Newsmakers with JR
SBWPC Bash: The Woman Who Wasn't There
A sold-out crowd of 200 turned up to celebrate the Santa Barbara Political Women’s Committee 30th anniversary on Friday - but the biggest buzz was about a female pol who didn’t show: ex-supes candidate Susan Epstein.
Nearly two weeks after Epstein shocked the local political universe by suddenly quitting the race for retiring 2nd district Supervisor Janet Wolf’s seat with a mere two-word explanation (“personal reasons”), allies, associates and friends remain flabbergasted about her move.
Also: “Disappointed,” “pissed off” and “betrayed,” which were the adjectives expressed most often in a series of conversations with former Epstein supporters at the SBPWC’s Annual President’s Circle Luncheon at Goleta’s Hilton Garden Inn.
Ironically, the theme of the fete – “30 Years of Feminism: From Marching in the Streets to a Seat at a Table” – focused on getting more women elected to office, and Epstein herself was prominently listed on the program.
“Once you pull those papers, you’re in the public eye,” one angry elected official told Newsmakers. “After people have supported you, coached you, contributed, made a commitment, you can’t just say, ‘I quit, and I’m not telling you why.’”
WTF? Before Epstein’s surprise announcement on Feb 27, Newsmakers had scheduled a campaign interview for a few days later.
Following her move, we reached out to her in an effort to keep the date and hear first-hand why she’d suddenly dropped out, after mounting a strong, well-financed and widely-supported effort, in competition with the front-runner, SB council member Gregg Hart. Via email, Susan cancelled, however, saying she was out of town, “focusing on family.”
In the meantime, we’ve talked to a batch of erstwhile Epstein supporters, who themselves have talked with her since her announcement. They spoke candidly in exchange for anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
To be sure, everyone expressed personal concern over whatever mysterious reason led Epstein to decide to drop out between the morning of Feb. 27, when she was still actively discussing campaign plans and strategy, and the evening, when she began making calls to disclose that she was quitting.
“It must be something terrible,” said one person.
Several people disclosed that, when pressed, Epstein told them that, while she would not reveal what drove her from the race, it was neither health nor family-related.
Comments from former backers unanimously reflect frustration that the ex-candidate has refused privately to provide clarification or elaboration even to close associates, beyond her terse “personal reasons” non-explanation.
Fueling their vexation is that Epstein:
Moved early and aggressively to position herself to run for Wolf’s seat, not only winning the incumbent’s endorsement, but also forestalling others who might have considered a bid;
Pressured insiders for early endorsements, ultimately putting them in opposition to the Democratic Party, which eventually endorsed Hart, then walked away without explanation;
Installed herself as the progressive alternative to Hart, but now has totally cleared the way for his coronation, depriving the voters of the 2nd District, and the county, of a debate on crucial issues like housing and density.
“I can’t remember anything as strange as this in politics,” said one ex-supporter.
Political consequences. As a political matter, the secretive tone, and even coyness, with which Epstein shrouded her actions (“I’m not going to tell you, I’m not going to tell anyone,” one ally said she told them), continues to fuel speculation.
That dynamic has political consequences, however unintended:
Several progressives said they are not sure whether or not they formally or actively will support the liberal Hart, for now the only candidate in the race (the filing deadline is next week).
The reason: they worry that he or his supporters might be behind some unspecified, behind-the-scenes play that muscled Epstein out of the race, perhaps with a threat of some embarrassing disclosure.
For the record, at least two people told us that Susan denied to them such a thing happened, as does Mollie Culver, Hart’s chief strategist.
Hart, seated next to Rep. Salud Carbahal at the lunch, also categorically denied the suggestion, expressing exasperation that such speculation about him is circulating in the wake of Epstein’s botched handling of her withdrawal.
“That’s so not me,” Hart told us. “I’m been around 30 years and anyone who knows me knows that.”
Take that, Maynard G. Krebs. Besides Janet, Salud and Gregg, other elected worthies on hand for Friday’s affair: home turf Mayor Paula Perotte; SB Mayor Cathy Murillo and council members Kristen Sneddon and Eric Friedman; Supervisor Joan Hartmann; former mayor and current SBCC Trustee Marty Blum and IV Community Services Director Ethan Bertrand, among others.
Notably absent was state Senator Hannah Beth Jackson, one of a battalion of women elected officials who had energetically backed Epstein.
Newsmakers marks Jackson’s absence as excused, however, both because she had her priorities straight in flying to Chicago for a grandkid’s birthday, and because she scored the keynote speaker, L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.
Newsmakers of a certain age always will think of Kuehl first as Zelda Gilroy, crushing on the title character in “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.”
Oh yeah, she’s also an icon among California progressives.
Kuehl in 1994 became the first openly lesbian or gay person elected to the California Legislature, where she served 14 years and became a prominent spokesperson on civil rights, domestic violence, health care and other issues.
In her speech, which earned a standing ovation, Kuehl strongly urged women to become involved in politics and policy-making and offered a series of practical suggestions for running for office.
“It is hell to run for office, it is hard to run for office, people say mean things about you when you run for office,” she said.
Kuehl described with an eye roll phone calls she’s received from candidates she backs, who complain about rough treatment.
“I hang up and say, ‘boo-hoo,” she added.
Images: Susan Epstein at the Santa Barbara Women's March, Jan. 20; Gregg Hart; L.A. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl; Kuehl as Zelda Gilroy with Dobie Gillis and Maynard G. Krebs, circa 1960 (Alcehtron.com).