An open letter to Oprah Winfrey: Oprah for Santa Barbara County supervisor

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Opinion by Joe Mathews, Courtesy of Zócalo Public Square

Dear Oprah,

You might be a fine president. But you should run for Santa Barbara County supervisor instead.

That’s no joke. If you want to tackle our nation’s greatest problems, you need not trudge through D.C. swamps. You can stay right at home in your Montecito mansion.

A local government position 90 miles north of L.A. might sound like a comedown for a billionaire. It isn’t. For all its wealth and natural beauty, your county of 445,000 is now the most challenged place in California. That was true even before recent disasters—the massive Thomas Fire that forced you to evacuate, and the subsequent mudslides that killed 20 people—inspired soul-searching about emergency response, infrastructure and development in the county.

I realize that being a local politician was not your ambition in 2001 when you bought a 42-acre spread and named it “The Promised Land,” a nod to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final 1968 speech. No, you loved the idea of Santa Barbara as a magical quasi-island on the land—a place cut off from the world by the sea and the mountains, but still close enough to take a lunch meeting in Hollywood.

But that same geographic isolation makes Santa Barbara’s problems more complex and costlier. Consider the area’s chronic water troubles. Santa Barbara, unlike most of the rest of California, remains in drought despite last winter’s rains.

Why? The landscape that makes Santa Barbara so dramatically beautiful—high mountains by the ocean—means that rain rushes out to sea, rather than running into reservoirs or the aquifer. Santa Barbara is responding by importing more water and installing a desalination plant, at considerable cost. (This is why your laidback neighbor The Dude—Jeff Bridges—was reportedly angry about you digging a new well on your property.)

Santa Barbara also lacks strong infrastructure to connect it to the rest of the state (the 101 is a parking lot, the Amtrak train is slow, and the airport has been losing flights). And county government is hamstrung by persistent budget shortfalls. (It could use your Midas touch.)

This reflects the area’s badly imbalanced economy. Santa Barbara has the second worst income inequality in California after the Bay Area. And by advanced statistics—which account for Santa Barbara’s high housing costs—it has the highest childhood poverty rate in California.

Santa Barbara poverty looks different than the poverty you grew up with in Milwaukee. But it’s still damaging.

Drive up to Santa Maria, the county’s most populous city. You’ll see pretty parks and single-family homes. But when you knock on doors, you’ll discover two and three families packed into many houses. You’ll also hear concern about rising crime and find children whose lives are too stressful and chaotic to enjoy their beautiful region.

So while you’re there, make some young friends and drive west on Main Street until you reach the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve, a county park on the ocean. You’ll find that some Santa Maria kids, haven’t experienced the 550-foot dunes, the tallest on the West Coast, even though they live close by.

That’s the kind of thing you could do as a county supervisor that you couldn’t do as president.

Yes, the White House offers awesome power. But you’d also find yourself constrained by partisan polarization. As a county supervisor, you could get more done—because supervisors are both the legislative and executive branches of government. Then there’s the power of your example. By becoming a supervisor, you’d inspire Americans to get involved in their own local governments.

You’ve been successful because of your ability to bridge the aspirations of the wealthy and the poor. Santa Barbara County needs more bridges like that. Is there any higher public service than working for the place you call home?

Your fellow Californian,
Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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