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Election Eve Opinion: Newsmakers' Editorial HQ Resides in 1st District -Three Reasons Why We're Voting for Roy Lee

Updated: Mar 23

Newsmakers’ editorial operation is based in Santa Barbara County’s First District, so our interest in the campaign for its seat on the Board of Supervisors' is both professional and personal.

A longtime independent, No Party Preference registered voter, this columnist has reported, written and commented on TV about the contest -- but still has a citizen's duty to cast a ballot in next Tuesday’s election.

In furtherance of full disclosure, a spoiler alert: Here’s one more vote for Roy Lee.

The case for Roy. This decision is based on the shape of the race that has emerged between challenger Lee and incumbent Supervisor Das Williams: Change vs More of the Same.

The criteria of choice behind the pick boils down to eight words: Roy's in public service for the right reasons.

A community-minded small business owner and conscientious member of the Carpinteria City Council, Roy Lee embodies the non-partisan values and unpretentious virtue of a true, local government public servant -- not a political hack.

As an elected official, he has demonstrated two skills increasingly rare in the political realm: he listens more than he talks, and he speaks with, not at, the people he represents.

Lee has a record of commonsense and open-minded pragmatism on council. He has displayed a willingness to dive in and work hard on unglamorous, but crucial, problems which affect the day-to-day lives of local residents, from his thoughtful advocacy about the importance of school safety officers to fixing the holes in the roads.

Personally modest and politically moderate, Lee has a blue-collar work ethic and, as a supervisor, would model fiscal prudence and a pro-business perspective, two qualities often in short supply among the social engineering schemes, unintended consequences and ill-advised programs for spending other people's money that prevail among current board denizens.

He'd keep a keen eye on taxpayer revenue, in the belief that homeowners, privileged to pay the bulk of the freight for the county's $1.5 billion budget, deserve a seat at the table too.

Perhaps most importantly, Lee would represent a clear-the-air renewal of the corrosive local political landscape – personified by the political careerism, cynical maneuvering and overweening self-regard of his opponent.

The case against Das. Newsmakers has followed the actions and witnessed the conduct of Das Williams since his first race for SB City Council in 2003.

Long ago, we tired of his job hopping, campaign money grubbing, truth shading, special interest catering and demonizing of anyone who dares disagree with him - as well as his complacent entitlement, performative, unearned displays of moral superiority, and vaingloriousness – all in service to his personal ambition. 

After a mediocre six-year stint in the state Assembly, Das’s political project upon returning to local government was to infuse it with Sacramento-style practices, shaped by hardline partisanship, pay-to-play policy making, and pure, old-fangled patronage, an agenda that obliterated any trace of a dividing line between his personal aspirations and the public trust awarded by voters.

It's no accident that longtime sponsors and backers of his multiple candidacies, who have worked with him, up close and personal -- from the Women's Political Committee, Democratic Women and the Santa Barbara Independent, to former District Attorney Joyce Dudley, former Fire Chief Pat McElroy and ex-Police Chief Barney Melekian, for starters - have withdrawn their support in this race, with some publicly endorsing Lee.

Das is Exhibit A for what happens to a community that loses daily, beat reporting journalism.

Since 2006, when the city’s historic morning paper began its meltdown, virtually his entire career has unfolded in the shadows, without rigorous day-to-day news coverage that might have made him more accountable – and spared us the disastrous cannabis ordinance whose stench, atmospheric and ethical, will stand as his singular legacy.

In dealing with Santa Barbara's tiny press corps these days, Das at times seems downright Trumpian: with an apparently bottomless need for attention and approval, he thrusts himself, in the manner of Zelig, into the center of every staged media event on the South Coast (Question: What is the most dangerous place in the world to stand? Answer: Between Das and a TV camera), while cravenly avoiding platforms where he would confront truth-to-power interrogation.

To give Williams his due: he has skills and a talent for organizing and executing political campaigns. The problems arise after he claims victory.

Here are three critical reasons for casting a vote for Roy Lee.

Real world experience vs. political careerism. Roy's immigrant history is a true American success story.

Arriving with his parents in the U.S. from Taiwan at the age of six, he spent much of his teenage era washing dishes and waiting tables in the Chinese restaurant that was the family business, working after school to help support the household while grinding to obtain an education at SBCC and UCSB.

