The Fab Five: Inside Santa Barbara’s Mayoral Race
In the Crowded and Competitive Field, Every Candidate Has a Chance
Thursday, October 12, 2017
Every election is important, but this year’s Santa Barbara mayoral race is especially consequential — and unusual.
The field is incredibly stacked. Each of the five qualified candidates has a legitimate chance of victory, and the political dynamic is full of intrigue — three evenly matched Democrats wrestling for the liberal vote while competing against a Republican veteran and an exciting independent newcomer. It’s going to be a tight race, made even narrower by the expected low turnout during an odd-year election that could crown the winner with as few as 4,000 votes.
The new mayor, elected by the entire city, will be the first to preside over a council fully transitioned to the new district system. He or she will shepherd Santa Barbara through this historic change, representing the city as a whole while navigating with the hyper-local idiosyncrasies of the six new districts.
Wielding only a single vote but possessing the deceptively simple powers of setting agendas and running meetings, our new mayor will also confront Santa Barbara’s most intractable issues — homelessness, water, the 101 — and crisis-level difficulties — State Street, housing, infrastructure.
The decisions made now, and the leadership that comes with them, will matter for many years ahead. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
By Paul Wellman
The New Guy
Angel Martinez is a bright, shiny, new wrench thrown into the gears of Santa Barbara’s political machine. Largely unknown to the public before the election, the former Deckers CEO has intentionally disrupted the current contest of four other candidates, all of whom have been longtime City Hall insiders. Martinez has successfully positioned himself as the centrist, business-savvy outsider who alone possesses the knowledge to tackle the city’s financial challenges. He’s focused most on revitalizing State Street by cracking down on aggressive panhandlers and teaming with business leaders to foster a healthier mix of local-friendly retail stores, boutiques, restaurants, and housing.
After straddling the fence for months, Martinez made up his mind to run for mayor on Earth Day after an uncomfortable conversation with political consultant Jeremy Lindaman on the back patio of the University Club. “This is verbatim because this was burned into my brain,” Martinez recalled last week. “[Lindaman] said: ‘No one gets into politics in this town without my approval. You don’t know anyone, you have no name recognition, you’re not going to raise any money, and it’s Bendy’s turn.’” (Lindaman, who declined to comment, is a longtime advisor to Democratic allies Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmember Bendy White.)
Instead of backing off as Lindaman intended, Martinez went all in. “Because that’s what’s wrong,” he said. “Who decides there’s a little treadmill on which someone puts in their time, serves on a million committees, has a million meetings, but doesn’t get anything done, and then it’s just their turn?” Martinez said the buzz and momentum his candidacy has generated — which is substantial — is fueled by a desire for change at City Hall. “People are tired of the same unkept promises, the same platitudes,” he said of intractable issues such as the housing shortage and limited job opportunities for college graduates. “They want new creativity, new thinking, new leadership.”
A Cuban immigrant raised in the Bronx, Martinez was a lifelong Democrat until he switched his political party affiliation to decline-to-state prior to this year’s election. He describes himself as an “Eisenhower Republican” who supports the person over the party. Republicans try to pigeonhole him as a Hillary Clinton–loving liberal while Democrats claim his wealth — he reportedly earned $5.7 million a year in total compensation as head of the Deckers board until he stepped down last month to focus on his campaign — makes him blind to true working-class needs. He’s campaigned alongside Jay Higgins, the most conservative City Council candidate, as well as Warner McGrew, a registered Democrat. Initially circumspect about his position on Measure C, Martinez recently came out in support of the sales-tax increase.
His own disappointing dealings with City Hall while at Deckers — and, more recently, the frustrating experiences of his son, Julian, owner of Barbareño restaurant, with city staff — inspired Martinez to also run on the promise to eliminate unnecessary red tape blocking new business and development ventures. “For top pay we deserve top service,” he said of the city’s average public employee salary of $86,000 compared to the average private sector salary of $56,000. “And what someone gets when they apply for a building or business permit is not top service.”
Martinez has taken considerable heat from critics for only moving within city limits last year. He counters that for years he’s lived throughout the greater Santa Barbara region — San Roque, Summerland, Montecito, Hope Ranch — and has been involved in public affairs through his participation on a number of boards, including those of the United Boys & Girls Clubs, UCSB’s Bren School, the S.B. International Film Festival, and so on. He also calls his fresh perspective on City Hall an asset. “Not being an insider? Hallelujah,” he said. “Nowhere in the city charter does it say you have to have been born at Cottage Hospital to be mayor.”
Having raised more than $215,000 — $50,000 of which he loaned himself — Martinez leads the pack in campaign fundraising. His yard signs, TV ads, and social media campaigns have so far outpaced his rivals’ in number and frequency. Among Martinez’s biggest supporters are Lynda.com founder Lynda Weinman ($20,000) and Montecito resident John MacFarlane ($10,000). He’s also received backing from Funk Zone developers and investors, real estate brokers, downtown business owners, and philanthropist Paul Orfalea. Martinez earned the coveted endorsement from the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce last month.
By Paul Wellman
Woman of the People
Passionate and principled, Cathy Murillo has made it a point of pride that, in the almost six years she has served on City Council, she has organized or participated in a dizzying number of community meetings — everything from neighborhood-watch workshops to business-creation roundtables to environmental study groups. She’s at every city-sponsored groundbreaking, ribbon cutting, and public proclamation, and, as the current representative of District 3, never misses the chance to rub elbows with her fellow Westside renters.
The first ever Latina elected to the Santa Barbara City Council, Murillo takes her role seriously as the most reliably progressive voice on the dais in support of working families, immigrants, and young people. “It’s a very important job,” she said. “None of this is easy or to be taken for granted.” She’s backed by the full might of the county’s Democratic Party, most labor unions, and the grassroots army of environmental and social-justice activists.
