Candidates for most elective offices won’t be known until the June 3 California State primary (and who knows when for the Democratic Party’s presidential campaign), but a Republican challenger from San Luis Obispo has already taken some of his first swings against Lois Capps, the Democratic Congresswoman from Santa Barbara whose 23rd district represents much of Oxnard and western Ventura County.

Poll watchers are focused on the races for two county supervisors races, the Democratic battle to find a nominee to challenge Republican and incumbent Congressman Elton Gallegly (See “Jorgensen’s re-entry shifts congressional race,” News, 5/22/08), and a number of controversial ballot measures (see sidebar for a brief rundown of these other races). With the attention focused elsewhere, Republican Matthew Kokkonen — without another Republican on the ballot — has already started laying the foundations for his race against Capps this fall on the premise the former school nurse lied to voters about how long she would stay in office.

“I think it’s time for her to step down because she had stated that she was going to run three terms only,” Kokkonen said. “Now she’s on her sixth term. She lied to her people about that. That blocks a lot of candidates running from either party.”

Capps was first elected in a special March 1998 election to fill an absence left in the congressional seat after Walter Capps, her husband and the previous holder of the office, passed away.

She has been re-elected every two years since then.

A native of Finland, Kokkonen says it’s time Capps relinquishes her seat because, he says, immigrating to the United States at 16 and spending a career as a financial planner for small businesses has given him a perspective on the challenges many Americans feel.

“As a self-made person I know I’m closer to the heartbeat of the district,” Kokkonen said. “I’ve signed paychecks. Our current congress person has always endorsed paychecks in the back. She never had to put her credit on the line. I understand how to start a business, run it and to make things successful.”

Capps’ campaign has argued, however, that the congresswoman is currently focused on the business of the current congressional session and not getting her re-election.

“Right now the congresswoman is focused on her work in Congress and addressing the many challenges facing our country such as ending the war in Iraq, providing affordable quality healthcare, protecting the environment and making education more accessible,” Campaign Spokesperson Emily Kryder said. “When the time comes she’ll run an aggressive and positive grassroots campaign laying out her vision for the future.”

Capps’ is the only campaign to have reported any donations in this congressional race, according to data available on the Federal Elections Commission’s Web site. (As of May 14 she had received more than $674,000 in this election cycle.) The site shows Kokkonen has yet to submit any campaign finance reports to the commission. Another Republican, Donald E. Regan, reported receiving $1,542 as of March 31, but he is no longer on the ballot.

Kokkonen, a graduate of Santa Barbara’s Westmont College, has run his financial planning business in San Luis Obispo for more than 30 years. He said he has begun to make contacts in Ventura County and more distant parts of Santa Barbara County in a congressional district spanning the tri-county coastline, a district he said was shaped to benefit Capps.
“It’s a textbook example of the egregiousness of gerrymandering,” he said.

Kokkonen said the campaign will pick up steam after the election and focus on economic issues.

“The economy is in trouble,” he said. “I know that from my clients. We need to start the economic engine.”

Instead of providing tax rebates as part of the recent economic stimulus package, Kokkonen said he’d work to keep taxes low if elected.

“I think it would have been better not to have taken that money from the taxpayers to begin with,” he said.

Restarting the nation’s industrial engine would be necessary he said, but not by adopting a more isolationist stance when it comes to trade. Instead, he said “American ingenuity,” innovation, and skilled workers would provide the proper stimulus. In contrast, though, he suggested that too many students are being allowed to graduate from public schools without the proper skills. Even so, he said, spending more money per pupil was not the answer to bring California students up to par with those in other countries.

“The amount of money spent on students in Finland is about 35 percent less per student than we’re spending in California, yet the results are vastly different,” he said.

Kokkonen also said he couldn’t question the planning of the Iraq war because he doesn’t have a sufficient military background, and the current high cost of energy means policymakers should explore alternative sources of energy but also speed up development of domestic energy resources such as oil reserves off the California coast and other sources that would get energy to the market quickly. A previous candidate for multiple offices in the Santa Barbara area, he said if elected he would use his office to bring society’s focus back to the family unit.

“I believe and I want to encourage people to return to some of these traditional values of hard work, individualism and economy and persona accountability,” he said. “We tend to think that it’s the government’s duty to solve our problems. That wasn’t why people originally came to the United States and that’s not how they came to this country. I want to emphasize that and encourage families, because families are the bedrock for each building block in our society.”