If Santa Barbara County’s District 1 Supervisor Das Williams has ever struck you as a very personable guy, thank gezelligheid.
Mr. Williams, who is Dutch-Indonesian, uses the word to describe his ethic when it comes to the world of politics.
“It’s a Dutch word that roughly is translated as coziness, but it’s a much higher standard of what coziness is. Coziness is 3 p.m., you have tea and coffee and fancy little cookies and you sit by the fire and you talk or you read; that’s gezelligheid.”
In his career as a former Santa Barbara City councilman, State Assembly member, and current District 1 Supervisor, Mr. Williams strived to embody this ethic with his colleagues.
While in the State Assembly, for example, he noticed that most of the members got work done in bars.
“I didn’t want to end up an alcoholic or with a divorce. Instead I would do that same thing but by making coffee for my colleagues. I bought a huge espresso maker just to make cappuccinos in the cloakroom for my colleagues” said Mr. Williams.
“I’m sure it got a couple votes for environmental legislation.”
Mr. Williams wasn’t always so concerned about coziness and coffee. Growing up, he split his time between with his mother in Ojai and his father in Isla Vista. His family struggled to make ends meet, and Mr. Williams dealt with housing insecurity throughout his childhood, attending eight different elementary schools.
Despite the hardships, Mr. Williams loved his homes, and said that Isla Vista and Ojai, with their walkability, access to nature, and thriving counter-culture, were great places to grow up. Nevertheless, seeing the poverty juxtaposed with the beautiful nature around him, Mr. Williams could sense something was amiss.
“The earliest thing I can remember feeling about anything is just sort of angry that the world isn’t as it should be. That’s kind of a weird thing for a 5-year-old to be feeling,” said Mr. Williams.
“That sort of rage against injustice, or that sort of yearning for a more just world, is kind of the foundation for everything about me.”
Though today he has focused that sense of injustice, it took Mr. Williams some time before he found the appropriate avenue for his anger.
“I didn’t necessarily, definitely not as a little kid, think to connect that with political change. It was much more visceral than that. Totally undirected, you know?” laughed Mr. Williams.
Fortunately, Mr. Williams learned early on of the importance of political action.
Curious about the potential positive impact of politics, he began working at 16 going door to door canvassing for the Peace Movement and volunteered for Supervisor candidate Bill Wallace in 1992.
“That was a pretty profound lesson because he lost that election by eight votes, and so I saw immediately the impact that one person volunteering could do,” said Mr. Williams.
Between his first political job and his next profound political experience, Mr. Williams didn’t have it easy.
When his mother moved to Paso Robles, Mr. Williams found it hard to fit in with his high school classmates.
“I was an environmentalist, I was brown, and I was a punk. I had a triple threat of outsidership in Paso Robles, and so by the end of 11th grade I was like, ‘I’m out of here,’” said Mr. Williams.
He dropped out and moved back to Santa Barbara to attend SBCC, living half of the year in his car at Leadbetter Beach and renting an apartment in the colder months.
At SBCC, professors encouraged his political work, getting him a scholarship with the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation which allowed him to go to UC Berkeley.
Only one semester into his time at Berkley, he decided to leave. It was 1994, and Mr. Williams had bigger fish to fry.
“I was like, ‘The biggest thing in the world that’s happening right now is Mandella’s election in South Africa,’“ said Mr. Williams.
Mandella was always a hero to him, and so Mr. Williams contacted his South African friend, who connected him with people in Cape Town. With only a place to stay arranged, Mr. Williams showed up at Mandella’s headquarters and offered his services.
“I said, ‘Hey! I’ve done an election in Isla Vista California; gimme a job. And they did!’” said Mr. Williams.
For $20 a day, which wasn’t a bad salary then Mr. Williams explained, he spent the semester campaigning for Mandella.
In South Africa, Mr. Williams learned a lesson about American politics, he told the News-Press.
“A lot of young people, like I was at 19, they view American politics as very icky. Very grey,” said Mr. Williams. “Then I looked at South African politics and I could really see who the good guys and the bad guys are here. This is more clear cut, a righteous cause.”
The lesson came when he saw the terrible things that the people he worked with had to do or suffer to end Apartheid. He was friends with safe-house operators, victims of torture, and militants.
“I got to understand them well enough to understand the price on the human soul to have to kill people to create political change, and I thought, ‘Maybe in America, where we don’t have to kill people to create political change, maybe that’s a good system! Maybe there’s something really awesome about that,” said Mr. Williams. “Coming back to America when I was 19 made me fully fathom how wonderful it is to live in a Republic where you can create political change without being tortured or without picking up a gun.”
It was this experience that inspired Mr. Williams to run for office himself.
That appreciation for America, its political system and its capacity for change motivated Mr. Williams throughout his career. He rose quickly through the Californian political ranks, and was instrumental in Montecito’s recovery from the Thomas Fire and Debris Flow and crafted gun control legislation after the 2014 Isla Vista shooting while in the State Assembly.
Some saw his rapid ascent to Sacramento as a sign that Mr. Williams was out for himself, but Mr. Williams said now that he’s become a father to two daughters, ages four and one and a half, and seen the level of need that came out of the Thomas Fire, his priorities have changed.
“What’s really important to me is my role now as father,” said Mr. Williams. “Both of those things have really tempered my ambition. I still want to do the most I can for people, but I ran for reelection because I heard from so many people that I could help them by staying put, and then I turned around and looked at my daughters and thought, ‘Maybe staying put doesn’t sound so bad.’”