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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

6 Key Questions in Westside Council Election

In all modesty (and we have plenty to be modest about), anyone still mulling their vote in Tuesday's District 3 city council special election should drop everything and check out our one-hour special roundtable discussion with the contestants.

Okay, it's really only 50 minutes and four seconds long, but amid a raft of here-today-gone-tomorrow candidate forums convened on the Westside over the past several months, Newsmakers TV offers the most immutable, up-close-and-personal look at the four wannabes.

The race to win the Westside is the purest showcase to date of two crucial features of the district elections model, now only three years old.

Waged in the largest minority majority jurisdiction of six districts in Santa Barbara, the campaign contest illustrates the fundamental goal of ending citywide elections - encouraging representation for the historically under-represented. More: it also has drawn a field of authentic grassroots candidates who have not held elective office, or engaged in politics beyond the neighborhood level. And, oh yeah, whoever wins will be positioned as the swing member on a council with its share of tie votes.

Here are six key questions to be answered on election day:

1-How many votes will it take to win?

Winning candidates in old-school, citywide elections often captured nearly 10,000 votes; in this race, not so much.

In fact, it is a virtual certainty that the victor will triumph with fewer than 1,000 votes.

As of Sunday, a grand honking total of 696 voters had returned vote-by mail ballots, according to Political Data Inc., the electoral research firm widely employed by California political professionals, a strong indication that turnout will be very low in a district with 4,822 folks registered.

Of those returned, Newsmakers is somewhat surprised to find, a majority – about 53 percent – appear to have been cast by white voters, according to PDI's analysis of surnames; about 38 percent are from Latino voters.

City demographic records, used in drawing the districts in 2015, show that among a total population of 14,324, 69 percent of district residents (all ages) are Hispanic, 26 percent white, 3 percent Asian-American and 1 percent African-American.

Voter registration records show that 52% of voters are white and 40 percent Hispanic; this means that, so far at least, Hispanics are voting at a rate lower than their registration numbers, and considerably below their portion of the population.

Less surprising: a) nearly two-thirds of the ballots have been cast by Democrats and just 11 percent by Republicans, while 22 percent come from Decline to State independents and a few from third parties; b) a plurality is from voters aged about 60-70, with a somewhat higher portion of millennials than expected.

After cooking all the numbers, Newsmakers’s Las Vegas Bureau Chief, Vinny “The Vig” Vermicelli, set the over-under betting line at 599 votes .

“Yo, dipstick!” he emailed us. “Wacha wanna book - da over (600 or more for the winner) or da under (598 or less)?”

P.S. Send us an email with your prediction of how many votes the winner gets – anyone who hits the number on the nose wins a brand new “TV Santa Barbara” swag baseball cap. Plenty of free parking.

2-Head or Heart? The basic campaign messages of the four candidates roughly can be split into pairs:

Oscar Gutierrez (“From the Westside, for the Westside” and Ken Rivas (“Lived in this community, Eastside and Westside, for 57 years”) both make appeals to voters based on values and trust, arguing that they have an innate connection to the people who live next door, and with whom they grew up and went to school, and possess a second nature understanding of their needs and aspirations.

By contrast, Michael Vidal (a financial consultant who throws around words like "due diligence" and “process mapping”) and Elizabeth Hunter (a Westside SBCC student of environmental science who's positioned herself as most knowledgeable about issues like our future energy and resource needs) stress core competencies, and promise effectiveness in capturing a fair share of the City Hall pie.

Neighborhood guy or technocrat? You be the judge.

3-Do voters fear Oscar would be Cathy’s puppet? Throughout the campaign, Gutierrez has been hounded by attacks – not to mention the perception – that he would be a wholly owned subsidiary of Mayor Cathy Murillo.

Murillo all but took Oscar by the hand to seek and win the local Democratic Party endorsement (along with nods from several other traditionally liberal organizations); she gave Oscar’s campaign $5,000, the single largest contribution to his $22,400 treasury (along with another $2K from Cathy ally Gregg Hart and $8,000 from various Democratic-allied unions); she’s posed with Oscar for social media posts and walked precincts for him.

