BIG CHANGE: For more than 20 years, I’ve lived on the Westside. But when I woke Tuesday morning, I discovered I’d magically moved to the Mesa. That’s because this Monday, the Santa Barbara City Council voted to approve the new boundary lines for the city’s six new voting districts. The map is part of the settlement to the district elections lawsuit filed last November against City Hall. Because I happen to live on West Valerio Street a few blocks above Mountain Avenue, I have been reincarnated — at least according to this map — as an honorary Mesa Rat. For all these years, I find out, I’ve been living a lie. My self-image needs serious recalibration.
I like the Mesa just fine. I shop at Albertsons. I go to Hendry’s Beach. But the Westside’s sense of place and space resonates infinitely more. It’s where I get my hair cut. It’s where I marvel at the beckoning beacon of the Foodland Market’s come-hither neon sign. It’s where I crest the swope and swale of the Micheltorena Street bridge, dodging possums and skunks, though not always successfully. It’s where I get an earful — solicited or not — on the intricate treacheries of U.S.-Iranian politics while looking for screws at the San Andres Hardware store.
Things change. I will adjust. Maybe I’ll learn to love living on “Baja Mesa” or the “Mesa Annex” — as some insist on calling my neighborhood. I might even come to terms with “Valerio Canyon,” a tag developed by real estate agents nervous about the downscale cloud cast on their properties by “the Westside” appellation. But I doubt it.
Every 50 years or so, Santa Barbara undergoes the political equivalent of molting, switching from at-large elections to district elections and back again. This is one of those times. Propelling the most recent are accusations that at-large elections have yielded “racially polarized” results. The numbers speak for themselves. In the past 50 years, only four Latinos have been elected to the City Council. Not many more have run. Fewer still could be construed as serious contenders. District elections, the experts say, will change all that. We’ll see. If I have to live in “Mesa Annex,” it damn well better.
Numbers paint only part of the picture. How do you reconcile the city’s voting record where Latinos are concerned with the fact that Santa Barbara’s otherwise white-bread voters helped elect two Latinos to the school board (Monique Limón and Pedro Paz), that County Supervisor Salud Carbajal has emerged as the de facto 800-pound gorilla of local politics, and that we’ve sent both Pedro Nava and Das Williams — ethnic über-mutt — to the California Assembly? District elections are an old reality made new again. I don’t know whether they’ll result in good government or even better government. But they will definitely make for more interesting government. There will be more flavors in the stew, more voices in the choir. Good, bad, or ugly, they’ll offer a vehicle by which our homegrown politics can become more broadly reflective.
But they should not be confused for penicillin or magic bullets. If you build it, there’s no guarantee that anyone will come. For a host of reasons, people everywhere are not voting by the droves. That’s especially true with city council races. In Santa Barbara’s recently created two Latino districts, turnout has typically been roughly half the citywide average. If present trends continue, candidates in these districts can get elected with just a few hundred votes while candidates in other districts will need several thousand to prevail. Statewide, there’s been much gnashing of teeth over voter turnout. In last November’s elections, only 30 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Among the 18- to 24-year-olds, it was only 8.2 percent. In Los Angeles’ most recent election, it was closer to 10 percent. Even for insomniacs, that qualifies as a wake-up call.
One proposed solution now making the rounds is to automatically register people to vote every time they get or renew their driver’s license. It’s a well-intentioned but misguided gesture. People don’t not vote because it’s too hard. They don’t vote — according to study after study — because they don’t have money. In 2008, 41 percent of voters making $15,000 or less voted nationwide. By contrast, 78 percent of those earning more than $150,000 did. Last week, 25 people — less when the “interesting” people were factored out — showed up to debate new district maps designed to enfranchise Santa Barbara’s politically disenfranchised. By contrast, 200 showed up to a Montecito Water Board meeting to discuss proposed water rate increases that none of them would even feel. Moral of the story? If you want people to vote, make ’em rich. Failing that, try doing something that bridges the gap between the gots and the got-nots. I remain both baffled and amazed by the utter lack of agitation on behalf of Santa Barbara’s tenants at or by City Hall. I am likewise stunned no one is now pushing City Hall to increase the minimum wage within city limits, as is happening in many cities throughout California. Fifty-seven percent of city residents rent; 18 percent make less than $25,000 a year. If either of these issues were under discussion, I guarantee you’d see more engagement in city politics.
In the meantime, there is an obvious cheap-n-easy quick-fix at City Hall’s disposal. If Santa Barbara stopped holding its elections on odd years and started conducting them on even years like everyone else, we’d see a 20 percent bump in turnout during presidential years and save $100,000 in election costs. The question is timing. If we started in 2016, three councilmembers would lose a year off their current terms. Hard to see what’s in it for them. But if you wait ’til 2018, they’ll get an extra year. That might put the voters’ noses out of joint. This, I predict, will become the subject of bitter, rancorous debate among electeds and activists who — at least on paper — should be friends. Hey, when you live in paradise — no matter in what neighborhood — you’re doomed to fight over the apple.