On Wednesday night, the moderator at the big environmental mayoral forum framed one query to the candidates this way:
“I’d like to move on to a very difficult topic,” said Dr. Barbara Lindemann. “And it is a multi-item question.”
The five-part zinger that followed (population control, parking, traffic, bike lanes and commuter rail) captured the substantive tone and comprehensive timbre of the debate, sponsored by the Community Environmental Council, in partnership with the Coastal Housing Coalition, Santa Barbara Audubon, Channelkeeper, the Botanic Garden, Zoo, Museum of Natural History and (breathe) Santa Barbara Women’s Club.
An esteemed academic and SBCC professor emeritus, Dr. Lindemann seemed the perfect pick to preside over the session: those of us who never made it to grad school got a taste of what it must be like to sit for a “murder board” to defend an academic dissertation.
Although her focus and no-nonsense seriousness of purpose made her the MVP of the night, Barbara is not on the Nov. 7 ballot, alas, and so here is a look at how the actual candidates on the dais performed.
A rule of thumb for every political candidate in America: when you’re behind, pick a fight.
Struggling to gain traction since his last-in-the-field entry into the race, Harwood finally drew some sharp distinctions with his liberal foes: he smote Cathy Murillo on matters small (his support of story poles for new developments – “Cathy and I disagree”), medium (his backing of a cap on AUD housing units – “let’s not trash this place”) and large (his more conservative budget views - “she has consistently advocated for higher wages than I have”).
Along the way, he also whacked Hal Conklin, seeking to saddle the ex-SoCal Edison flack with the company’s actions in helping to block Santa Barbara’s strategies for energy independence (“I have not found Edison to be our friend,” he said, “What little contact I’ve had with Edison felt like pushing on clouds”).
The more aggressive tone seemed to animate Bendy, who was on a roll all night, riffing and vamping on a menu of issues that he’s been working on for decades, from hydroelectric power to riparian rights and solid waste management.
White is first and always a pragmatist, who will never be confused with Bill Clinton as an orator. What he lacks in vision, however, he makes up for in hard-nose commonsense, as he piles fact upon fact while pointing to practical, incremental steps local government can take to start chipping away at massive, intractable problems.
His syntax can get a little scrambled – “We need to continue to chew on our waste stream,” he said at one point – but he seldom departs from his basic philosophy of local government – “It’s a tough slog.”
In contrast to White, Conklin came across as the liberal idealist in the race, with a knack for transforming mundane matters into visionary, if not dreamy, improvisations.
Ask him a question about the AUD, the ADU or the VRBO and he’ll explain why we need community consensus on sweeping, lofty goals (“you don’t just give incentives to people…we need an economic and environmental development plan”); inquire about the collapse of the Community Choice Energy proposal and be rewarded with a discourse on the intricacies of politics of the California Public Utilities Commission (“the rate hawks” run the show, it seems); puzzle over the future of parking and congestion and you’ll get a typical big swing (“ban the internal combustion engine”).
Hal not only showed skill with sound bites “(Nothing happens in Santa Barbara that doesn’t take 25 years” was his best line of the night) but also defended himself forcefully (“Edison can speak for themselves, but what I’ve heard is a lot of bunk,” is how he answered White’s line of attack). In the end, however, he infrequently fleshes out his rhetoric with Bendy-style granular detail.
White and Conklin both were wrestling with these tough and tangled issues at the dawn of the Environmental Movement, back when Murillo was still in grade school. So it’s no knock on Cathy to say she doesn’t present at a depth or level of detail as either of the others.
To her credit, she dropped her campaign happy face long enough to get in Bendy’s, after he sniped at her over public employees (ripping him for “privatizing good union jobs”). And she hung in with her two liberal rivals on issues pretty well all night; when they’d bore down into substance just a little bit further, however, she tended to revert to platitudes of an idiosyncratic nature.
“As mayor, I will make the steelhead trout one of my priorities,” she said at one point.
“I’m a supporter of the AUD – we should mend it, not end it,” she said at another.
To a question about climate change, she recounted how she “was caught in the microburst” and allowed as how “we can’t ignore these signs from nature.”
Hollywood Frank was a no-show, formally declining the CEC’s invite, with thanks. Seriously? You're running to be mayor of the whole city, ferevvinsake, not just those who agree with you.
Images: Logo of Community Environmental Council; Dr. Barbara Lindemann; (L-R) Bendy White, Cathy Murillo and Hal Conklin on stage at the Community Environmental Council forum, adjoining empty chairs and placards for Frank Hotchkiss and Angel Martinez.
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