Murillo, a UCSB graduate and former journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times and the Santa Barbara Independent, was first drawn to public service by the issues of homelessness and gang crime. She’s pushed hard for a fully staffed restorative policing team to break street people out of a revolving jail door, and, as the vice chair of the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness, she is brokering much-needed cooperation between the county Public Health Department and city service providers.
For nearly two years, Murillo was the only member of the council to oppose the proposed gang injunction, a proposal that eventually was abandoned. She argued it unfairly stigmatized Latino neighborhoods and Latino teens. Instead, she founded the Pro-Youth Movement, a gang prevention community forum that convened weekly. Since then, gang crime has dropped by as much as 75 percent. “I can honestly take credit for that,” said Murillo, “for going out into the community as a councilwoman and putting time and energy into this. I’ll do that as mayor, too.”
Also on Murillo’s action list: She fought to restore opening hours that had been cut to the downtown and Eastside libraries, worked on the city’s Climate Action Plan, lobbied City Hall to extend the contract with the Boys & Girls Club, helped ban single-use plastic bags, and was instrumental in bringing a Westside neighborhood committee back to life. More recently, she’s resisted efforts to slow the city’s Average Unit-Size Density (AUD) program and tried to steer conversations about State Street’s struggles away from predictions of doom and gloom. “State Street is still the heartbeat of the city,” she said. “It doesn’t help the businesses that are there to say negative things about it, so I won’t. I’m optimistic.”
Her priorities in the years ahead include prompting job creation and economic growth by getting tourism interests and local business owners talking at the same table, implementing the Bicycle Master Plan, and forging better relations with our North County neighbors in the name of water security and better public transit. “I live off of this salary,” she said. “So this is my work, and I’m looking at the next eight years as dedicating my life to public service.”
Murillo has been endorsed by State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, Supervisor Janet Wolf, Santa Barbara Unified School District Board President Kate Parker, the local Sierra Club chapter, UCSB Democrats, and many others. So far, she’s raised $145,000, with donations pouring in from all over — the Planned Parenthood Action Fund; developer Ed St. George; The Canopy (the city’s newest medical marijuana dispensary); the owners of Wildcat Lounge, Super Cucas, and Mesa Café & Bar; MarBorg; Carpinteria flower growers; Judge George Eskin (ret.); and former mayor Marty Blum.
By Paul Wellman
Throughout 32 years of public service — first on the Water Commission, then on the Planning Commission, and now on the City Council — Harwood “Bendy” White has consistently played the part of polite pragmatist, waxing wonky and effective on all manner of city planning topics. Never one to bask in the limelight, White prefers to hang behind the scenes and quietly chip away at the major issues — housing, water, the budget, and so on. He’s spent decades wrapping his head around these knotty subjects, and he understands them.
Often the swing vote on the council, White, a Democrat, describes himself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative who’s weathered a love-hate relationship with the county party, which appreciates his institutional knowledge on environmental protections and affordable housing but has occasionally disapproved of his hard-line salary negotiations with city workers’ unions.
White was one of the chief architects behind the city’s Average Unit-Size Density (AUD) program, but now he is leading the charge to rein it in, worrying that the density experiment is moving too fast and producing rental housing too expensive for the city’s needs. “It’s all about adaptive management,” he said. “If the program isn’t doing exactly what we want it to do, then let’s have the flexibility to be able to change it.” White supports capping the number of AUD units built annually at 125 and creating a scoring system for middle-income units to encourage competition among builders.
“Let’s start with neighborhoods and make sure they’re protected,” said White of his recent efforts to concentrate AUD projects downtown, which would fulfill the dual goals of keeping large apartment complexes out of single-home neighborhoods and creating new live/work/shop areas on State Street, now suffering from dozens of empty storefronts. “There’s a way to concentrate on our jugular,” said White. “If we have a common cause with the development community, residents, and businesspeople, I think we can make some amazing things happen.”
White, the only mayoral candidate born in Santa Barbara, was a half-step away from retiring before he threw his hat in the ring at the 11th hour. It was a desire to shepherd the AUD program to a better place and to oversee Measure C expenditures that inspired him to stick around City Hall. White insists the sales-tax increase is absolutely necessary for the city’s future, and he believes the public will be more trusting that the $22 million a year it will generate will be spent on infrastructure improvements if he’s sitting in the mayor’s seat.
Every two years before a city election, White said, he’d hold a public review of the tax to see how it’s being allocated and whether a sunset date should be enacted. “It will be an opportunity for public feedback and to hold the council’s feet to the fire to make sure this thing doesn’t get too sloppy.”
White is characteristically modest about some of his major wins over the years, such as his role in preserving Veronica Meadows from development, getting the hydroelectric plant restarted, and during the drought negotiating a hard-won truce between dueling water agencies when the Cachuma Lake pumping barge needed to be moved at great expense. “I don’t do anything by myself,” he said.
While White’s supporters see his voting record as evidence of an independent conscience not beholden to a party or special interests, some political insiders view his flexibility as personal opportunism, especially on housing issues. For his part, White thinks the give-and-take is just part of the job. “Maybe this city will always be split over growth and no growth,” he said. “And maybe that’s healthy. I believe we should take the Hippocratic oath on this one and do no harm — measure twice, cut once.” A land-use agent by trade, mostly overseeing projects in the City of Goleta, White said he’s quickly winding down his consulting work.
After lending himself $40,000, White has racked up a total of more than $94,000 in campaign contributions. Those who’ve given include former mayor Sheila Lodge, Wendy Foster, dozens of private retired citizens, a host of architects and contractors, developer John Price, and the owners of Buttonwood Farm Winery, Pierre Lafond, and 7-Day Nursery.