There’s a lot of talk these days about special interests — how

they need to be curbed, reigned in, and otherwise muzzled. It’s the

same old story: Greedy fat cats shelling out gazillions in

political donations to maintain the status quo, despoil the

environment, and keep the boot heel of oppression firmly planted on

the necks of the working person. Or conversely, of fat-cat union

bosses converting the public purse into a feeding trough for their

lazy, featherbedding, pension-padding ilk. You get the picture. But

here in Santa Barbara, the reality stands in stark contrast to such

dire political mythology. We are graced by the finest, most

public-spirited special interests anywhere west of the Rockies. In

fact, some of my best friends are special interests. And I can

assure you their recent political spending sprees have been

inspired by only the purest of motives. Campaign finance reform?

Whatever for?

I know some people are fretting about how 1st District

Supervisor Salud Carbajal celebrated his birthday last November by

holding a big bash at the estate of a Montecito pal and inviting as

many deep-pocketed donors as he could. I think he raked in about

$123,000 in political campaign birthday presents. By Santa Barbara

standards that’s serious dough, especially considering Carbajal

isn’t due to run again for several years. With this kind of change

in his pockets, Carbajal can scare off all but the most suicidal

opponents. I know some suspicious minds might think all the

developers, land-use agents, property managers, and real estate

investors who gave Carbajal four-digit presents — and there were

plenty of them, folks — were hoping to secure some unseemly edge,

special consideration, or open line of communication. But I can

assure you they were simply celebrating Carbajal’s work ethic and

commitment to preserving the environment. However, I’m still

wondering why none of these same people showed up when I invited

them to my birthday party.

Likewise, there were more than a few eyebrows raised when

political consultant John Davies, his wife, and his vice president

and his wife, too, personally donated close to $10,000 to various

candidates in the last City Council race. Such direct political

philanthropy is extremely uncharacteristic of them; what was going

on? Knowing John as I do, I can assure you these donations have

nothing to do with any of the major development projects his

clients will soon be taking to the City Council. When the police

and firefighters unions spent $21,000 combined on candidates’

campaigns in the last council election, they were not focused on

anything as petty as their own contracts, but on the integrity of

public safety on the South Coast. When the Service Employees

International Union — which represents city workers — spent 17

grand in the same race, its chief concern was clearly elevating the

standard of living for low-wage workers. There’s some nasty

whispering that MarBorg trash titan Mario Borgatello — known around

City Hall simply as Mario, which indicates he has achieved the same

exalted one-name-only status as Cher, Bono, and Madonna — might pay

off the hefty personal loans some City Council candidates felt

forced to give themselves in the heat of the campaign battle. This

gift would be worth more than a few thou, which combined with the

several thou Mario and his family members have already given, would

amount to some serious five-figure buckage. Again, I can tell you

Mario felt compelled to donate so lavishly only because of his

desire to expand his recycling efforts and to divert even more

trash from the county’s landfill.

In a related vein, when members of our eight- and nine-figure

set decide to support their local Sheriff’s Council, are they

looking for special consideration should some young deputy pull

them over for driving under the influence? Not at all. The special

badges offered to the five-digit donors provide nothing more than

peace of mind. I have been told by well-placed sources that these

donors sleep better at night knowing our deputies have the

bullet-proof vests and other equipment they need. Likewise, I know

developer Jeff Bermant tosses and turns for nights on end because

Santa Barbara’s quickly disappearing middle-class can’t afford the

price of even a tear-down condo anymore. He gives so generously in

political races only because he wants to build “workforce” housing

our teachers and nurses can afford. And of course, there’s Peter

Sperling, who in the past year donated a whopping $29,000 to Das

Williams — both as city councilmember and as a 2nd District

candidate. Sperling, it turns out, is as green of heart as he is of

wallet, and wants only to protect our open spaces from development

and desecration.

I know all this money is making some people nervous. If money

talks, they say, Santa Barbara politics have recently become a

shouting fest. That’s why some people are talking about campaign

finance reform even for City Hall. One idea is merely to cap what

candidates can spend and raise. But that doesn’t limit what

independent expenditure committees — invariably with names like

Citizens for Good Government — can raise and spend to trash their

candidate’s opponents without ever giving their candidate one red

cent. The other idea is public financing of elections, the

cornerstone of the California Clean Money campaign now gathering

steam statewide. While some of the details are complicated, the

idea is simple; with politicians, you get what you pay for. If we

don’t want special interests buying our representatives, then the

public has to buy them with public funds. That comes from taxpayer

dollars. I know this sounds kooky, but it’s been tried in such

bastions of socialism as Maine and Arizona, where reportedly it has

cured everything from low voter turnout to falling arches and


But like I say, Santa Barbara is blessed with special interests

that are, well, special. People in other parts of the country may

have cause for alarm, but here, our political donors are altruistic

paragons of civic virtue. And besides, fallen arches and psoriasis

aren’t so bad once you learn to live with ’em.  — Nick Welsh


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