Four Tuesdays to Go: Mayorals Face Big Dog Debate; MoJo Q&A Power Rankings; Why the Race Matters
Updated: Oct 7
Sample ballots for Santa Barbara's micro-local, mail-in Nov. 2 city election arrived in postal boxes this week, part of the city's $400,000 contract with county Registrar Joe Holland to administer the voting.
"People in Santa Barbara vote for fun," noted one wizened L.A. political consultant, who's run a few races here. If so, most voters in town will be disappointed by the nanoscopic scope of their ballots, comprising only one decision - 1, count 'em, 1-- picking among six candidates for mayor, our only citywide office in the district election era.
Happily, for denizens of the Riviera, San Roque and environs, they get the added bonus of deciding the increasingly fractious District 4 city council race between incumbent Kristen Sneddon and Challenger Barrett Reed, while those who live in Downtown's District 6 can indulge in picking among a field of four, as three council wannabes chase appointed member Meagan Harmon. Alas for those outer State Street types in District 5, the only option was to vote for unopposed incumbent Eric Friedman.
This just in: Newsmakers' Decision Desk '21 is now prepared to make a call in District 5...
The Big Dog event. Twenty-eight days before voting ends, this week's Big Event in the mayoral campaign will be the Santa Barbara Independent's, harrumph, harrumph, "candidate discussion," a live-by-Zoom affair scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday (Oct.6), register here.
Moderated by the indefatigable Nick Welsh, the forum presents the incumbent and would-be mayors with the task of being questioned by the Angry Poodle his own self, an uncertain, if not terrifying, test in facing off with a journalistic free spirit who combines a bushel-full of iconclastic political views, an encyclopedia's worth of Santa Barbara history and lore, and the stubborn mettle of Butch the street dog.
We rang up Welsh to get a sense of the kinds of things he'll be asking, but our timing was untoward, for he was in a foul mood, as he endured the agonies of having next week's cover story on the mayoral campaign, which he'd submitted at a word count only slightly higher than Anna Karenina, pared down enough by EIC Marianne Partridge to actually fit inside the newspaper.
According to our notes, here is what he said regarding the debate:
(Bleep) (bleeping) (bleeping-blip)...grumble, grumble, groan...they (bleeping) better (bleeping) talk about (bleeping) results and not (bleeping) process, (bleeping) (bleepers)...groan, groan, (Bleep)!
Forewarned is forearmed, candidates.
In their own words. The editors of the Montecito Journal, following fast on their two-hour-plus candidates mayoral Zoom forum last week, churned out a special 16-page election section that's in the racks now, featuring Q&A interviews with every candidate on the ballot.
Not usually a fan of this stock newspaper election feature, but burdened with masochistic personality disorder ("...self sacrifice, wallowing in misery") Newsmakers' genial host read every word and actually found the MoJo's execution pretty good, as the text offered some new lines and a few fresh insights on the race as the field enters the stretch run of the campaign.
Power Rankings of the candidates' performance in the Montecito Journal Q&A:
1-Deborah Schwartz. For the first time, the Planning Commission president rolled out an attack line seeking to neutralize the plain political fact that she's squeezed in the middle, between frontrunners Mayor Cathy Murillo on the left and former council member Randy Rowse on the right. Portraying those two essentially as Tweedledee and Tweedledum, she wrote that, "Mr. Rowse and Ms. Murillo served together as elected officials for years," adding that "their lack of effective administrative oversight and inaction... put our city in today’s painful crossroads." More like this, please.
2-James Joyce III. Like Deborah, James saved some of his strongest and most straightforward lines of the campaign for the Montecito print interview, which no doubt will be read by, um, tens of people, at least several of whom can vote in the election. "Our current mayor lacks the leadership skills, experience, and vision to direct our city," he said, before pivoting to his call for a clean-up-City Hall ethics plan: "As mayor, I would bring a new approach and a different tone to City Council: one that works for the people, not for the special interests around City Hall." Pow.
3-Randy Rowse. Randy delivered a disciplined message, emphasizing time-tested points positing that city government's political, policy and personnel problems trace to the chokehold of the Democratic Party apparatus on City Hall ("Belonging to a political party is an individual choice, but these seats are, by definition, non-partisan") and the flaws of district elections ("While council is now elected by district, every act of governance they perform affects the at-large constituency"). The most interesting part, however, was the big reveal that one of his first jobs out of UCSB was "managing a retail stereo store in Bakersfield." Wow, he sure dodged that bullet.
