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Listen: Citizen Congress' William Ostrander discusses run for congress

William Ostrander for Congress

From the moment Central Coast Congresswoman Lois Capps announced her plans to retire at the end of this term, candidates looking to fill her spot began to announce their intentions to run. 

KCBX is inviting each registered candidate onto Issues and Ideas in order to share their visions for the 24th Congressional District, which includes all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties as well as a portion of Ventura County in the Los Padres National Forest.

San Luis Obispo farmer William Ostrander is running for the seat as a Democrat. His Citizens Congress promotes campaign finance reform, and he stated on his campaign website that he believe's "government is being bought by billionaires and special interests."

Randol White: Welcome to "Issues and Ideas.”

William Ostrander: Thank you. Thank you for having me on.

RW: Now you say yourself that you’re not a career politician, so what made you run for office this time around?

WO: Well, I’ve been doing work outside of the government for decades. I’ve been a Big Brother for 35 years, I’ve worked on four continents, I’ve worked in Africa as a self-funded volunteer on conservation issues, specifically relating to community development because the issues in conservation are oftentimes best served by looking at what’s going on in the community and the people around those conservation issues. I started the first donated all-public library in Africa, I started programs for scholarships for kids to get to school, a work-based program for adults to have products that they could sell to tourism. And I helped to build a craft center there and started a cultural festival which has brought money into the community, which is highly impoverished, 85% unemployment, it’s a tough place to live.

RW: This is Namibia?

WO: Yes, Namibia. So I’ve done work like that, I’ve been a spokesperson for the Coalition to Stop Food Irradiation, I’ve been a member of the Sierra Club, I’ve done beach cleanup, I’ve been doing Citizen’s Congress work, which is trying to remove the corruptive influence of money in politics, I did congressional briefings in Washington, D.C., I’ve visited and lobbied over 65 offices in the House and Senate and for me it just came down to the time where I felt like I had to do something within the system as opposed to constantly being outside of the system, because the reforms that we need to have, have to happen within the system, it’s the system itself that needs to be changed and I felt it was time to make that choice, to work inside for a while.

RW: Now if you were to win this seat, would you continue to run until at which time you don’t?

WO: Are you asking me if I’d go for re-election?

RW: Yes. Would you run for re-election year after year until you close.

WO: Yes, I assume that I would run again or look at other public office depending on the effectiveness of what I was doing. At the end of the day what’s most important is making some changes and I think that two years in the House of Representatives is not really enough time to get all of these changes done that I think we need to do. I think it’s really important that people understand that I think the founding fathers’ intention for making the House of Representatives tenure just a very short time, two years, is because they were constantly looking for cycling in of the populace, to come into government, to participate in government, to reenvision where the country’s at and where it’s going, so the answer to your question is yes, I’d most likely seek reelection but I think that depends on first of all, if people are happy with what I’m doing and secondly, if I’m being most effective there.

RW: Now your organization, Citizen’s Congress, focuses on big money in American politics and you say a huge sum of money is needed to run a viable campaign, and so how will you run a viable campaign without leaning on the contributions of a few wealthy contributors and/or special interests?

WO: Well, I think if you look at Bernie Sanders, for example, right now. When you look at the FEC filings after the second quarter, Bernie Sanders leads all the candidates in terms of candidate funding. Not in terms of their aggregate funding, like their PACs, their super PACs, etc. but in terms of actual donations to the candidates themselves, Bernie Sanders had $15.7 million dollars, which was far and away above everybody else in the field. When you start looking at the percentage of total donations that came from small donors, I mean Bernie Sanders’ numbers were over 80% and the averge donation was about $43. When you think of the amount of amount of support there, that’s incredible. So I don’t necessarily feel I can do without money, that’s not possible, you do have to have money. You have to have campaign managers, you have to set up websites, print graphic materials, get out and see people, and that all costs money. But do I think we need to have what would probably be close to $12 million to win this race? And I’m not saying one candidate has to have $12 million, but in the aggregate I think all the candidates are probably to spend close to$12 million and that’s obscene. We don’t need to have that kind of money in politics bedause 80-90% of that money is going to be coming from outside the area, not from within the area, not from the people here making that decision. So yes, we need to have money in politics, yes, I need your help, yes, I need your small donations, but I’m the only candidate who’s been willing to sign the People’s Pledge, which is to refuse independent expenditure money, to refuse dark money from coming out of the area.

