Eighty days before the election, the race to replace Monique Limon in the Assembly shapes up as a wide-open, seven-way free-for-all.
Monique’s much-awaited, much-delayed decision to seek the state Senate seat of termed-out Hannah Beth Jackson triggered a state election law, governing contests in which an incumbent doesn’t seek re-election, that extended the filing deadline for her 37th Assembly District seat by five extra days, through 5 p.m. last Wednesday.
Those few extra days proved significant, as several candidates jumped in at the last minute, suddenly retooling the campaign by broadening the field, both geographically and ideologically.
In the first three months after the hyper-liberal Limon chose to switch seats, the race appeared to be a four-way smackdown between and among Santa Barbara Democrats, with Mayor Cathy Murillo cast as the front-runner.
Heading towards the March 3 primary, which will determine the top two finishers who advance to a November runoff, Mayor Cathy was challenged a) from the center, by outgoing council member Jason Dominguez; b) from the left by progressive City College Trustee Jonathan Abboud; and c) for the votes of grassroots women and Latinos by women’s health advocate Elsa Granados.
Now, complications ensue.
Ventura in the House! Most crucially, longtime Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennet signed up for the battle; after dithering for months about whether to run, Bennett pulled papers just moments before the 5 p.m. deadline.
A five-term supervisor and longtime leader in environmental and Democratic causes in Ventura, Bennett is closely allied with SOAR, a venerable local non-profit that fights urban sprawl and development throughout the county.
The SB County portion of Assembly District 37 includes the cities of Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carp, Buellton and Solvang, as well as some unincorporated areas; the Ventura County section includes Ventura, Oxnard, Ojai, Fillmore and Santa Paula.
A slight majority of the district's 277,489 registered voters live in Santa Barbara County (140,421 to 137,068 in Ventura, according to data from the California Secretary of State) although voter turnout in recent elections has run about five percent higher in SB.
In this context, the politically experienced Bennett should be viewed as formidable; while four Democrats crowd each other in Santa Barbara, his sole rival geographically for the substantial base of Ventura County voters is attorney Steve Blum, a retired teacher and former trustee of the county’s community college board.
Republicans get to vote, too. The 37th AD is heavily Democratic. The party holds a two-to-one edge in registration over Republicans (45.6-to-22.9 percent), who are also outnumbered by No Party Preference independents (25.9 percent).
Still, Republicans are faithful and reliable partisan voters, a plain fact which provides a small but solid base of support amid a splintered field to Charles Cole, the 22-year old scion of a prominent Montecito family. He also filed papers to run at the 11th hour, becoming the only GOP candidate in the field.
Cole doesn't soft peddle his views.
“My opponents are cultural marxists, socialists, and big government Utopianists who think big government, high taxes and job killing regulations are the answer. I disagree," he declares on his campaign website.
He further explains that he briefly attended SBCC but left because he “ultimately found the PC culture not conducive to learning.”
The millennial conservative appears particularly to be disgusted with city college trustee Abboud, a woke progressive who has played a high-profile role in campus battles about racism and sexism: “Running Against Abboud!” Cole proclaims on his home page.
Mongering gossip. As a political matter, Cole’s entry dealt a blow to soon-to-be ex-councilmember Dominguez. Jason campaigns as a common sense, pro-business, moderate Democrat, a profile that could hold appeal for conservative voters -- but who now have a purer ideological option in the race.
Cole had not yet filed last Tuesday night, when Dominguez made his way to Mulligan’s Café and Bar, where the Santa Barbara Conservative Republicans organization was holding a Christmas dinner celebration that featured guest speaker Andy Caldwell, the North County conservative who is challenging Democratic Rep. Salud Carbajal.
Jason’s surprise appearance at the Republican event, and what he did or did not say there, soon became the talk of the town in political circles (not least at the Independent’s annual holiday bash on Thursday at El Paseo, as hacks and flacks alike buzzed about it throughout the evening at the bar, where the Newsmakers Political Affairs Desk hunkered down in quest of column items).
