It’s a basic rule in the Old Guys Official Handbook of Political Reporting:
In assessing the debate performance of any candidate, always keep in mind there are two audiences: the one inside the hall and a much larger one, listening or viewing while snug at home.
By that measure, Cathy Murillo and Hal Conklin were the clear favorites of the SRO crowd of 400 that packed the Garvin Theatre for Tuesday night’s radio broadcast, mayor’s race debate.
It was Frank Hotchkiss and Bendy White, however, who used key words, phrases and positions most effectively not only to differentiate themselves clearly from the others, but also to target discrete, small but crucial, cohorts of voters who might be tuned in.
Josh Molina has a written-on-deadline, blow-by-blow of the debate over at Noozhawk, and the Indy has the live stream recording on their website, including my live tweets, which also are in the post below.
Here’s one referree's look at how the Fab Five did in the big event, which was sponsored by the Santa Barbara City College Foundation, the Independent and KCRW-FM which broadcast the affair.
Frank Hotchkiss. Fearless Frank won the night, simply because he drew the sharpest distinctions between himself and the others, smiling (Reagan-like?!?), as he endured boos and catcalls from inside the theatre for controversial views on the homeless (some “are just looking for a handout”) affordable housing (“it’s an oxymoron in Santa Barbara”) and climate change (“we’re not at a crisis point on the environment”) while aiming his address squarely at conservative, older, white homeowners, a cohort that always votes, whom he hoped were listening elsewhere.
Republicans like Frank only are the third largest voting bloc in town, but in a crowded race with low turnout, he nevertheless has a plausible scenario for victory, as we’ve noted previously, especially if he can prevent center-right voters from jumping on the bandwagon of Angel Martinez; Hotchkiss sought to do just that, by repeatedly tweaking the Shoe King, scoffing at his opinions about Milpas Street, future possibilities for retail on State Street, as well as Angel's dismal overall view of what Frank, in optimistic and good-natured tones, called “the preeminent small city in America.”
Bendy White: Let’s be blunt: Bendy is not someone you’d want to get stuck in a broken elevator with, lest he pass the time by explaining the elegance of plumbing design in the desal plant or beginning to recite the General Plan by heart. Despite his fondness for deep weeds policy detail, however, Bendy has been around for three decades, long enough to have his own base of center-left, old-school, neighborhood preservationists, whom he probably knows by name.
White spoke directly to them throughout the night; “I start with the traditions of Santa Barbara,” he proclaimed proudly, when moderator Jonathan Bastian asked him to name a radical policy idea he held; amid a theatre audience where some may never have heard of civic preservationist Pearl Chase, Harwood invoked her name like a mantra. Asked about the mentally ill who haunt the streets, Bendy provided a 60-second history lesson, referencing then-Gov. Reagan’s 1973 closure of state hospitals as “the big bang," and he subtly contrasted himself with fellow liberal Cathy Murillo on housing, by describing his plan to "feather" housing into neighborhoods. He had the last word of the evening, calling himself “the steady hand,” best suited to oversee our district-elected council.
Hal Conklin. Conklin won a lot of love from the Garvin Theatre crowd by focusing intently on the environment and vowing to return Santa Barbara to its former top-dog status as a national enviro leader, through the crafting of green civic solutions to everything from housing infill to water outflow.
Hal has more plans for plans than Frank Lloyd Wright –and he often turns aside tough questions on a specific issue by arguing it can only be properly considered in the context of some far-off well-considered strategy. He won some of the biggest laughs of the night by noting the city's "schizophrenic position" of earnestly figuring out how to accommodate marijuana dispensaries while simultaneously moving to "shut down smoking."
His closing statement was the strongest, as he stated clearly the three Power Point reasons he's running for mayor – more protection for the environment, creation of a long-term economic development plan (!) and returning "power to the people" via vigorous reach-out to neighborhood groups. The more you listen to Smilin' Hal, the more you understand why a giant utility corporation paid him big bucks for years for his skills at deflection.
Cathy Murillo. Cathy stuck to the script and her talking points, maintaining her campaign-long strategy of making avoidance of any mistakes her top debate priority.
She nicely finessed a good question from Nick Welsh about being more suited to be an advocate for progressive causes than a consensus-building mayor – “People see me as mayoral, Nick” - and won big applause in the hall for making clear she, more than anyone in the field, favored more new housing construction - "It takes courage to build housing" in Santa Barbara - and highlighting her past role in helping to kill a proposed gang junction, which she assailed as “law enforcement suppression.”
Cathy on the trail works hard, and often effectively, to project confidence and self-possession – “As your mayor” and “Under my leadership” are favorite refrains – but her tell-don’t-show self congratulatory style – “I’m known as a great leader,” “I have a friendly personality” - and endless platitudes – "We need to get behind it, we need to make it happen” are simply tiresome.
Angel Martinez. Angel was more low-energy and subdued on Tuesday night than at any previous forum and he failed to articulate clearly why he is running.
He handled an inevitable question that implicitly compared him to Donald Trump nicely, noting that as a business leader he'd learned and mastered the crucial value of collaboration and cooperation, and while he had a few good lines - If the city permits a pot shop on State Street, he said, “it better be a nice one” - but he repeatedly failed to respond to Frank’s sniping; Hotchkiss ate his lunch by mocking Angel for setting the target income for millennial workforce housing at $90,000, a taunt that Martinez left unanswered.
Most critically, Martinez never made the argument for the central premise of his campaign – that he represents change against four rivals with deep ties to City Hall.