RW: As a farmer, how do you feel about ground water rights in the midst of this four-year drought?

WO: Like any natural resource we have to look at it essentially as a public resource and a public resource means just that, that it’s not owned by one person. I think we’re in for some interesting fights coming up because there’s long been constitutional law that says that anybody who owned a piece of property was entitled to water rights underneath that. But I don’t know if in those days when those laws were first written, if they recognized the aquifer spreads across many, many properties, and that creates another issue all the time, but there are many things we should be doing about water, that also have to do with carbon sequestration, farming, climate change, etc., that are all together and we need to look at that issue more holistically rather than looking at ‘I need my water and screw everybody else.’

RW: Are there specific things that you would do in Congress if you were elected to A) help California’s drought situation and B) some of the issues you just brought up?

WO: Of course. First of all, everybody’s interested in climate change, or I should say most people are interested in climate change, and when you look at climate change one of the places that we’re really not looking enough to is agriculture. Agriculture provides probably about 20 percent of our carbon footprint in the world. And the reason for that is because of tilling, over-tilling, petro-chemicals and the way that we’re farming. Now the value of looking at sequestering carbon in agriculture or sequestering carbon in the land, which is of course a feature of agriculture has other benefits like refilling ground aquifers. Now, let me explain. When you go in and you till a field you lose between one-third and three-quarters of an inch of rainfall moisture out of that soil. Not only that, but what you’re doing is you’re tilling up all the biodegradable materials, as well as the root systems. It’s those root systems that are really key here, because plants, as you know, pull carbon dioxide out of the air and they put it into the soil, and when those root systems die they create kind of a hummus and that hummus holds that carbon for long periods of time. So when you look at the different carbon banks we have in the world, we have the oceans, we have the atmosphere and we have the soil. We already know the oceans are already turning acidic and we know the atmosphere has way more parts of carbon than it can hold healthfully. So the soil is one of the last places we can do that. We can sequester carbon in that soil by not tilling so much, by planting cover crops, by altering some of our land use means or methods, and what’s important to the drought, is when you till a field, when ir rains, the water comes down and creates a crust on top of that tilled soil. Not only does it create a crust but in some cases it washes that soil away and we’re losing four tons of topsoil per person in the United States today. OK, so when you create that crust what happens is the water that hits on top of it is now just running off, going into our streams, our creeks and our rivers, oceans or lakes. But when you don’t till that soil all our healthy root systems, which are grower deeper and deeper, which are sequestering carbon, when they’re torn up the water doesn’t have a chance to infiltrate. When the root systems are there, those become little avenues for the water to get into the ground and we can take in six to eight times as much water in no-tilled ground as we can in tilled ground. Now when we take that water in, that water has a chance to percolate down and get into that aquifers and that means that all of us benefit. So it’s really important and these things dovetail one another, the carbon sequestration, the healthy soils, keeping nutrients in the soil that eventually make their way into our food systems, not having erosion, not filling up the Gulf of Mexico with algae blooms due to fertilizer runoff and nitrogen in soils, and we can at the same time bring water back into our aquifers that we all get benefit from. So it’s a big problem and a good solution there.

RW: And you’ve lobbied Congress on behalf of sustainable agriculture. Were these some of the topics that you pushed Congress to take action on?

WO: I specifically lobbied Congress on money and politics. This is something I don’t think most people understand. I think emotionally people have a gut reaction, yes, there’s too much money in politics, but when you look at the polls they say 96% of Americans believe money’s having a corruptive influence in politics. But 91 % of the people think there’s nothing we can do, which is just wrong, it’s false. But one of the reasons we can’t get people motivated in this issue is because I don’t think a lot of people are able to connect legislative outcomes with their personal lives. But you take any issue going before Congress today, you can take a foreign policy issue, let’s just say like the Iran nuclear deal. You’ve got Sheldon Adelson, who’s having a big impact on the Iran deal because of his associations with Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel.

