BYE-BYE BARNWELL: Maybe it’s true that defeat is an orphan and victory has a thousand fathers. But in the weird case of Santa Barbara City Councilmember Brian Barnwell, defeat appears more like a class action paternity suit-akin to that surrounding the pregnancy of kitschy sex kitten Anna Nicole Smith right before her death.
Barnwell was the entrenched incumbent who, by all reckonings, should have cake-walked into a second term. Instead, he stunned the world of the conventionally wise by coming in fifth, garnering fewer votes than two challengers-Dale Francisco and Michelle Giddens-who between them had zero experience running for office. I didn’t always agree with Barnwell, but I’ll definitely miss him.
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In conversation, Barnwell was uncommonly candid where other elected officials were cautious, courageously and outrageously profane where others were guardedly proper, and restlessly uncertain where others painted themselves into tidy corners. But Barnwell was more than just a gifted blabbermouth. He was insatiably curious, and his positions would change-sometimes drastically enough to induce whiplash among his council colleagues-based on the accumulation of new information.
Likewise, he rarely went in for the strategic posturing necessary to curry favor with influential constituencies that would help him climb the political food chain. Maybe he wasn’t good at it. Perhaps he thought he was too good for it. Or maybe he was happy right where he was. For those of us for whom political spin is an occupational hazard, Barnwell was refreshing. But his impetuous nature and shoot-from-the-lip tendencies also proved a liability.
In what passes for the right-left spectrum of the City Council, Barnwell was a fuzzy centrist. The enviros never came to trust him no matter how hard he threw himself at recycling, creeks, and sustainability. And the developers and biz community-which proved instrumental in getting Barnwell elected four years ago-grew disenchanted when their man strayed from their brand of “common sense.”
On election night, Barnwell complained there’s no room in politics for middle-of-the-road candidates. But truth be told, he was often a one-man circular firing squad. When he proclaimed the massive St. Francis affordable housing project proposed by Cottage Hospital to be the best in the city’s history, he seriously alienated the affections of neighborhood activists affiliated with the Bungalow Haven Liberation Front. But when Barnwell got green religion in response to global warming and tried to get Cottage to put solar panels on as many of the St. Francis rooftops as possible, his buddies on the Cottage board pulled a major-league pout. They threatened to withdraw their project entirely if Barnwell didn’t back off and behave. Barnwell retaliated by accusing them of arrogance from the council dais. Even so, he voted for their project. Then, for good measure, Barnwell pissed off the Bungalow Haven activistas one more time by sending a box of doughnuts to the city planners who worked on the Cottage housing project, thanking them for their help getting the St. Francis housing project approved. Little wonder that on election night Barnwell tanked in the upper Eastside neighborhoods near St. Francis. Little wonder, also, that Das Williams-the only councilmember to vote against the St. Francis housing project-was the top vote-getter on the upper Eastside.
The lesson Williams has distilled from the election results was that the candidates who worked hardest and walked precincts earliest did the best in an election where the fewest number ever bothered going to the polls. For Williams, campaigning has always been like a nervous tic. He has to knock on doors; he has to raise money. And he did-more than anyone else. Williams, who emerged out of Santa Barbara’s progressive activist camp, could always count on the eco-groovy, stop-the-war, cars-suck, granola-eating bloc. But unlike any other operator from that camp, he actively wooed-and in some instances wowed-the splintered micro tribes of Santa Barbara’s neighborhood activists who are unified in their conviction that the bums in City Hall are plotting to sell them out. (It was out of one such tribe that successful challenger Francisco emerged, full of prickly fury over how City Hall approved the mini roundabouts and other traffic-calming devices.)
Had Barnwell taken a page from Williams’s book and actively wooed the liberal Dems, maybe he’d have done better. But in this regard, Barnwell proved either lackadaisical, fatalistic, or both, and seemed to blow them off. Nor did it help Barnwell any that the firefighters union-which typically raises money and walks precincts on behalf of candidates-sat out this election, exasperated over the stalled state of their contract negotiations. Given our freshly frightened memories of the Zaca Fire, the firefighters’ endorsement might have had even more impact this year than it did immediately after 9/11. And certainly, Barnwell would have been their man. Likewise, the cops were at best desultory in their endorsement of the incumbents. This year they didn’t walk precincts, but instead sent out mailers that didn’t arrive until the afternoon of Election Day, too late to have any impact.
Finally, there was the almost daily carpet bombing by the Santa Barbara News-Press in its editorial pages all but accusing the incumbents of everything short of flat feet, psoriasis, and genocide in Darfur. It’s true the paper harbored a special hatred for Barnwell, in part because his wife-Camilla Cohee, one of the many reporters to quit since last year-wrote the news article that triggered the meltdown that still engulfs the paper. It’s a fact that the News-Press bears little resemblance to its former self, let alone to a functioning daily paper. Certainly its plummeting readership bears this out. But like a blind, senile, incontinent dog I once owned, it can still bite if you get too close. To that extent only is News-Press editorial page hit man Travis Armstrong entitled to his self-intoxicated, post-election delusions of grandeur.