Op-Ed: How Santa Barbara's Uncontested Elections Damage Democracy
By Wade Stewart Cowper
A danger to democracy is hiding in plain sight right here in Santa Barbara County as voters prepare to cast ballots in the 2022 election: The decisions about who will fill a host of powerful county positions have already been made.
Because so many candidates for high office are running unopposed or are appointed, our county soon will be run almost entirely by those who are functionally unelected. Consider:
● The new District Attorney will be John Savrnoch, a virtual unknown to most voters, who served as the chief assistant to retiring DA Joyce Dudley. She anointed him at a press conference she called, just days before the deadline to get on the ballot, crushing the ability of anyone else to run a serious campaign.
● Supervisor Steve Lavignino is running unopposed for re-election to his Fifth District seat in North County, while school board member Laura Capps also has no opponent in seeking the open 2nd District seat. Together with Supervisor Bob Nelson, who took office two years ago without a challenge, they represent a majority of the Board of Supervisors who effectively will not have been elected by the people.
● County Auditor/Controller Betsy Schaeffer will be unopposed in her race. For those wondering what the Auditor/Controller does, they write the $1.35 billion budget for our county; the same electoral status goes for Harry Hagen, our Tax Collector. This says nothing of numerous City Councilmembers throughout the region.
Amid widespread division and debate across the country about the condition and security of our democracy, Santa Barbara is not immune: While democracy, of course, relies upon the freedom of the people to vote, it also necessitates a choice. We need to have choices in order for democracy to work – and in the county, we have very few.
Power is intoxicating. This is not an indictment of those people who bravely stood up to serve their communities, but rather an indictment of a system that discourages others from running.
We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. We wake up to sunny days, blue skies, and clean beaches. Unfortunately, that beauty can sometimes lull us into a false sense of security.
Without a functional daily newspaper and only station providing local TV news, our elected officials have very little accountability. In an environment where there is limited media coverage, the Fourth Estate's power to hold our leaders accountable has been lessened to an incredible extent. We are left with only one avenue to hold our elected officials accountable: Elections.
Elections provide the people an opportunity to weigh the policies, experience, and character of candidates and decide whom they believe should run our communities, from the federal to the local level. In the case of incumbents, this is an opportunity for opponents to point out differences, limitations, and areas where an elected official can do better.
But if no one runs, this can not happen. We get no comparison. Just a single name on the ballot.
Why - you might ask - is this happening?
It’s simple: Because power is intoxicating and systems of power are self-perpetuating. Our entire political system is set up to prevent people like me, and most of you, from being successful in politics. Complicated endorsement processes, expensive fees, and a sense of elitism have erected barriers for no other reason than to entrench the current political systems and to keep new people and new ideas from seriously challenging for elected office.
Of course, running for an elected position should not be easy. Running for office must be difficult and it should test a candidate.
But even here in beautiful Santa Barbara County, our systems of power push us toward party loyalty above ideals and policies, and our local parties are far from perfect. The Santa Barbara County Republican Party consistently fails to present candidates and policies that connect to our community, while our local Democratic Party is constantly mired in self-serving, transactional political machinations that serve no one but themselves.
Our local parties almost universally fail to bring in new faces or new ideas and create litmus tests that reflect fealty to the party rather than bold leadership.
Special interest status quo. The establishment in this county is scared. They’re scared that if candidates they don’t control get elected, those candidates won't be beholden to special interest groups, political parties, or other elected officials. They will only be beholden to their ideas, and more importantly, to the voters of our unique community.
The state of our politics has never been more fractured and polarized. Our politics have become increasingly about demonizing those with whom we disagree, and less about putting in the work to make substantive changes for everyday people: the ones hard at work to support their families and who don't spend much time thinking about politics.
Our political establishment spends its time focused on retaining power rather than the good we can do with that power. Our current transactional approach does nothing to serve the folks living in our community. In fact, often it undermines us, yet we cannot let this get in the way of our democracy. We cannot let it convince us that the "choice" we are spoon-fed is the only choice we have. We have to stand up.
Coming from a professional political operative, this perspective may seem wildly self-serving -- and to some extent it is; however, that doesn’t make it any less true or important.
I’ve been involved in political campaigns for almost 20 years. I know how hard it is to be a candidate. I know how stressful it can be to take that first step, to put yourself out there, and share with the world your vision for the future of your community.
I know what it’s like to talk to an empty room. Yet candidates with great ideas can start in empty rooms and end up on school boards, city councils, and even the White House. Taking the first step is hard.
But if you do, you might find more support than you expected…and those rooms fill up a heck of a lot quicker than you’d ever believe.
Wade Stewart Cowper is a Santa Barbara political consultant and long-suffering L.A. Clippers fan.
Lead image: ministry matters.com; Cowper (Josh Molina photo).