On The California Campaign Trail With Bill Ostrander-- Getting Special Interest Money Out Of Elections
Bill Ostrander's e-mail sign-off is "Elections must depend upon the Voters, not the Funders." You get an idea where he stands right away. And lot of independent-minded voters are starting to question the Establishment case for the "inevitability" of Salud Carbajal, the anointed candidate of the DCCC. When I started talking to Bill in March I thought the race had been neatly wrapped up and it was too late to do anything to help the real progressive in the contest for a blue California seat that Obama won in 2008 57-41% and in 2012 54-43%.
Generally speaking, in a presidential year CA-24 will see about 110,000 voters in San Luis Obispo County and 140,000 voters in Santa Barbara County vote in the congressional race (as well as about 3,000 voters in a tiny sliver of Ventura County included in the district). Some folks rate it a swing district because, by registration, there are almost an equal number of Democrats (37%) and Republicans (33.5%) with independents at 27%, although the district has been voting regularly for Democrats and the last Republican elected to Congress from the area was Andrea Seastrand, a far right one-term nut, who succeeded Michael Huffington, a vaguely closeted mainstream Republican billionaire, when he got pushed into running for the U.S. Senate. That was 1994. In 1996 Walter Capps defeated Seastrand and died 9 months later. His wife, Lois Capps, who claimed-- untruthfully as it turned out-- that she would abide by a term limits pledge, has been the Representative ever since. She's been a fairly mediocre centrist backbencher with no particular accomplishments other than being voted "nicest House member" a few times.
This year, with the drama being played out in the presidential race suggesting that America’s political gag reflex is at work, people would be more than justified in wondering how much complicity do voters share for hiring Representatives that, collectively as Congress, have a 14% approval rating?
CA-24 on California's central coast is one of the 41 districts nationally without an incumbent running for re-election. So far 25 Republicans have announced they won't be seeking reelection, though only 9 of those districts isn't so gerrymandered that there is no shot for an upset. Of the 16 Democrats who have announced they're not running again, Republicans might hope to have a reasonable chance to compete in 4 of them (if you include CA-24).
The district has a relatively low-cost media market that makes it attractive to "ideology investors" who can buy another seat/vote much more cheaply than a congressional seat in a large city with high TV and newspaper ads. These conditions create ugly aspirations for party competition and the community interest becomes a red-headed step-child. In a situation like this, more than ever, the tools of our political system have become: money, cronyism, orchestrated efforts of cliques to influence voters' choices of real candidates, and confidence in the fact that too many voters are apathetic to the process, feeling-- sometimes rightly-- that their votes don’t matter at all anyway.
Complaints about Capps tend to be that, other than her vote against the Iraq war, she hasn’t distinguished herself and lacks gravitas. She's focused her legislative career largely on health issues and the environment-- particularly the issues of oil and fracking along California’s coast. Her daughter, Laura, was a speech writer for Bill Clinton and briefly flirted with the idea of running for her mother’s seat. One thing Americans seem to agree on this cycle is that we are tired of family dynasties and the thought of the third member of the Capps family representing the district in succession turned just about everyone off other than DCCC staffers. The ease with which her temporary candidacy elicited sheer joy from the party regulars is a testament to how thoroughly cronysim is embedded into our politics. Laura is married to Bill Burton, a political consultant and a co-founder and senior strategist with Hillary's Priorities USA Action superPAC. Circle the wagons, the cronyism starts here.
Last June, Capps endorsed Salud Carbajal, a fellow Santa Barbaran she has known for 20 years. Salud is a County Supervisor and former Chief of Staff to his predecessor, the late Santa Barbara County Supervisor Naomi Schwartz. He's known as a gregarious handshaker but not particularly charismatic or possessing of a unique perspective. Without any democratic process of vetting he was promptly anointed by Capps and then her congressional cronies. As a nine term veteran she knows how the game is played and she stacked the deck. She enlisted the Democratic establishment’s leadership, including Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to put the full faith and credit of the party establishment behind him. Not sure what the value of that is in 2016 but the baton was passed with no vetting and and no interviews of any of the other candidates. It’s not illegal but it’s ethically gross and pretty anti-democratic. These endorsements are "gifted" between political allies and cronies. Most of the public is unaware of such cronyism. The uninitiated simply assume that there is some type of audition, where the candidates present their accomplishments and abilities before a group of wise party members who then endorse the candidate who stood above and beyond all the others. Nothing could be further from the truth. The cronyism was so blatant that even as hackish a Beltway outfit as The Hill ran a story on Pelosi’s uncharacteristic endorsement in a primary of someone she barely knew.
