Newsmakers with JR
The Brawl at Hahn Hall: Winners & Losers at Das vs. Laura II
Updated: Feb 29, 2020
On Monday evening, more than 300 otherwise normal denizens of Montecito flocked to the Music Academy to witness a spirited, pugnacious and illuminating 90-minute political performance, as Das Williams and Laura Capps clashed face-to-face for the second time in their race for Supervisor.
There were no injuries.
Sponsored by the Montecito Journal and KCRW, the debate in Hahn Hall between incumbent First District Supervisor Williams and challenger Capps on the whole mirrored the dynamic of their first face-to-face meeting on Newsmakers TV:
Laura dominated the first half of the affair by keeping Das in a defensive posture with a series of sharp attacks related to his handling of the county’s controversial cannabis ordinance; He rallied strongly in the second half, reeling off specific accomplishments from 15-plus years as an elected official on clean energy, the environment and housing issues.
Beyond cannabis, the biggest difference between the two was the tone with which they delivered their core messages:
Das declaimed with pedagogic timbre on the granular substance of policy matters, peppering smooth assuredness with self-regarding emotional oration about his biography and character.
Laura by contrast positioned and portrayed herself as “a listener,” a “mom” and a “pro-active partner” at least as interested in inviting and hearing with an open mind from would-be constituents as in preaching to them.
Underlying the difference in presentation styles in the high-profile race was the unspoken issue of gender.
The contest matches Williams’ strong support from the local Democratic Party organization against the backing Capps enjoys from the sovereign Democratic Women’s club and its allied circle of independent-minded female elected officials who sometimes chafe at what they perceive as sexism and peremptoriness within the party apparatus.
With its sharp exchanges, sparring and sniping, the Montecito Journal debate was a closely-matched affair. Newsmakers kept score throughout, judging as a separate round the candidates’ set of responses to each of the 18 questions posed.
At the end, our scorecard showed this tally:
So take that to the bank. Despite the back-and-forth, even-steven nature of the affair, there were some clear winners and losers.
“Semi-rural character”. The charter of the influential Montecito Association calls for maintaining and nurturing the “semi-rural residential character” of the village, and the critical importance of that value to its 9,000 residents was clear, not only in multiple mentions of the phrase in the discussion of post-disaster rebuilding but, more importantly, in the startling turnout for the affair, an SRO audience that spoke volumes about the passionate care and concern Montecito citizens feel about quality of life in the future of their hamlet.
Gwyn Lurie. Not only a notable campaign event, the Das-Laura debate also was a coming-out party for Lurie, the newly-named editor in chief of the venerable community paper, who assembled and led the group of investors that recently purchased it from the Buckley family; Gwyn has promised to use the Journal as an enterprising and innovative vehicle for building community, and the debate, thanks in large part to lead organizer Wendy Read, was a smashingly successful launch.
"Record of results.” Das’s strongest moments came amid responses about his government experience in helping to address local problems that were raised in questions posed by Lurie, co-moderator Jonathan Bastain and the leaders of nine – 9, count ‘em, 9 – community boards and organizations, as he recounted efforts on behalf of Montecito hiking trails, traffic congestion, school safety projects, water recycling and other matters.
"Transactional politics.” Laura made the case for herself as an agent of change determined to take on the existing political culture at the county, which she described as “transactional politics,” as she pledged a “non-partisan” and “public trust” approach to the job of supervisor, assailing as a case study of what needs changing the sizeable campaign contributions the cannabis industry funneled to Das while he was writing a law to govern them.
Coin tosses. Perhaps in homage to Sunday’s Super Bowl, Lurie conducted two coin-flipping rituals, at the beginning and near the end of the debate, to determine the order of speaking for opening and closing statements. At the start, Laura correctly called “heads” and chose to go second in delivering her opening, while Das successfully made the same call in the second flip, and decided to have the ball last.
Germany. With the participants seated on the stage several feet above the audience, reporters in the second row whispered speculations about what message Das was trying to send with the brightly colored red, gold and black patterned socks he was flashing. “It’s the colors of the German flag,” he told us in a post-debate interview. “I’m a great admirer of Angela Merkel.” Sicherlich!
Mansplaining. In his public persona, Das often demonstrates both an abundance of self-esteem and a shortage of modesty, which is easily perceived as condescension and arrogance, The origin point of many of his answers was singularly self-referential: asked why he is running for supervisor he explained that “many people approached me (and) urged me” to seek re-election rather than run for the legislature (what’s a fellow to do?); asked to describe what is special about Montecito he explained, “It’s a community I’ve known for a long time,”; asked to name one thing he admired about his opponent, he noted that she agrees with him about climate change, Being adroit, polished and smooth is fine, as long it doesn't leach into smarminess.
Thank you for your service. Laura was at a disadvantage when the pair was asked to respond to sometimes wooly questions posed by the lineup of local board and commission leaders about their narrow and specialized areas of policy interest – underground water management, “purple pipe” wastewater recycling and trail restoration were among the areas raised – given her lack of direct experience dealing with such matters. Her answers in nearly each case began with a smiling recitation of the phrase, “first of all, thank you for your service,” which not only made her sound as if she was walking down the aisle of an airliner packed with GIs, but also sent press corps members in the second row into a state of high annoyance by the third time she said it.
Apology. Das had a splendid opportunity to shift the negative narrative about him and the pot law when KCRW’s Bastain asked him, in effect - knowing what you know now about the complaints and controversy about the ordinance, what would you do differently? Absolutely nothing, it turns out. Das instead blamed the Board of Supervisors prior to his arrival (shout out Salud!) for allowing “non-conforming” grows to qualify for provisional licenses and bashed Laura for voting for the Prop. 64 legalization initiative (he did not, he said): “These charges,” he thundered about her criticisms, “are an attempt to disguise the fact that (the ordinance) is working.” All righty then.
Listening. Ceaselessly trying to contrast her personal style with his, Laura kept describing herself as “a listener” who “will listen” and “has been listening” to people in the First District. Which raised questions when she also repeatedly asked the moderators to "repeat the question" before answering, like: What is the existential difference between listening and hearing?
Montecito. The candidates were asked if they would consider opening a “satellite office” in Montecito, the better to keep in touch with constituent concerns. No way, no how, said Das, assuring the audience that his two county aides already do a splendid job of taking care of the village; Laura was more diplomatic, but no less dismissive of the idea, saying that “I would have an office here, but I don’t think you’ll need one,” because she'll be around so much herself. No worries then.
Whinging. Das’s closing argument was a masterpiece of thin-skinned self-pity, as he bemoaned how “sad” and “painfully ironic” it is that Laura is criticizing his record, characterizing her critique as “below the belt” politics reflecting the character assassination tropes of Trump-era Washington. This from a guy who photoshopped a glass of booze into his opponent's hand in a mailer during one of his Assembly campaigns. Seriously, dude? Elections are about differences and there is nothing remotely “below the belt” about attacking the substance of a rival’s record – or raising questions about how motivated they might be by an industry shoveling cash into your campaign treasury. Sheesh.
Images: Cover of Montecito Journal promoting Das-Laura debate; Montecito hiking trail (montecito-realestate.com); Gwyn Lurie (girlsincsb.org); Check list (freepik.com); Take the cash and let the credit go; Coin toss (clipart.email); Homage to Angela Merkel; The debate stage at Hahn Hall (L-R) Lurie, Bastain, Capps, Williams; Laura delivers closing statement; Das delivers closing statement; Branch office (set-up-company.com)