Oscar dismisses the accusation: sometimes calmly – “So Cathy is a supporter of mine and I’m grateful for that,” he said on our TV show. “And she’s somebody I looked up to and look up to now and, you know, all I can say to her and to everybody is, my obligation and my loyalty is to the citizens of the city and doing what’s best for them"; and sometimes, as the campaign has gone on, with a flash of uncharacteristic anger: “Don’t judge me for something that hasn’t even happened,” he snapped at the Indy's forum a few weeks ago.*

4-Do voters care that Michael's been MIA at election time? If Oscar’s biggest vulnerability is his insider connections, Michael Vidal’s is that he’s struck out at performing the most fundamental duty of citizenship - voting. On the campaign trail, Michael claims he’s lived and been active in the city since he graduated from UCSB in the late 1990’s.

County election records, however, show he has “no history of voting” and did not even register until last fall, after Cathy was elected mayor and it was clear there either would be an election, or a council appointment, to fill her vacated District 3 seat.

We asked Vidal what he would tell voters who wonder why he has not made the effort to vote. Take your pick of the answers he gave us:

a) "I’m not sure why that is,” he said about the county document showing he’s not voted. “I didn’t vote in the last mayor’s election, you’re correct, but I did vote when I was in Isla Vista" (uh, no record of that).

b) “I registered in Fresno because I was traveling a lot,” he said a moment later. Do you remember when that was, we asked. “I don’t,” he said. Newsmakers could neither confirm nor rule out he’d registered in his hometown, but he’s not offered evidence of it.

c) "I think there’s been an opportunity for me to be engaged with local voting, and I’ve admitted it. And I think the things I have done are even more important as far as civic duties, as far as being more involved in the community, as far as being involved in boards, as far as giving back from a mentorship standpoint.”

Another key contrast with Oscar (who has a solid voting record): while Gutierrez has big union support, Michael, $12,700, has received major bucks from commercial property interests, including the California Real Estate Political Action Committee; the California Apartment Association PAC; the SB Rental Property Association PAC ($2K apiece) and enjoys the Chamber of Commerce endorsement.

5-Will voters worry that Elizabeth could have a paper due when the budget's up for adoption? During the early part of the campaign, reporters had a hard time contacting Elizabeth Hunter, the youngest and the only woman candidate in the race. Her parents, who direct her low-cost campaign, at various times told various ink-and-pixel slingers that she was unavailable because a) she needed to study; b) was away on spring break; c) was resting.

We posed the question to Hunter: Given that she is a fulltime student and being on council is a pretty big job, -- involving not only weekly meetings and committee assignments but also constituent service and evening events - how many hours a week is she able to commit to it?

This colloquy followed:

A: Well, if I balance it, I feel it is pretty much, almost a fulltime job -- close to 35 or 40 hours a week

Q: And you'll be able to do with that your full time studies?

A: Uh huh.

Q: And when will you sleep?

A: Well, I don’t have much of a social life.

Bada boom. Best line of the campaign.

6-Will voters wonder why Ken got bupkis from local pols? At 57, Rivas has been around, and involved in grassroots community affairs, far longer than any of his rivals. In campaign appearances, he stresses his grassroots experience on both sides of town, most notably the Neighborhood Advisory Council, and his work in the trenches for elected officials, from City Hall to Sacramento to Washington.

Yet he’s won not a single name endorsement – why not?

A: It’s a little troubling. It’s a good question, because it’s a little troubling that they wouldn’t have reached out to me and talked to me about this.

Because I’ve worked on many of their campaigns. I’m a lifelong Democrat. I’m going to be 58 this year, and have been voting since I was 18 on the Democratic ticket...I can’t really pinpoint it.

Bottom line: Don’t forget to vote.

*Just for laughs: Here’s a singular bit of political performance art, in which Anna Marie Gott, City Hall’s most impassioned gadfly, makes the “puppet” allegation about Oscar, shortly after the “Puppet Palooza” festival; although Gott's head did not quite explode, we're most impressed with the poker face Oscar maintained, sitting behind her during the rant.

Images:; Map of SB city council districts; Oscar Gutierrez; Michael Vidal; Elizabeth Hunter; Ken Rivas; Anna Marie Gott testifies during Public Comment period at council meeting 3-20-18.

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