RW: He’s the Sheldon Adelson who’s a Las Vegas—

WO: Casino magnate, right? And his influence is huge. And if you look at what’s going on in the presidential primary—we’re not even to the primary yet, but what’s happening is what we call the invisible primary. Every candidate out there is looking for and seeking a billionaire benefactor who can then help to bankroll their candidacy. We saw in 2012, I think it was, in the Republican primary, Newt Gingrich, who was staying in the race solely, solely because of one benefactor. It was Sheldon Adelson. He was the only person who kept him in there, the only one. Otherwise his candidacy would have failed long before. So you take any particular issue, whether that’s immigration, whether that’s climate change, whether that’s food security, whether it’s, you know, you name it, it has to go through a labrynth of money and the outcomes that come out of that, that filter down to you and I, are usually diluted or not in our best interests, and it’s money that’s making the difference.

RW: What are your views about oil exploration along the central coast and the use of methods such as fracking to retrieve that oil?

WO: Well, I think first of all we have to remember that fossil fuels are 20th century. We really need to be spending a greater amount of energy seeking alternative energy. And again, money and politics. If you look at ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is funded by a lot of very conservative types, they’re trying to create legislation that slows down the process of our transition into alternative fuels. So exploring for oil along the central coast is not a good idea. We’ve seen the environmental impacts at Refugio Beach just recently. It’s something that we have to wean ourselves from, it’s not going to go away immediately, but there’s certainly a lot more energy we should be spending on alternative energy means. I mean, Germany, for example, has a great project, where they’re putting solar panels on houses and they fund that through the government and then the interest that they pay, which is very slight, like 2%, goes to fund other peoples’ houses, to continue to put solar panels on their house, and they’re way ahead of their ambitions and their goals of getting, I think it was 25% of their population on solar energy by the year 2025, something like that.

RW: Germany’s program is remarkable considering the amount of sunshine that country gets.

WO: Right. It’s a thing we should be doing here.

RW: Phillips 66 is proposing a rail spur, as you know, to the company’s Santa Maria refinery, just west of Nipomo. Communities up and down the Southern Pacific rail line are expressing concern about the increase in oil trains that would create if approved. Can you share your thoughts with us on how that project should or should not move forward?

WO: Well, obviously it’s a bad idea when you have that kkind of risk along with 19 schools, two hospitals, through the downtowns, you’ve got one stretch of the Grade where the trains come down that’s already ranked as one of the fifth most dangerous sets of tracks.

RW: The Cuesta Grade.

WO: Yes, the Cuesta Grade. Clearly it doesn’t make sense. The flammability—inflammability? I sometimes get the two words confused. When they’re putting a liquid in there to make that oil thinner so it’s transportable and more fluid, you’re just increasing exponentially the destruction that can happen in an accident. And personally, there are just some accidents that aren’t worth taking the risk for. Maybe the trains would go by for years, but it’s just not worth that risk. It’s not worth it. 

RW: PG&E is currently asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to renew its permits on the two operating reactors at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Would you say you’re more in the camp with those who stand behind PG&E’s studies saying the plant is seismically safe or with those who express concern, including current 24th District representative, Lois Capps and former state senator Sam Blakeslee, who is himself an earthquake scientist?

WO: Well, obviously there’s concern there. Fukushima showed us that nothing is perfect, that forces of nature can sometimes outdo even our expectations. I mean, the real concern with Diablo Canyon ultimately, when you look on one hand, some environmentalists will recognize that it’s clean energy compared to fossil fuels or compared to coal. That’s a good argument, OK. And then there’s another argument that we don’t have anyplace to take the waste. We don’t have anyplace to store that and that stuff that’s half-life is what, 10,000 years? That’s hundreds of thousands of years and we don’t have any means of storing that, so to me that’s a deal-killer. But what we need to focus on is that PG&E is employing 1500 people, creating about $900 million worth of income in the county. So really what we should be studying is some day that plant will close down. Whether it’s this licensing or not, it will close down. So the bigger question is how to replace that energy, how to replace that money that’s coming into the county, how do we get people into different jobs. So the environmental impacts that we already know—bad news. But it’s there and it’s producing a type of energy now, but let’s look at all of the issues around that—jobs, money in the county, what do we do with the materials, and that it will be unlicensed, or delicensed at one point.

RW: William Ostrander, San Luis Obispo county farmer, also the director of a nonprofit called Citizen’s Congress and a local real estate developer as well, thank you so much for being on “Issues and Ideas.”

WO: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. I’d love to come back any time and talk about all the other issues we have in front of us.

RW: And this is “Issues and Ideas” here on KCBX central coast public radio. I’m Randol White.