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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Assembly Race Update: Smackdown at the University Club

For 75 minutes last week, six contenders in the wide-open 37th Assembly District race staged a substantive debate in Santa Barbara that highlighted key differences between and among them on housing, climate, taxes and other policy issues.

Then a hockey game broke out.

The Tale of Two Debates unfolded on Wednesday night at the University Club, where activists from several neighborhood groups had hustled to stage a forum on short notice, the only such event where voters in Santa Barbara could see and hear the candidates to replace Assembly member Monique Limon, who’s running for state Senate.

On hand were Jonathan Abboud, Steve Bennett, Stephen Blum, Charles Cole, Jason Dominguez and Elsa Granados, with Mayor Cathy Murillo the only candidate who begged off, because, she said, of a prior commitment.

Early in the evening, before an audience of about 75 people (only a few of whom repeatedly ferried between the debate and the club’s open bar), the rivals provided an informative glimpse at the broad range of ideas, qualifications and criteria of choice available to voters:

From Abboud’s “Green New Deal” enthusiasm for big government to Cole’s conservative anti-statist views; from Bennett’s deep experience in Ventura County land use politics to Jason’s chockablock resume and one-term record as an SB council member; from Blum’s good humor, common sense and modesty, forged over decades of teaching, to Elsa’s compassionate insight of how government policy affects the real lives of real people, evinced by her career helping rape and domestic violence survivors, there was a wide range of choices presented to voters.

You can watch a video recording of the debate’s First Half here.

A good time not had by all. After a short break in the proceedings, the event's Second Half played out, not only as irresistible political theater, but also as compelling evidence of why no campaign debate should ever run longer than 90 minutes.

Bennett, perhaps sensing trouble afoot, already had vamoosed back to Ventura, and the previous moderator (we name no names) had settled into the audience, by the time emcee Natasha Todorovic announced that some “surprises” would make the next segment less “boring”

Or, to put it another way, more like a game show.

Among the surprises: numbered cards had been surreptitiously placed beneath the folding chairs of some audience members; when Natasha called the number written on the card under someone’s seat, that person won the prize that was written on it: A coffee date with one of the Assembly wannabes! The chance to pose a question to an individual candidate! A moment in the spotlight to ask something of all of them at once!

Then came one big, unplanned surprise.

Denice vs. Antoinette. When Natasha called “Number 17,” local conservative icon Denice Spangler Adams stood and used her winning moment to aim a barrage of political tribal invective at Abboud, a Santa Barbara City College trustee with whom Denice has been mightily displeased since last year’s high-profile clashes over the Pledge of Allegiance, race, culture, immigration and the meaning of patriotism, among other things, at SBCC.

Under provocative attack in the free fire zone, Abboud to his credit responded coolly and succinctly.

Then the trouble began.

Antoinette Abboud, Jonathan’s mom, biggest fan and chief campaign aide, took offense to Denice’s tough commentary. Suddenly rising from her front row seat, she marched to the back of the room and, literally, got in the face of her son’s inquisitor.

After an angry, but unclear, exchange of words, Antoinette returned to her seat, only to pop up a moment later and begin shouting back at her antagonist.

Ms. Abboud heatedly and repeatedly accused Ms. Spengler Adams of calling Jonathan “an Arab” and denounced her as “racist,” before giving way to sobs and tears as she fled the room. Touchingly, Jonathan left the dais to attend to his mother, before both returned about five minutes later.

Days later, accusations and countercharges about the incident are still flying on social media and via emails, in one of which Denice insists she said nothing improper.

Those seeking more clarity are directed to the exclusive independent eyewitness account of the incident, published by The Channels, SBCC’s student journalism news site, with a double byline by on-the-spot reporters Jun Starkey and Ryan P. Cruz. You can find their story here.

The video recording of the “surprise” Second Half of the Great Debate is here.

This week’s power rankings. Herewith, Newsmakers’ thoroughly unscientific, data-free and subjective standings in the Assembly race:

1-Steve Bennett. The most robust fundraising operation and a raft of major endorsements help to counter a deluge of dirty direct mail attacks from the California Association of Realtors, who hate Bennett’s enviro record on development projects, and anyone who listens to all seven candidates side-to-side for long would be hard-pressed to say he’s not the most qualified of the bunch.

2-Charles Cole. At 22, the rookie candidate has the fewest policy chops and the least life experience and education among the field, but in a top-two primary with six Dems, he stands to benefit from his singular status as the sole Republican -- if the 23 percent of the district electorate that's registered as GOP delivers a bloc vote.

3-Cathy Murillo. Don’t bet against the strong support and big bucks Mayor Cathy enjoys from organized labor, even though she’s also getting bashed by the state realtors PAC and, because of the splintered field, being forced to run for the first time in her career without the Democratic Party’s endorsement.

4-Elsa Granados. Although a first time candidate, she’s shown steady improvement in on-the-stump campaign skills and has surprised with some big endorsements (hello Joyce Dudley!), while her bilingual appeal and inspiring career dealing with some of the toughest social issues that government seeks to address endow her with compassionate authenticity.

5-Jonathan Abboud. A skilled community organizer with a blue-collar work ethic, he’s got grassroots support and energy from a raft of young Dem activists, and has done a good job of differentiating himself by staking out left-wing Berniecrat positions on climate, health care and housing.

6-Jason Dominguez. Running as a business-friendly moderate, he got a boost from the big endorsement of the realtors association, whose independent expenditure operation keeps trashing Steve and Cathy on his behalf, but it’s tough to feel bullish about the chances of a guy who couldn’t win re-election in his tiny city council district.

7-Stephen Blum. Decades of teaching, coaching athletes and working on behalf of his union brothers and sisters, coupled with fundamental decency, humanity and humor, make him far and away the one guy in the field with whom you’d actually want to have coffee or a beer.

Don’t forget to vote.

Images: Jarred Tinordi and Cody McLeod fight during a Montreal Canadiens-Colorado Avalanche NHL game in 2014 (; Great Debate Part 1; SBCC Channels story on the Assembly debate; Great Debate Part 2.

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