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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Well, Thank God That's Over: Mr. Cranky Pants' Winners & Losers from SB City Election

The noted barrister Steve Amerikaner, aiming his comment at a notorious, local poison pen editorialist, once memorably said that, in political and policy disputes in Santa Barbara, "the people on the other side are not our enemies -- they are our neighbors."

Happily, Tuesday's election results portend City Hall's possible return to the public affairs sensibility articulated by Amerikaner, a former City Attorney and current high-end lawyer who's brought civility, courtesy and respect to countless hard-fought land use battles.

With the election of Randy Rowse, and the ouster of Cathy Murillo, voters have substituted openness, moderation and a desire for civic unity for incuriosity, ideological rigidity and devotion to political faction.

They've replaced a mayor who kept score of those who opposed her, who yearned for higher office, and for whom every political difference was a personal affront, with an affable but earnest former bar and restaurant owner whose singular motivating political principle is to do the best he can to nurture and sustain the future of his town.

"No partisanship, no ideology," Rowse said in a Newsmakers interview this week, when asked to explain how he intends to help govern an embattled city fraught with divisions of wealth, race and age. "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."

As a political matter, Randy faces the challenge of wrangling the same six, quarrelsome liberal City Council colleagues as the departing mayor. The key difference: she was the most left-wing of the bunch, and consistently tried to pull the others in her direction, better to serve the planks of the Democratic Party platform and public employee unions to whom taxpayer-financed budgets seem to be mere booty.

In contrast, the new mayor will become the most moderate member on the dias and hopefully shift the balance of power in the other direction, the better to hear and heed the concerns of businesses and homeowners, those who foot the bill for the social engineering schemes cooked up by council members who understand the spending side of government finance very well, but seem to lack much interest in understanding the sources of the revenue they like to lavish.

In the end, of course, Rowse is just one of seven votes on a council that is staffed and routinely guided by a bewildering bureaucracy that, for too many citizens who come in contact with it, is perceived as arrogant, aloof and unresponsive.

Amid the multiple recent resignations, firings and mysterious departures of key administrators, however, the mayor-elect not only has an opportunity to help remake city government to align with his own approachable and accessible values, but also to move the center of gravity on council towards the common sense center of the political spectrum.

Best wishes for his success.

And now the awards...A political reporter has been defined as someone who watches the battle from high atop a distant hill, then rides down to shoot the wounded.

In that spirit, and in honor of the five-year terms captured by Tuesday's victorious candidates, here are five election winners and five losers, only one of whom was on the ballot, compiled by Newsmakers' Director of Electoral Awards and Unhinged Ranting, Mr. J.R. Cranky Pants.


Sheila Lodge. It was hard to find anyone happier on Tuesday night than Sheila, the long-serving Planning Commissioner, former Mayor, local historian and embodiment of Santa Barbara's Pearl Chase discernment. She went all-in for Randy and celebrated his victory along with the re-election of protege and District 4 council member Kristen Sneddon, while perhaps taking a measure of satisfaction in the political fates of mayoral hopeful Deborah Schwartz and Kristen challenger Barrett Reed, two pro-development planning commission colleagues, both of whose terms are coming to an end, none too soon for the slow-growth Lodge.,

James Joyce. The "Coffee with a Black Guy" guy and mayoral contender actually fulfilled the political cliche of winning by losing, besting Murillo to finish a surprising second, despite running a woefully underfunded campaign. Before the race, the former legislative aide to Das Williams and Hannah Beth Jackson was scarcely known outside the circle of local political insiders, but his seriousness of purpose, sincerity and coup of snagging some key media endorsements obviously created a broad impression in the community, making him a strong bet for future political success.

Independents. In a town (and a state) with only one functional political party, Randy took on the hegemony of local Democrats as a bona fide No Party Preference independent and won, by appealing to the sensibleness of voters in the middle of the political spectrum. And Sneddon, who carried the Democratic endorsement but seemed to spend as much time running away from it as trumpeting it, won easy re-election on the basis of her record as the most independent-minded member of council despite Reed, a young, smart and attractive challenger, raising an astonishing quarter-of-a-million dollars in a contest for fewer than 7,000 voters.

