Just halfway into his second year on the Santa Barbara City Council, Dale Francisco dropped a bombshell on the area political establishment, announcing late and with little warning – just three months before the election – that he was running for mayor. By so doing, Francisco enters a field of six and confronts two of his council colleagues also running for the post, Helene Schneider and Iya Falcone. The lone Republican on the city council, Francisco has been comfortable in his role as the odd-man-out, challenging the council majority on a host of high profile spending, housing, and traffic policies. At a press conference held Tuesday at the historic Casa de la Guerra, Francisco made it clear he’d be waging a classic outsider campaign, blaming his council colleagues for the chronic budget woes that show little evidence of going away. He accused his council colleagues of treating City Hall’s reserves “as a credit card.” The current council, he claimed, started with $11 million stashed away. Today, only $900,000 is left. The budget the council just passed a month ago, he noted, is already $2.5 million out-of-whack, and the gap, he said, threatens to grow to twice as big. “Now the bill has come due,” he said.
Francisco charged his council colleagues spent more energy representing the interests of the public employee unions that helped elect them than the taxpayers. He blasted the 2.5 percent pay hike the council approved for city workers this February. In that vein, the pledged to accept no donations from public employee unions or developers. As mayor, Francisco said he’d spend more time taking care of gangs and graffiti than using the post as a political stepping stone to higher office. “We don’t need more professional political activists,” he said.
In normal political times, Francisco might be yet another smart, articulate conservative Republican struggling to find a toe-hold among Santa Barbara’s overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal electorate. (He contributed $200 to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign to amend California’s constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and woman.) But the traditional political equilibrium that’s held sway in Santa Barbara has come unbalanced. Long-stranding alliances among the South Coast’s liberal-environmental coalition have come unglued as affordable housing advocates bump heads with neighborhood preservationists over the dreaded “D” word: density. Francisco personifies the emergence of the conservative slow-growther, or as one disappointed developer representative put it, “a Republican NIMBY.” Of all mayoral candidates, Francisco is the only one to support Measure B, which would limit the height of all new buildings in Pueblo Viejo to 40 feet and those elsewhere to 45 feet. (The current limit is 60.) Likewise, Francisco has been outspoken in his criticism of “traffic-calming devices” such as round-abouts and bulb-outs that many slow-growthers fear are necessary to accommodate the intensity of urban development required for mass transit and affordable housing. On development issues, Francisco has been a property rights advocate who opposes zoning modifications and special conditions. At his coming out conference, Francisco was cheered on by a mix of libertarian-minded Republicans, fiscal conservatives suspicious of labor unions, pro-automobile advocates, and neighborhood preservation activists who feel betrayed by City Hall’s so-called “smart-growth” agenda.
Certainly, Francisco’s entrance into the crowded field fractured the center-right voting block even further than it already was, making life sweet-at least at first blush-for councilmember Helene Schneider, the clear standard bearer for the city’s liberal-progressive Democratic bloc. With Francisco in the race, it’s hard to imagine that council member Iya Falcone, a centrist Democrat running on a “back-to-basics” theme with strong backing from the city’s police and firefighters unions, won’t have to work that much harder. Likewise for Chamber of Commerce President Steve Cushman-also a registered Democrat-running as a pro-business can-do candidate unencumbered by expensive allegiances to public employee unions. (Realtor Isaac Garrett is running on a platform similar to Cushman’s, but lacks Cushman’s high public profile; Justin Michael is running to inspire the youth, and “Protest” Bob Hansen can be counted on for rambling, outrageous and insightful monologues about peace, love and understanding from the homeless perspective.) Francisco’s supporters dismissed the notion that his candidacy will effectively hand the mayor’s office to Schneider come November. Neither Cushman nor Falcone, they argue, are capable of tapping into the magma of discontent roiling fiscal conservatives, neighborhood preservationists, and anti-smart growthers that Francisco can. They’re too much part of the system. Besides, they believe, Francisco can provide coat-tails for candidates running in the even more crowded city council race to grab hold of, like Frank Hotchkiss and Michael Self, also both conservative slow-growthers. Should such a strategy prove successful, the make up-and direction-of the City Council would change suddenly and dramatically.