FEAR OF HEIGHTS: This has been a banner year for bridge jumpers in Santa Barbara. In the past seven days, two people leapt to their deaths off of Cold Spring Bridge, bringing the total number of suicides from that spot since its construction in 1964 to an even 50. If Cold Spring hadn’t already been a destination of sorts for the suicidally-minded, it certainly will be so now that USA TODAY just wrote a feature length news article on its growing popularity for those planning a one-way trip to the hereafter. But, of course, it’s not just the bridge.
One young man killed himself by diving head first off the Granada Parking Garage two weeks ago. Over the weekend, city cops managed to stop two young women from taking the long walk off another downtown parking structure. Given the septic bilge billowing forth from the Yes on Measure B campaign-the group intent on limiting building heights in downtown Santa Barbara to 40 feet-I’m surprised they haven’t seized on this angle. Yet. It’s only a matter of time before I get a campaign mailer-courtesy of Texas billionaire, housing developer, and Santa Barbara High School graduate Randall Van Wolfswinkel-proclaiming, “Support Measure B. By limiting building heights, we can limit suicide deaths!” Naturally, there will be an accompanying smear suggesting people who don’t support Measure B favor suicide. Of course, there will be photographs (the blurrier and grainer the better) of the city candidates Van Wolfswinkel is hell-bent on destroying-Helene Schneider, Steve Cushman, Bendy White and Grant House in particular-as part of his master plan to take over City Hall by installing a conservative majority .
I give Randall high marks for bold vision. Given how rattled city voters are right now-and how many candidates are splitting the pot-the timing of his power play is impeccable. Randall’s execution, however, could not be worse. On the Richter scale measuring political “ick” factor, it’s an 11. First, there’s Preserve Our Santa Barbara, a political action committee registered in Los Angeles (not Santa Barbara), funded by a Texas developer billionaire (not Santa Barbaran), and directed by a heating and air conditioning company owner from San Luis Obispo County (also not Santa Barbara). To date, no actual Santa Barbara residents belong to Preserve Our Santa Barbara. Second, there’s the money. Three weeks ago, Van Wolfswinkel reported having raised and spent $270,000 backing Measure B, mayoral candidate Dale Francisco, and council candidates Frank Hotchkiss, Michael Self, and Cathie McCammon. This week, he bought $75,000 worth of air time on KEYT. I presume he bought similar amounts at other stations. When the dust finally settles, Van Wolfswinkel will have spent at least $500,000.
By Santa Barbara standards, that’s not a flood; it’s a tsunami. Inquiring minds naturally want to know who this masked man is. But Randall continues to decline all entreaties to discuss his involvement, explaining that he’s a private person who doesn’t do interviews. He referred us instead to John Wallace, the heating and air conditioning guy from San Luis. (Wallace got into the political fray fighting a proposal to knock down Montecito’s Union 76 gas station and build three stories of shops and condos in its place. Wallace had purchased property next door, though he had not moved in yet.) Wallace’s wife, Sandy Wallace told my answering machine to keep in mind that every story has two sides. But, she said, neither she nor her husband would be telling me theirs because they would not be talking to reporters until after the election.
Then, there’s the campaign itself, so nasty and creepy that one needs to wear a body condom these days just to open the mail. It’s so bad that one of Van Wolfswinkel’s campaign consultants-Preston Kincaid-quit in disgust over it, blaming Wallace for its relentless toxicity. Kincaid said Wallace insisted on converting every campaign mailer into “a tantrum.” He also said Wallace told him political consultant John Davies-running Steve Cushman’s mayoral campaign and who worked for the developer in the Union 76 fight-was bugging his phone calls. As a precaution against such electronic eavesdropping, Kincaid said Wallace turned on his microwave before making phone calls to scramble the signals. The Wallaces-who personified both the irresistible force of nature and the immovable object-it seems could not get along with even their own allies in the Union 76 fight. But they connected with Van Wolfswinkel during that campaign-which is by no means over-and they are now effectively calling the shots for the Preserve Our Santa Barbara campaign.
