Congressional candidates line up to succeed U.S. Rep. Lois Capps

Katcho Achadjian
Katcho Achadjian jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

With no incumbent seeking to represent the Central Coast in Congress, the race is wide open with 10 candidates so far announcing plans to run.

The deadline to file for candidacy in the June 7 primary election isn’t until March 26, so the already crowded field could continue to grow. Of the 10 candidates running for outgoing U.S. Rep. Lois Capps’ 24th District congressional seat, five filed campaign paperwork in the past two weeks.

All 10 candidates have qualified for the June 7 primary and the top two vote-getters, regardless of political party, will proceed to the Nov. 8 general election.

After nearly two decades representing the district, which encompasses San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and a portion of Ventura counties, Capps announced in April that she was ready to retire and wouldn’t seek a rare 10th term in Congress. Though she had long enjoyed a strong Democratic majority in the district before boundaries were redrawn in 2010, she only narrowly beat conservative Republican Chris Mitchum by 3 percentage points in 2014.

The current list of candidates reflects the district’s new demographics, with registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans by just 37 to 33 percent. Independent and decline-to-state voters account for 23 percent of registered voters.

Voters will have their first chance to hear from most of the candidates in person on Thursday evening, when Cal Poly hosts a debate at Spanos Theatre.

Here is a brief look at the first five contenders to file and who have already been profiled by The Tribune, followed by the five most recently announced candidates.

The first to file

The first candidates to declare they were running are also the most high profile, either because they hold office already or previously ran against Capps.

Republican candidate, current state Assemblyman and former San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Katcho Achadjian, 64, is known locally as a moderate who has championed small businesses, stating that California must keep businesses from leaving the state by easing regulations. He’s also called for reducing wasteful spending and focusing on education and health care.

Justin Fareed, 27, ran for Congress in 2014 and was narrowly defeated in the primary by fellow Republican Chris Mitchum. A Santa Barbara resident, former congressional aide and vice president of his family business, Pro Band Sports Industries, Fareed told The Tribune in 2014 that he’s running as a pro-business conservative to stop the reckless fiscal spending that will particularly impact his generation.

Democratic candidate and third-term Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, 51, has been endorsed by Capps and states that he wants to bring a collaborative approach to Congress, focusing on creating jobs, improving public education and protecting the environment.

Also running on the Democratic ticket is current second-term Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, 45, who worked in human resources management for Planned Parenthood of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties and has served as co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Housing & Homelessness Task Force. Among her priorities, Schneider lists immigration reform, women and LGBTQ equality, environmental protection and health care access expansion.

Democrat William Ostrander, 56, a San Luis Obispo farmer, has championed campaign finance reform and opposed the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission, which prohibited government restrictions on independent political contributions by nonprofits, corporations, labor unions and other organizations. His campaign priorities also include addressing income inequality, student debt and climate change.

Tyler Gross mug
Tyler Gross Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Tyler Gross

A self-described “moderate Republican,” Gross, 29, is a Tennessee native and owns a legal document processing and notary public company in Nipomo. He is the son of 2014 congressional candidate Alexis Stuart.

He told The Tribune he is conservative in fiscal and national security issues but progressive on social issues. He said being an openly gay man sets him apart from other Republican candidates and that Congress must champion women and LGBTQ rights issues with equal pay and anti-discrimination measures. He supports extensive background checks for buying a gun.

However, Gross’ list of priorities also includes some goals central to the GOP, including defunding Planned Parenthood because he is “100 percent against abortion.” His campaign website recently removed his stance on Planned Parenthood.

He opposes the United States accepting refugees fleeing violence in their home countries, citing the immigrant perpetrators of the Boston marathon bombing and the San Bernardino mass shooting.

A fan of Donald Trump and Rand Paul, Gross said anyone receiving any form of government assistance — he named programs such as CalFresh, California’s food stamp program; the California renters tax credit; and federal student aid programs such as Pell grants — should be required to submit to drug testing.