Rebecca Bjork. When acting City Administrator Bjork nailed five campaigns with a total of $10,800 in fines for filing campaign finance reports late, some political professionals were astounded, likening it to using a cruise missile to stop a home invasion of ants. But we say good on her, not only for enforcing the law, but also for ensuring no one could charge that she was exercising favoritism towards Nina Johnson, her City Hall colleague, who challenged Meagan Harmon in District 6 and who was the biggest scofflaw of the bunch -- with extra points for overseeing, along with steadfast City Clerk Sarah Gorman and the reliable county Registrar, Joe Holland, a smooth election, the city's last of the odd-year era;

Media mavens. Covering elections is harder than it looks, and with cash-strapped local news organizations now fielding staffs of half-a-dozen reporters or fewer -- who also must churn out a steady stream of stories on City Hall, school boards, county government and the courts, not to mention fires, shootings, weather and two car fatals -- the Independent, Noozhawk, Montecito Journal and Edhat all did yeoman work on the campaign. Sure, political junkies had to spend time grazing the daily news landscape to get a full look at the latest from the trail, but Santa Barbara's small but plucky political press corps consistently comported themselves with energy and caring, with the Indy's high-impact endorsement of Joyce, the MoJo's muckraking about the Dem party Josh Molina's multi-media stylings and Lauren Bray's stewardship of local treasure Edhat notably proving the abiding power of the press.


Majority rule. Newsmakers spent four years kvetching at Cathy as "our 27 percent mayor" because she was elected with just over one-quarter of the votes in a big, winner-take-all-field, and never seemed too interested in considering, let alone attending to, the public interests of the three-fourths who didn't vote for her. Now comes Rowse, cruising to victory with 38.6 percent of the vote which, while an improvement, still raises the question of why SB's shift to district elections of city council members didn't include a requirement that the one and only official elected citywide must win a majority vote. Can we get an amen for a run-off or (heaven help us) ranked choice voting?

The Daraka-Das-Darcel show. The Big Three of the local Democratic Party apparatus produced a clown show blooper reel to aid and abet Cathy's defeat, as former party chair Daraka Larimore-Hall went on Molina's podcast, "SB Talks" to deliver a snarling diatribe in which he slimed Joyce, trashed prominent Dem women by name and lied about the Independent, a fiasco quickly overtaken by revelations that self-mythologizing Supervisor Das Williams tried to strong-arm Deborah Schwartz out of the mayor's race and into endorsing Cathy. Current party chair Darcel Elliott topped things off with a WTF, post-election communique to the troops, trying to spin the Dem's loss of the mayor's office by declaring that, "We feel confident that Mayor Cathy Murillo will take second place in the Mayoral election thanks to the work we did specifically on Election Day" (This just in: Houston holds big parade to celebrate Astros finishing second in World Series); her confidence, alas, was misplaced as final results a few hours later showed Joyce actually doubled his election night lead over Murillo to leave her in third -- but we hear James really appreciates you turning out those Election Day votes for him!

Developers. Builder Ed St. George and downtown real estate mogul Jim Knell both backed all the wrong horses, as their efforts to install more friendly faces on the dais on Tuesday afternoons collapsed along with the campaigns of Schwartz, Reed and Johnson. Big Ed also made himself scarce after some ill-conceived, ill-timed sexist comments on "SB Talks" (again!) blew up and won him a public rebuke from the Women's Political Committee, while Knell later was hit with a substantive complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission after eight separate business entities with which he's associated each made big donations to Reed, Johnson, Schwartz and Rowse, raising questions about if he exceeded state contribution limits.

Disinformation. In contrast to a batch of other elections that took place across the country on Tuesday, Santa Barbara's municipal contest was a mostly honorable affair, with few instances of the kind of wholesale disinformation and whoppers that mark so much political discourse in today's toxic political environment (although the POA's brutal robocall acusing Sneddon of "defunding the police" came close). The one and only Big Lie we saw was Murillo's last minute hit piece mailer fallaciously portraying Randy as a knuckle-dragging Trump thug, but that at least was swiftly and ably debunked by the MoJo's fast-moving Nick Masuda,

Alarmist reporters. The day before Election Day, when only 25 percent of mail-in ballots had been returned, the local press (we name no names) was full of dire warnings and civic duty tut-tutting about shockingly low turnout and voters "staying away in droves," By the time the final deal went down on Thursday, turnout was at 47 percent, respectable enough for an off-year election and only four points off the open race for mayor four years ago. So never mind.

And to all a good night.


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