Who should be left standing in the race to replace Lois Capps?

Katcho Achadjian
Katcho Achadjian jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

When veteran Congresswoman Lois Capps announced her retirement, she set off a heck of a horse race in the 24th Congressional District, where nine candidates are fighting it out in a contest that’s attracting big money and national interest.

On the Republican side, state Assemblyman Katcho Acahdjian and former congressional aide Justin Fareed are pulling in the bulk of donations and endorsements. Among Democratic candidates, Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal and Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider are the top contenders.

Under California’s top two primary system, the names of all nine candidates will appear on every ballot, with the top two finishers going to the general election regardless of party affiliation. That makes it theoretically possible for two members of the same party to face off in November.

Democrats do have a slight edge; they outnumber Republicans by 3 percent in a district that includes all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties and a small sliver of Ventura County. But the number of decline-to-state voters is large — almost 24 percent of the district’s electorate — making outcomes hard to predict. In the 2014 election, for example, Tea Party candidate and political neophyte Robert Mitchum did surprisingly well, losing to Capps by just 4 percentage points.

While anything’s possible, we do expect one candidate from each of the major parties will wind up on the November ballot. With that in mind, here are the two candidates we found most qualified:

Republican Katcho Achadjian

Out of all the candidates, Achadjian stands out as the most experienced. Before his election to the state Assembly, he served three terms on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, where he earned a reputation for his ability to broker compromises between liberals and conservatives — a skill that earned him the unofficial title of “man in the middle.”

Disarmingly down-to-earth, Achadjian is a tireless public official who makes constituent service a priority. We disagree with Achadjian on some key issues — for example, he told The Tribune Editorial Board he would vote to repeal or replace the Affordable Care Act, and we believe that would be a big step backward. However, we’ve watched him long enough to know he’s a reasonable politician who’s willing to cross the aisle and to take positions unpopular with his base.

A couple of recent examples:

▪  In 2015, he worked with Democratic colleagues on legislation to ensure the county will receive adequate funds to plan for a possible emergency at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. It also extends the life of the Peer Review Panel, an oversight committee that reviews seismic safety studies performed for PG&E.

▪  In 2014, Achadjian sponsored controversial legislation — opposed by some local conservative leaders including Supervisor Debbie Arnold — that allowed voters in the depleted Paso Robles groundwater basin to decide whether to create a management district. Voters ultimately rejected the district by a wide margin, but we credit Achadjian for his willingness to risk alienating some of his North County constituents in order to provide an avenue to local control.

Fareed, Achadjian’s main rival, is articulate and ambitious, yet strikes us as more slick than sincere, and more given to sound bites than solutions. He promises to invest in infrastructure and talks of 21st century solutions, but when it comes to issues such as the Paso Robles groundwater basin crisis, he’s offered no concrete plan. Fareed is capable of running an impressive PR campaign, but we’re not convinced he’s ready for Congress.

Democrat Helene Schneider

For us, it was a close call between Carbajal and Schneider; both have experience in local government and are familiar with issues we face in San Luis Obispo County.

Carbajal is the clear choice of the Democratic establishment — he has far more donations and more endorsements, including a coveted nod from Capps. Among his other accomplishments, Capps points to Carbajal’s experience on the Board of Supervisors, where he has successfully lobbied conservative colleagues to support liberal programs, such as a climate change action plan.

Overall, though, we found Schneider to be a more independent thinker who will fight hard for programs and policies that benefit the 24th District.

One example of her resolve: The Santa Barbara Independent reported in 2014 that she was passed over as chairwoman of the Santa Barbara County Council of Governments “for her outspoken and insistent opposition to Caltrans’ plans to widen Highway 101 from Santa Barbara to Carpinteria.” The article went on to explain that Schneider, along with City Hall planners, objected to certain aspects of the plan, such as its failure to include a Union Pacific bridge widening project. Schneider’s position on the highway project cost her some political capital, but it also showed she’s willing to take risks for what she sees as right. We need more of that in Washington, D.C.

One final note

Democratic congressional candidate Bill Ostrander of San Luis Obispo continues to crusade for campaign finance reform, yet he is no one-trick pony. We found Ostrander to be well-informed and articulate on all issues. A congressional seat is a reach, though. We urge Ostrander to consider running for an office closer to home.