However, he diverges from the Republican mainstream by calling for campaign finance reform.

“I love the Trump philosophy that he funded his own campaign,” Gross said. “If he wins, you know he did it for the people.”

Steve Isakson001
Steve Isakson Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Steve Isakson

Isakson, the only Independent to enter the race so far, told The Tribune he wants to appeal to the about one-quarter of district voters registered as decline to state or have no party preference.

Isakson, 63, an Atascadero resident and chief engineer at the Los Osos-based Rantec Power Systems, ran unsuccessfully in the 2014 congressional race, garnering just over 1 percent of the total vote. He said his priorities include easing partisan gridlock in Congress and said he believes the redrawn district is ripe for a candidate who can establish middle ground.

“It concerns me what is happening in Washington D.C. I dislike it intensely,” Isakson said. “But I think there are issues both sides believe are important.”

One of those issues is the national debt and deficit spending.

“If anyone’s not worried about passing this on to our children, you’re too late. It’s already happened,” he said.

Isakson also said he wants to uphold, but improve, the Affordable Care Act and ensure that, should Diablo Canyon Power Plant be relicensed in 2024 and 2025, that the plant’s aging components and infrastructure are thoroughly evaluated to ensure its safe operation for another 20 years.

Kokkonen, Matt 2010-2
Matt Kokkonen David Middlecamp The Tribune

Matt Kokkonen

San Luis Obispo financial planner Kokkonen, 70, known locally as an ultra-conservative Republican who has unsuccessfully run for San Luis Obispo County treasurer, the California Assembly and Congress, said he is running again because he’s concerned about the direction of the country and for the future of his grandchildren, who he said will be saddled with an astronomical national debt.

Kokkonen, who immigrated to the United States from Finland at 16, said one of his top issues is illegal immigration, which he said equates to an invasion subsidized by taxpayers. Other priorities include fighting radical Islam (“Why let our freedoms in this country allow for terrorists to operate?”), trim the federal debt (“Why should our children have to pay?”), eliminate Common Core educational standards (“Why should our children be a social experiment?”) and uphold the Constitution.

One issue far down on that list, Kokkonen said, is climate change.

“I’m not running to be part of the (United Nations), I’m running for the U.S. Congress to vote on our own domestic issues,” Kokkonen said in a phone interview. “It’s not the biggest problem the extreme environmentalists say it is.”

Benjamin Lucas

Lucas, a Montecito resident and Democratic candidate, declined to be interviewed by The Tribune. He said he has recently hired a publicist and will consult the publicist before granting interviews.

Jeff Oshins Photo
Jeff Oshins

Jeff Oshins

Oshins, 65, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, said his priority is to help address the soaring cost of higher education.

A self-described “right-of-center Democrat,” Oshins has experience with national security issues as a consultant for NatPrepSecurity, working as a liason between the Department of Homeland Security and other defense-related agencies and state and local governments on security related issues.

Last year, Oshins said he conducted a sea lift security assessment of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant on behalf of Port San Luis Harbor District.

He said that national security experience, coupled with his experience in dealing with federal agencies in grant writing, makes him the best local candidate for Congress.

Economic issues factor in greatly toward national security, he said, with student debt being one of the largest economic issues of our time. He favors loan forgiveness programs or creating manageable payment plans.

“We’ve got a disproportionate number of low-income people defaulting on students loans or coming out of school with an average debt of $35,000,” Oshins said. “That’s money they can’t spend on starting a business or even enjoying a (good living). It’s an issue whose time has come and it’s good fiscal policy.”

Cal Poly debate details

Cal Poly will hold a candidate forum from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Spanos Theatre.

Candidates Matt Kokkonen and Benjamin Lucas were not initially invited because they hadn’t filed paperwork or had an active committee information staff when the event was planned, said Michael Latner, an associate professor of political science at Cal Poly and a debate organizer. They haven’t been invited since because of limited space and time, he said.