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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Joe Howell Has Raised $50K to Run for County Board of Ed - and More Weirdness from Campaign Filings

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

“There are two things that are important in politics," the sly and scheming 19th Century Senator Mark Hanna famously said. "The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

As a general rule, Hanna's unfortunate-but-true precept may apply less to local campaigns than to national races, but it's a plain fact that no matter what office a candidate seeks, it's hard to play the game without table stakes.

As billions are raised and spent on presidential, U.S. Senate and congressional contests in 2020, wannabes seeking seats on education boards in four local jurisdictions also are chasing cash in Santa Barbara. Here's a look inside the latest campaign finance reports, filed and posted on the county election website in recent days.

Meet the champ. We admit we didn't see this one coming: the top local fundraiser to date is Joe Howell, SB attorney and hall of fame community hero, who has raised nearly $53,000 in seeking re-election to a seat on the...County Board of Education?

In the interest of full disclosure, we also acknowledge that we're not all that sure what the County Board of Education does exactly (that Indy essay by retired longtime county Superintendent Bill Cirone endorsing the four incumbents - "County School Board Members Make a Vital Impact" - frankly didn't shed many lumens), although we understand it provides smaller districts in the county with special, categorical educational programs they can't afford, along with business services, and also acts as an extra set of eyes on budget stuff.

Whatever it does, Joe sure seems determined to hang on to his seat, as his huge total not only skunks Area 6 opponent and businessman Lou Segal, who has reported no fundraising to date, but also represents 2 1/2 times as much money raised by all of the eight other candidates combined who are running within four geographic county board districts.

Howell, a familiar and esteemed figure in Santa Barbara's volunteer and eleemosynary communities, has been on the board since 1999. Perhaps best known in education circles for spearheading the Computers for Families initiative to address the digital divide in public schools, he was apparently too busy dialing for dollars to give us a call.

(Update: We finally caught up with Howell on Tuesday and he told us he was "stunned and flattered" by the outpouring of financial support for his campaign. He was appointed to the county board in 1999, he said, and this is the first time he has faced any opposition or had to run a campaign -- "You can't just say 'don't worry about it'," he told us - and so he did due diligence in taking proper steps -- filing with the FPPC, setting up a website and contracting with a vendor to process online contributions and file reports. He sent "one email blast" asking for support to his contact list (which after all these years we imagine is robust), and was surprised by the response, Joe said).

Here's a link to Noozhawk's print Q&As with all the candidates for county board.

Deconstructing Impact Ed. For the second time in a year, a semi-mysterious independent expenditure committee has stirred controversy in local politics; we've previously reported on the business-backed group of donors organized as "Impact Education," which is backing nine candidates in four different jurisdictions, who generally oppose the liberal-progressive direction of recent education policies.

The nine candidates who have received help from Impact Ed, which aligns philosophically with the non-profit Fair Education of Santa Barbara group: Segal, Cage Englander, Bruce Porter in county board of education districts; Celeste Barber, Victoria Gallardo, Ron Liechti for Community College Board; Greg Hammel in the Goleta Union school board contest; Brian Campbell and Elrawd Maclearn for Santa Barbara Unified's district board.

According to the committee's filings, Impact Education raised $51,607 through Oct. 17, spent $45,198 and has $6,408 cash on hand. Among its major contributors are downtown developer Jim Knell ($10,000); real estate investor Morris Jurkowitz ($5,000); tech CEO Michael Barnick ($5,000); investment manager Michael Mayfield ($2,500); investor Robert Reingold ($2,500); real estate investor Richard Berti ($2,500); economic research consultant Robert Niehaus ($1,500), plus 15 others who gave $1,000 apiece and James Fenkner, chief theorist for Fair Education, who kicked in $510.

What did their candidates, who are legally not permitted to communicate or coordinate with the committee, get for the money? Well, not much, truth be told: about $7K of the total went to take a poll of the district, and most of the rest of the dough was divided up in portions, with each candidate appearing on a joint mailer, getting text messages sent on their behalf and getting some canvassing help in distributing literature. We asked Brian what he knew about the group, specifically about the text message campaign on his behalf, and he emailed: "I am unaware of this.  It is not collaborative and done without my knowledge. I’m sure that’s not what you want to hear but it’s the truth." Elrawd, normally the most forthcoming of candidates, was uncharacteristically silent on the matter.

Capps still leads, but Alvarez is gaining. SB school board President Laura Capps maintains her considerable fundraising edge among the seven-candidate scramble for three seats, having raised a total of $48,653, spent $43,463 (heavily on mail, plus house signs) with $5,190 cash on hand.

In second place in the fundraising sweepstakes is fellow incumbent Jackie Reid ($29,004 raised, $7,912 spent, $21,091 COH) with challenger Virginia Alvarez slipping into third place with a strong fundraising period ($25,327 raised, $13,892 spent, $11,435 in the bank), ahead of incumbent Wendy Sims-Moten ($22,437 raised, $9,032 spent, $19,806 on hand).

Keep an eye on Max. In the Goleta Union race among six candidates for two seats, social worker Max Rorty, running with the key endorsement of the Democratic Party, is the surprising leader in fundraising, with $23,677 in contributions to date -- including $4,500 from a family member, $500 from the National Association of Social Workers and a host of smaller contributions of $200 or less.

Conservative challenger Caroline Abate has raised the second largest amount - another surprise - with $16,084, while incumbent Sholen Jahangir is next, with $15,890, followed by Vicki Ben-Yaacov with $7,050. New reports for Devany Bechler and Hammel had not been posted at our post time.

Who's working?

For political junkies, one of the interesting things about paging through campaign finance filings is to learn who's advising whom, among Santa Barbara's small but plucky cadre of professional political consultants.

In the current local campaigns:

  • Chris Collier, veteran local Republican specialist, did the mail, canvassing, text campaign and polling for Impact Education, and also has consulted with perennial candidate Bruce Porter, who's running for county board in Area 3.

  • Wade Cowper, who's worked for several insurgent Democrats who've bested party picks (Kristen Sneddon, Kate Ford), is managing Alvarez's campaign, and also has consulted for Ben-Yaacov in Goleta.

  • Mollie Culver, the Democratic Party's go-to consultant, is handling the SB school board races of Reid and Sims-Moten and of Rorty in Goleta.

  • Ben Romo, who operates an progressive, eponymous consulting firm, has worked with Howell and also coordinated a joint mail effort between Joe and Laura.

  • Mary Rose, a battle-scarred Democrat, is managing two SBCC contenders against Impact Education-backed candidates -- businesswoman Erin Guerena, who's challenging incumbent Gallardo in Area 3 and professor Anna Everett, who's running for the open Area 4 seat against Barber.

You could look it up.


Images: A bushel of money (Facebook); Joe Howell; James Fenkner (SB Independent); Virginia Alvarez; Max Rorty; Calculating (

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