The impact of Texas billionaire housing developer and part-time Montecito resident Randall Van Wolfswinkel on this year’s city elections has been the subject of intense speculation and rumor-but this past Thursday, Van Wolfswinkel proved conclusively that when it comes to spending money, he’s a lot more fire than he is smoke.
Van Wolfswinkel’s political action committee, Preserve Our Santa Barbara, has already raised $243,000 to be spent in the Santa Barbara mayoral and city council races, according to political campaign reports filed with City Hall on September 24. With nearly two months to go before the November election, Van Wolfswinkel will likely raise and spend far more. In the context of Santa Barbara city races, this display of financial muscle for political purposes is totally unprecedented. Not since Michael Huffington, another Texas billionaire, moved to Santa Barbara in the 1990s and buried the South Coast in cash in his successful quest for congressional office, has Santa Barbara seen such a display of political big-spending.
Van Wolfswinkel’s political action committee has endorsed Santa Barbara City Councilmember Dale Francisco in his bid to become Santa Barbara’s next mayor. Likewise, he has endorsed Michael Self, Frank Hotckiss, and Cathie McCammon. He’s also embraced Measure B, the proposed charter amendment that would lower the maximum allowable building height in El Pueblo Viejo to 40 feet. The current maximum is 60 feet.
Van Wolfswinkel’s dollars alters the basic chemistry of the campaign. In a town where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a factor of 2.5 to 1, Van Wolfswinkel’s backing gives conservative Republicans like Francisco, Self, and Hotchkiss far more than a fighting chance. Technically speaking, city council races are non-partisan affairs, but party politics always plays a role.
This year, such partisan dividing lines are considerably muddied by the height initiative, Measure B. Traditional slow-growthers long associated with the Democratic Party are now joining forces with the likes of Francisco, and young Democrats, more intrigued by the precepts of “new urbanism”-alternative transit, affordable housing, and ecological sustainability-find themselves allied with developers, architects, and their land use agents.
Mayoral candidates Helene Schneider and Steve Cushman have both sought to make an issue of Van Wolfswinkel’s influence. Schneider-who emerged out of Santa Barbara’s progressive community-has attempted to take Francisco to task for accepting donations from a big Texas real estate developer when, at his opening press conference, Francisco vowed to take no money from developers or unions. Cushman, President of the Chamber of Commerce, has tweaked Francisco at forums about Van Wolfswinkel’s support. In response, Francisco has stressed that he’s not taken a dime from Van Wolfswinkel and that the campaign being run by the Texas real estate developer has nothing to do with his own. Even so, Schneider argued, residents should be concerned that someone from outside Santa Barbara has such influence in shaping the election’s outcome.
Much remains unknown about Van Wolfswinkel and what sparked his involvement in Santa Barbara local politics. According to Planning Commissioner and former Santa Barbara Mayor Sheila Lodge, he grew up in Santa Barbara and attended public schools with one of her own children. He was deeply upset earlier this year when the City Council approved developer John Price’s plans to destroy the Union 76 gas station on Coast Village Road in Montecito, and replace it with a 25,000 square foot mixed-use development. (City Council candidate and Planning Commissioner Bendy White worked for Price as a land use consultant on that project. White recused himself from participating in any discussion or deliberation on the matter.) According to people who claim to have spoken with Van Wolfswinkel, he is also upset with the pace and style of change taking placed in Santa Barbara and wants to preserve the city’s historic charm. To that end, he’s set out to replace the current councilmembers with new ones.
Lodge recounted that during a conversation she had with Wolfswinkel earlier this year, he vowed to spend up to $50,000 per candidate. While not everyone buys into this preservation-minded narrative regarding Van Wolfswinkel’s motivations-they cite a recent news report on Van Wolfswinkel’s plans to build a couple of new high rises on land he just purchased near Arlington, Texas-the fact remains he has already raised enough to meet the $50,000 mark that Lodge reported. According to one account, Preserve Our Santa Barbara has taken out $90,000 in media buys on local TV, and another $40,000 for radio ads. He’s sent out two mailers, which attack the current council for allowing gang violence, aggressive panhandlers, and overdevelopment to run amok. In addition, his ads have blamed the current council for the city’s financial woes. And, ironically, he’s hired hot shot political consultant Carlos Rodriguez to help run the campaign. Rodriguez had worked for Michael Huffington during Huffington’s close, but ultimately unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1994.
