You might say that Central Coast politics will never be quite the same.
In a move that will upend the Tri-Counties’ political hierarchy, U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, a Santa Barbara Democrat who has represented the region since 1998, announced April 8 that she will retire from Congress when her term expires in 2016.
Her 18-year run will go down in history as one of the longest on the Central Coast. She will leave behind a legacy as a staunch environmentalist and party loyalist who also developed a reputation for supporting small business and building relationships with her political foes.
Capps, 77, was an unexpectedly effective politician after succeeding her late husband, Walter, who died near the end of his first term. She won “nicest member of Congress” honors multiple times and helped advance the careers of a number of area politicians. In Congress she was a close ally of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, but her strength in the district was a very solid organization.
After redistricting, her grassroots organizing efforts in Oxnard paid off, with voters there contributing heavily to wins for Democrat Julia Brownley in two close races for the 26th Congressional District. Capps’ current district leans Democratic and includes San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties plus a sliver of western Ventura County.
Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider jumped into the race the very day Capps announced her retirement. First District Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal has made no secret about his desire to run for Congress. Other possibilities include two more Santa Barbara Democrats: State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblyman Das Williams.
After GOP candidate Chris Mitchum ran a surprisingly close race in 2014, the Republican National Congressional Committee was salivating at a chance for an open seat.
Capps developed strong relationships with small business owners along the Highway 101 corridor, including Justin Fareed, one of the first Republicans to jump into the 2016 race. She never strayed far from her progressive values, but her reasonable approach to problem solving won votes from moderate Democrats and respect from Republicans.
The challenge for the next Democratic nominee will be to keep a broad coalition of Hispanic and small-business voters energized while appealing to environmentalists. A realignment in which Hispanics, small-business owners and union members break ranks and vote for the GOP is a long shot.
But, then again, nobody would have predicted in 1998 that a newly widowed nurse from Santa Barbara would be one of the longest-serving members of Congress in the history of the Central Coast.