socialized in certain settings where they were able to establish relationships that allowed them to not have this vitriolic uncivil demagoguing characteristic of what Congress has become… Rare are the issues where they’re absolutely black and white. There are many more issues, that if you don’t hate me and I don’t hate you, we could work together and find common ground.

I took a pledge for civility when I went to Congress. And others too pledged still to be passionate and vigorous on how we debate, but not to demagogue one another, not to be uncivil. So that’s the first step. It doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate. Our democracy requires us to be passionate and stand up for our ideals and our principles. But nowhere in the Constitution does it require us to be a**h***s to one another.

So, on the subject of civility… what are your thoughts on this impeachment?

First of all, I didn’t get great pleasure out of going to Washington and saying, “I’m going to Washington to impeach a President.” Because that would be so unpatriotic to… take lightly impeaching the President. Our President, Republican or Democrat, is our President of the United States. We should want that President to succeed. Because the interests of the United States warrant it. But when a President violates the law, it’s also our responsibility as members of Congress, who took an oath, to take that responsibility seriously. And Congress, in the United States Constitution, has a little thing called checks and balances, co-equal branches of government. Judiciary, executive and legislative. And it’s our job to provide checks and balances on the administration. And when you have a President that clearly violates the law, it’s not like a choice, we have to do our part.

Do you think your colleagues on the other side really believe the President has done nothing wrong?

I don’t. I believe they do believe that he’s done something, but they’re in a catch 22. He’s still the leader of the Republican party, and they want to promote legislation he has to sign. If he goes down, their party generally goes down. And the second thing is… they’re scared of him. They’re scared of him singling them out, tweeting about them, and undermining their ability to get reelected. And regrettably I believe there are people who are putting party and their desire to stay in Congress over country.

How do you explain the people who have decided not to run for reelection and have still not been openly critical of Trump?

Yes. Most have at least a little more freedom to do so. But you’re right. I’ve been extremely disappointed in Will Hurd, for example, who has really, in my opinion, not demonstrated the integrity that needed to be demonstrated here. And I like Will Hurd. (Former CIA officer serving as the representative or Texas’s 23rd congressional district.)

So, let’s talk about some of the things you’re working on.

Thank you. I think it’s important to remind people despite the media’s focus on impeachment, that Democrats have been walking and chewing gum at the same time. That while we have pursued our Constitutional responsibility to hold this President accountable, that we’ve been able to get a lot of stuff done in the House of Representatives.

For example, I introduced the California Clean Coast Act, that got embedded in the Coastal Economics Protection Act that passed the House. This bill would help Montecito, and any community wanting to increase their water security by getting grant funds for wastewater, increasing their wastewater infrastructure. I teamed up with Francis Rooney, Republican from Florida, to pass the bill that included my bill, the Coastal State Climate Act.

Can you tell me about that?

It allows for a grant program through the EPA that allows coastal states and communities to have access to funding for climate prevention and protection planning.

Another bill I introduced in light of all the gun violence we’ve seen in our country (like here in Isla Vista years ago) is called the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act (ERPO). Let’s say we’re one big family, and our brother comes in and… he is demonstrating that he’s a danger to himself and others. And he owns guns. We can work with the sheriff’s law enforcement to petition the court, so his rights are preserved, to get a restraining order to immediately temporarily take away his guns. This bill would do two things: It’s a federal piece for states where there are no ERPO or “red flag bills.” The second thing it does is provide grants to states and communities throughout the country to develop these types of red flag bills. This one is a no brainer. Law enforcement and DAs support my bill. It’s gone through the Judiciary Committee but still needs to go through the House.

A big bill that has passed out of committee is the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act, which continues to support our public safety while defending our forests. This would put over 250,000 acres of wilderness, public lands, into protection, in the back country. It would even create a Condor trail that would go all the way from SLO through L.A. It’s important to note that this legislation is good for conservation and does not prohibit, in any way, forest fire prevention mitigation measures and ensures that fire safety efforts remain unchanged, so firefighters will still be able to fully complete their duties and fuels management activities will continue to be part of forest management, as usual.

