The national media is agog, and rightfully so, over the criminal indictments issued this week alleging former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his right-hand man, Richard W. Gates III, were unregistered foreign agents representing the Ukraine’s pro-Russian, pro-Putin puppet government, for which they laundered up to $75 million. As always, there’s a pseudo–Santa Barbara connection. After Trump won the election, Gates III — vice chair of Trump’s campaign committee — was hired by semi–Santa Barbara resident and global über-capitalist Thomas Barrack II — of Happy Canyon Vineyard and Neverland fame — who put him to work for his hedge fund, Colony NorthStar. Barrack II, another one of those ridiculously fit, bald-headed, twinkly eyed septuagenarians, has been propping up Trump past the point of herniation, both financially and on talk shows, and had been taking good care of Gates III — that is, until Monday’s indictments. Then II let III go.
Closer to home, there’s the Ruski influence in Santa Barbara’s mayoral race. It may even have something to do with the mysterious ad now on TV blistering mayoral candidate Cathy Murillo. The race is a five-way scalp-scratcher. Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss — the grumpy (yet strangely cheerful), get-off-my-lawn, NIMBY conservative Republican — appears statistically even with Councilmember Cathy Murillo, the lead-with-her-chin lefty-progressive Democrat, and former mayor Hal Conklin runs close behind, while former Deckers CEO Angel Martinez and current councilmember Bendy White are trailing behind them. (The Indy, by the way, endorsed Hal Conklin as once and future mayor.)
Behind his tersely succinct basso profundo exterior, Hotchkiss — a former bit actor in shows like Mission: Impossible — is a genuine Renaissance man: Zen Buddhist real estate agent by day and steamy pot-boiler author by night. In his recently released Playing with Fire, Hotchkiss’s purple prose describes in detail the sexual gymnastics between the protagonist — a fifty-something, white, male ad executive — and a very hot, twenty-something Russian femme fatale. Some people — me included — have made much fun of the sex scenes. But upon closer reflection, I’d say they rival the steamy poetics of James Joyce in Ulysses. The only problem with Frank Hotchkiss as mayor is everything. Opining about the environment, immigration, homelessness, and housing, the Hotchkiss message is: “Get out of town.” Most infamously, Hotchkiss remains a devout skeptic on climate change. When reporter Jerry Roberts asked at a recent forum why, despite the fact that 97 percent of all scholarly studies agree that the human contribution is huge, Hotchkiss told Roberts, “Your numbers are way off,” and cited a wordy, three-part op-ed series in the News-Press suggesting global warming is natural, there’s nothing wrong with carbon dioxide, and there are plenty of other reasons why the earth is heating up.
Early on, it appeared the mayoral wannabe Martinez had hoped to compete with Hotchkiss for the hearts and minds of the city’s Republican base, so despite being a lifelong Democrat, Martinez reinvented himself as an Eisenhower Republican. This didn’t get much traction, especially after Hotchkiss spread the word Martinez had not only donated generously to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton but had tweeted vociferously against Trump and Rush Limbaugh. If Martinez, who’s spent a staggering $300,000 so far, hopes to win, he’s going to have to take voters from someone else. Murillo — the lovably polarizing Dem and a former actor in her own right — is an obvious choice.
That might explain the first genuine hit piece of the race, which ran on Santa Barbara airwaves during the seventh inning of Tuesday night’s World Series game. Brief and stylishly raw, it shows Murillo acknowledging that her support for the then-proposed, but now defeated and much-hated Micheltorena Street bike lane would cause pain for the neighbors who park cars there. Martinez’s campaign manager, Brian Robinson, denied any connection with the ad. So too did James Fenkner, a major Martinez booster.
For eight years, Fenkner ran the Russian hedge fund Red Star and then moved to S.B., where he’s reinvented himself as a guerilla videographer, citizen activist, and agent provocateur. Smart, congenial, and savagely contemptuous of the dolts he says run City Hall, Fenkner operated a vacation-rental property until the City Council outlawed them. He’s been integral to the Funk Zone cabal of landed gentry now cheerleading Martinez’s mayoral ambitions. He recently released a video attacking “corruption” in City Hall, by which he means the major political donations that city unions made to councilmembers like Murillo, an unapologetic, enthusiastic union supporter. Fenkner has mysteriously accused the Indy of censorship for not allowing this anti–City Hall video on our website, where in fact it can be seen now. (Indy Senior Editor Tyler Hayden originally objected because Fenkner had used Indy images without permission or compensation.)
But if Fenkner didn’t make the hit piece, the Big Question is, who did? It turns out that a new shadow group called “Not My Mayor” has sprung up to stop Murillo at all costs. They sent out a mailer — so top secret that recipients were told to scrub all names and addresses off before forwarding — asking for donations to pay for anti-Murillo TV commercials. A front group calling itself the Coalition for Santa Barbara’s Future has formed to collect campaign donations to pay for the commercials. They hired a campaign consultant straight out of Camarillo — Chris Collier of Rincon Strategies — who in turn hired a Republican Party campaign consultant out of Sacramento and Orange County — Rebecca Luby — to serve as treasurer. Doesn’t feel real local if you ask me. The ad has been edited so many times that any outside observer would wonder if Murillo really said what she’s quoted as saying. I was there; she did.
The ad looks and feels mean. It will make viewers sympathize with Murillo. More than that, it will rile up Murillo and her supporters. If she wins, they’ll have no one but themselves to blame, whoever “they” are. Of the $4,500 raised so far, only one donation was large enough to trigger campaign reporting requirements. Bob Collector, perennial Montecito gadfly and retired filmmaker, donated $250. The rest hid behind donations of $99 or less. In my book, that spells “chicken shit.”
I guess I owe Fenkner an apology for even thinking he’d stoop to something so low. And if he did, he’d have made a better hit piece.
Fenkner, by the way, had a run in with another Russian banker — Sergey Grishin — who would have a profound impact on Santa Barbara politics. Eight years ago, Grishin — who lived in Montecito’s Val Verde estate, once a retreat for the nation’s gay elite — donated $50,000 to the mayoral campaign of former Chamber of Commerce president Steve Cushman. This allowed Cushman to wage enough of a campaign to take enough votes away from then–mayoral hopeful, über-conservative Dale Francisco, who at the time was bankrolled by Texas billionaire and former Santa Barbara resident Randall Van Wolfswinkel to the tune of $500,000. Chris Collier, by the way, ran Francisco’s campaign. He also ran Frank Hotchkiss’s previous campaign, too. This battle of titans allowed moderate Dem Helene Schneider to squeak in as mayor.
The rest, as they say, is history. In the meantime, make your own history. Tuesday is Election Day. Vote.