Off-year city elections can be desultory affairs, with little fervent debate, a shortage of intriguing characters and low-wattage media coverage all fusing into a low information, low-turnout sleepy conclusion in November.
Last night’s crowded League of Women Voters featuring five quality candidates for mayor at the First United Methodist Church, however, suggests that voters may be tuning in this time around.
In a pivotal election, Santa Barbara residents confront big, complex issues about the future – from State Street’s retail downtrend to the hammer of Sacramento’s new housing mandates and simmering local tensions inflamed by Trump’s xenophobic immigration crackdown.
Here’s our look at winners and losers from last night’s big event.
The Shoe King won the night with a well-stated, well-played articulation of his fundamental reason for running (which we covered last night here). His tough love catalogue of the city’s problems, from Amazonian damage to retail business, to the cost of pensions and the life and death implications of infrastructure degradation, was knowledgeable and itemized, apparently reflecting an earnest effort to study his way up the steep learning curve about public policy he faces as a novice candidate.
Politically, he displayed a calculated, paddle-to-the-right (“Santa Barbara is actually a business – an $800 million enterprise”), paddle-to-the-left (“the operative word is empathy and compassion” for addicts and mentally ill street people) while also humanizing himself by turning a question about immigration into a personal narrative about his Cuban parents staying behind when they sent him to the U.S. at the age of three: “I know what it’s like to be separated” from family as an immigrant, he said.
Martinez has yet to fill out many details or much substance of his “new leadership and new ideas” slogan, however, and at some point will have to acknowledge the limitations of power on the mayor’s office. Does he truly understand what the job is, and that he just can’t demand things happen, like, oh say, a CEO? Some thoughts on how he intends to round up four votes on council for his ideas would be useful to hear, and an occasional flash of humor wouldn’t hurt either.
Chipper Cathy did exactly what she needed to do last night – avoided any blunders, gaffes or embarrassing misstatements.
Every campaign has three critical elements – money, organization and message. On the first, Cathy has demonstrated talent for the dreary grind of fundraising; on the second, she has the campaign’s most seasoned and street-smart manager overseeing operations, in the person of Jack O’Connell/Walter and Lois Capps/Salud Carbajal veteran Mollie Culver, who keeps a low profile but always knows how many votes her candidate needs and where to find them.
On message, Murillo too often veers into bland, self-congratulatory self-regard – from “The voters know my work and they trust me as a candidate” (Wait, isn’t that our decision?), to “Everyone will tell you I’m the one who…is taking City Hall to the people” (“Everyone?” Really?). However, she touched all the right ideological bases, with her progressive social worker perspective on renters, the homeless, immigrants and the squeezed middle class.
Murillo is the queen of acronyms, which can leave folks who don’t work at City Hall scratching their heads over her enthusiastic declamations about CDBG funding, the C3H task force and COAST. But she effectively uses her big endorsements – Democratic Party, Sierra Club and a Planned Parenthood 100 percent seal of approval – as signifiers for voters looking for help in figuring out whom to vote for.
Smilin’ Hal worked for many years as a corporate flack for SoCal Edison, and it shows in his mellifluous tone, and the momentum of intelligent, complete sentences and paragraphs which propel his speaking style. Also like a flack, he can be infuriatingly difficult to pin down, notably last night with his muddled answer about California’s new “sanctuary state” immigration policy (“We shouldn’t be doing things that frighten people” – huh?) and a big dodge when asked about mentally ill street people (“We need more resources.” – Well, stop the presses).
This is not to mention his strained position on abortion rights (a topic that did not come up, but not for lack of trying by the Planned Parenthood contingent on hand, who submitted six unasked questions to the moderator).
Conklin clearly stated his reason for running (“My number one priority is the environment”), was candid in noting that Santa Barbara already has considerable “affordable housing” (“14 percent is owned or controlled by the government”) and enjoyed his best moment when he picked up a question about emergency services and ran with it, holding forth on the looming dangers of a big earthquake (“The average citizen is woefully unprepared”).
By the time of his closing statement, however, his emphasis on the environment was left behind, in favor of an out-of-nowhere tribute to the urgent importance of “institutional memory at a time when it’s disappearing,” which both tied him to the status quo and underscored his political roots in the 1980s and 90s.
Harwood once again knowledgeably flung around reams of Actual Facts on policy, from affordability to water, but too often in a raw, unpackaged form, which gave him a bit of an Absent-Minded Professor air, especially when he several times asked for questions to be repeated when it was his turn (Yo Bendy! That’s a pen and paper on the table!).
His disquisition on Santa Barbara’s water sources and policies was impressive (and so authoritative that he had Cathy nodding her head along with his commentary); his willingness to admit mistakes (acknowledging the AUD housing policy that is his signature program needs fixing) was refreshingly honest and mature; his hosanna to the bicycle master plan (“We are on the cusp of a bicycle revolution!) was downright endearing. Best moment: describing himself in his close as “the steady hand that has the experience and temperament” to be mayor.
Still, his take on immigration (“I support staying below the radar”) sounded timid, his repeated call to “repurpose State Street” never got much beyond that abstract construction and, even in a navy blue Sincere Suit, he never seemed entirely comfortable with the whole business of importuning for votes.
The only guy not to wear a tie, Hollywood Hotchkiss was the most laid-back among the five and his informality sometimes gave the impression he’s running for the exercise.
The only Republican in the race, Frank was solid in playing to his conservative base on taxes (against Measure C), housing (“affordable housing in Santa Barbara is really an oxymoron”), immigration (nobody, nobody, nobody should be here illegally) and the spectacle of able-bodied young people panhandling on State Street (these “urban travelers…are not interested in any of the (homeless) services we’re talking about”).
However, he sent mixed messages, as he often defended the status quo and allied himself with the council on high-profile controversies, while declaring that “the major function of the next mayor is to make the jewel (of Santa Barbara) remains polished.”
Which sounded an awful lot like managing...the…status quo…a strange position for a guy who wants to shake things up by injecting conservative principles into city governance.
Angel seemed to get into his head, as he sniped at his rival several times, after Martinez breezily dismissed his big idea of landing a Nike store as a State Street anchor tenant. Frank started his close with a direct response, announcing that he does not “agree with the dreary picture Mr. Martinez painted” and wrapped up with an odd shout-out to John Palmentieri for helping him save the State St. Christmas tree. Or something.
Images: (L-R) Mayoral candidates Hal Conklin, Frank Hotchkiss, Angel Martinez, Cathy Murillo and Bendy White at League of Women Voters debate; Martinez delivers closing statement; Murillo delivers closing statement; Conklin; White delivers closing statement; Hotchkiss.
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