Randy Rowse's decision to run for Mayor of Santa Barbara instantly reshapes the race, installing a widely-known candidate whose non-partisan, pragmatic political approach holds appeal for moderate voters, business proprietors and tax-weary homeowners.
Late Tuesday, Josh Molina scooped the world with the news that Rowse, a longtime downtown restaurateur who served nine years on City Council before being termed out, pulled papers this week to run for Mayor.
"I don’t have any party affiliation," Rowse told Josh. "I think that has really gotten in the way of some policy-making."
In a contest for a five-year term, liberal incumbent Mayor Cathy Murillo already is being challenged by two other Democrats -- Planning Commissioner Deborah Schwartz and James Joyce III, a former state legislative aide and founder of the anti-racist Coffee with a Black Guy project.
Now Rowse suddenly occupies considerable space in the center and center-right of the political spectrum, squeezing Schwartz and Joyce between himself and Murillo; as a practical matter, it could prove difficult for the other two challengers, either to get to the right of Rowse, or to the left of the current mayor, who has proposed a tax increase for expanded homeless services and is a favorite of the Service Employees International Union, which represents many city workers, as well as building trades unions that benefit from her sponsorship of a new Project Labor Agreement policy.
Murillo was elected four years ago when she finished first in a five-candidate field, taking office with 27.96 percent of the vote.
Why he's running. Rowse, in a statement emailed to Newsmakers last night, took note of the urgency of the economic conditions facing the city as a result of the pandemic.
"This moment in time we will need balance and finesse to emerge from 'survival mode' to vitality and prosperity," he said.
."I believe that I have the unique perspective of a lengthy and involved downtown private sector experience as well as time served in public service," Rowse added, noting that he was "a downtown business owner and operator for four decades, and a city tenant at the waterfront for seven years as Shoreline Cafe.
"During that time I was involved with the Downtown Organization, The Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Parking Committee. The last nine years I was also a member of City Council," he said.
The vanishing non-partisan. Although the California Constitution officially requires that local governments like the City Council be non-partisan, the Democratic Party organization in Santa Barbara over the last decade became increasingly aggressive -- and successful -- in electing partisan favorites to city, county and school district offices, spurred in the city by the advent of district elections.
By the time Rowse left Council because of term limits in January 2020, he had become increasingly frustrated with the chokehold local party leaders held on the council --- all seven members now are Democrats and all but one won office with the party's endorsement -- often expressing his belief that elected members should "check their politics at the door" because, he argued, most city problems require practical, commonsense solutions more than ideology and partisan policies.
That perspective was captured in comments he gave Josh last year, for a farewell piece about his nine years on council:
At a time when the collective makeup of the City Council is getting younger, less experienced and increasingly more partisan, Rowse represented the old-school moderate who tried to cast votes based on his internal voice, not those who might help him politically down the road.
While he often has been accused of being a conservative, Rowse has never registered as a Republican, and said he was a Democrat for most of his life until what he described as labor groups and the Democratic Party becoming one entity.
'Now that the party and the employee unions have become one, basically, all over California, but intensely here in town, it's a tough influence, the strangest quid pro I think I have ever seen,' Rowse said. 'I could take $10,000 from you as a head of a union and then be elected and turn around and negotiate your salary two weeks later. I've never understood why that works out.'"
Personable and funny, if episodically grouchy, Rowse was the longtime owner of the Paradise Cafe, across the street from City Hall. He sold the restaurant last year.