The buzz abides. Four years ago, Cathy Murillo won key endorsements from the Santa Barbara Democratic Women's club and the Women's Political Committee when she ran mayor for the first time.
This year, seeking re-election, she struck out with both.
"This is a big surprise, especially the WPC," said one veteran political junkie involved with both groups. "Everybody assumed Cathy would get that endorsement and losing it signals weakness."
Among local political insiders, gossip mongers and other hacks, Topic A this week was talk of the winners and losers who emerged from the endorsement processes of the pair of politically influential groups. The big surprises::
"Dem Women," a group that operates independently of the SB County Democratic Party, endorsed Planning Commissioner Deborah Schwartz for mayor, a nice boost for her long shot campaign just as voters are beginning to tune into the Nov. 2 election, along with Nina Johnson for city council in District 6, an unexpected jolt of energy for the late-entry longtime City Hall executive, who faces an uphill struggle against appointed incumbent Meagan Harmon.
The WPC voted "no endorsement" in the mayor's race, as both Schwartz and Murillo fell short of the needed two-thirds vote of the group's board; as a practical matter, it represents a win for Deborah and four other mayoral challengers, as the mayor underperformed with an organization that was previously part of her base. In council races, the WPC picked Harmon over Johnson but aligned with Dem Women in backing incumbents Kristen Sneddon in District 4 and Eric Friedman in District 5.
Newsmakers was delighted to learn that, unlike the county Democratic Party, neither group appeared to hold Friedman's endorsement of his mother in a City College trustee election against him. Of course, he's running unopposed.
Seventy days before Election Day, here are five takeaways on the story:
Cathy still the favorite, but... At the start of the year, the contest for mayor looked like Cathy's race to lose; evidence is growing that she's capable of doing just that.
Murillo's failure to win the seal of approval from two liberal women's groups which backed her in 2017 is a second recent data point showing that a coronation has been transformed into a political dog fight, as chief rivals Schwartz, Randy Rowse and James Joyce campaign to emerge as the ABC (Anybody But Cathy) candidate; earlier new campaign filings showed that while she get a $50,000 head start raising money last year, when no one else was yet running, she significantly trails both Rowse and Schwartz in calendar year 2021 fundraising.
We hear that one factor that cost her endorsement support was lingering annoyance, bewilderment and exasperation with her over some weirdly sexist comments she made about council member Alejandra Gutierrez in a Newsmakers interview not long ago, as well as her much-publicized mini-meltdown in a public confrontation with leaders of a Black Lives Matter protest last year.
Deborah almost pulled off a double play. Because she has a history and personal connections with Dem Women, Schwartz's endorsement was not altogether a surprise, but it was startling to learn that she came very close to capturing the WPC's support as well.
Multiple sources say she was the recommended choice of the group's pre-endorsement Candidate Assessment Team, but lost in the back room during the board's confidential deliberations.
One reason: she refused to sign on to the WPC's letter bashing developer Ed St. George, who supports her for mayor, during the recent flap over his sexist remarks about Harmon (more on this below).
Nina's shocker. Fiercely independent of the local Democratic Party apparatus, the Dem Women club does not follow the party's practice of endorsing candidates early, in a bid to clear the field, but rather waits until the full slate of candidates is known at close of filing.
The group prides itself on backing late-filing candidates who beat party-endorsed candidates (think Sneddon, SB school board members Kate Ford and Virginia Alvarez and Goleta school board member Vicki Ben-Yaacov) and hopes to pull it off this time with Johnson, who filed at the last minute.
By several accounts, Johnson, who's worked for years in behind-the-scenes executive roles at City Hall, dazzled the group in her presentation. "She had obviously spent a lot of time preparing and spoke really well on every issue that came up," said one insider; as a political matter, some club leaders feel that Harmon has completely tanked and become a pliable apparatchik for the party since winning appointment.
One more shoe to drop. Cathy may yet pull out a big endorsement that sends a strong signal to women voters, as oddsmakers (we name no names) have installed her as the favorite to capture the support of Planned Parenthood California Central Coast's Action Fund when that group announces its choices for the local election.
