Meagan, Nina, Jason & Zak: 6 Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum
Amazing but true, Meagan Harmon has served on SB City Council for two-and-a-half years but - before Wednesday night -- never before had been forced to grub for votes at a candidate forum.
Harmon, appointed by council in early 2019 to a vacant District 6 seat, did not draw an opponent in the city election later that year, when she was slated to be on the ballot. So in the current campaign, she is facing voters for the first time ever, albeit running as a veteran, instead of a rookie.
"I'm going to give myself an 'A'," she said during this week's first District 6 forum, when asked to grade her own performance to date. "I'm proud of the work I've done."
The event, sponsored by Newsmakers, SB Talks and TVSB, also marked the first campaign appearance for Nina Johnson, a longtime City Hall executive considered the incumbent's chief rival, as well as for grassroots candidates Jason Carlton and Zak Pike, with all the contenders appearing via Zoom because: Covid.
The four candidates offered their views on a host of tough problems confronting the city and District 6's downtown neighborhoods, from homelessness and housing to the State Street promenade and selection of a new City Administrator.
Six takeaways from the event:
Meagan brought the fastball. From the first question, Harmon burst forth with a high-energy, smart take performance that not only displayed her command of substance and nuance on complicated policies (discussing the future of Paseo Nuevo mall, she became the first candidate in political history to use the phrase "Reciprocal Easement Agreement" in a campaign talk) but also demonstrated the passionate style that has made her a rising star in local Democratic circles. She got a little too slick at several points, wielding piffle and politic-speak in trying to evade a straight answer about building height limits, for example, but when pressed, at least produced an unequivocal answer as to ruling out a run for higher office if she wins the five year council term at stake on Nov. 2: "Absolutely," she said. Keep that one in the memory bank.
Nina: The personal is political. Johnson has worked behind-the-scenes for more than 20 years as a City Hall manager, most recently as assistant City Administrator, and her language in her first forum reflected that experience, as she addressed many issues by focusing on changing or improving the process of local government (i.e., "We need a different culture," "data-driven approach," "focus on outcomes"). Her best moments came when she spoke in personal terms about facing sexist discrimination that she said had held her back from promotion, citing it as one of the reasons she decided to run for office after decades as a staffer: "I'm taking a different path," she said. "I don't want to complain...I want to help resolve the problem for others."
Small business owner vs insiders. Jason Carlton is a union electrician who runs his own small business, a a serious, down-to-earth guy who has mounted a long shot grassroots campaign because he believes City Hall is too insular and disconnected from the people it is supposed to serve. At one point, he pointed to the city raising permit fees by 25 percent during the pandemic, at a time when businesses like his already were struggling to hang on, as an example of ciity government cluelessness, but he missed a clear opportunity when he demurred on a question asking him to make the case for why Meagan should not be returned to office: "If we want to stay on the same path, we'll pick insiders," was as far as he would go.
The blue collar Santa Barbara guy. Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Zachary Pike has a day job as a soils analyst, running lab tests on samples for environmental reviews, but the pandemic cut into his preferred line of work as a musician and a DJ. Earnest and caring of the community where he grew up, Pike said one of his biggest assets is his "history as a local," saying it's "time for a change" as he decried the rise of "so much dissonance in the city," which he stated he would help "take down a notch" by bringing fresh eyes and an open mind to civic ills. Discussing homelessness, his most notable idea was the suggestion to slap a moratorium on liquor licenses: "There's so many places where you can get your hands on vices in District 6," he said.
Is there a solution for homelessness? In the first round of the forum, Zak didn't hesitate when asked to identify the number one concern he hears from neighbors: "Homelessness - top of the list." The substantive discussion of the issue that followed, however, featured few new ideas and was far more resigned than hopeful: Pike ventured that employers should pay higher wages, Johnson called for more "mental health outreach workers, and while Harmon claimed "we are moving forward with tangible programs" (e.g. paying for homeless campers to stay in a cheap hotel for four months) even she had to acknowledge that it "in many ways is an intractable problem." It was left to Carlton to say the quiet part out loud: "I don't think homeless is solvable."
Room rater. It was a rough night for Newsmakers' Department of Virtual Backdrops and Videoconferencing Aesthetics, as the team found little to like in the Zoom backgrounds used by the District 6 quartet. In the final Room Rater scores, based on a 1-10 scale, Meagan finished first, with a nothing-to-be-proud of 4 ("two heavy wood doors and plain white walls gave the impression she was locked in a wine cellar," our judges said); Nina earned a 3 ("mercifully her head didn't melt into the stock SB waterfront virtual backdrop, like Randy's did in the mayoral forum"); Zak got a 2 ("maybe next time he'll push the bookcase all the way behind him, instead of just giving us a six inch glimpse") and Jason got the dreaded 1 ("the guy sounded pretty good -- too bad he looked like he was speaking from a hostage video").
Lead screen grab image: Clockwise from upper left: Meagan Harmon, Nina Johnson, Jason Carlton, Zachary Price.