Veteran Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, on Wednesday announced her retirement from Congress at the end of 2016, signaling the end of an unexpected political career and opening up a potentially competitive race along California's Central Coast.
In a video announcement, the 77-year-old Capps said she believes “it is time” for her to return to her Santa Barbara home. The former nurse and stalwart liberal said she will serve out the remainder of her term.
"It's been a hard decision to make, for I have loved this job," Capps said. "But life moves on."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a close ally, lauded Capps as "a fierce advocate for hardworking American families" and a "steadfast champion for protecting public lands." Pelosi's praise underscored Capps' overall position on the political spectrum, also seen in her 100 percent vote ratings from Planned Parenthood and Clean Water Action and a 0 percent rating from the National Retail Federation.
A member of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, Capps has been a leading skeptic of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, an opponent of offshore oil-and-gas drilling and an advocate for funding to aid schools including Cal Poly.
Capps first came to Capitol Hill in 1997 as a spouse, following her husband Walter, a former university professor who had just been elected to the House. When he died from a heart attack after nine months in office, she was elected to replace him in a special election.
"She is one of the finest and most beloved members of Congress, and the people of the Central Coast have been lucky to have her as their representative," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Rep. Sam Farr, a Democrat who represents the California congressional district directly north of Capps’, called her one of the best on Capitol Hill at fostering compromise among members of different ideologies.
“I hope that whoever runs in her place will realize that it's not the title they’re running for, it’s the ability to use the tool of Congress — the power of one person to fix things that are broken,” Farr said. “She knew how to articulate what was broken and how to fix it.”
Demonstrating this capacity for bipartisanship, Capps made a well-known friend across the aisle in former Republican Rep. Mary Bono from Southern California. Bono also entered Congress after the death of her husband, famed singer Sonny Bono, and said she developed a close friendship with Capps because of their shared hardship and California roots.
Bono, who is now a principal at FaegreBD Consulting in Washington, said she and Capps spent long committee sessions swapping texts and emails to help pass the time (and occasionally poking fun at the other party’s arguments).
“We never put politics between us, or disagreements over any issues,” Bono said. “We were able to talk about anything, whether it was policy or parenting or just the rigors of the job.”
Though there may be fewer close friendships between party rivals today, Capps wasn’t one to let ideology get in the way of personal relationships, Bono said. The pair often voted differently on bills that would affect California, but they shared information and arguments to make sure they both understood the facts.
Although “Congress is a living organism, and it moves on,” Bono said, Capps “will be missed because of her tone, and the decency, and her demeanor and niceness.”
Locally, Pat Harris, San Luis Obispo County Democratic Party chairwoman, noted that Capps has been “a really great representative of this district; she's been a strong friend and supporter for education, for health care and for leading the area in green initiatives. Whoever comes after her will face many of the same concerns she has, and we hope they will continue to address those."
Mark Lisa, chief executive officer of Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton, also praised Capps. “Lois Capps is a longtime champion of the United States health care delivery system , offering her unique professional perspective to one of the most complex and highly regulated industries in the world. We have always valued her willingness to address issues nationally and on the Central Coast with a singular goal of providing higher quality, cost effective access to care for all. Her advocacy will be sorely missed in Washington D.C. and San Luis Obispo County.”
So far this Congress, Capps has introduced seven bills, dealing with topics ranging from climate change and ocean acidification to benefits for firefighters.
"There is a lot of work to do," she said Wednesday.
While known for her civility, which has earned her accolades in magazine polls as the “nicest” member of Congress, Capps has also fended off repeated challenges from energetic Republican contenders who might now feel emboldened once more. In 2012, former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado spent $1.9 million on a campaign and lost by 55-45 percent.
Last year, Capps outspent Republican actor Christopher Mitchum 5-1 but was held to a closer 52 percent to 48 percent victory. In a highly unusual move that reflected the tenor of the race, Mitchum in February filed a defamation suit complaining about a negative aid aired by the Capps' campaign.
Democrats now hold only a slim 37 percent to 34 percent voter registration advantage over Republicans in the 24th Congressional District, redrawn after the 2010 census to encompass Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties as well as a tiny sliver of Ventura County.
"The 24th District has been competitive for multiple cycles and instantly becomes a more likely pickup opportunity for Republicans in 2016," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Zach Hunter.
But Bill Whalen, a former Republican political staffer who's now a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, cautioned that the broader political environment next year might complicate the chances of a by-the-books conservative taking the seat.
"There's going to be a lot more noise on climate change in California in the next 18 months, given the drought," Whalen predicted, adding that it will be "tough for Republicans, in addition to the drilling and fracking issues, to be anti-climate change on the coast."
As if to underscore the point, Capps on Thursday is scheduled to meet with San Luis Obispo County public health officials to discuss a new program that raises awareness about climate change.