If dollars were votes, then the slate of three City of Santa Barbara council candidates backed by the Democratic Central Committee might appear poised to upset the three conservative incumbents on the ballot this November. As of last week, challengers Deborah Schwartz, Cathy Murillo, and Iya Falcone — all backed by the Democratic Party in a nominally nonpartisan race — had cumulatively raised nearly $166,000. By contrast, the trio of incumbents they’re challenging — councilmembers Dale Francisco, Michael Self, and Randy Rowse — have raised $103,663.
Two years ago — during the last council race — the roles were dramatically reversed. Then, the campaigns of Francisco, Self, and fellow conservative Frank Hotchkiss were on the receiving end of the most extravagant spending spree in Santa Barbara political history. That’s when Texas billionaire — and former Santa Barbara resident — Randall Van Wolfswinkel spent $750,000 to unseat the liberal majority then controlling the Santa Barbara City Council. This time around, there’s no evidence of Van Wolfswinkel’s dollars. In a recent interview, the retiring Texan stated he had no intention of getting involved in the Santa Barbara race, explaining he had other priorities at the moment. To the extent this year’s campaign will feature a political boogeyman, the incumbents clearly intend to make it the public-employee unions that are backing Schwartz, Murillo, Falcone, and, to a lesser extent, challenger Sharon Byrne, as well.
Of the $166,000 reported by the Democratic Party-backed trio, $37,000 came from unions. Thus far, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) donated $7,500 to the campaigns of Schwartz, Falcone, and Murillo. By contrast, the Police Officers Association (POA) has independently spent $5,371 on each of the campaigns of Falcone, Schwartz, and Byrne. To date, the firefighters union — which also endorsed Falcone, Schwartz, and Byrne — has yet to report any contributions. In campaigns past, more conservative candidates — as the trio of incumbents are — have sought to score political points, though with little impact, by highlighting the union backing enjoyed by their opponents. But this year, the tactic might prove more fruitful. Public-employee unions are more controversial now than in many years. And Councilmember Francisco, in a blistering council speech earlier this year, all but accused public-employee unions of bankrupting the state with excessive retirement benefits and killing the California Dream. Union leaders are quick to point out that retirees enjoying the six-figure pensions now grabbing headlines are invariably managers, not rank-and-file workers.
Of the 10 candidates on the ballot, seven raised enough cash to trigger state reporting requirements. Of those, Schwartz raised the most, $61,638. Of that, $15,481 came from unions. To a degree unusual in Santa Barbara politics, Schwartz also tapped into the campaign war chests of Sacramento politicos to the tune of $4,750. Some, like Das Williams, have obvious local roots. Others, like Fiona Ma and Alex Padilla, do not. Candidate Cathy Murillo — initially regarded with skepticism by party regulars — reported a hefty $57,000; only one-seventh came from unions. Instead, she successfully mined the party’s more liberal activist base. Falcone reported $47,019 in donations, one-third of which came from unions. She also got $1,000 from the Santa Barbara Band of the Mission Indians, $2,000 from former UC regent Judith Hopkinson, and $3,600 from her father, actor George Gaynes.
Of the incumbents, Self — the most vulnerable of the three, according to the prevailing conventional wisdom — raised the most at $42,091. Although Self is not a registered Republican, many of her donors are regular contributors to GOP candidates. But like all the incumbents, she also got modest donations from high-profile traditional slow-growthers — like former mayor Sheila Lodge and former planning commissioners Judy Orias and Bill Mahan — alienated by the higher-density smart-growth inclinations of the slate of challengers. Following Self was Councilmember Rowse, who raised $35,000. Francisco — regarded as the tactical and strategic leader of the council conservatives — reported raising $26,310. Francisco also missed the filing deadline by two days.
Byrne, director of the Milpas Community Association, reported raising $11,355, half of which came from the POA. None of the other three candidates — Cruzito Cruz, Jerry Matteo, or Sebastian Aldana — filed reports with the City Clerk’s Office.