Minutes after President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union address Jan. 12 in Washington D.C., longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Lois Capps extended a handshake as he walked from the podium.
“We shook hands and I said, ‘Mr. President, you know you and I are both in our last year here,’” Capps recalled Thursday. “He said, ‘I know that.’”
It was a touching moment, said the outgoing Congresswoman who has spent nearly 20 years representing what is now the 24th Congressional District.
She announced in April that she would not seek a rare 10th term, saying she believed “it’s time” for her to return to her Santa Barbara home. Strategically, she decided to open up the seat during a presidential election year when voter turnout is at its highest.
Capps long enjoyed a strong Democratic voter majority in her district before boundaries were redrawn in 2010. The new 24th Congressional District, which encompasses San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and part of Ventura counties, now gives Democrats just a slim lead over Republicans with independent voters becoming a major presence.
Capps said Thursday that she still has plenty of work to do in her final year. Priorities include advocating for common sense gun regulation, stricter nuclear industry oversight, federal funding for healthcare education and training, and a special designation for Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.
Last year, following the mass shooting in Isla Vista in which a mentally disturbed 22-year-old killed four of his seven victims with a handgun, including Christopher Michaels Martinez of Los Osos, Capps sponsored the Pause for Safety Act of 2015. The bill would allow family members or close associates of a person to seek a court order barring a person from owning, purchasing or possessing a firearm until a hearing can be held within 14 days to determine whether a person poses a significant safety risk.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s deputies had contacted the Isla Vista shooter weeks before, after a county mental health worker received a call from one of his friends and spoke with his mother. Deputies cleared him, however, without checking his apartment for weapons.
The bill is currently in subcommittee.
“These are some of the things we can do to prevent something like this from happening again,” Capps said. “Unfortunately, the nature of the Congress I serve now is not good for (gun control measures).”
She said she will also continue to push for better oversight of Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, which is currently up for relicensing in 2024 and 2025. She said she is not against the relicensing, but has significant safety concerns while also recognizing the plant’s high paying jobs are a boost to the local economy.
As an outspoken member of the House Energy Committee, Capps has grilled former Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane and PG&E on seismic safety and long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel.
“Our energy committee, they seem to think that everything’s hunky dory, that everything’s fine,” Capps said. “Almost everyone on the committee — Democrat and Republican — seem to be so gung-ho, but they don’t have a plant sitting on a fault line.”
She is also working with that committee to fight for the Title VIII Nursing Workforce and Reauthorization Act, which helps fund entry level through graduate study nurse education, the largest source of federal funding for institutions that educate nurses in rural and medically underserved communities.
Capps also hopes to push through the California Coastal National Monument Expansion Act , which she introduced last fall, that would add the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse as a national monument, protecting it from development and supporting its natural coastal habitat.
Capps said she is proud of the progressive issues her office has supported and recalled some of her most pivotal and historic votes.
Her first vote after arriving in Washington, she said, was to vote against impeaching then-President Bill Clinton. She voted against authorization of the Iraq War and was a staunch supporter of the Affordable Care Act. The act, she said, has provided affordable health insurance to previously uninsured Americans one illness away from physical and economic ruin. More needs to be done, she said, to incentivize insurers to keep premiums down.
“In (ACA’s) third year, insurance premiums went way up because (the insurance companies) did what they could get away with,” she said.
A new representative
As the list of people vying for Capps’ seat grows — four Central Coast residents have filed to run in the last two weeks — Capps stands by her endorsement of Santa Barbara County Supervisor and fellow Democrat Salud Carbajal.
“I think he’s got a certain set of characteristics — he’s a Spanish speaker, for instance — that make him more attuned to the community,” Capps said.
She said she has long endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s for president, citing her extensive political experience. “She’s got battle scars and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” Capps said. “In the mix somewhere is that she’s a woman. It’s time.”