Roy Lee assailed Das Williams as "the worst kind of career politician" on Friday, as the Carpinteria City Council member opened his long shot, insurgent challenge to the incumbent First District supervisor.
"It's time for a change," Lee said.
In his first interview of the campaign, Lee contrasted his private sector background with that of Williams, who has been running and winning elections for various local offices for more than 20 years. He also outlined substantive differences with the incumbent on cannabis, debris flow protection, housing and other key issues.
Our conversation with Lee is the first in a series of unedited interviews with candidates in key local races in the March 5 election, being produced and broadcast by a partnership between Newsmakers and the "Santa Barbara Talks" podcast, created by Josh Molina, who joined the genial host on January 5 in questioning Lee.
An immigrant story. The 41-year old contender owns Uncle Chen, a family-run restaurant that has served Chinese and Szechuan cuisine in Carpinteria since 1991. As a small child, he emigrated with his parents from Taiwan, and attended Dos Pueblos High School, SB City College and UCSB, majoring in History.
Now in his second term as an elected official, Lee has been a moderate voice on Carp's city council, combining small business sensibilities with a focus on pragmatic issues like street repair and water supply, and a cautious, preservationist perspective on new development, particularly on the city's long-disputed, seaside Carpinteria Bluffs.
As a political matter, Lee faces tough odds in unseating Williams, who is seeking a third term on the Board of Supervisors representing the First District, which includes most of the city of Santa Barbara and Montecito, as well as Carpinteria..
The March 5 election officially is a statewide primary, but will be decisive for the First District race; with only two candidates on the ballot, there will be no run-off in the Nov. 5 general election, in contrast to many other contests.
State of play. As the front-runner Williams is an experienced, fierce and indefatigable candidate who, with only 60 days to go, enjoys a huge fundraising advantage over Lee of several hundred thousand dollars. He also benefits from his domination of the local Democratic Party, which provides battalions of volunteers and other organizational assets; among other boons, Williams has made patronage appointments to public payroll jobs in his office of both the party's chair and its longtime top operative, at an annual cost to taxpayers of more than $300,000.
As a practical matter, however, Williams also has several political vulnerabilities which Lee will attempt to exploit. He is the chief sponsor of the county's much-criticized cannabis ordinance, which has failed to generate long-promised significant new revenue, while yielding widespread community protest, multiple lawsuits, and a scorching report from the civil grand jury, which censured the lack of transparency and heavy involvement of industry special interests with which Williams and Supervisor Steve Lavagnino crafted it.
More recently, the incumbent has clashed with constituents in Montecito, over both a disputed county plan to install more street parking near the Hot Springs Trail, as well as his failure to support public funding to maintain a flood control project involving five large ring nets installed in creeks above the village.
The nets were financed and installed via several million dollars of private donations after the deadly 2018 Thomas Fire debris flow, which killed 23 people. Lacking county support for maintenance, the non-profit group that funded the ring nets recently was forced to remove them.
Mild-mannered tough rhetoric. Lee's aggressive rhetoric in attacking his rival offers a sharp contrast to his overall low-key and earnest personal style; during a 30-minute interview, he characterized Williams, variously, as "two-faced," and "the worst kind of career politician, beholden to special interests," and complained that he has "made a joke of our community" with the pot ordinance, and is "gambling with people's lives" with his standoffish stance on the ring net issue.
"I would've worked with the community and just worked with the county to find the money, to find the budget, whether (I had to) take it out of my salary as a supervisor," he said, when asked what he would have done differently from Williams on the matter.
"My goal is to keep the community safe, and at the very least, just extend the permits, give us more time to come up with a plan. But to totally disregard it and not support it, he is gambling with people lives. It is not right," he added. "That's not leadership that we need. We need someone who is responsible, accountable because at the end of the day, he's putting people lives at risk, and you cannot do that as an elected official."
Newsmakers has also invited Supervisor Williams to come onto the show to discuss the campaign, including his reaction to Lee. At post time, he had not yet responded to our invitation.
Check out our interview with Roy Lee on YouTube below, or by clicking through this link. The podcast version is here. TVSB, Channel 17, airs our show every weeknight at 8 p.m. and at 9 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. KCSB, 91.9 FM, broadcasts the program at 5:30 on Monday.
CARTOON OF THE WEEK
Cartoon by Asher Perlman for The New Yorker.