After former U.S. Rep. Lois Capps gave a book talk hosted by the Friends of the Carpinteria Library on Dec. 8, I caught up with her by phone to find out more about her path to leadership, her advice to young people and her new book, “Keeping Faith in Congress: Why Persistence, Compassion and Teamwork Will Save Our Democracy.” Capps, a Democrat, represented California’s 24th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1998 to 2017.
Debra Herrick: Why did you decide to open your book with the expression, “Democracy is born in conversation”?
Lois Capps: When it came to me to start the book that way, it was based on the fact that my husband (Walter Capps) used to say this even before he ran for office. As a teacher, he’d say that the whole notion of the public participating in education and democracy is based on people talking to each other—the nature of sharing ideas and everyone having a right to their opinion, not squelching certain ones. (It’s about) the importance of conversation and dialogue, that people share ideas. He thought it was from some philosophers in Europe. But, it’s more just a phrase that has been bandied about as people decide what democracy means.
One of the challenges to our current situation in the country, (are the attacks on) the fourth state—the free press. If we do not have access to a free press and the ability to write, I mean, not yelling “fire,” but within reason, (we have a problem). Some press though is not as well-sourced, The (National) Enquirer for example.
I really love our small-town papers. I got acquainted with Coastal View News when I’d fly regularly from the Santa Barbara Airport, and it was always in the airport. I think people like to read their own paper.
DH: The connection people have with their local newspapers is significant. Recently, I heard someone say that our local elections are the most important elections with the biggest impact on our everyday lives. What are your thoughts?
LC: Of course, they (local press and elections) reinforce that people have the right to have their views heard in their neighborhood.
In a community the size of Carpinteria, the local newspaper prints things that would never be in the Santa Barbara News-Press. People want to see who is on the honor roll, 4-H, school sports. The paper gives families an opportunity to shine. The letters to the editor are extremely important.
DH: In your book, you talk about running in the special election and subsequent elections for your husband Walter’s congressional seat in the wake of his death. Where did you find the strength to do that?
LC: It was a very traumatic and difficult time for me as a person and for us as a family. My husband had just been elected to office 10 months before. He dearly loved and was just getting the hang of the office. And looking back, it was a very different voting population. It had always been very Republican… So, when Walter ran it was difficult, and he didn’t win the first time and when he did win, it was notable that this seat had changed hands.
Back then Brookes Firestone—and I like him a lot, we’ve always been friendly opponents—he said to me, “I would never run against Walter, but I’ll run against you.”
This year (2018), we elected 100 women. It was different back then. Being a woman was a liability.
Now, I remember some good advice that I got from then Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. He said, “I think you should consider running, but you’re not going to be running on his coat tails, you’ll have to run on your own merits.”
DH: Do you think that you were uniquely qualified to serve as an elected official representing the central coast (Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties and some of Ventura County)?
LC: Yes, I do. Not uniquely though. There was a letter to the editor at the time asking, “Who does she think she is?” I was a school nurse then. So, my response was that I’m a public school nurse and that people care about their health and education. Those are the two pillars of American democracy, access to public healthcare and public education.
DH: How much of your success was hardwork, how much talent, how much luck?
LC: My success was my ability to work in networks. I’m very much a team player. And I don’t know much about my talents. I really believe in rolling up your sleeves and getting to work with your neighbors, friends and colleagues.
I had a reputation and took pride in having a really good staff. They were my eyes and ears in the local arena when I was in D.C. We were very interested in making sure that the people who needed a federal program, like a veteran, we wanted to make sure that those people had their questions answered. It’s not rocket science-work, its people-work.
DH: In your career, you worked at a level of leadership and decision-making power that few women experience. Do you have any advice for young women who seek to hold leadership positions in the U.S.?
LC: I hope they do. I hope people who are interested don’t hold back. I hope they just get involved. You start working in organizations and community networks where you feel there is an opportunity to help and learn. There’s a lot of grassroots organizations that depend on people who are willing to work, and then you’ll see if you have the leadership ability.
There’s not a lot of glory. There are parts that are very rewarding, and then most of the time you are slugging it out, like most jobs.
DH: My last question, what book are you reading right now?
LC: Well, the next book I’ll be reading is Jane Sherron De Hart’s “Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life.” I’m about to sink my teeth into that one.