Among other factors, Luz Reyes-Martin, a close ally of Murillo, is Planned Parenthood's Vice President for Community Engagement and plays a key role in the process; she declined to comment except to say, "the Board of Directors makes endorsement decisions."
(Update 8-25-21: To the surprise of no one, Mayor Cathy's campaign announced this morning that she has received the PP endorsement, quoting her thusly: "More conservative opponents in this race would aim to limit planned parenthood operations locally, which would be detrimental").
Who cares about endorsements? Whether group or individual endorsements actually matter in campaigns is an endless argument among operatives, reporters and political science types.
In Santa Barbara,, the two endorsements that matter more than others, because they move voters, are the Democratic Party -- which provides concrete resources, like precinct walkers and phone bankers -- and the Independent, many of whose loyal liberal readers follow their well-researched editorial line, especially in low-information elections.
The WPC, Dem Women and Planned Parenthood are in the next tier, in this political railbird's estimation, serving as important signifiers for their members and email list allies, while offering varying levels of financial and volunteer help to candidates. The Sierra Club probably also is in this tier, with individual politician endorsements, the Republican Party and neighborhood associations in a distant third,
The St. George connection. The candidate was on the line and had some thoughts to share: "Nobody gets a free pass from Deborah Schwartz," thundered the planning commissioner and mayoral hopeful. "I am beholden to no special interest or individual and no one owns me -- I'm a stand-up, independent policy maker."
All righty then.
Schwartz's clearly audible remarks came in response to questions about her connections to St. George, the loose cannon developer who, as mentioned above, was recently savaged by the WPC for head-slapping comments he made about Harmon in a podcast interview with Josh Molina.
Although St. George has loudly campaigned on Deborah's behalf, including his solicitation of campaign donations for her from his own email list, the controversy over his Harmon soliloquy has made him something of an albatross around her neck, feeding a narrative favored by her rivals, for which he is held up as Exhibit A. that she is the candidate of developers.
In an interview on the topic, Schwartz told Newsmakers that a) she has voted on the Planning Commission against two of St. George's projects; b) she was unaware when she accepted a $3,500 contribution from a real estate outfit called 6597 Trigo Road Investors LLC that St, George was involved with it; c) that she returned the contribution when she learned that he was, and will report doing so on her next campaign filing.
"I did not know that Ed was financially involved" with the company, she told Newsmakers.
Schwartz also told us that the reason she did not sign the WPC letter thumping St, George's Harmon remarks was because no one in the organization did anything to criticize or censure Murillo, when she aimed similar-toned commentary at Alejandra.
"Whatever I think about Ed St, George, we should hold all people to the same standard," she said. "I'm for fairness and consistency in expressing our values."
There were no injuries.
Recall update. Much hot take debate and discussion swirling over the effort by Gov. Gavin Newsom's campaign to get Democrats simply to mark "No" on Question 1 of their recall ballots and then ignore Question 2, which is a list of 46 candidates who want to replace him. Question 2 only comes into play if the vote on Question 1 is to remove Prince Gavin from office.
We tend to agree on this matter with veteran San Francisco-based political reporter Doug Sovern, who argued on his blog (h/t Politico) that leaving Question 2 blank is effectively disenfranchising yourself, offering this take on the subject:
“It’s a smart tactical approach for Newsom: reject the recall and don’t legitimize it by participating any further. It serves his interests well — but if you’re a California voter, it doesn’t serve yours.
“There is a real chance that Newsom will lose this election and be recalled. That remains unlikely, but it could happen. And if it does, perhaps as much as half the electorate will have abdicated its responsibility to help choose his successor, leaving that decision entirely in the hands of the people who want Newsom drummed out of office.”
For what it's worth, Your Correspondent, registered No Party Preference, returned his ballot this week having followed the advice of the L.A. Times editorial board, which recommended "No" on recall while casting a hold-your-nose vote for former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
Described in the editorial as "the least terrible of all these bad options," Faulconer is an apparently sane Republican who easily is the most qualified, by dint of experience, among the collection of several dozen wing nuts, knuckle draggers and celebrity scapegraces who surround him on the ballot.
Now you know.
Images: Deborah Schwartz (courtesy photo); Ed St. George (SB Independent); Kevin Faulconer (Twitter).