Perhaps the most compelling fact about Santa Barbara’s current City Council race is that for the first time in 35 years, City Hall — normally a bastion of feel-good, environmental, Unitarian-tinged, socially conscious, quasi-progressive high-mindedness — has been taken over by a solid conservative majority. In the reputed “birthplace of the environmental movement” — a town where 54 percent of the likely voters are registered Democrats and only 26 percent are Republicans — how could that be?
The short answer is whiplash. For most of those 35 years, there were always minority voices of limited government, fiscal caution, and regulatory restraint on the council; councilmembers Dan Secord, Rusty Fairly, and Jeanne Graffy — all moderate Republicans — pop immediately to mind. But as of 2006 Santa Barbara found itself with a council comprised exclusively of registered Democrats. Pushed and prodded by the younger activists on the council, City Hall flew the flag of change. There would be a living-wage ordinance, pesticide-free parks, and resolutions against the War in Iraq. The mayor didn’t just attend most of the weekly protests; she led them. City Hall seized upon “sustainability” with religious fervor. With growing appreciation of climate change, City Hall re-embraced its otherwise nebulous commitment to alternative transportation, giving it real teeth; bulb-outs, roundabouts, and other “traffic calming devices” began sprouting up in neighborhoods. Not everyone was pleased. The council struggled to expand the admittedly limited opportunities for “workforce housing.” We would not become an ossified, gentrified Gated-Community-By-the-Sea. But traditional slow-growthers — the backbone of Santa Barbara’s “liberal body politic” — fretted that the increased residential densities sought by housing advocates would blow their ideals of “sustainability” to smithereens.
With all councilmembers on the same side, it was inevitable they’d find new lines of political demarcation. They did so with a vengeance. The results were nasty, petty, and embarrassing. Where previous mayors ran an autocratically tight ship, Marty Blum’s hand on the tiller was decidedly loosey-goosey. As the council dipped increasingly into its financial reserves, there was no resident Dr. No to argue against raiding the rainy-day funds. Then, famously, the economy tanked.
Beginning in 2007, with the election of Dale Francisco — not just a conservative but an outsider — to the council, the pendulum began swinging the other way. In 2009, the conservatives picked up two more seats with the election of Michael Self and Frank Hotchkiss. Like Francisco, they never served on any boards or commissions. Like him they were outsiders, contemptuous and disdainful of what they saw at City Hall. The deal was sealed last December when Randy Rowse, more of a moderate and insider, was appointed to fill the shoes of Das Williams, the alpha male of South Coast progressive politicians.
The big question confronting city voters this November is whether they think the political pendulum has swung too far to the right? Or do they like it where it is? Three council seats are now up for grabs. The three incumbents — two solid conservatives and one squishy conservative — are intent on holding on. Seven challengers — four serious ones — want to send them packing. To reverse the balance of power, only one incumbent needs to be unseated.
The new majority — led by incumbent Francisco — has held sway the past 10 months, effectively fighting zoning changes that would allow the increased residential densities so near and dear to the hearts of affordable-housing advocates. Such densities, the incumbents insist, will ruin Santa Barbara’s unique historic character, create congestion, and spawn crime. And it will do nothing, they contend, to create the new middle-class housing that proponents say they want. The conservatives have pushed hard — and effectively — to increase the number of cops on the street in response to escalating complaints from merchants, tourists, and residents about harassment at the hands of the unwashed, the unscrubbed, and the impolite. In pointed terms, they’ve complained City Hall has spent way too much “enabling” chronic street drunks and aggressive panhandlers. They’ve hinted maybe the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter off lower Milpas Street needs to be relocated. Additional cops will make Santa Barbara’s street “safe and clean.” Visitors and residents alike will rediscover the joys of downtown. Cash registers will ring, prosperity will bloom, and fiscal health will return to a cash-strapped City Hall.
Likewise, this majority — openly scornful of the potential threat posed by climate change — has given unapologetic short shrift to a host of environmentally minded initiatives, like banning plastic bags or imposing more stringent energy-efficiency requirements for new buildings and remodels. And nothing gets their hackles up like a proposed new “bulb-out,” or any attempt at “traffic calming” hatched by city traffic planners, whom they regard with open distrust.
In addition, they’ve taken on City Hall’s politically powerful public-employee labor unions, especially the Police Officers Association (POA) with which they’ve engaged in bare-knuckled battle. At a recent forum, Francisco branded as “corrupt” the current system allowing public-employee unions to donate to council candidates. The feeling is definitely mutual where the unions are concerned. The police and firefighter unions have launched a doomsday TV ad campaign, warning that Santa Barbara could find itself engulfed by flame and crime if Francisco his fellow conservatives are elected. In response, Francisco accused the POA of selling out public safety for more money. Citing news accounts published by The Independent in 2006, Francisco charged the cops traded higher salaries during prior contract negotiations in exchange for fewer cops on the force. Union leaders contend Francisco got his facts wrong.
Former city councilmember Das Williams, who fought with him over nearly everything, famously observed that Francisco was “playing chess when everyone else was playing checkers.”
