Rep. Lois Capps (D)
California 23rd District
In a state where stunning coastal landscapes and charming small towns are a dime a dozen, Santa Barbara stands out as someplace special. It is a collection of red tile roofs and leafy live oaks, sheltered by towering mountains just above the sea. The impression is a bit misleading, for Santa Barbara has its problems. Most of its quaint white stucco buildings were put up not as part of 18th-century mission settlement, but after a 1925 earthquake leveled much of the town. Like Disneyland, Santa Barbara is not an authentic antique, but rather a bigger, more attractive, cleaner version of a historical artifact, one that is maintained not by a company, but by an architectural review board. Santa Barbara’s affluence isn’t ersatz. This has long been one of the nation’s richest retirement communities, one determined to preserve its pristine environment and serenity. Both features came under threat spectacularly in 1969, when an underwater oil well ruptured, coating the beach with oil. Pictures of the oil slick in the channel, and of volunteers trying to wash oil off grounded birds, helped to launch the 1970s environmental movement. Almost all of the wells are closed now (though some old 19th-century wells still send globs of oil to the beach at nearby Summerland). But the oil spill left a long-lasting residue in Santa Barbara’s politics. This was once a mostly Republican community, uninterested in redistribution of wealth, but always concerned about the environment (it has built the nation’s largest desalination plant) and having moderate-to-liberal impulses on cultural issues. Like most of coastal California, it has moved decisively to the left in the past decade. But some of the changes have not gone smoothly, as pressure grew to split Santa Barbara into two counties of roughly equal population: a Mission County to the west and north, which would be more conservative, and a Santa Barbara County, which would be more liberal. In June 2006, county voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 23rd Congressional District of California is a thin strip of Pacific coastline, two to 12 miles wide, that runs from the industrial ports of Oxnard and Port Hueneme southeast of Santa Barbara to the north end of San Luis Obispo County on the Big Sur coast, just north of William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon. Nearly half of the population lives in upscale Santa Barbara County. But the largest city is Oxnard, in Ventura County, which, with a large number of immigrants, is anything but upscale. Overall, the district is 44% Hispanic. Much of the Santa Barbara coastline is occupied by Vandenberg Air Force Base, which launches unmanned government and commercial satellites into polar orbit. The largest towns in northern Santa Barbara County, like San Luis Obispo to the north, are pleasant, comfortable places, as untrendy as you can find in coastal California. Environmentalists want to extend the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to cover the waters off San Luis Obispo. In its final working days in January 2009, the Bush Administration proposed opening much of this area to oil and natural gas exploration, which spurred a lively debate here. This was a marginal district, seriously contested several times in the 1990s. But in its current iteration, it is safely Democratic. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won the district by a solid 66%-32% over Republican John McCain.
Rep. Lois Capps (D)
Elected: March 1998, 6th full term.
Born: Jan. 10, 1938, Ladysmith, WI .
Home: Santa Barbara.
Education: Pacific Lutheran U., B.S. 1959, Yale U., M.A. 1964, U. of CA at Santa Barbara, M.A. 1990.
Family: Widowed; 3 children (1 deceased).
Professional Career: Staff nurse, Visiting Nurses Assn., 1963–64; Head nurse, Yale New Haven Hospital, 1960–63; Instructor, Santa Barbara City Col., 1983–95; Nurse, Santa Barbara Schl. Dist., 1979–96.
The congresswoman from the 23rd District is Lois Capps, a Democrat first chosen in a March 1998 special election to replace her late husband, Walter Capps. Lois Capps grew up in Wyoming and Montana, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. She graduated from college with a nursing degree and was the head nurse at Yale New Haven Hospital when she met Walter Capps, a student at Yale Divinity School. In 1964, he became a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Lois Capps became the head elementary-school nurse for the Santa Barbara school system, director of the county’s teenage pregnancy and parenting project, and a part-time instructor at Santa Barbara City Community College. In 1996, Walter Capps ran for the U.S. House and defeated Andrea Seastrand, a conservative state Assemblywoman. He died of a heart attack in his first year in office, in October 1997.
|Lois Capps (D)||171,403||(68%)||($957,695)|
|Matt Kokkonen (R)||80,385||(32%)||($61,178)|
|Lois Capps (D)||50,385||(100%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (65%), 2004 (63%), 2002 (59%), 2000 (53%), 1998 (55%), 1998 (53%)
Lois Capps ran for his seat against Republican Assemblyman Tom Bordonaro, the favorite of Christian conservatives. Bordonaro, a paraplegic since a car accident in college, emphasized his “blue-collar roots and common values.” Capps had help from labor unions and environmental groups. In the January 1998 primary, she finished first with 45% to 29% for Bordonaro. In the runoff, Bordonaro was hurt by divisions in the local GOP. Capps won a surprisingly large 53%-45% victory. The same two candidates were on the ballot in November. But national Republicans had little hope of winning by then, and it was not a priority race. Capps won 55%-43%.
She is a solid liberal, but she worked more successfully with Republicans when she was in the minority than the typical California Democrat. Perhaps it is her disposition. A 2006 survey of congressional aides by Washingtonian magazine named Capps “the nicest member of Congress.”
With her background as a nurse and her seat on Energy and Commerce Committee, Capps has focused on the national nursing shortage, mental health issues and reforming the Medicare program for the elderly and disabled. She won enactment of a bill to attract more students into the nursing profession. In 2007, she became vice chair of the Health Subcommittee of Energy and Commerce, an important perch for shaping the nation’s health care policy.
Another of her major interests, in keeping with her district’s interests, is environmental policy. In 2004, the House passed her amendment to stop a comprehensive inventory of oil and gas resources beneath the outer continental shelf. She also opposed the Bush administration plan to drill in the Los Padres National Forest and has been outspoken against offshore drilling along the California coast. She called Bush’s 11th-hour proposal for offshore drilling “nothing more than a parting gift to his buddies in the oil and gas industry” and predicted it would be shelved by the Obama administration. In 2005, she successfully opposed an attempt by California Republicans to convert part of the Channel Islands into a private recreation area for the military.
Capps has had an up-and-down relationship with her friends in organized labor. After she voted for normalizing trade relations with China, the Teamsters claimed that she’d betrayed them. She later patched things up by opposing the proposal to give President Bush broad authority to negotiate free-trade agreements.
In her first re-election bid, in 2000, Capps had serious competition from moderate Republican Mike Stoker, a former Santa Barbara County Supervisor and California Agricultural Labor Relations Board chairman. She had a big fundraising edge and won 53%-44%. After promising in 1998 to serve only three terms, she abandoned that pledge. Since 2002, she has not been seriously challenged. She has some family ties to the new Obama administration. In July 2007, her daughter, Laura Capps, a Democratic press aide on Capitol Hill, married Obama press aide Bill Burton.