New Dem Chair Talks Politics, Policy & Mayoral Endorsement - 3 Rivals "All Have a Pretty Good Shot"
Updated: Feb 11
The first big test for Darcel Elliott, the newly elected Chair of the Democratic Party of Santa Barbara, comes in April, when she'll be navigating the political cross-currents surrounding the party's key endorsement process for the SB mayor's race.
"They all have a pretty good shot," Elliott told Newsmakers, ticking off strengths of Mayor Cathy Murillo, along with Planning Commissioner Deborah Schwartz and social media entrepreneur James Joyce III, the two announced challengers to the incumbent.
Typically, it's hard for a previously-endorsed elected official to lose the Democrats' backing in a re-election contest -- making Murillo, a longtime local party loyalist elected four years ago with the endorsement, an early favorite for the nod.
Elliott noted, however, that capturing the Dem seal of approval will require a 60 percent super-majority vote of the party's County Central Committee -- meaning Schwartz and Joyce could win by losing if they succeed in denying Her Honor the endorsement, considered the most influential in local politics.
At 34, Elliott is the youngest woman to chair one of the California Democratic Party's 58 county organizations.
Born and raised in Santa Maria, she graduated from UCSB in 2008 intending to find a job as a history teacher, but there were widespread cutbacks in public education amid the recession triggered by the meltdown of financial markets. She landed an internship working on Hannah Beth Jackson's campaign for state Senate, caught the political bug and has worked in Democratic politics ever since, not only serving as a manager or field organizer in 17 campaigns in the past 12 years, but also becoming a top aide to Das Williams, first while he was in the state Assembly and now as a county Supervisor.
Her comments on the mayor's race came during an interview about Elliott's political and policy priorities as she takes over leadership duties from the indefatigable Gail Teton-Landis, who recently stepped down. Among her goals, Elliott said, are to raise sufficient funds to hire a full-time organizer for North County, where Democratic turnout lags the South Coast; to ensure party-endorsed candidates prevail in three SB council seats as well as the mayor's race; and to address some criticisms of the endorsement process.
On the last point, some aspiring candidates, along with the usual media scolds, long have complained about the local Democrats' practice of choosing their candidates months before the close of filing for city, county and school district offices.
The strategy, aimed at ensuring their preferred candidates get an early boost in fundraising and organization, also represents a bid to clear the field of other Democrats -- an effort that sometimes backfires in passing over quality candidates who go on to defeat the chosen Democrats (viz. SB council member Kristen Sneddon, SBUSD members Kate Ford and Virginia Alvarez; Goleta Union school board member Vicki Ben-Yaacov).
Elliott said she believes the early endorsement process is sound, but that the Dems need to do a better job, not only of spreading the word about its procedures and schedule, but also of proactively recruiting candidates.
"We need to make (the endorsement process) more transparent," she said.
In the interview Elliott also discussed the ways and means she uses to try to meet the letter of the law in not doing political work on public time in her taxpayer-financed day job as Das's top assistant; lessons of her experience as a campaign field organizer trained in the techniques of the United Farm Workers; and her unique perspective, as a born-and-raised Santa Maria Democrat, on the historic "county split" between prevailing political attitudes in North and South county.