One of the sad distortions of money in politics is that it is assumed that whoever has raised the most money is the most popular choice. What money affords are massive media campaigns that make the required six to eight 'touches'-- the emails, mailers and radio and television ads meant to wear down voters and and penetrate their consciousness-- to convince them that the product advertised (AKA, the candidate) is the right choice. Do you assume that McDonalds is the best dining choice because it has the most commercials? Money also allows you to make "investments" in the party. Salud has donated to the local Democratic Party infrastructure in both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties and to the establishment candidates. This makes a politician like him popular among the political insiders who opine on the electability of said candidate, which is then erroneously presumed to be a general popularity among constituents.
The public is mostly unaware of the concerted effort by the few insiders, mostly in DC, who thrust Carbajal’s candidacy on CA-24. This same dynamic is being played out openly with the Republican Party in their efforts to squash Donald Trump. Nearly 30 PACs and other special interests scattered throughout the country have already be directed to spend more than a million dollars on Carbajal’s campaign. Moreover, there is another geographic advantage: Carbajal’s supporters come from one of the wealthiest communities in the world-- think Oprah Winfrey and her $50 million estate, where, in fact, Carbajal held a fundraiser. His average contribution was approximately $1,300 in 2015. Out of the $1.4 million he raised through the last reporting period, only $48,000 came from small donations of under $200. Given that less than one half of one percent of the U.S. population gives over $200 to a campaign, Carbajal’s donor list-- Capps’ own donor list was bequeathed to Salud for a mere $396 "in kind" donation-- is unique.
Upon closer inspection of Carbajal’s FEC filings, you find that he has spent $140,000 on fundraising consultants and about $400,000 on his campaign from April 1, 2015 until December 31, 2015. No other candidate in the race has come anywhere close to that amount of spending. And, although Carbajal has spent a huge sum in the early months of the campaign, first hand report indicate that he has performed poorly in debates and on the stump, leaving many voters unimpressed-- and for good reason.
While the media has focused attention on how impressed they are with Carbajal’s million-dollar campaign war chest, the same media outlets seem to have overlooked his tens of thousands of dollars of personal debt. He has significant debt on three credit cards, one with as much as $50,000. He is in debt for as much as $15,000 on two other credit cards. He has reported student loan debt in the range between $15,000 and $50,000. This is a huge vulnerability for a Democrat and one can easily imagine the attack ads that Republicans will no doubt exploit at every opportunity should he make it to the general election. You can visualize the ads now: "How can voters trust Mr. Carbajal with our country’s multi-billion-dollar budgets when can’t even manage his own personal finances?!" He sounds almost as bad as Marco Rubio! Add to that that Carbajal is a career politician who has very little experience in the private sector and it’s likely that his candidacy would fall apart without the considerable butressing from Capps and the huge sums of money he gets through DCCC patronage.
Carbajal’s Democratic rivals are Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider and re-genrative farmer Bill Ostrander of adjacent San Luis Obispo County.
Mayor Schneider is rated a polished performer and an earnest politician. She's smart and does her homework. She is the only female in the crowded jungle primary field, which will be motivating for some voters. Unfortunately, she was passed over by many of the party insiders and has mixed to derogatory reviews for her opposition to the widening of the 101 highway through the exclusive Monetcito neighborhood, which was viewed as a nod to her wealthy backers. In fact, her objection was with a faulty environmental impact report that later, in court, proved to be true. But, the damage was done. Like Carbajal, she also has the advantage of geography in fundraising and has publicly said that her contributions average $500. She raised close to half a million dollars in 2015, which is considerable without the luxury of party cronyism. Also like Carbajal, she's neither charismatic nor does she instill confidence of leadership.
The 24th District is comprised of approximately 37 percent Democrats, 33.5 percent Republicans and 27 percent independent. Santa Barbara holds the greatest concentration of progressive voters in the 24th district and Salud and Schneider will no doubt split the majority of vote.
The non-Santa Barbara candidate in the race is Bill Ostrander, who is looked at as the "dark horse" in the race and the Bernie-like candidate.
Bill is a regenerative farmer (he told me that means he works to improve the soil and sequester carbon) from San Luis Obispo. He founded and runs a non-profit called Citizens Congress, an organizations committed to removing the corruptive influence of money in politics, especially in elections.
