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Santa Barbara City Elections Drowning in Cash

Texas Billionaire Spends Half a Million to Change Council


If money is the mother’s milk of politics, then Santa Barbara voters should be drowning in it by now. Spending on the mayoral and council races has achieved new, stratospheric heights, and with two weeks to go before ballots are counted, the fund-raising promises only to get wilder.

In a normal year, the $60,000 that has been raised by Firefighters for Better Government on behalf of their slate of candidates - Helene Schneider for mayor and Grant House, Bendy White, and Dianne Channing for council - would seem like a lot. But the 2009 elections are anything but normal. Just one person, Texas billionaire and part-time Montecito resident Randall Van Wolfswinkel, has spent $520,000 to back Measure B, the initiative that would lower maximum building heights by one third; as well as his slate of conservative candidates: Dale Francisco for mayor, and Frank Hotchkiss, Michael Self, and Cathie McCammon for council.

These sums are unprecedented by Santa Barbara standards. According to campaign finance statements released late this week, Van Wolfswinkel’s political action committee (PAC), called Preserve Our Santa Barbara, spent $518,000. Of that, Van Wolfswinkel donated or loaned the PAC $468,000. And those sums do not count the $60,000 Van Wolfswinkel donated to his candidates and Measure B directly, in his own name.

According to the most recent reports, Van Wolfswinkel spent $120,000 on negative advertisements to defeat the slate backed by the Democratic Party: Schneider, House, Channing, and White. By contrast, he spent slightly less - $111,800 - on behalf of the candidates he’s backed. He spent $49,500 on behalf of Measure B, and another $40,000 on a mailer titled, “Official Non-partisan Voter Guide” that appeared as if it had been endorsed by the League of Women Voters, but wasn’t. The guide supported the Van Wolfswinkel slate. Members of the League have strenuously objected, but to little effect.

With the exception of one cursory interview with Daily Sound columnist Cheri Rae, Van Wolfswinkel has declined requests for media interviews. According to political folklore, he is a quiet, diffident man who cares passionately about preserving Santa Barbara, where he grew up. Van Wolfswinkel started First Texas Homes, one of the largest real estate developers in the nation, and lives outside Dallas. He reportedly owns a property in Montecito and is shopping around for another on which he can build a new house for his family. He got involved with Santa Barbara politics after the Santa Barbara City Council denied an appeal he financed to block the demolition of the Union 76 gas station on Coast Village Road and its replacement by a three-story mix of condos and shops. He reportedly decided then that members of the City Council needed to be replaced.

By various accounts, Van Wolfswinkel is a politically conservative Republican, and while not all members of his slate are Republican, they are the most conservative candidates with a likely chance of victory.

The magnitude of Van Wolfswinkel’s donations have eclipsed the $50,000 check written by Russian billionaire banker Sergey Grishin to mayoral candidate Steve Cushman. Grishin owns properties in Montecito, including the Val Verde estate, and, like Van Wolfswinkel, is reportedly planning to settle down in the area. Normally, a donation of that size would be the buzz of the campaign. But with so much cash flying around, the Grishin donation hasn’t caused the stir it ordinarily would. It has been the subject, however, of some hit-pieces paid for by Van Wolfswikel.

Of the mayoral candidates, Helene Schneider - backed by the Democratic Party, all the public employee unions, and many liberal, progressive, and environmental organizations - reported the largest amount of campaign cash, $138,000. Of that, $10,000 came from the Police Officers Association, $8,500 from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and $5,000 from the Firefighters for Better Government. Publisher-philanthropist Sara Miller-McCune donated $5,000, Betty Stephens - a major Democratic donor - $4,500, and 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal $3,000.

Chamber of Commerce chief Steve Cushman raised $128,000 for his mayoral bid, $4,000 of that from art gallery and restaurant owner Frank Goss, $2,000 from retired investment manager Steven Hammer, and $3,000 from real estate player Steve Epstein. Attorneys and longtime Cushman friends Rob and Judy Egenolf gave $5,000 in the form of in-kind services.

