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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California House Seat

Air Date: Week of

The contest is on again for the same two politicians who fought it out two years ago in California's 22nd congressional district which includes the affluent city of Santa Barbara. Stephanie O'Neill reports that the opponents environmental voting records are a key factor for voters in this tight race.


CURWOOD: One of the places where the Democrats hope environmental issues will be a hit is California's 22nd Congressional District. In 1994 Conservative Republican Andrea Seastrand eked out a narrow victory in the affluent district, which includes the city of Santa Barbara. Now the freshman rep is facing another tough fight against the man she defeated 2 years ago, and in a district long concerned about development and coastal pollution, the challenger is playing the environment card. Stephanie O'Neill has our story.

(Waves and surf)

O'NEILL: Some of the most picturesque stretches of California coastline exist here in the 22nd Congressional district, a 160-mile long slice of California paradise. Overall it's a politically conservative district that's been held by Republicans since the late 1940s. But it's also one with strong concern for the environment, dating back to a 1969 disaster at an offshore oil rig. Al Wyner is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who specializes in California politics and the environment.

WYNER: This community has starting in 1969, had a series of political issues revolving around oil development, growth, and water resources, that has continued to keep environmental things at the forefront.

O'NEILL: And that's a fact not lost on Democratic candidate for Congress Walter Capps, a religious studies professor at UC Santa Barbara.

CAPPS: And it's easy for politicians to kind of go walking along the beach and get their pictures taken and saying well, you know, we really love this environment. But to be specific about that and to vote for the kinds of precautions and restrictions and rules that will protect the environment, you know, that's another matter. And there my opponent and I are worlds apart.

O'NEILL: Mr. Capps is staging a heated rematch of his 1994 race against freshman Congresswoman Andrea Seastrand, a Newt Gingrich loyalist and a political opposite to Capps on just about every issue. She supports cutting funding to the Environmental Protection Agency. He opposes it. He supports more funding for the Mojave National Preserve. She opposes that. She voted to weaken the Clean Water Act. He says he wouldn't have. Two years ago when the duo first battled for the Congressional seat, Ms. Seastrand beat Mr. Capps by only 1,500 votes. But, Mr. Wyner says, this race won't be the same after 2 years of a Congress controlled by the Republican party, with its very clear agenda.

WYNER: It clearly has established a position for her on environmental matters that will repel many voters in the district.

O'NEILL: The target for the Democrat's campaign are potential voters like 28-year-old Rory Strundon. He says he's undecided about the race, but he considers environmental protections vital.

STRUNDON: Especially the ocean. And the mountains and keeping things not as developed as -- I think there's too much development here in Santa Barbara. So whoever's going to keep it as low-key and user-friendly as possible, I think that's why everybody lives here, to enjoy it.

O'NEILL: The race has attracted significant national attention and support for both sides. A coalition of labor, environmental, abortion, and consumer rights groups are running TV and radio spots criticizing Congresswoman Seastrand.

(Commercial spot. Man's voice-over against music background: "It's our land. And our water. America's environment must be protected, but in just 18 months Congresswoman Seastrand voted 11 out of 11 times to weaken environmental protections. July 31, 1995...")

O'NEILL: But if the anti-Seastrand forces hope to use the environment to dislodge her, the Congresswoman and her backers are doing their best to turn the focus elsewhere. She isn't speaking much about the environment on the stump, and her office declined several requests to speak with Living on Earth about environmental issues. Ms. Seastrand's campaign is instead centered around hard-core conservative themes. Opposition to abortion and gay rights, welfare reform, and a smaller, more accountable government.

(Commercial spot. Man's voice over against music background: "It took Andrea Seastrand and the Republicans to force Congress to live under the same laws we do." Woman's voice: "That's only fair." Man's voice: "They also cut Congress's staff and the Congressional budget." Woman: "And that will save us all some money." Man's voice: "They opened Congress's books...")

O'NEILL: Political pictures like this one resonate well with many voters here, as do her conservative positions on the environment according to Professor Wyner.

WYNER: The folks who live in the city of Santa Maria or in the suburb called Orchid are city and suburban folks, but they're much more conservative politically than in other parts of the district. And they're more inclined to be supportive of Seastrand's position on environmental matters. That's the focal point of her support there.

O'NEILL: With the line between the candidates so clearly drawn, the Capp-Seastrand race has in many ways become a referendum on the current Congress and the Republican Contract With America. And if Ms. Seastrand's record and Mr. Capp's criticisms of her have motivated the Congresswoman's opponents, Professor Wyner says they've also worked to Ms. Seastrand's advantage.

WYNER: In parts of this district she has solidified her support, and probably will cause some people who maybe didn't even vote in the last election to come out in her favor.

O'NEILL: And it seems even some Republicans who don't support her environmental position may be willing to give Ms. Seastrand another try. Among them Sherri Clark of Santa Maria.

CLARK: I would probably vote for the lady because she does some good things. Not all good things, but some good things. But if they don't go right I'll vote Democrat or something else.

O'NEILL: Keeping Republicans like Ms. Clark in the fold is Congresswoman Seastrand's biggest challenge. Professor Al Wyner says Ms. Seastrand may face a little more difficulty this time around, and in such a hotly contested race a little more difficulty may make all the difference. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Santa Barbara, California.

CURWOOD: A live worth living in of all places a nursing home. That's just ahead on Living on Earth.



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