He finally became the business owner himself in 1994, taking over Uncle Chen, which he operates in Carpinteria, alongside his wife and their three children. With the restaurant established as a local institution, he turned to community service, seeking and winning a seat on the Carp council in 2018, to which he was re-elected four years later.

Das, the grandson of immigrants, typically offers a well-rehearsed origin story at campaign events that portrays him as a precociously righteous little boy, morally superior to other, ordinary kids in his early grade school grasp of the world’s inequities and injustices.

“I was immediately one of those kids that you see at school that's a little weird, okay?” he said at a recent campaign forum. “I had an innate sense that the world was not the way it should be…It filled me with a real rage for justice, that things ought to be different.”

(Here we feel compelled to note that Williams' frequent use of the phrase “rage for justice” to define himself, echoes the title of a fine biography of legendary San Francisco congressman Phil Burton, written by my late colleague John Jacobs. It was published, to widespread attention in the Bay Area, by the University of California Press at Berkeley, in 1995, squarely in the middle of Das’ 1993-96 term at UC Berkeley, when he earned a BA in Political Science; Coincidence? You be the judge).

In contrast to Roy, Das has spent his entire adult life as a political striver.

Morphing from aide and campaign operative for former state legislator Hannah Beth Jackson, he landed at the public trough with his election to council in 2003, whereupon he almost instantly sought to move up the ladder, running for office three times in the first four years of his career, settling down to mount a mere nine campaigns altogether in two decades as a political careerist.

“I basically would not be able to do this job if my wife wasn’t basically heavily subsidizing this effort,” he whinged last year, as he voted to raise his own salary.

Independence vs. partisanship. Although a registered Democrat, Roy comports himself as a non-partisan elected official, in fealty to Article 2 Section 6(a) of the California Constitution: "All judicial, school, county, and city offices...shall be nonpartisan.”

Das, by contrast, is the closest thing Santa Barbara has to a party boss, and his county office effectively is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the local Democratic organization.

In yet another ploy well-known to those familiar with Sacramento politics, Williams stashes loyal operatives and apparatchiks on the public payroll, where they’re well-paid while positioned to toggle back and forth between campaign duties and “public service.”

Political scientists call this “patronage.”

It is defined as “the practice of giving individuals or groups political offices, money, material goods, and power in return for political support during an election. “

The chief of staff for Supervisor Williams, who was pulling down more than $190,000 in annual salary and benefits the last time we checked, conveniently also labors as the Chair of the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party. She recently sent out an e-blast, soliciting volunteers to “be part of the 'Machine.'"

"We are not successful unless we are all successful together, which is why we need you to keep the 'Machine' running and ensure electoral success in March for our whole team of endorsed candidates..." she wrote.

Amazing but true – the Dem Party did not extend Democrat Roy Lee even the courtesy of an invitation to interview before awarding their influential endorsement to Das.

Further down the political food chain at the county, one of Das's administrative assistants, a former longtime Dem Party paid operative, now collects $142,000 in taxpayer-financed salary and benefits, according to a public information officer.

He recently “went on leave” to manage Das’s re-election campaign, before jumping back on the public payroll last week, he told us.

Of course these folks are quick to protest and proclaim that they only do political chores on “our own time" – as if there was a magic switch or bright red line to keep policy and politics separate, a downright laughable assertion that only serves to insult the intelligence of voters.

Integrity vs. pay to play. One of Roy’s key weaknesses as a candidate is his distaste for asking people for campaign donations. Das is a master at it.

Lee views public service as the responsibility to seek out, understand and respond to the real-life needs of real-life constituents, no matter if they back him or not. Williams has a considerably more transactional approach.

Like almost every professional Democratic officeholder in California, he’s in thrall to public employee unions, which have poured tens of thousands of dollars into his various and sundry campaigns, earning them loyalty over financial demands on the public treasury.

He also raked in loot from construction and crafts unions, which benefitted from his help pushing through a sweetheart arrangement known as a Project Labor Agreement, which requires union hall hiring on public works projects (no surprise, it was Das's chief of staff who made the formal presentation of the plan to the board).

He led the charge to snatch the county's lucrative ambulance contract from a private company and award it to local firefighters who’ve backed him – until a Superior Court judge enjoined the move, and California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a brief citing the supervisors' "sidestep" of state restrictions in the process.