By contrast, Councilmember Dale Francisco, who jumped into the mayoral race late, has raised $83,000. He loaned himself $30,000 of that. Jim and Sharon Westby donated $5,100. Westby, a retired General Motors executive, urged Francisco to run for mayor, and has acted as a political coach and strategist for the slate. Westby, Self, and Francisco cut their teeth together politically, opposing the roundabouts and bulb-outs installed on the upper Eastside as a way to slow down traffic. They’ve contended that the traffic-calming devices are part of a broader hidden agenda by city traffic engineers, new urbanists, and alternative transportation advocates to force motorists out of their cars. With Van Wolfswinkel’s money in the race paying for Preserve Our Santa Barbara’s ads supporting Francisco and attacking his rivals, Francisco has less urgency to match his rivals in campaign donations. Francisco has taken pains, however, to stress that he’s not taken a cent from Van Wolfswinkel and insists that there’s no cooperation or coordination between the two campaigns.

Mayoral candidates Isaac Garrett and Bob Hansen have not spent enough to trigger campaign reporting requirements.

Of the 13 City Council candidates, real estate entrepreneur John Thyne raised $95,000 - itself unheard of in a race for a post that pays only $35,000 a year. Of that, the largest donation - $10,000 - came from CU Enterprises, a client of Thyne’s, which manufactures parts for the Department of Defense and other government agencies. Thyne also got $2,000 from Tony Romasanta, a major real estate owner along the waterfront.

Following in a distant but respectable second place was Councilmember Grant House, the only incumbent in the race, who reported $76,000 in campaign donations. Of those, SEIU’s was the biggest, at $11,500. Environmentalist Peter Sperling, of Call Wave and the University of Phoenix fortune, donated $7,000, Supervisor Carbajal $6,000 and Russell

Trenholme $5,000. [I mistakenly identified Trenholme as a developer in the initial version of this piece. In fact, Trenholme is a retired philosophy professor and former optical chain store owner from the Midwest, who has resided in Montecito since 2000. Trenholme said he has never been a developer or in any aspect of the construction industry. He has been politically active with PUEBLO and regards the circumstances under which undocumented workers live in the United States as “one of the great human rights issues of the day.” Trenholme said he donated to House because he thought House shared some of his concerns about undocumented workers.-N.W.] PUEBLO reported $3,500 in in-kind donations, and the Engineers Union donated $4,500 worth of in-kind services.

Land use consultant and Planning Commissioner Harwood “Bendy” White reported $56,816, with developer and homeless advocate Chuck Blitz donating $2,000, Carbajal $1,500, and developer-attorney Tony Romasanta giving $1,000.

Dianne Channing - part of the Democratic Party slate - reported $47,000 in donations. Of those, she loaned herself $7,000, received $5,000 from the SEIU, $3,000 from the Police Officers Association, and $3,000 from the firefighters union.

Frank Hotchkiss, now making his second bid for council, raised $41,000; of that Van Wolfswinkel donated $7,000 and the police union contributed $5,000.

Michael Self reported $37,154, of which $10,000 came from Van Wolfswinkel and $5,200 she loaned herself.

David Pritchett - a member of the Transporation and Circulation Committee and not part of any slate - raised $36,000, half of which came in the form of in-kind donations. Cal Trout gave Pritchett, a creek restoration advocate, $500, and Planning Commissioner Charmaine Jacobs donated $250.

Finally, Justin Tevis - the most outspokenly Live-Free-or-Die conservative in the race - raised $20,000. Half of that was in the form of in-kind donations. Most of the rest came from donors in the Santa Ynez Valley, where Tevis - at 26, the youngest candidate in the race - grew up.

Save El Pueblo Viejo - which is leading the charge on behalf of Measure B - raised $75,000. Of that, $33,000 came from Van Wolfswinkel personally rather than his PAC.

Opponents of Measure B - the No on B Committee - raised $87,000. The largest donor was Victoria Street Partners, which gave $10,000 and which hopes to build a mixed-use development where the closed Vons is on Victoria Street. Bruce Corwin, owner of Metropolitan Theatres, gave $5,000. Corwin is a partner in major developments plans proposed for the back of the Arlington Theatre, which Metro Theatres owns. Sara Miller-McCune donated $5,000 to the No on B campaign, as did Virginia Hunter, who owns waterfront real estate by the foot of State Street, and developer-banker Michel Towbes. The National Association of Realtors donated $10,000 to conduct a survey. That survey - which was denounced by supporters of Measure B as a manipulative and propagandistic “push poll” - showed Measure B lacks the tsunami of support that most everyone assumes it has. The survey claimed that Measure B actually would lose if voters were exposed to arguments against it.

This story has been amended since its original posting. Russell Tenholme, who donated to House's campaign, was originally identified as a developer, but says he is not.



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