Although the League of Women Voters’ candidate forums are traditionally supposed to refrain from personal attacks, the format didn’t stop Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors candidate Laura Capps from calling out incumbent Das Williams’ financial relationship with the cannabis industry during a debate Thursday night in Santa Barbara.
“We have no campaign finance limits in this county,” Capps said. “You can literally write a check for $1 million. There’s too much money in our county system, in our city system, and no one until my candidacy, in recent memory, has been willing to talk about it because they like the status quo. They like to take $62,000 from an industry that they are regulating.”
Williams accepted $62,500 from the cannabis industry while serving on the county board that wrote the rules for regulating the industry.
Capps wants limits on campaign contributions so that wealthier entities don’t have a greater voice in influencing public policy.
“And guess what? That means that other things, like homelessness and housing, things that don’t have lobbyists attached to them, don’t get the priorities that they deserve,” Capps said.
Capps, president of the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education, is challenging Williams, an incumbent, for the First District supervisor’s seat.
About 100 people attended the debate, which was streamed live by TVSB. The tension and emotions between the two appear to be escalating, with about a month until the March 3 primary.
Williams defended his acceptance of donations and said that the cannabis tax revenue funds county programs and services. At one point, when he was frustrated by Capps’ allegations that the industry wasn’t paying its fair share of taxes, he whipped out a piece of paper from September 2019 that showed cannabis tax revenue paying for items such as a utility-grade solar ordinance, libraries and the Union Valley Parkway extension. The amount for fiscal year 2019 was $3.2 million and $2.8 million for 2020.
He noted that the number of acres of cannabis grown in Carpinteria was 186 acres and throughout the county 1,575 acres. He said the cannabis grows took up about the same space as lemon crops.
“Unless you think we are being overwhelmed by lemons, I think you should consider that is a very, very small crop,” Williams said.
He said that the county is doing the responsible thing by strongly regulating the industry.
“Not everything has been done correctly, but it is much better than trying to pursue an illusionary policy of a ban,” Williams said. “Communities that pursue bans have very vibrant black market activity, have tons of marijuana operations and no law enforcement dollars to do anything about it.”
Capps fired back at Williams’ lemon comparison.
“Unfortunately, we all know lemons, and cannabis is not lemons,” Capps said. “It’s untested by our federal government in terms of exposure. We don’t know what it means, for little kids, my son is here, to be in classrooms, all day long, surrounded by cannabis. It’s not like lemons.”
She said she is not calling for a ban on cannabis cultivation centers, but regulations that are “sensible.”
“Unfortunately, our county rushed in, opened the flood gates,” she said, “and we are now the cannabis capital of the state. Testing wasn’t done. Now we are doing testing.”
As a member of the school board, she said she sees the effects of cannabis use daily.
“This is a gateway drug,” Capps said. “Again, I am fine with adult use of marijuana. I have no problem with it, but this is a gateway drug, and we have to be thinking about what’s happening to our children.”
She said it’s up to the county to put the needs of children first.
“This is an epidemic,” she said. “We do need rules. This is a society that needs to have rules. If you say bans don’t work, that doesn’t give anybody a sense of what does work. We need to have rules.”
Williams, who was first elected to the Santa Barbara City Council in 2003, worked hard to explain his personal narrative.
“I was a very strange kid growing up,” Williams said. “Maybe it arose out of growing up in poverty, maybe it arose out of growing up closer to nature.”
Williams said that since he was a kid, he has had a deep passion for justice.
“I was angry,” Williams said. “I was angry that the world is so far from the way it should be. As a boy, I would preach about it, and write poetry against that injustice. As an adult, I knew that I could only be fulfilled if I made a real impact for our environment and for the poor.”
Williams grew up poor in Isla Vista and lived in a Volkswagen for a time while attending Santa Barbara City College.
When Capps brought up the issue of poverty, Williams turned the tables and asked the crowd to raise their hands if they had been homeless for more than two months in their lives. Williams raised his hand.
“This issue is personal to me because I have,” he said. “I used to live in my vehicle at Leadbetter Beach after I dropped out of high school so I could go to City College and better myself.”
Williams credits SBCC professor Dr. Manou Eskandari for helping him turn his life around. He eventually earned degrees at UC Berkeley and UCSB.
Capps, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, upset the political establishment by taking on Williams, an incumbent well-liked by local Democratic Party brass.
Both are Democrats, and they largely agree on the issues, but Capps has attacked Williams for his acceptance of cannabis dollars. Williams has defended himself by saying that revenue from the industry pays for public safety and other services, at a time when the county needs revenue.
“If you had a rule that you could not take money from anybody that could be affected by county policy, you would not be able to raise any money,” Williams said.
He said he would be relieved to have campaign fundraising limits, but it is not practical at this time. He called fundraising “masochistic work.”
He said real campaign finance reform would need a component of public financing. He also said law enforcement and public safety should have the ability to give to candidates.
“They work for the county, so they always have things before the board,” Williams said. “Traditionally, they have been the counterbalance, county employees, to the influence of oil. I think proposing taking them out of politics really would create a situation where oil has a lot more political power than fire, police and our other public employees. That is dangerous.”
Capps called Willams’ views “perverse logic.”
“Our firefighters and our first responders should have our support, no matter if they give any supervisor a dime of political money,” said Capps, who has never been elected to office, and was appointed to her school board position because of a lack of opponent. “If you see me up on that dais and I am your next supervisor, you will know that I am not supporting anybody because they happen to give me funding. It’s perverse to me. It’s not even how I think.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.