Even small-bore appointments to volunteer citizen boards get caught up in the swirl of money.

Largely at the behest of construction magnate and appointed Montecito Planning Commissioner Ron Pulice, who's donated at least $13,950 to Williams, he unceremoniously kicked Susan Keller, a longtime and original member, off the commission, for annoying male colleagues by asking too many questions.

This variety of raw, Sacto-style, transactional politics crested with his legacy achievement – the county’s dreadful cannabis ordinance.

On October 24, 2016, nearly three months before he took office as a supervisor, Williams accepted $10,000 in campaign contributions from three men who before long would hold dozens of cannabis licenses, big winners in Santa Barbara County’s marijuana bonanza.

No one among the public or the press knew it at the time, but these were just the first of dozens of pot industry political contributions Williams would take in the years that followed. Campaign finance reports show that he has taken a total approaching $150,000 - about one-fifth of all the money he's raised in three races for Supervisor - from industry interests.

After his 2017 swearing in, Williams swiftly latched onto the task of crafting the new cannabis law. In partnership with Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, and aided by former “cannabis czar” Dennis "Revolving Door" Bozanich (who later left county government for work as a pot lobbyist) they formed an “ad hoc committee” that freed them from pesky open meeting requirements of the state’s Brown Act, while permitting plenty of space for secret deliberations with lobbyists and industry growers.

In 2020, the county Grand Jury published an historic, in-depth report that detailed the influence peddling and sleaze surrounding the ad hoc committee, and the origin and implementation of the pot ordinance.

The document is worth revisiting for a speed read before casting a vote in the First District election.

Some crucial excerpts:

“The action taken by the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors to certify the development of a robust cannabis industry as the primary objective of the cannabis ordinances has altered the quality of life in Santa Barbara County, perhaps forever."

“Instead of a balanced approach carefully evaluating how the cannabis industry would be compatible, both as to amount of acreage and location, the Board simply opened the floodgates.”

“The Board of Supervisors granted nearly unfettered access to cannabis grower and industry lobbyists that was undisclosed to the public…”

“Documents obtained by the Jury, that had not been previously disclosed to the public, show voluminous emails from cannabis lobbyists and cannabis growers…it was unnerving to the Jury to see both the tone and timing of these emails.”

“The tone of these emails appeared at times as if to direct specific actions to the Board members and gave the perception of a command instead of recommend. Understanding that no such authority exists with the lobbyists, the Jury felt that limits on such direct conversations should have been established by the Board members receiving these emails.”

“The timing of these emails was also concerning to the Jury. The documents reviewed show many being sent the day before a Board meeting, with some confirming the discussions had that day at a meeting with a Board member.”

It is also valuable to revisit the groundbreaking investigative reporting on the debacle by Joe Mozingo of the Los Angeles Times, if only to recall some of Das’s chummy and obedient exchanges with lobbyist and grower pals, with several of whom he planned social outings.

From Mozingo's report:

“When the Planning Department…recommended a measure that the marijuiana farmers should bear all the costs of appeals to their permits filed by neighbors, the cultivators emailed Williams that it was unfair and urged him to reject it,

“'Don’t worry, I’ll fix it with a 50-50 recovery model. Don’t tell anyone though,' he wrote to (one grower).

“'On it,' he wrote to (Graham) Farrar, the president of the Carp Growers “We will cost split if I get my way.'

'Thanks Das,” Farrar replied."

And so on.

A few days ago, at a campaign forum in Carpinteria, Williams portrayed himself as an aggressive advocate for residents whose health and quality of life have been damaged by the consequences of his cannabis ordinance, employing spin, half-truths, fibs and whoppers to distance himself from his handiwork.

Sort of like an arsonist who shows up at the fire and volunteers to help put it out.


Bottom line. Sad but true, veteran local prognosticators forecast that Roy will fall short in his valiant bid to oust Das.

Some political factors are at play: Lee got in the race late, struggled with fundraising and was outspent by about 3-to-1. His candidate skills definitely need work.

Roy may not prevail in the election, but no matter what, Das is the loser. He has ceded whatever moral authority once attached to his office, and though he may win the battle on Election Day, he already has lost the war: his political brand is devastated, if not destroyed.

All that aside, it’s clear that the public interest would be best served if voters selected Roy Lee for the Board of Supervisors:

He's in it for the right reasons.

Jerry Roberts






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