At home in her Gingerbread House

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — The moment is breathtaking. Slogging out of the smog cauldron of the San Fernando Valley, your spirit decimated by the sprawl and the congestion, the highway suddenly cuts to the west, dropping you at the edge of the blue-and-silver water: the Pacific Ocean, a revelation, glittering into infinity.
Charles Case
Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) poses by her swimming pool outside her home in Santa Barbara, Calif.

An hour north of Los Angeles (make that three if you get jammed up in the traffic), the area is often referred to as the Gold Coast, a quilt of beaches, mountains and vineyards wrapped around chichi Santa Barbara, the St. Tropez of California. 

Only gold is not the sole element associated with these shores. At the far curve of the ocean’s horizon, looming like Martian space pods visiting from an H.G. Wells novel, a chain of oil platforms hulk against the water. Because they glow in multicolored lights, locals jokingly refer to them as “the Christmas trees,” but for the congresswoman of this Riviera there is little festivity in the presence of those pumps. 

Rep. Lois Capps (D) is friendly to the point of celebration, honored by Washingtonian magazine as the nicest member of Congress in its “Best & Worst” poll of 2002 and named runner-up in 2004. In person she’s no less amiable — a brisk, elegant woman of 68 who is naturally polite and inquiring, qualities that may be attributable in part to the years of comforting she provided as a nurse and public-health advocate. She also taught early-childhood education for many years, and if she were ever nominated for teacher of the year you wouldn’t be surprised. There’s a schoolmarm air about her, benevolent but with a backbone. 

On a balmy spring day, however, the sunlight playing across the books, curios and flowers in the living room of her Santa Barbara home, Capps’s eyes flex with real toughness when the conversation turns to those oil derricks in the surf. 

As representative of the 23rd District, an anchovy-shaped strip of land that runs from Oxnard up to Hearst’s Xanadu castle at San Simeon, Capps is intensely concerned that the standing federal moratorium on new offshore oil developments — currently in place by presidential order until 2012 — may be derogated soon, returning decisionmaking power over drilling and exploration to the states. 

“Our responsibility is to protect this coastline for our grandchildren, and for our children, and think about what kind of world we’re going to leave to the next generation. I think about that a lot,” she says. 

Heightening Capps’s fears is the advocacy of Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) against the moratorium from his position as chairman of the House Resources Committee. “He’s hell-bent to see about 38 more platforms out there. If he had his way, they’d be dotting the Pacific,” Capps says. When asked to analyze Pombo’s position she pauses and then, choosing her words, whispers suggestively: “He has a lot of friends, I would imagine. He’s a powerful member of Congress. He rewards his friends.” 

“We’re going to continue to keep going up against that insatiable desire to drill away,” she adds. “How we treat the environment speaks to our values as people within God’s creation.” 

Capps lives in a handsomely converted 1906 horse barn surrounded by citrus and avocado trees. There is a divinely blue swimming pool, one of those mythical SoCal pleasure baths that haunt the December dreams of the people of Fargo.

The house is fittingly eco-chic. In the course of a recent remodel she incorporated a number of “green” building elements. These include solar panels, bamboo floors and a jasmine trellis to shade and cool one of her exterior walls. And, most exotically, “wheat boards,” wheat chaff pressed into hard panels that, Capps remembers, still smelled of bread when they were first installed. “I live in a gingerbread house,” she jokes. 

As the daughter of a Lutheran minister, born in northern Wisconsin and raised in the little towns of the West where her father’s ministry carried the family, it’s not surprising that religion imbues Capps’s politics. “My faith is an important part of my life,” she says, encapsulating her own spiritual viewpoint by paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln’s famous dictum: “Don’t pray that God is on your side, pray that you’re on God’s side.” 

Unsurprisingly then, Capps is well-alarmed by the Armageddon vehemence with which some Christian conservatives live their calling, and by what she decries as the Bush administration’s “messianic decisionmaking,” especially in relation to the Middle East.

She couldn’t be less of a wild and woolly agitator, though; as finely mannered as she is, Capps angry probably looks like Howard Dean asleep. She is nonetheless the proud possessor of one of the Democratic Party’s few “no” votes in 2002 on the authorization of force in Iraq. 

“We should not be involved in a civil war. We need to protect our troops. We need to bring them home,” Capps says. 

When she’s home, she involves herself with an anti-war group called Veterans for Peace. The group holds services for the fallen on the beach in Santa Barbara in which remembrance crosses are placed in the sand. “Two or three times a year they [the crosses] stay up overnight, and then I bring my grandson and we help them light the candles for the all-night vigil,” she says. “This is a tragic time.” 

The Cappses are musical. In addition to the two baby grand pianos that fill Capps’s living room, a weathered brass tuba is propped up in one corner of the room — a sort of visual surprise in a space where pictures and heirlooms are so precisely coordinated.

This is a political tuba, a tuba with a story. It belonged to Capps’s late husband, Walter Capps, a celebrated professor at the University of California Santa Barbara. While running for Congress in 1994, he publicized his campaign by strapping on the tuba and marching in local parades. Unsuccessful in his first run for office, he was elected when he sought the seat again in 1996. 

Nine months into his congressional tenure he suffered a fatal heart attack. Capps was elected to fill her husband’s seat in the special election that followed. She is the first Democrat since World War II to hold on to the district for more than a single term. 

Her daughter Lisa died of lung cancer in 2000. She has another daughter, Laura, the communications director for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Her oldest son, Todd, is a music composer in Santa Barbara.

While Capps inherited her seat from her husband, in subsequent years she has forged an identity in Washington that is entirely her own, with healthcare playing in her agenda like a theme song on repeat. The founder of the House Nursing Caucus, Capps sits on the Health Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee and is co-chairwoman of an array of caucuses on health-related issues. Say the words Medicaid or Medicare to her and she launches on a whirlwind tour of those program’s successes and shortcomings.

Before moving to California in the early 1960s, Capps was head nurse at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. It’s a point of pride that her credentials remain current — she just recertified for another two years. Her memories of life in the wards remain vivid — the grind of long shifts and interminable paperwork, and “being so exhausted I would cry myself to sleep,” she sighs.

Still, it was nursing that opened a window into politics. The sheer complicated effort of providing healthcare — the “messiness” of it, to use Capps’s word — was an ideal entr�e into the gloriously muddled business of working on Capitol Hill. 

“You try to make Congress look neat and tidy and orderly. It’s not,” Capps says with a laugh. 

This doesn’t mean you don’t try to save the patient. To torture the medical metaphor, Capps’s political philosophy is the old-school liberalism of good government as a sort of moral triage, saving the country with the bandages of social policy, stabilizing it with well-meaning, interventionist programs. 

While Washingtonian may categorize this congresswoman as being legendarily tender of heart, her vaunted decency is not without its political strengths. Take those offshore oil wells. Capps has already pulled an end run around her opponents, should the federal ban on shoreline development come to an end. Along with Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Capps has sponsored legislation that would arrest any new development in California. It’s a move of which she’s particularly proud. 

“Do I get to be the David for once and slay Goliath?” she says with a sly wink. 

So where Capps is concerned, don’t make assumptions about her niceness. Nice might just be a fighting word.