While Van Wolfswinkel is the biggest story in the recent campaign finance reports, he’s hardly the only one. Mayoral aspirant Steve Cushman raised $103,000, and of that, $50,000 came from Russian billionaire banker Sergey Grishin, a recent arrival to town who just purchased Montecito’s historic Val Verde for $15.3 million. (According to unconfirmed reports, Grishin and Van Wolfswinkel may have been involved in a bidding war to secure Val Verde.) To jump-start his campaign, Cushman donated his campaign $15,000. In his most recent campaign filing, Cushman announced that he’s forgiven $10,000 of that debt.
Councilmember Schneider has raised nearly $83,000 in her bid to become mayor, none of it in loans. Her biggest donor was Peter Sperling, a Montecito billionaire whose father started University of Phoenix and whose wife started the San Roque School. He donated $5,000. Francisco has raised $53,000. The remaining two mayoral candidates, Bob Hansen and Isaac Garrett, are not actively fundraising.
If either Schneider or Francisco are elected mayor, the fourth-highest council vote getter would get their City Council seat. In that scenario, five of the seven council spots could change hands. Either way, the future political tilt of the council hangs in the balance in this race.
Of the 13 candidates running for three City Council seats, commercial realtor John Thyne III has raised the most, $68,000. But those numbers are somewhat misleading. In the past two months, Thyne, bedeviled by political problems stemming from a DUI conviction, has raised only $2,000 in cash. Thyne-who was running as a businessman with a heart-started out with very deep pockets and considerable name recognition. But one month after announcing he was running for office, he was cited for violating the terms of a DUI conviction that prohibited him from driving with any level of alcohol in his system. On the night in question, Thyne had consumed two vodka tonics. Even so, he remained below the legal threshold of intoxication.
Following Thyne is Harwood “Bendy” White, who raised $46,000. Most of White’s donations came in three-digit chunks, with a few $1,000 donations, from developers and slow-growthers, anti-Measure B and pro-Measure B activists alike. Dianne Channing, the Riviera activist who helped draft the city’s Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, came in third with nearly $30,000. Grant House, the only incumbent in the race, raised $27,000. House, Channing, White, and Schneider have the same campaign manager and enjoy many of the same endorsements, but technically are not running as a slate.
Michael Self, a neighborhood activist who has fought City Hall over bulb-outs, roundabouts, and other traffic calming devices, raised $25,794. Of that, $6,000 was an in-kind donation from a political consultant, Heather Bryden, active with the Santa Barbara Tea Party crowd. Frank Hotchkiss did not file a campaign finance report by the city’s deadline. David Pritchett, an environmentalist running without the benediction of the environmental establishment, raised $24,000. Of that, about $9,000 came in the form of in-kind donations. Cathie McCammon, a longtime activist with Citizens Planning Association, the League of Women Voters, and the Democratic Party, raised nearly $20,000. Justin Tevis, a libertarian-minded Republican, raised nearly $16,000. Candidates Cruzito Cruz, Bonnie Raisin, Lane Anderson, and John Gibbs are either not raising funds or entered the race too late to file reports.
Meanwhile the campaign on behalf of Measure B-which would impose tougher new height limits-collected nearly $48,000, mostly in smaller three-digit increments. However, Van Wolfswinkel donated $9,900 directly to Save El Pueblo Viejo; that’s in addition to what he’s spending on his own independent campaign on behalf of Measure B. Planning Commissioner Sheila Lodge donated $2,000, as did the Pearl Chase Society. The No on B Committee raised only $38,000. With a few notable exceptions-alternative transit advocates and affordable housing supporters-this money came from real estate interests, their attorneys, and architects.