Much fibbertigibbet scuttlebutt arose from the industrious effort of Mark McIntire, a controversial former SBCC professor and current radio talk show host, who reported on air Wednesday that Dominguez had said at Tuesday’s dinner that he intended to change his party registration and campaign as a Republican.
“We were so stunned,” McIntire, who attended the affair, told Newsmakers. “He was saying to people, ‘Can I count on your vote now that I’m a Republican?”
Bushwah, says Jason.
While acknowledging he spoke at the GOP dinner, Dominguez said he made clear he was, and will remain, a Democrat. In response to our questions, he emailed a characteristically pleonastic statement that bemoaned the bitter polarization of the current political atmosphere.
Mindful of his sensitivity in the matter, we quote him in full:
Having worked as a war crimes prosecutor in the Hague investigating crimes stemming from the brutality of the Balkan wars of the 90's it saddens me to see the corrosive effects of our nation's own national partisan entrenchment.
Working ‘across the aisle’ has become all but taboo. Facts and logic are set aside in favor of ideological purity tests.
I believe a responsible well managed government is best able to deliver services and support to those in our society most in need.
This does not mean that I endorse ‘systemic deregulation’ or ‘Trump’ or any other Republican policy that would hurt our environment, decrease our quality of life or take from the least among our society - but I will work with whomever is willing to improve, better and increase efficiency in government at the state and local level.
I am now being attacked from both the right and left for such efforts. If the voters only want dogmatic ideologues serving as their representatives, then there is clearly no place for people like me. Apparently listening to the "other side" is now bravery - if you want someone willing to do so I ask for your support this March.”
No word yet about bound leather copies of the statement.
For the record: Caroline Abate, the president of the group, who emceed the dinner (and who is best known in Santa Barbara for her frequent and unfailingly civil, courteous and brief declamations on behalf of President Trump during public comment at city council and school board meetings) told Newsmakers that she “did not hear Jason say” that he intends to become a Republican.
She applauded his willingness to reach out to her members, however.
“A lot of Democrats and independents are starting to see the light,” she said. “Kudos to him for starting to come to the winning side.”
This week’s power ratings. Solely for entertainment purposes, here is a categorically non-scientific current ranking of the Assembly candidates, based on sources close to our imagination and absolutely no data, which we’ll update regularly. Do try this at home.
1-Cathy Murillo. Name ID and robust union backing – the California Federation of Labor just endorsed – install her as early front-runner.
2-Steve Bennett. The notorious political window shopper wasted considerable time making up his mind, but counts on Ventura base.
3-Jonathan Abboud. No one will out-hustle him.
4-Jason Dominguez. Still smarting from agonizing re-election loss, he's the smoothest talker of the bunch.
5-Charles Cole. The only contender with an “R” next to his name, though his volatile right-wing rhetoric could backfire.
6-Elsa Granados. Political novice with a strong SB grassroots network, she won big Women’s Political Committee endorsement.
7-Steve Blum. Hard to see a breakout with Bennett in the way.
WPC picks Das over Laura. SB’s influential Women’s Political Committee endorsed incumbent First District Supervisor Das Williams over school board vice president Laura Capps on Thursday night.
While the result was not unexpected, the optics are unfavorable for Capps, for whom gender is a key criteria of choice for voters as she seeks to pull off an upset.
The WPC was founded to elect more women to office, but sometimes favors ideology over gender, and often aligns with the local Democratic Party, which backed Das before Laura even got in the race.
Thursday night’s endorsement, which the WPC in a statement cast as a victory for women, underscores the organizational advantage he enjoys in the campaign:
"Supervisor Williams has the support of his Board colleagues and will continue to work collaboratively to maintain a feminist majority."
There were no injuries.
Images: Steve Bennett (Ventura County Star); Assembly District 37; Charles Cole (campaign website); Jason Dominguez (Paul Wellman/SB Independent); Caroline Abate addresses SB City Council (Josh Molina/Noozhawk); That's why they have the race; Das and Laura (Wellman).