Wolfswinkel has gone after Cushman because Cushman threatens to pull right-of-center votes from councilmember Dale Francisco, who is Van Wolfswinkel’s choice for mayor. It’s fair game to question a $50,000 donation Cushman got from a billionaire Russian banker; that’s a huge amount. But to suggest in a campaign mailer that Cushman-head of the Chamber of Commerce by day-might be part of the Hammer-n-Sickle crowd-a Kremlin Kommie-was beyond surreal. Likewise, Van Wolfswinkel’s henchmen are attacking Councilmember Grant House, now seeking his second term. To believe the flyers, House has been flagrantly abusing the perks of power, taking his wife on expensive junkets at city expense, and ditching council meetings by the score. Who knew? The facts, however, are otherwise. When it comes to travel expenses and absences, House is a parsimonious piker compared to his colleagues. And whether you like House or not, he takes his gig seriously and works hard. When he travels at city expense, it’s to represent City Hall at quasi-governmental meet-n-greets. To the extent, he was absent, it was either because he was attending such events, or helping his wife deal with her recent struggle with breast cancer. But who do we call for comment and clarification? Certainly not Van Wolfswinkel and not the Wallaces, either.
When Preserve Our Santa Barbara charges that youth violence has increased by 68 percent during House’s tenure, for example, Deputy Police Chief Frank Mannix says their facts are flat-out wrong. Who’s right? Where did the numbers come from? Who knows? Nobody answers their phone. The slimiest dodge, of course, comes from the candidates and campaigns benefiting from Van Wolfswinkel’s largesse. With doe-eyed innocence, they insist they have nothing to do with Preserve Our City’s tactics and claims. Yet without the money Randall spends on their behalf, many wouldn’t stand a chance. Legally and technically, they can insist their hands are clean. But that’s just because they were smart enough to wear gloves.
What makes this painful and not just slimy are all the longstanding friendships that have been placed in peril. While most polls show that Measure B and the building height issue has remarkable little urgency among likely voters, the debate has divided a sizable group of longtime community activists who collaborated over the span of decades to keep Santa Barbara a human scale city. On Measure B and building heights, similar minds can genuinely differ; friends can disagree. Van Wolfswinkel-in his attempt at a City hall putsch-is pimping Measure B for all its worth. He presents it as the unifying theme linking his slate of candidates. But that doesn’t square with the fact that Van Wolfswinkel money is being used to carpet bomb candidates like Bendy White who helped draft Measure B in the first place. That’s because it’s not really about Measure B. It’s only about Measure B to the extent the lower height limits help usher in a new conservative majority.
There’s no shortage of glaring ironies looming over Measure B. The godfather of the lower building heights is Bill Mahan, who as a planning commissioner approved all the buildings that have been cited as the scourge which Measure B will protect us against. White, now a planning commissioner, likewise voted for many of these same structures. Mahan has always been a force of nature, and now that he’s changed course over big buildings, he cannot be diverted. If longstanding relationships are at risk, so be it. Mahan, for example, literally moved mountains to put Grant House on the city council. House, a former planning commissioner, had balked at earlier entreaties to run for council, citing poor council pay. Mahan lead the charge to increase the pay for council members and the mayor. He was part of the brain trust that put the measure to city voters a few years back in the form of a ballot initiative, and he gave generously to the campaign. Without Mahan, it would not have passed. When House then ran for council, Mahan donated generously to the effort and served as a close advisor. But over Measure B, House and Mahan have parted company. Today, Mahan’s new ally-Van Wolfswinkel-is moving mountains to burry Grant House, who would never had been on the council in the first place without Mahan’s considerable exertions.
One might justify all the ruckus over building heights had it engendered a meaningful community debate over many of the ancillary issues that have people most upset-oversized, in-your-face Mondo-Condos built for visiting millionaires in a community desperate for more affordable housing. Sadly, the debate has been pretty sterile and almost non-existent. In fact Mahan and Save El Pueblo Viejo have been ducking public debates. Maybe they’ve concluded the more people hear about Measure B, the less they like it. Or maybe they really feel they were sucker punched at the first forum, held at the Natural History Museum six weeks ago. In any case, The Fund for Santa Barbara struggled mightily to get anyone to represent the pro-Measure B position for a community forum taking place this Wednesday night. Only after much pleading and cajoling did two members of El Pueblo Viejo-Lanny Ebenstein and Sheila Lodge-agree to participate. But only as individuals, not as members of Save El Pueblo Viejo.
The good news, of course, is Van Wolfswinkel is committing political suicide by how he’s run his campaign. He might as well have thrown $500,000 off the top of the Cold Spring Bridge. Santa Barbarans will see right through this stuff, right? If not, maybe next year we’ll have a ballot measure to lop the tops off any and all buildings exceeding 40-feet. Sounds pretty crazy. But what could be crazier than a San Luis businessman waging war on behalf of a Texas billionaire calling themselves “Preserve Santa Barbara?”