I’ve introduced 20 bills, but I’m only giving you what I consider the highlights…

For example, right now our veterans make up 10-20% of our homeless population – it varies by community. To create more housing options for our veterans, I introduced the Home of the Brave Act – a bi-partisan bill which would allow disabled veterans to not have their disability income countable towards their being eligible income-wise for housing.

[This is an issue that is near and dear to Salud. Having served eight years in the United States Marine Corp reserves, he puts US Veterans rights high on his list of priorities. Of most concern is those whose homelessness may stem from mental Illness and other challenges resulting from or in some way connected to their military service.]

It seems a lot of your bills are bipartisan. Who are your go-to bipartisan partners?

I have a bunch for them. Depending who’s sponsoring my bills. Rooney, Bacon, Mitchell.

Any women?

You know how many Republican women there are in Congress? Less than a handful, I mean there’s so few. Oh, actually yes, Stefanik signed onto my firefighter bill. [Salud is referring to Elise Stefanik from New York’s 21st District.]

The Firefighter Bill would create the same job hazard requirements for federal firefighters, as we have for local and state firefighters. They face the same risks, but in many cases do not receive the same protections.

And speaking of fires, I introduced the Small Passenger Safety Act. We found out… that smaller vessels like the *Conception were exempted from modern regulations. This says enough is enough. Other vessels throughout the country have had similar accidents. Too many people have died. Get rid of the exemption, make everybody abide by it.

[*The Conception tragedy occurred on September 2, 2019, when the 75-foot dive boat caught fire and sank off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, killing 34 people.]

That makes a lot of sense.

On the important subject of Infrastructure, I sponsored the National Infrastructure Investment Corporation Act. It establishes a government sponsored support for infrastructure projects to help local government access another financing tool for roads, bridges, school facilities, housing, airport, trains. For example, if Santa Barbara County wants to build a debris basin for Montecito. Montecito assess itself and we can use that assessment to pay back the immediate money that we need to build it so that we don’t have to accrue the money.

When will that money be available?

As soon as my bill passes. It’s been introduced and has a real shot. I serve on the Transportation Infrastructure Committee, where I’ll have an opportunity to try to get that included in the bill for transportation.

Ok, my turn. So, you understand better than anyone the issues of our community.

Yes, I hope.

For example, poverty. It’s a huge problem in Santa Barbara where feast and famine are so intermingled. What are we, the second highest poverty level in the state? That touches so many things: homelessness, mental health, affordable housing, education, crime, sex trafficking…

Yes, everything. While on the Board of Supervisors I actually got a poverty study done. To try to inform how we can better allocate and invest our health and human service dollars in a way that would best address the poverty needs in our county.

So what’s happening now? Can you, as our Congressman, still provide leadership on these local issues? And what programs could we be utilizing that you have access to, to help our situation?

First, the census is going to be key to getting our apportionment of resources allocated to our communities in our region for all the issues you raised: schools, poverty, firefighters, health and human services… That needs to get done, it’s a priority.

The other one I voted for in 2018 is the Farm Bill, which includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which funds all the USDA programs, like food stamps, school lunches, food banks. Santa Barbara County is trying to increase their utilization rate of those that qualify for SNAP. The schools are also trying to increase their utilization of the Free and Reduced Lunch Programs and breakfast programs that exist, but the need is greater than the available resources. So the best thing the federal government could do is continue that, which I made sure when I was in the minority – the Republicans wanted to strip money out of SNAP, but we passed the massive bill that provides all these programs.

What about cannabis? Can you speak to what’s gone on with the permitting and the lack of regulation or big-picture planning?

Well, cannabis has three governmental dimensions. One is our state… which has been working on the regulatory framework and giving guidance on some level to local governments. It’s the local government’s responsibility to come up with the Land Use regulatory framework for how they’re going to regulate the growing, dispensing, and transporting of cannabis.

How do you think it’s being handled in Santa Barbara County?

