THE CHECK’S IN THE MAIL: One of the most redeeming aspects of election season is all the new pen pals you get. Every night when I come home, I eagerly look forward to all the letters I know will be waiting in my mailbox. This year, the vast majority of such mail comes from Randall Van Wolfswinkel, a man I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting despite my considerable efforts at making his acquaintance. Even so, he addressed me warmly in one, opening the missive with, “Dear Friends.” A touch impersonal maybe, but I certainly need all the friends I can get. And you never know when one as wealthy as Randy -a Texas developer who qualifies as one of the top 50 home builders in the United States-might come in handy.
Randy grew up in Santa Barbara, and memories of his morning bike rides to Cleveland School are etched fondly into his brain. Since moving to Texas and becoming a billionaire housing developer, however, Randy has become alarmed about the sorry state of civic affairs in his home town. To that, he’s already spent $270,000 to throw out the current bums from City Hall and replace them with bums more to his liking. That’s democracy. Actually, according to the Supreme Court, it’s free speech. By the time Randy’s through, he’ll have spent a half-million bucks speaking freely. By Santa Barbara standards, that makes him an uncommon blowhard. Naturally, people accustomed to buying access and gratitude at City Hall for far less are upset; Randy is pricing them out of the game. Possible worthy candidates are learning that if they don’t have a billionaire in their corner, don’t bother. And, conversely, political candidates who without Van Wolfswinkel’s support might struggle to hold the stage at a karaoke bar now stand a solid chance at getting elected.
Inquiring minds want to know about this masked man. Why is he so adamant that Dale Francisco be elected our next mayor? (And, equally curious, why is Dale so adamant that the two have nothing to do with one another?) Why does Randall care that Michael Self, Frank Hotchkiss, and Cathie McCammon serve on the City Council? Why is he talking such relentless smack about other candidates in the race, like Steve Cushman, Helene Schneider, Harwood “Bendy” White, and Grant House? And why is a Texas developer who’s juggling six to eight subdivision projects-each one bigger than everything Michael Towbes built in a lifetime-so hell-bent on passing Measure B, which will lower maximum building heights downtown by a full third? Why does a guy who reportedly occupies the seventh story of a high-rise condo in Dallas care so much about building heights in Santa Barbara? Why does someone whose other Dallas home consumes 12,711 square feet send out mailers denouncing mini-mansion development? And why does Randy believe campaign donations from out-of-town developers-normally a four-letter word in these parts-like himself are morally superior to those given by “local developers,” whose “cozy relationships” with City Hall he constantly lambasts?
Randy, I was sure, would have much to say to set my mind at ease on all these subjects. So I did my job. I looked up his company-First Texas Homes-in the phone book. I called and asked for Randall. Someone politely took down my name and number. I called a friend of his in town. He said he’d relay my contact information. I even gave him my personal cell phone number. I called Randall at home and left a message on his answering machine. I left repeated emails with his executive assistant. What did I get?
By contrast, it took me just one phone call to hear back from Carol Greider, one of the women who just won the Nobel Prize for medical research. I know Randy is busy plotting the overthrow of City Hall, and that takes considerable time and focus. But Greider-who graduated from UCSB in 1983, one year after Randy graduated from Santa Barbara High School-has things on her plate, too, like running a lab that’s studying the process by which genes replicate and what that tells us about how cancer works and the bio-chemical mechanics of aging.
If Randy never returned my phone calls, April Greene certainly did. I found her name doing an Internet search and discovered that she sued First Texas Homes all the way to that state’s Supreme Court. She complained that she moved into a First Texas Home on a Friday-way back in 1998-and was experiencing serious technical difficulties by the following Monday. Sewage was backing up in her front yard, she charged; her roof was leaking; the faucets weren’t put in right; the air conditioning system malfunctioned. Greene, an African-American woman, said the repair crews First Texas Homes dispatched to her house were less than sensitive.
“You wouldn’t think you people would be so upset about living with a little crap,” she said they said. And nothing, she claimed, got fixed. The Supreme Court ruled that Greene’s contract prevented her from suing Van Wolfswinkel, whom she never met other than to see him in court one day; she had to arbitrate. Ultimately, Greene said they settled, but not for nearly as much as First Texas initially had offered to make her go away. When you build 1,500 homes a year, you’re bound to have a few lemons. Maybe that was Greene’s bad luck, I suggested, to be such a lemon. In that case, she replied, her subdivision was a veritable orchard. No fewer than 67 of her neighbors in the Briarwood subdivision, located 15 minutes south of Dallas, had joined a class-action lawsuit against First Texas Homes alleging defective workmanship. That case, she said, went nowhere. Given her experience, Greene marveled at Van Wolfswinkel’s ability to stay in the good graces of the building inspectors and zoning enforcement officers. Perhaps Van Wolfswinkel knows firsthand what can happen when local developers enjoy “cozy relationships” with City Hall. Or maybe not.
I know there’s another side to this story. And I’d be happy to tell it. But until Randy calls, the only sound you’ll hear is that of one hand clapping.
Until then, I’d caution Van Wolfswinkel and his anointed candidates to lighten up. The doom ‘n’ gloom/sky is falling/Chicken Little schtick is wearing thin. We’ve just endured three major A-list urban forest fires in the past 15 months; we don’t need scare tactics. We’ve already been scared enough. But Van Wolfswinkel’s candidates tell us crime is out of control, gangs are out of control, aggressive panhandlers are out of control, and the city’s budget is out of control. It’s enough to wet your pants.
We hear from Van Wolfswinkel’s slate at candidates’ forums that violent crime has increased 22 percent in the past year. That would be genuinely spooky if true. It turns out violent crime has gone up a bit, from 445 in 2007 to 492 last year. But that’s still notably fewer than the 560 violent crimes reported in 2005. To the extent that there has been a spike in crime rates last year, it’s been in burglary and theft-not violent crime-by about 25 percent. Other police departments throughout the county have experienced an almost identical rise, just the way every other city and county in the state find themselves in a serious fiscal pickle. Some blame the economy for the rise in property crimes; others, the easy abundance of heroin in the South Coast. Deputy Chief Frank Mannix observed that it was way too easy for one of his officers to set up an exchange with an Oxnard dealer that netted two pounds of heroin. Mannix also noted that compared to 2007, any year will probably look bad. That’s because 2007 had the lowest number of Type 1 crimes-which include murder, rape, arson, assault, car theft, larceny, and burglary-in the past 25 years.
In the meantime, Randy, chill. But don’t be such a stranger. If you want to be “friends,” you need to understand friendship is a two-way street. Call me. I’ll buy lunch.