4-Cathy Murillo. In the past few weeks, the incumbent has sounded an increasingly smarmy, if not smug, tone, sometimes even referring to herself in the third person ("you're in good hands with this mayor") a clear sign of incipient delusional disorder for any elected seeking a second term. With a message that might be summed up as, "What are you gonna believe - me or your lying eyes?" Happy Cathy keeps assuring voters that things are really, really great, thanks to her; fearlessly risking elbow sprain in the Q&A by patting herself on the back, she applauded her own "political bravery" with a vow to "take this courage into my second term." (Secret memo to Her Honor: yr sposed to get other people to say that stuff about you).
5-Mark Whitehurst. For a newspaper guy, Whitehurst sure uses a lot of passive voice ("a collaborative atmosphere can be developed") corporate-speak gibberish ("a positive direction that overshadows the peripheral negativity that has been present") and hoary platitudes ("building community is an attitude"). Ah, whaddya expect from a publisher...
6-Matt Kilrain. After dancing around Nick Masuda's question in the MoJo debate about his connections to QAnon, Boat Rat Matt put it out there for all to see. Asked to list some of his endorsements, he wrote, "WWG1WGA," which every conspiracy-minded Q adherent reads as the believer's creed, "Where We Go One, We Go All." Creepy stuff.
Does it really matter who wins? In covering the SB mayor's race four years ago, we published a piece raising the question of what difference it made who won the election, given Santa Barbara's weak mayor-strong City Administrator form of government.
Some of its key points seemed worth repeating.
For starters, the mayor's office on paper really does come with few overt, formal powers:
"Some actual facts. The second item about the office of mayor is even more noteworthy: the gig comes with not much manifest power.
"'In our weak mayor system, the City Administrator runs things day-to-day (ever mindful, of course, of the mayor and council’s prerogative to fire him," said Lodge.
Here is a complete list of the SB’s mayor’s charter-mandated duties:
Preside over City Council meetings.
Cast their own vote - but no veto power.
“Official head of the City for all ceremonial purposes."
“Primary but not exclusive responsibility for interpreting the policies, programs and needs of the city government to the people."
”May inform the people of any change in policy or program.”
'Does anybody really believe that the day-to-day life of the average person in Santa Barbara is dependent on who is elected mayor?' Bill Clausen, a prolific presence on local comment boards and social media, groused over at an interesting discussion on the Indy’s site one day last week.
'Dependent?' No. 'Impacted, influenced and changed?' Yes, yes and yes."
Elder wisdom. Given the limitations, we back then consulted with then-current Mayor Helene Schneider, as well as with Sheila Lodge, her most illustrious living predecessor, about how they operated to maximize the restricted influence they enjoyed.
Helene said that, as a practical matter, the single most consequential function of the mayor is attending to the city council's agenda and running the council meetings effectively:
“Running the meeting doesn’t just happen. It takes focus and it takes work."
"I think people who’ve been in office before, especially in city government, know how the process works; you try to walk that tightrope. But if you haven’t been part of the process, it’s going to be an eye opener.”
“You try to listen to what everyone else is saying and, if there’s a difference of opinion on an issue, then try to consolidate the thought and come up with a suggestion or a motion that will pass.
“You can lead the discussion that way, and you have to do it in a way that's respectful, even if you might disagree with the members on the issue. You’re still one of seven votes, so if you want to try to push an argument one particular way, or win an argument one particular way, you have that role to play. But at the end of the day, I find that the mayor’s really the person who tries to get something to happen.
And setting that tone’s important."
Sheila said that mayoral powers 4 & 5 above, in fact offer plenty of running room for a smart, ambitious, energetic politician, with strong communication skills and the public interest at heart, to exercise strong leadership.
“Because the role of the mayor carries with it a certain aura, the mayor can use her position to lead and educate the community, to successfully advocate for what is best for the city as a whole,” former Mayor Lodge told me.
“When I was first elected mayor I was surprised to find that people thought this gave me a lot more power, although I still had just one vote and no veto power,” she added.
“This belief in effect gave me power.”