Election Road Trip: Central Coasters Hungry For Substance, Sick of Campaign Negativity

The election is just over a month away now, and unlike in the past, California has multiple Congressional seats — nearly a dozen, in fact — where the outcome is truly up in the air. As part of our election series “What’s Government For?” we’re out to hear what voters say they want from their elected officials.

Lois Capps and Abel Maldonado at a debate (Scott Shafer/KQED)

We’re hitting the road, or should I say the beach, on the Central Coast, where a hotly contested congressional race is under way. The new 24th Congressional District includes all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, plus a small part of northern Ventura County. One person told me that living here is like being in a National Geographic Magazine — it’s that beautiful.

As I walk along the beach near Morro Bay, I come across two people, Gary Ubaldi and his wife Gail. They both say they’re registered Democrats, but he says they’re open-minded.

“I believe I’m very open-minded,” Ubaldi says. “I know my wife is. I mean she listens to both sides of every argument and would vote for who she felt was the best candidate, period. Regardless of party.” And what is Ubaldi looking for from Washington?

“I’d like to see them be prudent financially,” Ubaldi offers. “Government needs to protect every one of its citizens. And I’d like to see government make, for example, the tax laws equitable for everybody.”

“If between now and the election I see one ad on television that is positive, I will vote for that person.”

The congressional race here finds the seven-term incumbent, Democrat Lois Capps, in a tight race with Republican Abel Maldonado. The old district that Capps ran in last time was drawn by Democrats in Sacramento to protect her re-election. It snaked along the liberal coast — critics called it a “ribbon of shame” — Exhibit A for taking redistricting out of politicians’ hands and giving it to the Citizens’ Commission approved by voters.

The new district is more evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, and the desire for bipartisanship seems part of the political DNA here. At the monthly breakfast meeting of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, Charlene Rosales, who works with the local United Way, says people are longing for stronger leadership.

“How is the economy going to improve?” Rosales asks. “How are we going to build stronger, more positive relationships with each other? And government does have a role in that. They have a role in keeping our communities healthy and viable. And we need that work to get down to our level.”

Rosales echoed another comment I heard a lot here — complaints about political gridlock in Washington.

“When people can’t come to agreement and when they can’t compromise and work things out and they take a congressional break with no important decisions made, I think people are bewildered.”

Thomas Wood, who works in the hotel business, puts it more bluntly.

“If the company I worked for performed as Congress is performing we’d be out of business,” insists Wood. “If I performed in my job the way Congress is performing, I’d be fired.”

While voters clamor for substance, Capps and Maldonado — or at least their campaigns — apparently have something else in mind. In television ads running relentlessly on the Central Coast, the candidates accuse each other of not paying their taxes.

At a standing-room-only debate recently, the negativity in this contest was clearly on voters’ minds. Charlotte Byrne of Atascadero says she might not vote at all.

“However, if between now and the election I see one ad on television that is positive, I will vote for that person,” Byrne promises.

Is she really that turned off?

“I am,” she says.

During a debate that lasts about an hour, Democrat Capps and Republican Maldonado spelled out their differences on issues ranging from safety testing for the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant here to climate change and health care. But it was this issue of partisanship and negative ads that generated the most heated exchanges.

“It is tough in a campaign when there are 12 different ads — negative ads — distorting my record,” Capps alleged. “How do you set the record straight?”

“Those ads that she started running, I didn’t recognize our local congresswoman anymore,” Maldonado countered. “Cuz those were the first ads she ran in the fall; attacking my mother, my father, my brother, my sister, my wife and myself on taxes.”

But that kind of political catfight does nothing to address the concerns voters here are having — like what to do about the economy. That’s a highly personal issue for plenty of people, including those who work in the district’s exploding wine industry. On the sprawling, 458-acre Premiere Coastal Vineyard in northern Santa Barbara County, Merrill says he and other growers are worried. Actually, very worried.

“If you go through the Santa Maria Valley right now you’ll see signs out in the fields looking for workers,” Merrill explains. “‘If you’re looking for work, come and see us, they say. Nobody can find enough workers. Not the strawberry growers, not the lettuce guys. Not vineyards. Everyone’s short, about 50 percent of what we should have.”

Merrill, who also heads up the County Farm Bureau, says growers desperately need and want one thing from the federal government: a temporary worker program.

“Time’s running out for us,” he warns. “And without those people they’re gonna go out of business.”

Merrill complains that while Congresswoman Lois Capps listens to their concerns attentively, she never takes the lead on anything. Merrill likes Abel Maldonado’s experience as a grower, but blames the Republican party for blocking immigration reform.

“The Republicans seem to get mired in this thought that we’re taking jobs away from people who are here and want the work,” Merrill says. “But that’s really not the case. And I know that from personal experience.”

The new political lines drawn by the Citizens’ Commission successfully created a district that is more politically diverse and competitive. But so far at least it hasn’t delivered what many voters here say they desperately want — a civilized and substantive campaign focused on issues, and,  ultimately, a winning candidate who goes back to Washington to put the district ahead of his or her own political party to get things done.