The optimist: Freshman Congressman Salud Carbajal confronts the ahistorical weirdness of Trump's Washington



Less than a month after he was sworn in as a United States Congressman, Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) introduced his first piece of legislation.

It was a bill to ban future leases for oil and gas drilling operations in federal waters off California’s coast. It’s an issue close to the heart of many of the constituents in Carbajal’s district, which includes Santa Barbara and SLO counties, and just the kind of pro-environmental platform that the former Santa Barbara County supervisor ran on during his hard-fought campaign for the seat.

The chances of its becoming a law are slim to none.

INTERESTING TIMES:  U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) spoke with New Times about being a freshman congressman in the era of Trump. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • INTERESTING TIMES: U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) spoke with New Times about being a freshman congressman in the era of Trump.

Carbajal is not only new to Congress, but a member of the minority party. On the other side of the aisle, the Republican Party not only holds a majority in the House and Senate, but the White House as well. In order to get his bill to pass, he faces an opposing party with a solid lock on two of the three braches of government. It’s an uphill battle, and the bill seems almost destined to fail.

“I could be depressed and stay in bed all day,” Carbajal said in an interview with New Times shortly before announcing the bill. “Or I could be reminding people what is important to my constituents. And who knows? I’m an optimist.”

Learning to navigate the ins and outs of governing in Washington, D.C., is a steep learning curve for any freshman congressman, even more so when you throw in the wild card that is President Donald J. Trump. Trump spent the first weeks of his presidency griping and sparring on Twitter with the media over the estimates of the crowd size at his inauguration, reportedly threatening to send the troops to Mexico during a phone call with the country’s president, and issuing a flurry of controversial executive orders targeting undocumented immigrants, individuals from some predominately Muslim countries, and refugees.

Trump seems to have thrown even the most savvy and experienced legislators for a loop. Seasoned congressional veterans and newcomers like Carbajal are left searching through the president’s bombast and hyperbole to separate fact from fiction.

“When he spouts off these things, you have to ask, ‘What did he mean? What did he say? What authority does he have? What legislation is needed?’” Carbajal said. “It’s quite an interesting exercise to keep up with his antics.”

Carbajal’s office is often faced with the task of essentially fact-checking the executive orders, announcements, and even the Twitter tirades of the president and his administration against the actual constitutional powers of the executive branch. For example, when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer floated the possibility of a 20 percent tariff on Mexican goods to pay for a massive wall along the U.S.’s southern border, Carbajal and others were left to figure out if such a tax could be instituted by an executive order. According to Carbajal, it would actually take legislation and a bilateral agreement to levy such a tariff.

“For a lot of these things, he needs legislation. He can’t just say, ‘I’m a dictator,’ and do it,” Carbajal said. “But wading through all the rhetoric? I think everybody’s going through that exercise, including me as a new member of Congress.”

While it may seem like an incredibly steep uphill battle for those who oppose Trump and his policies, the self-proclaimed optimist Carbajal stills sees some hope. He floated the possibility that some Republicans in the legislative branch troubled by Trump’s behavior might break from the White House and side with their Democratic Party peers to override particularly egregious executive orders from the administration.

“I think we are dealing with a reactionary, enigmatic president who we’ve never seen before, and he’s closely aligned with the Republican Party,” Carbajal said. “So we’ll see if his antics and terrible agenda is one where at least a core number of Republicans will say, ‘No, we’re not going along with that.’”

Making those inroads across the aisle starts in small ways, according to Carbajal. He was one of several Democratic House members to sponsor a bill by U.S. Rep. David Valado (R-Hanford) to prohibit federal agencies from including Social Security numbers on mailed documents to cut down on identify theft.

“You start with innocuous things, but that’s how you start,” he said.

Carbajal even hypothesized that there could be areas where he and some Democrats might agree with Trump. He pointed to the president’s campaign promises to address the country’s crumbling roads and bridges as one area where there might be common ground, but he noted that he’d be against allowing private companies to build the projects and then charge the public for using them.

“The devil’s in the details,” Carbajal said.

The likelihood of Carbajal and other Democratic lawmakers finding common ground with their Republican counterparts or convince them to cross party lines to defy the White House remains unknown. After traveling to California for interviews with New Times and other media outlets, Carbajal returned to a Washington that is deeply divided, acrimonious, and at times chaotic. A Washington where both he and his party have very little power, and the power to shape the direction of the country remains in the hands of the Republican majority.

Still, Carbajal insisted that despite the political circumstances, he would continue to be a “voice for the Central Coast,” and who knows who might be willing to hear him out.

“I’m an optimist,” he reiterated. “I’m always hopeful I can get someone to meet me halfway.” 

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.


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