If money talks, incumbent City Council candidate Das Williams is speaking in tongues.
Williams has raised $72,067, far more money than anyone else in the eight-person race, but he’s also spending it. With the election a week away, Williams has already shelled out $65,000. The million-dollar question begged by Williams’ spending spree is “why?” After all, the conventional wisdom holds that this election should be a cake walk for the three incumbents-Williams, Helene Schneider, and Brian Barnwell. Maybe Williams is running scared-always a sign of wisdom in elected officials.
Given the outright weirdness of this year’s race-if eight candidates run for election in a forest and no one hears them campaign, do they really win? - maybe Williams is hedging his bets. People along the campaign trail are convinced Williams is hell-bent on coming in first. That’s partly to offset the stinging defeat he suffered last year when he came in dead last during his controversial bid for the 2nd District Supervisor seat. Or perhaps, he wants to make a statement of strength for if and when he moves up the political food chain. Or maybe the poll and TV commercials that Williams has paid for-no one else is doing TV-is a hedge against the weirdness that pervades this year’s weirdly somnolent race.
Part of the snore factor stems from the fact that there are no open seats, only three incumbents running for three seats. Usually, there’s at least one open seat, and this is the first time in years that’s not been the case. Secondly, there’s the weird gravitational mojo exerted by the ongoing meltdown at the News-Press. Actual news coverage of the race has been less than the bare minimum, and the eight candidates running find themselves running in a bigger-than-usual media void. But the News-Press has eschewed its standard posture since Wendy McCaw bought the paper, namely that it’s presumptuous for a newspaper to tell readers what to do in the voting booth. This year, News-Press editorial writer Travis K. Armstrong has thrown all his weight behind three challengers -Frank Hotchkiss, Dale Francisco, and Michelle Giddens-unified in their distrust of the current City Hall, dismay over the Light Blue Line, and intense dislike of the mini-roundabouts and other traffic-calming devices inserted throughout the upper East Side.
Since then, the News-Press has wasted few opportunities reminding readers of their endorsements. Given that many of the News-Press older, die-hard readers are high propensity voters-coupled with a low turnout-this could give the News-Press slate a decided boost. This would be contrary to years past when the News-Press endorsements almost always proved fatal to its recipients.
Among the big-ticket donors who gave to Williams in the most recent reporting period, the Service Employees International Union lead the pack with $5,000. The police union tossed in $2,777 for Williams to cover the costs of a slate mailer. Williams’ longtime friend and political benefactor Peter Sperling, chief executive of Call Wave and scion of the University of Phoenix fortune, was good for $4,000. Marborg trash czar Mario Borgatello gave Williams $1,000 via his Asti Trust. There’s nothing new about Borgatello giving to candidates; but this time around Marborg’s chief trash rival BFI has decided to get in the action, donating $1,000 as well, through its corporate front AWIN Management out of Phoenix. These dueling donations suggest that Santa Barbara is in store for stage two of the trash war between Marborg and BFI. A few years ago, Marborg succeeded in wrestling half the city’s lucrative trash contract away from BFI, which held the contract exclusively since the late 1970s. It’s been an open secret that Marborg has had its eyes on taking over the rest of BFI’s Santa Barbara trash holdings.
Incumbent Helene Schneider raised the second most cash, $48,220, and has spent slightly more than half of that, $27,117. She also received $5,000 from SEIU, as well as a $2,500 donation from the police union. Hope Ranch resident Betty Stephens, well-known benefactress of the Democratic Party, donated $1,100, the Democratic Women gave $750, and Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee forked over $500. Two members of the Metropolitan Transit District board-Dave Davis and John Britton-also kicked in $600 between them. Schneider, like Williams, has looked out for MTD, increasing city contributions to the bus district to increase the frequency of bus trips.
Challenger Dale Francisco came in third, raising $27,812, but that sum deserves at least a partial asterisk. More than half that amount, $15,000, Francisco loaned himself. Although Francisco managed to snag a few respectable three-digit donations from the Pearl Chase crowd-Mary Louise Day and Kellem De Forest to name two-his big donations came from the Lincoln Club, a Republican Party PAC that donated $1,000, and James Westby, the retired General Motors executive who gave $3,110 through himself and his wife Sharon. The Westbys have been key players in the campaign against the mini-roundabouts. In addition, the Board of Realtors and the Rental Property Association pledged $2,500 each.
Coming in fourth is incumbent Brian Barnwell, a bane to campaign managers everywhere for his steadfast hatred of political fundraising. Barnwell managed to collect more than a few three-digit donations from architects and planners-he used to serve on the Planning Commission-and three $1,000 donations from fellow real estate appraisers. Still, the cops union gave him the most, $5,000, and Borgatello gave him $2,000. Conspicuously nestled among the smaller donations was the $250 given to Barnwell by Joe Cole, the former publisher of the News-Press. Cole left the News-Press last April and few elected officials are as despised by the paper as Barnwell.
It was Barnwell’s wife Camilla Cohee worked as a reporter for the News-Press and ignited the meltdown last July when she wrote an article identifying actor Rob Lowe as the owner of a vacant Montecito lot then the focus of an intense neighborhood development dispute. That publication of the Lowe property address promoted McCaw to issue letters of reprimand, which in turn acted as the event triggering a wholesale walk-out by most of the paper’s top editors July 6, 2006. Barnwell’s relations with the News-Press have grown so sour that it’s tainted his relationships with other elected officials who still communicate with News-Press editorial page editor Travis Armstrong. He’s had run-ins with fellow councilmembers Iya Falcone and Salud Carbajal on the subject.
Coming in fifth is Michelle Giddens, the Mesa mom who cut got sucked into city politics unsuccessfully fighting a measure designed to limit the McMansionization of the Mesa. Giddens and her allies wanted more size and more flexibility, and although they didn’t win, they’re credited with successfully watering down the ordinance ultimately approved by the city council. Since entering the race, Giddens has also jumped on the anti-roundabout bandwagon. And in fact, $4,350 of her donations came from active critics of the roundabouts: the Westbys, Michael Self, and Lanny Ebenstein. The Rental Property Owners Association and the Board of Realtors also committed to giving her $2,500 each.
Frank Hotchkiss, the only candidate to sport an actual slogan-“Common Sense for a Change”-has raised $10,314. Many of donations, some sizable, came from fellow real estate investors, with $500 coming from real estate developer Jerry Beaver, who threatened to sue City Hall over the Light Blue Line. Hotchkiss, who has the toughest-sounding rhetoric when it comes to gangs, has recently come out against the public expenditure of funds that encourages people to speak any language other than English. He has also been critical of the mini-roundabouts, suggesting they’re part of a city hall campaign to push people out of their cars. Hotchkiss received $2,500 from Jim Westby. He also received $2,500 from the Board of Realtors, and another $2,500 from the Rental Property Association, and $1,000 from the Lincoln Club.
Challengers Bob Hansen and Dr. Daniel Litten filed no disclosure reports, having chosen to not raise the requisite minimum to trigger state campaign finance reporting requirements.