During last week's mayor's race forum, Cathy Murillo ended a blithe answer to a question about all the recent City Hall turmoil and turnover by serendipitously uttering three words that may define the entire election.
"Change is good," said the incumbent mayor.
It was an unexpected turn of phrase for Murillo, given that she'd spent much of the previous hour sunnily defending the status quo -- "We are better off overall" than when she took office, the mayor asserted --, while her three chief rivals each sought to make a case that "change" is exactly what Santa Barbara needs at this pivotal moment.
"The city is in a weakened state," stated challenger Deborah Schwartz, as Randy Rowse declared that, "the confidence of the people in the council and the mayor has to be restored," while James Joyce III promised "a change in tone and approach...from Day One" if he's elected.
Change vs. More of the Same is a theme that shapes many elections, and Murillo throughout the event doubled down on the latter. Citing her "experience and accomplishments," she maintained that Santa Barbara is "a tightly run city," as she assured voters that, "we all work hard, we're all professionals and we've been doing it" on issue after issue, concluding that her leadership has made for "a stronger, more resilient and equitable Santa Barbara."
Now seeking a new five-year term, Murillo triumphed four years ago with 27 percent of the vote, good enough for the winning top spot in a five-person field. Her theory of the 2021 campaign is similar -- that there are enough voters in her political base of left-wing Democrats, renters and public employee unions who've found her performance acceptable, if not ideal, to push her to another first-place finish, this time in a six-way splintered field.
Sixty-three days before Election Day, Murillo, Joyce, Rowse and Schwartz, along with publisher Mark Whitehurst and small businessman Matt Kilrain, are slated to meet in at least eight - 8, count em, 8 - more forums before Nov. 2. At a time when the city faces big choices about the future, faced with current crises in the economy, as well as on homelessness, housing, governance, equity and public health, the central question of the debates will be whether the current leadership is sufficient to the task -- or if change is needed.
Here is a look at the winners and losers from Round One.
Cathy Murillo. Mayor Cathy is running her fifth race in 10 years (two for mayor, two for council and one for Assembly), during which she has appeared in scores, if not hundreds, of this type of candidate forum, and as a theatre arts graduate of UCSB, she does just fine in structured venues like last week's, when she consistently offered well-timed and well-practiced one-minute answers to spin her record to best advantage. The front-runner going into the event, she made no mistakes, employing a rope-a-dope strategy that ignored the gentle taps and jabs of her rivals, none of whom made a noteworthy break through, all of which made Her Honor a winner because the political dynamic and shape of the race remained unaltered.
James Joyce. Joyce delivered a strong and sharp performance that simultaneously displayed his policy chops on homelessness and housing, honed as a longtime district director for ex-state senator Hannah Beth Jackson, and an appealing and engaging speaking style that left little doubt why firms enlist his "Coffee with a Black Guy" consultancy for help with difficult HR issues. Direct, clear and energetic, he earned points for explaining the rationale for his candidacy by drawing a connection between his professional skill set, as a facilitator and teller of hard truths about equity, and the strategy he would employ to tackle other thorny and intractable problems faced by the city.
Deborah Schwartz. With more urgency than any of the others, Schwartz sounded the argument that the city faces truly consequential crises, and with more forthrightness and frequency she criticized Murillo -- referencing her as "the mayor," rather than by name -- for a paucity of leadership that is unequal to the task of addressing them. Also indirectly elbowing Rowse in the pro-business lane, she portrayed herself as the best candidate on the economy, identifying the mistrust and "great tensions" between City Hall and the business community as a primary reason for her candidacy: "I am an advocate for employers (and) businesses," she said in her closing statement. "It's time for a change."
Randy Rowse. The former city council member and longtime downtown restaurateur did a solid job of market differentiation by providing a clear contrast with the incumbent, repeatedly assailing the political "partisanship and out-of-town unions," which he said now dominate City Hall, while promising to lead the council in being "focused on local issues and local issues only." Formerly a strong opponent of closing State Street to traffic, he also did a nice job of finessing the issue, as he both acknowledged the council's success in establishing the promenade as an emergency move during the pandemic, and bowed to traditional design criteria of the Pueblo Viejo district, insisting that the parklet environment "needs to be clean."
