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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Winners & Losers: Why Not a Run-Off in '21?

No knock on Mayor-elect Cathy, and mega-kudos to her for the win, but let’s be blunt: Murillo is now the one and only Santa Barbara official elected citywide – and on Tuesday more than seven in 10 voters wanted someone besides her for the job.

Winner-take-all has long been the local rule, of course, but the 2017 election marks the first time a mayor has been chosen to lead a city council elected entirely by districts, with her colleagues each capturing a seat with a couple thousand votes, if that, from amid a mere collection of neighborhoods.

Perhaps Happy Cathy may prove to possess the proper combination of political and personal skills to seek and forge consensus on crucial citywide issues at City Hall (with a batch of like-minded liberals joining her to form perhaps the most portsided council this side of Bezerkely, she starts off well-positioned to do so).

But this new political calculus may also prove a formula for factionalism, feuding and horse-trading over small-bore neighborhood matters. If the urgent begins to substitute for the essential, we could witness a loss of long-range thinking, peering towards the next quarter or half-century, about what is best for the city as a whole, to be replaced by conflicts over what’s best for my district during the next four-year term.

Instituting a run-off system, to match the top two finishers in a second election a month after a mayoral primary, would require a modest amount of new spending, but the benefits would be worth the cost: importantly, the two finalists would be forced to test their ideas in actual, head-to-head debates – beyond the current community “forums” that, while civil, respectful and earnest, rarely allow rivals (in fact, often expressly prohibit them) from directly challenging, questioning or disputing half-baked thoughts, platitudes and pabulum that too often pass for discourse. Even better, the winner would emerge with the support of a majority of the community.

Food for thought.

Six more winners-and-losers takeaways for the Great Mayor's Race of 2017:

Most Valuable Consultant. Murillo’s strength as a politician is her vivacity, embodied by the zest with which she walks precincts and meets people, but her victory rested on the astute and able management of that enthusiasm by the street smart, veteran campaign operative Mollie Culver.

Field Marshall Mollie ran the Democrats’ unified campaign and, in the process, brought two of the party’s three other endorsed candidates home. With a fanatical belief in the crucial value of field organization, she draws on experience and talent to design a custom campaign universe of voters for her candidate, assembling and wielding small, diverse armies of volunteers to identify, contact, re-re-and-re-contact key voters and, finally, ensure and confirm the ballots get mailed, the entire operation fueled by endless supplies of donuts and pizza. On Monday, Mollie not only told me Cathy would win, she also told me with what percentage of the vote; as of now, she’s right on the money.

Rookie of the Year. It was a big night for Culver and the Democrats with one notable exception: the brutal showing of party-endorsed council candidate Jim Scafide in District 4; at post time, he’d collected barely 700 votes (12.7 percent) in a three-way race.

There are doubtless many reasons for Scafide’s wipeout, but the plainest, and most important, is that he got stomped by Kristen Sneddon, a very high-quality candidate and sister Democrat who must have missed the memo from party apparatchiks instructing her to stand aside for their Anointed One. As a local politician, Sneddon is the real deal: authentic and engaging, she brought energy, intelligence and caring to the campaign, expressed in the ordinary language and compassionate perspective of a mother, educator and native daughter of the town.

No Country for Old Men.

At 70 and 71, Bendy White and Hal Conklin were the mayor’s race Boys of Summer, two throwbacks to the dawn of the environmental movement, whose decades of serious and sustained city and community service have been honorable and invaluable, but whose sell-by dates voters now have determined are past.

In his speeches, Bendy’s reason for running always hung too much on process – he was the “man in the middle,” the “steady hand,” the “go-to guy” on any number of complex issues – while Hal kept trying to summon up a bygone era of feverish civic activism, planning meetings and strategy sessions that too often just sounded exhausting in an age of multi-tasking and smart phones. Each of them is a bona fide community hero, though, and Santa Barbara is blessed by their collective knowledge and wisdom.

The Expensive Free Agent. Angel Martinez was the bright shiny object during the first month of the campaign, with his Funk Zone political soirees, his riffs on rebuilding State Street as a millennial playground and his hip forswearing of precinct work in favor of social media advertising.

In the end, however, his strategy flopped: awaiting final vote counts and campaign finance reports, he’s as of now spent about 80 bucks-per-vote (about 60 percent more than Murillo); millennials turned out not to be the ideal target audience in an off-year mail-in election dominated by geezer voters, and the former CEO proved too shy, low-key and thin-skinned to build a second career in a business where none of those characteristics rank high in the job description.

Mr. Cranky Pants. In one of the first pieces on this site, Newsmakers asked the question, “Can a Republican be elected SB's mayor?” and now we have the answer: No.

Frank Hotchkiss made a good run and, for a couple of high-flying weeks, had the Democrats in a sweat over the possibility that his free-market, anti-immigration, fie-on-green energy politics would prevail and become a Trump Lite mark of shame upon the burg.

In the end, the laws of arithmetic caught up – fewer than one-in-five Santa Barbara voters registers Republican– and Cathy simply blew by him as undecided Democrats broke for her.

A pitiful postscript: Frank spoiled what was a nice performance with a sore loserhead act on Election Night, breaking up his nascent party at Ca’ Dario when first returns showed him substantially behind where he needed to be, then stiffing young TV reporter Vicki Nguyen and even his own supporters, whom he notified of his concession via email late in the evening. Bad look.

Politics ain’t beanbag. Cathy put on a holier-than-thou act during a victory party interview on KEYT when Tracy Lehr asked her about the sleazy 15-second TV hit that attacked her in the final days: “I ran a positive campaign,” she proclaimed, “and I got positive results.” Yeah, well.

The adjoining images show two pieces of pro-Cathy literature that were distributed and circulating around Milpas Street on Election Day, both assailing Hotchkiss. We’re sure she’s shocked – Shocked! – there’s gambling in Casablanca.

Of course, it’s not hard to understand how someone might be moved to respond, given the unbelievably misleading mailer about immigration Frank’s camp sent out over the final weekend to try to push undecided Democrats away from Cathy towards Bendy or Hal.

A few glaring exceptions in what was otherwise a very clean campaign. Now everyone please go take away your yard signs.


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