A San Luis Obispo campaign-reform activist and actor will challenge the Central Coast’s freshman Assemblyman in the 2018 election.
Democrat Bill Ostrander, 58, filed paperwork to run against incumbent Jordan Cunningham, saying the freshman Republican is out of step with the progressive ideals of California and San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
The 35th Assembly District encompasses all of San Luis Obispo County and the Santa Barbara County communities of Santa Maria, Guadalupe and Lompoc.
Cunningham, an attorney with a practice in Templeton, was elected in November 2016, succeeding termed-out Republican Katcho Achadjian. Cunningham defeated Democratic opponent Dawn Ortiz-Legg, and so far in his first term has earned a reputation as a moderate with a penchant for public-safety legislation.
Though he came in fifth in a crowded field of nine candidates in the primary election for the 24th Congressional District in 2016 (he received 6.1 percent of the vote), Ostrander attracted attention as one of the most energetic and well-spoken candidates in debates leading to the election.
But Ostrander is known mostly for his fight for campaign finance reform. As a co-founder and director of the campaign finance-focused nonprofit, Citizen’s Congress, Ostrander has led the local dialogue against big-money interests in politics, which he calls the biggest hurdle to getting things done in the Legislature.
“The best defense that we have from what is in my opinion horrible federal-level policy making is a strong state legislature,” Ostrander said. “It’s an office where I think I can make more impact with what I’m doing now with the nonprofit and as an advocate.”
Ostrander grew up in Indiana and says he’s traveled to 35 countries, lived and worked on four continents and “worn many hats.” He’s enjoyed an acting career that started in the 1980s — appearing in, among other things, the film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Christine” — before working as a community development volunteer in Namibia.
He moved to Los Osos in 1998 and lives on a former dairy and cattle ranch off Los Osos Valley Road. He has one stepson and two sons who live in San Luis Obispo County.
As director of Citizen’s Congress and its educational foundation, Ostrander coordinates fairs at high schools that introduce students to community service opportunities related to homelessness, animal rescue, senior outreach, environmental clean up and mentoring youth.
Citizen’s Congress formed following the controversial 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizen’s United vs. Federal Election Commission that prohibited government restrictions on political spending by corporations and unions as long as the spending is done independently of a party or candidate.
“Let’s be clear about something: Money in politics is the umbrella issue,” Ostrander said. “Money in politics is the impediment to getting the community-driven issues that we need the most passed.”
Leading up to the 2016 election, Ostrander and Citizen’s Congress made an unsuccessful push in San Luis Obispo for a program that would give each registered voter $20 in “democracy vouchers” to donate to candidates who agree only to receive contributions through the program. The effort aimed to increase voter participation and prevent outside money from influencing city campaigns.
But Ostrander rejects that he’s a single-issue candidate. Here’s a few of his other priorities:
Healthcare. Strong support for a Medicare system for every citizen, commonly known as “single-payer” healthcare, and the passage of Senate Bill 562, which would implement the system in California. That bill was withdrawn in June 2017 but could be reintroduced to the State Legislature this year.
Water. Supporting measures to combat California’s drought.
Education. Making education more accessible and affordable, making preschool universal and encouraging vocational subjects be taught in high schools.
Mental health. Supporting funding for incentives for employers to provide treatment to employees and programs and facilities to treat people with mental illness, especially those in the criminal justice system.
“Jails have become repositories for mental health patients,” he said. “That’s a tragedy that we’re not taking care of our people like that.”
Bail reform. Ending the money bail system, which requires someone arrested for a crime put up cash or collateral to be released from jail prior to their trial, which Ostrander said creates enormous hardships in the lower socioeconomic classes that keeps people in poverty. Numerous sources say roughly 60 percent of all people in jails across the country are waiting for trial or sentencing.
“Right now we have people accepting sentences, basically, so they can get out of jail,” Ostrander said. “It’s an important taxpayer issue, but it has a larger societal cost than just the $5 million a day that it’s costing taxpayers to incarcerate those people.”
During his first year in office, Cunningham introduced several bills related to public safety such as human trafficking and standards for marijuana DUI testing legislation. However, Ostrander said that Cunningham, a defense attorney, voted against since-passed bills that help ease a strained justice system, such as bail reform and a bill to prevent employment discrimination for former inmates.
Ostrander also points to bills Cunningham voted against that aim to increase public safety, such as a bill to further restrict open-carry of firearms in public places and another to ban even permitted firearms on school campuses.
“He’s seems like an intelligent young man, but he’s following the conservative agenda of punishing, regressive policies that tend not to be empathic, tend not to be forward-thinking,” Ostrander said. “Ideas that are stuck in nativist ideologies and 1950s romance.”
Though the Assembly district tilts Republican, Ostrander said Democratic turnout in the past two races has grown and the margin between Republican wins shrunk. Furthermore, Cunningham may have lost favor with some hard-line conservatives due to his vote for cap-and-trade, he said.
“I don’t think Mr. Cunningham is a star in the Republican Party because of his vote on cap-and-trade, for example,” Ostrander said. “And I think that there is a strong resentment over the type of politics that we see in Washington D.C. that he tends to represent... It’s my opinion (Democrats) have an opportunity here.”
He said he planned to raise and spend little in his campaign but is aiming to co-host seven Lincoln-Douglas-style debates in public parks or public centers in seven communities across the district in the coming months. He said he has suggested the events to Cunningham personally.
“I challenge him,” Ostrander said. “Let’s get out and do that.”
Ostrander’s campaign will formally kick off with a launch party Monday at the Bristol Cider House in Atascadero, from 6 to 8 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.