Zoom backgrounds. There's a popular Twitter account called "Room Rater," which is devoted exclusively to offering aesthetic commentary and numeric grades, from 1-10, to the images of home people display behind them during digitally distanced TV appearances. From where we sat, Whitehurst won the night in this category, scoring a 9 for the bamboo curtains in his Tiki bar inspired home office, while Schwartz got an 8 for a mindful and balanced composition that framed her between fresh cut flowers and a street scene painting, and Joyce captured a 7 for the elegant simplicity of the big campaign banner behind him and the Proclamation from the Legislature on the adjoining wall. Bonus for the plant in the corner.
Matt Kilrain. Santa Barbara long had a tradition of citywide elections that featured one or two offbeat, colorful characters who provided some comic relief to deadly earnest presentations of other candidates, and "Boat Rat Matt" is seeking to fill that niche in 2021. Truth be told, the stakes this time just seem too damned high: his "end the divide, raise the vibe, unite the 805" slogan stopped being funny about the 12th or 13th time he uttered it, and his act really wore thin by the time he lurched into a bizarre rant about abortion and getting into "head games with your spouse or your girlfriend -- I gotta teach her a lesson," not to mention the opining on his web site about JFK Jr. being alive and the "Great Awakening" of QAnon.
Mark Whitehurst. The genial publisher of the weekly "Voice" magazine in Santa Barbara got off to a shaky start when he was AWOL at the 1 pm start time for the event ("I thought it was at six o'clock," he explained when we finally tracked him down a few minutes after show time, thanks to a private cell number provided by the mayor) and things didn't improve a great deal from there. He never really explained the rationale for his candidacy and several of his comments about the state of the city -- "I think the city is stronger" than when Murillo took office, he said at one point -- make you wonder why he's running at all.
Fiesta. Asked if they believe "systemic racism" exists in city government, most of the candidates (Rowse was a notable exception) rushed to declare that there is: "There's systemic racism everywhere," proclaimed Murillo. But it was Joyce who offered the most thorough, concise response, a one-minute tutorial that began with slavery, extended historic racial power relationships to government, business, legal and banking systems today and concluded by noting that in Santa Barbara "we celebrate" the colonialization of Native lands. Viva La Fiesta, indeed.
Senate Bill 9. Embattled Gov. Gavin Newsom currently has other political fish to fry, but soon enough is expected to sign SB9, just-passed landmark housing legislation that would wipe away a vast amount of local control over single family zoning, by giving landowners new state-mandated rights to build up to four units on a single lot. Although liberals Cathy, Deborah and James expressed mild concern about the measure, it was the moderate Randy who gave voice to the views of slow-growthers (not to mention homeowners who would prefer Santa Barbara not be transformed into Pasadena) about water and other resources and the limited carrying capacity of the city, saying that as mayor he would "work with local coalitions to oppose" SB9's destruction of local control..
Zoom backgrounds. The second trio of candidates did not fare as well as the first in Newsmakers' Room Rater competition: Randy earned a 5 for putting up a virtual background of the waterfront, a lovely scene that was marred whenever he moved his head a certain way and it appeared to melt into the palm trees, while Cathy got a 4 for the bare walls of her classic hunkered-down-in-the-bedroom look and Matt got a 3 for a nondescript outdoor shot that left him often looking kinda blurry.
Upcoming council clashes. The Newsmakers-SB Talks-TVSB debate team swings back into action on Wednesday night, when we'll host the first candidate forum of the campaign for the city council contenders in District 6, including Meagan Harmon, Nina Johnson and Jason Carlton.
And next Wednesday, Sept. 8, we'll moderate the discussion for District 4 candidates, the first smackdown of the season between Councilmember Kristen Sneddon and challenger Barrett Reed.
Both programs will be available online on Newsmakers and "SB Talks," on the air on TVSB and at finer local news organizations everywhere.