Of the three incumbents seeking re-election, Francisco is most responsible for the council’s new majority. A cerebral conservative and retired software engineer, Francisco first won election in 2007 thanks in large measure to neighborhood discontent over Cottage Hospital’s plans to build a large housing project for many of its workers where St. Francis hospital once stood. Francisco cut his political teeth fighting City Hall over bulb-outs, which he insisted were being crammed down the neighborhood’s throat by less-than-forthcoming bureaucrats. It was during that struggle that that Francisco first connected with Michael Self, then as now an irrepressibly cheerful and utterly determined neighborhood activist, equally exercized about City Hall’s “traffic calming” schemes. It was also then that Francisco first encountered Jim Westby, a retired top executive from General Motors who, since moving to Santa Barbara, has demonstrated a talent for political strategy and organization. It was Westby who persuaded Francisco to run in the first place. It’s been in Westby’s living room that many of the issues confronting City Hall have been hashed out. When first elected, Francisco wore his hair cut short in a quasi crew cut. Since then, he’s grown his hair out and evolved as a formidable political tactician. Former city councilmember Das Williams, who fought with him over nearly everything, famously observed that Francisco was “playing chess when everyone else was playing checkers.”
On the council, the four conservatives don’t always vote as a bloc. But when it matters, they do. During a down-and-dirty vote on the bitterly contested Plan Santa Barbara — five years and $3 million in the making — Self and Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss initially cast their votes against a compromise Francisco supported. When he asked them to reconsider, both quickly changed their votes. As a political flex, it was so impressive some critics suspected it had been staged. The same can’t be said for Francisco’s ill-considered motion to support state legislation to relax some of the requirements imposed by California’s open government laws. On the strength of Francisco’s say-so, the three other conservatives voted in lockstep — with conspicuously little discussion — to support the plan. When conservatives as well as liberals objected in large numbers, Francisco brought the issue back for reconsideration. He got the measure un-passed with just as little comment from his conservative colleagues as he got it passed in the first place.
When Self first ran, she was regarded as too “out there” for the taste of even many mainstream Republicans. Some prominent Republicans referred to her as a “wing nut,” but she takes solace in knowing that some of them are now posting her campaign signs in their yards. “It’s funny how that works,” she said of being an elected official. As a candidate, Self reflects and expresses the visceral distrust of those who worry that City Hall has ventured into the realm “social engineering,” particularly when it comes to promoting alternative transportation. As an activist, she fought City Hall. Now that she’s on the council, she’s still fighting. A hard-core fiscal conservative, Self is all about fixing pot holes. But she’s also about hiring more cops. “If mom’s in the kitchen,” she likes to say, “the kids aren’t in the cookie jar.” Although Self came in only a close fourth in 2009 — she was backed by the police officers union back then, as well as Texas billionaire Randall Van Wolfswinkel — she made it onto the council after Helene Schneider, then a councilmember, was elected mayor. This created a fourth vacancy. From the dais, Self is given to rambling discourses peppered with folksy colloquial humor that sometimes just wander off. Opponents have been quick to snark. Self remains unfazed and is quick to meet with even her most virulent critics. She likes talking with people who disagree with her, she said. Just don’t expect her to change her mind.
Randy Rowse, who owns the popular Paradise Café, has long been active with the Downtown Organization and served on the downtown parking committee. Of the incumbents, he’s the least ideological, the least likely to ascribe duplicitous motivations to city staff. As a business owner, Rowse definitely groused about City Hall. But the Paradise served as the watering hole for many high-ranking city officials, not to mention elected office holders who liked to bend an elbow. He enjoyed first-name relations with all of them. In the long, drawn-out battle over marijuana dispensaries, Rowse and his wife, Janet, were major players, lobbying to ban medical marijuana dispensaries outright. Although the council eventually voted to allow no more than three, the prohibitionists’ campaign — joined by Jim Westby on the outside and Councilmembers Francisco and Self on the inside — clearly had impact. Rowse was appointed to the council last December to fill the vacancy created when Das Williams was elected to the State Assembly. It was Francisco who nominated him; ironically, it was councilmember Grant House — one of the council’s most ardent dispensary supporters — who provided Rowse the key swing vote to secure his appointment. Since his appointment, liberals have expressed disappointment he hasn’t been more independent. While there is ammunition for such concerns, Rowse has also betrayed a more nuanced approach to his votes than easy pigeonholing might suggest. On two separate occasions, for example, Rowse was responsible for hosting two pack-the-house bitch-fests about ill-behaved homeless people. But after all the spleens had been vent, he quietly voted to sustain whatever service had been proposed to help the homeless.
If election turnout is low — as many expect it will be — council prognosticators believe members of this slate stand a good chance of retaining their seats. Working overtime to make sure that doesn’t happen has been Daraka Larimore-Hall, the bristly and rhetorically gifted chieftain of the Democratic Central Committee. Larimore-Hall contends that the conservative ascendancy is significantly out of sync with Santa Barbara’s voters. Measure T — the anti-dispensary measure of 2010 backed by the conservatives — didn’t just lose, it went down in flames. And Measure B — which would have reduced the maximum allowable building heights — lost big in 2009, despite big support from the city’s emergent conservative movement. Westby strongly backed Measure B; Francisco used the issue to run for mayor. He lost. So, too, did Randall Van Wolfswinkel — a former Montecito resident — who poured an unprecedented $750,000 into an effort to give conservatives a sweeping council mandate.
While Measure B lost, it’s important to understand the real cultural and political battle that occurred over density and affordability. Traditional slow-growthers and no-growthers, long and loosely affiliated with liberals and Democrats, have grown alienated from the density-affordability Smart-Growth supporters now swelling the party’s activist base. These old school environmentalists fought developers for decade to keep Santa Barbara “the way it is”; they’re not about to change now. That’s why former mayor Sheila Lodge — an icon of the traditional liberal-slow growth camp — has endorsed the incumbents. In local politics, this transformation is akin to President Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights policies chasing Southern Democrats from the Democratic Party.