A SPLENDID MESS: It’s official; this year’s race for the Santa Barbara City Council is now formally underway, meaning pedestrians risk being trampled underfoot by the horde of 12 candidates seeking one of three available seats. This year’s race, in particular, has the making of a truly fine and spectacular mess. For the first time in about 50 years, we won’t be electing our councilmembers at-large, but rather by geographically separate districts. They used to call districts “wards,” but the connotations associated with that word — think “ward boss” or “ward heeler” — are less than seemly given the lavish efforts Santa Barbara has taken to cultivate its very, muy, très haute image.
When it comes to district elections, as with everything else, I am of violently mixed minds. On one hand, I tend to agree with the goo-goo government set, who are rendered sleepless over such perils as logrolling, horse trading, featherbedding, and other archaically illicit behaviors. In this worldview, district elections constitute a collective form of civic suicide in which community-wide considerations and “the common good” will be jettisoned overboard — and subsequently harpooned — in favor of the personal, the parochial, and the petty. And I’m not saying they’re wrong. Far from it. Given the practical realities, candidates in low-turnout districts — each of the six districts includes about 45,000 residents — can and will be elected with only a few hundred votes. And they will be making big decisions that affect all 100,000 of us. That being acknowledged, I never got over my sweet tooth for Kool-Aid and am, however self-destructively, open to the new possibilities. Through my rose-tinted glasses, district elections offer at least the theoretical hope and possibility that the people elected to the council will reflect a broader bandwidth of community concerns, opinions, and attitudes than the exceedingly well-intentioned, quality-of-life-fixated, and startling monochromatic crowd who’ve dominated the conversation for the past five decades. It could be I’m just bored. But I’ve always liked more texture in my stew.
In the current political context of demographic transformations, district elections constitute the only answer deemed legally acceptable by the state legislature — and the courts — to the age old question of why voter turnout and political participation by all but the whitest and most affluent is practically nonexistent. A little more than a year ago, the Santa Barbara Committee on District Elections formed to ask this pointed question in the form of a lawsuit against City Hall. After much sputtering, outrage, and indignation — much of it reasonable — City Hall, it turned out, had lots of excuses but no real answers why Santa Barbara’s election results qualified as “racially polarized.” Wisely but not unhappily, the council capitulated.
This lawsuit did not arise out of anything remotely approximating a mass movement or popular uprising. Instead, it was the brainchild of one of the most epic, if unlikely, bromances of Santa Barbara history. Were it not for the 50-year friendship between former city councilmember Leo Martinez and former city attorney Barry Cappello — two of the most polarizing, outspoken, and self-delighted contrarians on God’s Green Earth — this lawsuit would never have happened. They met in the 1970s when Cappello, acting as city attorney, sued to stop Martinez — then an in-your-face Latino activist who helped create La Casa de la Raza — from getting his name on the ballot as a candidate. Martinez sued back, and ultimately the Supreme Court of California ruled he was right. Not only that, he got elected. In many quarters, Martinez is famous for cultivating grudges, but back then he held none against Cappello. In classic buddy-flick fashion, the two adversaries became fast friends. So when Martinez, who has since moved to New Mexico, converted to Republicanism and then converted back again, asked Cappello to sue City Hall, it was all but a slam dunk. Even without the facts or the law on his side, Cappello enjoys a reputation as a scary attorney. In this case — in which he had the law and the facts — Cappello would be even scarier.
To the extent district elections will actually solve Santa Barbara’s racial polarization I have serious doubts. It seems a bit gimmicky, in that if-you-build-it-they-will-come way. No, it turns out, they often don’t. Still, the immediate results are both encouraging and intriguing. Of the 12 candidates, seven are either Latino or have Hispanic surnames. That, for the record, is totally unprecedented. Six are women. That’s different, too. No fewer than five seek to represent the city’s Eastside — District One — which has yielded a lower number of councilmembers over the past 50 years than any neighborhood in town. That may be messy, but it’s also good. Only two of the 12 are incumbents. Aside from them, only two of the 12 have run for council before.
Campaign consultants and political scientists have long understood that voting participation follows income levels. The more you have, the more you vote. To that end, a coterie of labor unions, the Democratic Party, and the political organization CAUSE — all hostile or otherwise alienated from the people who brought us district elections — are seeking other ways to skin the voter participation cat. They’ll soon be unveiling plans to boost Santa Barbara’s minimum wage from $9 to $15 an hour — via a ballot initiative — though how fast and over what time period remains unclear. Obviously, there will be lots of tough and thorny questions. But given that Santa Barbara wages have remained remarkably stagnant over the past 13 years, defying the laws of supply and demand with total impunity, maybe it’s time we began to wrestle with such questions. How is it 22,000 new jobs have been added to the Santa Barbara economy since the Recession, and yet there’s been absolutely zero upward pressure on local wages? How indeed?
Guess what? We got an election going on. Looks like an interesting one, too.