Much like Bernie, with whom he shares campaign volunteers galore, Bill was dismissed by party insiders for a while. However, like Sanders, Ostrander is articulating the frustration of most Americans and the insiders are having to take note. Many who hear him pull back the curtain on money in politics, cronyism, and offer unique perspectives on things like publicly financed elections, agriculture’s role in climate change and a national civil service program for 18-25 year olds, become enthusiastic supporters. He's a persuasive speaker and every report indicates he wins the debates, especially when measured by crowd response. He has not succumbed to the dull, safe scripts coached to most candidates by their handlers. Predictably, he is gaining a lot of traction and volunteers from students who attend several colleges in the district, including Cal Poly and the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Raising money in San Luis Obispo County (which the locals term SLO County or just "SLO") is vastly different from the gilded city of Santa Barbara. Forty percent of the population of SLO County works in Tier 3 jobs that pay on average $12.43 an hour. Despite the economic challenges of his home turf, without hiring a big Washington D.C.-based fundraising team, from out of 141 Congressional candidates in California, Ostrander ranks in the middle of the money tree. It was a risky but deliberate move to run the type of campaign that placed the first priority on ideas rather than money. Ostrander, like Bernie, is investing in people and upending cliché politics that favor vague platitudes of "new beginnings" and "cleaning house in Washington" while playing by the same rules of money and cronyism that created the dysfunction in the first place.
Ostrander told me-- and the evidence supports his assertions-- that "the influence of money in politics manipulates our legislative outcomes. It’s inarguably the single most important problem facing our nation today. Our elected officials spend up to 70% of their time asking for campaign contributions. Since only wealthy donors, lobbyists and special interests can afford sizable donations, politicians tend to favor individual donors’ interests over community interests. Studies show that ideological voters are twice as likely to donate to campaigns. A politicians' dependence on donors is a principal reason Congress is dysfunctional."
Republican Justin Fareed, a 27 year-old Santa Barbara resident who works for his parents, has amassed a small fortune in donations. Of the $754,000 Fareed had raised through 2015, 87.5% of his contributions were from out of the district and more than $300,000 from out of state. Money being spent on Fareed’s faux Tea Party candidacy appears to be coming largely from conservative ideological investors. Justin has little real-world experience, and this campaign message is porn from the pages of the garden variety Republican playbook of "less regulation, lower taxes, clean up Washington" drivel that he doesn’t seem to understand. This is his second attempt at Capp’s congressional seat. He was edged out in the 2014 primary by Chris Mitchum. By virtue of his fundraising and ideology, Justin will also pull votes from the Santa Barbara pool.
"Katcho" Achadjian, a Republican from Arroyo Grande, is a state Assemblyman from SLO county. Katcho is an immigrant from Armenia who owns four gas stations and receives money from a Koch brother subsidiary. One doesn't have to wonder how Achadjian, will vote on the issues of fossil fuels and global warming. He is not well liked by the Sierra Club or any serious Californians concerned about the environment or Global Warming.
While Katcho is well-liked by his conservative constituents for his personal handling of grievances with governmental bureaucracy, he likes to claim that California’s financial turnaround was under his watchful eye-- despite being in the legislative minority and on the wrong side of many of the votes that contributed to the turnaround.
Fareed is raising more money than Katcho, but that may have more to do with Justins’ family wealth and connections than support. So far, Republicans are staying out of the endorsement business of their candidates.
There are other candidates, but they’ve raised little to no money and have no apparent organization or structure to suggest much credibility.
Ostrander is looking at this race as an opportunity that offers important lessons for people in the district regarding what ability or interest America has in "trying to make our grand experiment of democracy whole again. Has our disgust with the system left us blind to cronyism? Has money over taken even our recognition of good ideas? Does it matter if 'investors' from out of the district help a candidate succeed? Can average citizens have a place in our government, or must they all be schooled in the system as lifetime public servants? Or the reverse: Should career politicians be disqualified if they’ve never spent time in the private sector? Is America rewarding innovation in our governance the way we might expect our technology to out compete the rest of the world? Or have we all become so fatigued through this process that we just want it all to stop?"
The race for California’s 24th Congressional District is a microcosm of the presidential race: a career politician propped up by cronyism, ideological investors, a competent administrator, and a dark horse who is channeling visceral disgust with the rigged system. Young, innovative but idealistic millennials against cynical seniors with financial resources who are not comfortable with risk. "Both sides," Ostrander reminds us, "are turned off by an institutional hierarchy that leaves everyone behind and unheard."
The Santa Barbara County Supervisor, a career politician, is the anointed candidate of the establishment and falls squarely in the Hillary Clinton mold. Bill Ostrander, in addition to sustainable farming, directs a non-profit that seeks to severely limit the influence of money in politics, especially the money spent on campaigns. Salud has never really worked in the private sector or owned a business. Ostrander has worked on four continents, owns and operates a small business, but always worked outside of government.
Carbajal has a stump speech and it sounds like it. Ostrander has a consistent message but speaks extemporaneously.
As Bill explained at the candidates forum at UCSB last month (on the video above), Robert Reich blogged that Hillary is a good candidate for the government we have. But for the government that we want to have, we need Bernie Sanders. The same could be said for Carbajal vs. Bill Ostrander. Is America’s political gag reflex working? Will we accept our complicity when the next approval poor rating of Congress comes out? You can contribute to Bill's campaign by clicking on the thermometer: