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SB's Next Mayor Randy Rowse: "When It Comes to Local Politics, We Need to Get Away from Politics"

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

Randy Rowse says his "message rang true" in the Santa Barbara mayor's race, crediting his apparent victory in the contest to his call to replace partisan ideology at City Hall with non-partisan pragmatism.

"When we did some initial polling and when we went to door to door, I was overwhelmed by the message that (voters) were tired of the partisan bickering, which was gonna be my message anyway," Rowse told Newsmakers, the morning after finishing a strong first in a field of six candidates.

"That's what polled as the number one concern was partisanship... so I was like ‘ I guess I was on message before I even knew it,'" he added. "I think (voters) were really done with that because they’ve had so much of it in DC and Sacramento.

"When it comes to local politics we really need to get away from politics and start doing the business of the city, Rowse said. "And I think that message rang true and I think that’s where the support came from."

On Tuesday night, the former, and future, City Council member and erstwhile restaurant owner captured 40 percent of the citywide vote in the crowded field, denying Mayor Cathy Murillo a second term, despite her raft of endorsements from the local Democratic Party and a host of allied progressive organizations.

The incumbent mayor currently sits in third place, about 300 votes behind entrepreneur James Joyce in second, with 4,612 outstanding votes still to be counted. The final count is not expected to alter the victory of Rowse, nor those of council members Kristen Sneddon in District 4 and District 6 representative Meagan Harmon, both of whom hold substantial leads. District 5 member Eric Friedman was re-elected without opposition.

In his first post-election interview, Rowse fielded questions on a host of pressing issues facing the city, from the selections of a new city Administrator and Police Chief, to his notions on building more housing and his vision for State Street, to homelessness and the city's economic future coming out of the pandemic.

Addressing several simmering controversies, he expressed concern about the continued expenditure of Measure C funds, supposedly earmarked for public works projects, on monthly lodging for homeless people at the Rose Garden Inn; sounded a cautionary note about the city throwing its financial support behind adapting the St. Mary's Seminary site for homeless programs; and conveyed skepticism about investing a new citizen police review board with sweeping powers.

With his election still technically, if not practically, up in the air, Rowse was asked if he was okay for the moment with being called the "presumptive mayor-elect."

"I've been called so many things in the last few weeks, I'm not sure what you want to call me -- take your choice," he said. "I'm having an identity crisis - I'm not sure who I am anymore."

Some key quotes:

On reaching out to fellow council members: "Number one, I worked with all these people before. I mean, so it isn't nothing new for me. I'm going to reach out to them individually and see if we can kind of get together for just a little catch up chat before we all get back into session next year.

"And my message to them will be about observations. I go, 'As a citizen and I watch you guys, here's what I observed and how we want to proceed from there.' Because I don't think anybody up there is particularly satisfied with the way things went between them, kind of a little bit of a lack of teamwork.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with the people that are sitting in those seats at all. It's a matter of saying, 'where do you want to go and how do you want to get there and can we get there as a unit, as a team and can we keep the city first and foremost?'

"I mean you all may have your own ambitions and what you'd like to do with your political careers or whatever careers. It doesn't really matter. But how do we get to this common ground of saying, okay, this is going to be the best for everybody in the city?"

On how the city should move forward economically. "I think economically the best things we can do is aid by getting out of the way, i.e, reforming our processes that people have to go through to get into business in the first place.

"The big thing that I've been touting is actually getting ready for business. That means cleaning. That means lighting. That means a lot of things that will help take care of some of the security issues as well. And I would really like to thoroughly deep clean State Street, the sidewalks, the immediate adjacent side streets. And I'd like to get a cogent lighting plan that goes beyond the holidays.

"We can really have a warm, light, secure, welcoming State Street once we're open for business. And this is what some of my supporters that were...landlords are saying, 'I've got potential tenants. They're ready to go. I've already made my concessions.' Now what we need to look like is we're ready to accept them and ready to go forward. And those elements are really not that mysterious to most of us. I think we can do it and get back into business in relatively short order."

On the State Street promenade. "It's been very, very clear to me that the majority of people I've talked to like the promenade, like the idea of State Street being closed....But I do think that we should enable people as much as possible to do that while making sure that we're good to all businesses -- not just the restaurant business, but making sure the retail is healthy.

"Making sure that we can get public safety into areas where they would struggle to get into right now. And even with retail, some of the comments I've heard was it's hard to get their deliveries because there's no backside to most of those buildings.

"I mean, if we can do it, I've talked about a...system where maybe in the mornings, these delivery trucks can get in there, get done, get out. And by the middle of the day, State Street is closed off again and ready for the promenade."

On creating.a new civilian police review process. "Well, my old saying, 'When you go to solve for X, you better figure out what X is first.' And I don't think they did. I think this is a reaction to the popular rhetoric across the country. My question was, why didn't we expand or rescope the police and fire commission that we have?

"Now, I've not talked to one cop that's shaking in their boots about the commission. They've all said, 'Hey, that's fine. Bring it on. Take a look at whatever you want. I mean, we're wearing body cams. We do what we do. We're professionals.' So I haven't heard one uniform that is even sounding resentful about it. I mean, they're fine.