I think that with any new industry you have growing pains. I think looking at other states that have gone before us could provide a lot of lessons to California and local communities like ours. About what’s worked, what hasn’t, so that we could learn from them. And that’s the one thing that I think the local jurisdictions and the State could do better.

We seem to be in a situation with cannabis, as with other disrupter industries like scooters, and the internet, where forgiveness is asked for after the fact rather than permission requested beforehand. Could our leaders do a better job of getting out in front of these issues to establish regulations that best serve our communities at large?

We have a reactionary government at all levels, you’re right. Regrettably, I think government is not as nimble and flexible and quick to act on a lot of these things. I think they should be. But I think that sometimes it’s the failure of government to get ahead of the curve. For instance, the internet. All these new things that have come forward, you’re right.

We end up trying to figure out how to fix problems that could have been prevented.

Exactly. So perhaps, what you’re raising, Gwyn, and it’s a great idea by the way, maybe we should, in light of the evolving challenges that our society has, including the federal government, state and local government, we should have some kind of evolving challenges agency. So as these issues come up, we’re starting to get ahead of the curve. We’re starting to have hearings, meetings, discussions at the local level, at the state level, at the federal level –

[I love that. “Evolving Challenges Agency.” You heard it here first.]

So why not create an Evolving Challenges Agency, a “kitchen cabinet” of leaders who work together to anticipate these important issues and manage them before they manage us?

The answer is, unfortunately, I think governments at all levels work in silos. And what we need to do is transcend those silos by doing exactly as you’re saying. I think it’s a brilliant concept what you’re raising. We can and should be finding a forum by which everybody comes together, has these conversations. But… traditionally it is not structured that way, so you’re raising the issue of leadership.

Yes, I am.

We could do this. I take this as a great challenge, and I will consider putting it on, bringing all of us together, at least a few of us, County, State, Federal –

The Montecito Journal will cover it so people can be privy to the process.

Okay, so why don’t we do that… I think it might be good to invite some of the mayors, because they represent our cities. Our state legislator, state assembly and myself and the chairperson of the Board of Supervisors, whoever that is.


I will commit to you to have a roundtable with all of these people to talk about emerging community and regional challenges on which we ought to be looking towards the future together. And using examples of things that have happened to us like scooters, cannabis, etc. To see how we could better come together to plan for these things before the horse is out of the barn… Let’s start doing it… I think three times a year might be good. One every four months.

I will commit to you doing that.


It was your idea. But I will gladly take that challenge.

This would be a chance for you to use your leadership to come back home and make sure we don’t fall prey to what you see going on all over the country.

Excellent… You’re ahead of your time. Forward thinking.

Last question: So, you know this community well. You know the two people who are vying for the 1st District Supervisor position. Are you going to take a position?

For the time being I have decided to remain neutral. I think you have two individuals… with man skills and talents… You have an incumbent who I’ve known for a long time. And I think at this point, I’m kind of letting them make their case and the community can decide at the end.

What about the assembly race? Are you going to take a position there?

For the time being I’m also neutral on that. I’m watching that one –

You’re publicly neutral. In your heart are you neutral?

For all purposes, being here with the media, they’re both all in one.

People are looking for your leadership and they’re looking for your insights.

Yes, but I have to pick and choose my battles in what things I get involved with. I have enough of a challenge in Washington trying to find ways to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, find common ground, move things forward, keep my finger on the pulse at home. I’m more concerned about making sure that people’s public safety, about their well-being, that the quality of life is improved, versus the politics of it. The politics is my least favorite part.

Will you participate in a debate between you and Andy Caldwell?

I will debate, no less, no more, than I’ve done with all the previous candidates. One in San Luis Obispo, one in Santa Barbara, we do it with the TV stations. So my answer is absolutely I will debate. But you could not have two more contrasting individuals. I am clearly a supporter of women making their own choices regarding their reproductive health and to having access to those services. Andy Caldwell is not. I’m for expanding healthcare and Obamacare, and reducing prescription drug costs. Mr. Caldwell is not. I am a strong advocate for prohibiting any future off shore oil or gas drilling off our coast. Mr. Caldwell is not.


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