"My question is...Which problems are we trying to solve? Because if we're trying to solve for Minneapolis, I think we missed the mark. I think we're a different agency. We're a different culture. So I don't know. It's a mystery to me, frankly. I know my colleagues probably don't agree with me about it, but I'm kind of skeptical...

"So I don't know how it's all going to end up. I really don't. Like I said, I really want our cops to feel like somebody's got their back, and it better be your mayor and council. I really feel that in my heart of hearts."

On the 60 percent of voters who cast ballots for another candidate: "Well, I go back to my initial message -- no partisanship, no ideology. I have my own beliefs. I have my own politics. I park them at the door. That's the way I rolled when I was on council. That's the way I roll now.

"It's the only way I know how to be and, whatever their particular bent or their political beliefs, are theirs, and that's fine. I still work for them. I don't work for 40%. I work for 100%. I work for 91,000 people out there, and I don't see it any other way.

"I'm not going to harbor any resentment or grudges or whatever against somebody that didn't support me or vote for me, because at the end of the day, they're still my boss, and I have to listen to what they say and I want to hear what they say and I want to serve them all....In five years from last night, I want people to say, 'We are in a better place than we were five years ago.' And that is my focus and that's my drive."

On being attacked by Murillo in the campaign as a Trump clone: "That's water under the bridge...

"Cathy texted me last night (and) we'll be chatting once everything's official on Thursday. I think that (attack mailer) was one of those Hail Marys.

"Frankly...that's not really the Cathy that I know..When you're a candidate, you get a lot of advice, solicited and otherwise, so I don't know. I think that was unfortunate. I think part of it backfired a little bit on them. I was at houses knocking on doors yesterday during the day, and there were people going, "Well, I heard you were this Trumper." I mean, they practically had me at January 6th in Washington, DC with a horned helmet and face paint on."

On spending Measure C funds to house the homeless at the Rose Garden Inn. "I was a signatory on the ballot measure...

"Now, yes, somewhere down the list, it says something about homelessness. To me that was about, maybe if an opportunity came up to build a structure or something else, that would be one thing. This is infrastructure... now, we dipped into it for a very temporary, non-structural issue. And I was pretty upset with that use of the money, as were the people that helped me drive measure C into victory...

"That's a misuse of the public trust. Now I hear people talk about, 'Oh, we need to float a bond to do this and that.' I go, 'I think you just lost your credibility.' You can't do that, then go back to the public and go, 'Okay, that was great. Now, here's what we want.' I don't think so."

On the proposal for a homeless shelter at St. Mary's Seminary. "To me, this would take a ton of outreach, particularly with the stakeholder neighbors. It would need a traffic plan, it would need a management plan...

"I have no idea what the plan would be...because there is no plan. So, I couldn't possibly just blanket, 'we're going to do this.' I don't believe in government sticking things in the middle of people's neighborhoods, and go, 'There, and you're a NIMBY if you don't like it.'

"But I'm not a big fan. I think people that buy into neighborhoods, expect a certain amount of consistency and sanctity within the neighborhoods. And I think they deserve that. But they certainly deserve to be heard, and yeah. So I've gotten quite a bit of questionnaires from the folks that live up in that area about it. Pretty strongly opinionated questionnaires, I might say.

"And so, I wouldn't do anything without a thorough public vetting, and a cogent plan about traffic, about all the mitigations you need to have, to do a project of that size."

On the push to build more housing. "This will be my slogan. I might put this on the door of my office: 'What does success look like?' Because nobody said, "this is where we want to go. We just need more.'There's no really concrete action step there -- 'We need better, we need more.' Well, what does that mean?

"When you think about density and this push for density coming down from Sacramento, all these things, you go, 'Okay, let's look at the cities were density has provided affordable housing." L.A., not much. Santa Monica, not really. New York, San Francisco. The fact of the matter is, density does not affect the market, until you get to the point where it's so dense that you've diminished the quality of life. And now you've affected the market. Is that really the experiment we want to follow through? And I don't think it is."

On disputed campaign contributions from business entities of downtown real estate czar Jim Knell: "I called the (state Fair Political Practices Commission), described the situation, 'I got this money and it's from eight different entities. I'm sure there are some common connections, but I don't know.'.. And I described to the FPPC guy, this is not official legal advice, it's informal advice they give back over the phone, but they said they didn't think there'd be a problem.

"So what I did though, is I set that money aside just in case. I don't feel like anybody's done anything wrong, so I got a letter from the FPPC yesterday. That's what I woke up to and on election day was a letter from the FPPC -- 'Good morning. Happy election day.'

"They'll decide in the next couple weeks, whether or not they're going to follow through and actually investigate this and yada yada. I went, 'Yeah, I'm totally prepared for it. I've got nothing to hide. It's all on my report. You guys have everything, but my x-rays at this point in time.'"

On a future run-off system to ensure the mayor is elected by a majority of voters. "Well as a candidate, no, I'm really done with being in a campaign. I tell you that. But yeah, from a public standpoint, it might because there's (polarization)...

"And there's also been a lot of discussion about ranked choice voting and I'm not really sure how that would work and how much that would be better and whatnot. I understand the logic behind the runoff because you really do want to make sure that you have the one that the majority picked, but once again the idea of doing what we did up til last night and then extending it for another six months run, I'm pretty happy not to have to do that."


Check out our interview with Randy Rowse via YouTube below or by clicking through this link. The audio version is here.

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