A week after Santa Barbara mayoral candidate and City Councilmember Helene Schneider was endorsed by the city’s police and firefighters unions, Schneider found herself challenged by fellow mayoral candidate Steve Cushman, president of the Chamber of Commerce, as to why she thought the public was so angry about public employee salaries. Schneider said the public only gets part of the story because negotiations between City Hall and its labor unions take place, by law, behind closed doors. “I’d be upset too if I didn’t get the full picture,” she said at a forum at the Biltmore hosted by the Chamber of Commerce and Greater Lodging Association. Not surprisingly, Cushman saw it differently, retorting that people who are losing their jobs are less than thrilled when they see the City Council dip into its strategic reserves to give pay hikes to city employees.
The forum afforded candidates a rare opportunity to directly question one another. Schneider accused candidate and fellow councilmember Dale Francisco of receiving “tens of thousands of dollars” from Texas developer and part-time Montecito resident Randall Van Wolfswinkel after having pledged to take no money from labor unions or developers. Francisco denied having ever spoken to him, let alone taken any money directly. “I haven’t gotten a penny,” Francisco declared, while acknowledging that Van Wolfswinkel had spent large sums on behalf of his candidacy via Preserve Our Santa Barbara, an independent expenditure committee Francisco started. Either way, Schneider retorted, an out-of-state developer was exerting tremendous influence on the outcome of Santa Barbara city elections.
When it was his turn, Francisco asked Cushman how he thought he could serve both as mayor of Santa Barbara and as president of the Chamber of Commerce. Cushman said he was motivated to run because he loved Santa Barbara. “I’m committed to put in whatever time it takes,” he said. Francisco was not persuaded, commenting, “No disrespect to Steve, but I don’t think anybody can do both of these jobs well.”
In less than three weeks, city voters will receive their ballots in the mail for the city’s first major mail-in-only election. Up for grabs is the top spot on the dais; in addition to the three mayoral candidates already mentioned, real estate agent Isaac Garrett and homeless activist Bob Hansen are also in the running. A total of 13 candidates are also vying for three council positions. In such a crowded field, endorsements by traditional heavy hitters-such as the police and firefighters unions-can make a significant difference.
At the forum, Francisco expressed vociferous support for restoring cuts made to the Police Department. A strong police presence, he argued, was necessary to make visitors feel comfortable in the face of aggressive panhandlers. Likewise, Cushman said Santa Barbarans need to take back their downtown, arguing that if New Yorkers could take back Times Square, then Santa Barbarans could reclaim their streets. Hansen dismissed concern about aggressive panhandling as a “witch hunt,” noting that police have issued only five such citations in the past five years. Schneider, in contrast, expressed her commitment to maintaining the city’s police force of 140 sworn officers.
Schneider’s potentially game-changing endorsement was officially announced last Saturday morning in front of the downtown police station. The Police Officers Association (POA) is also backing City Council candidates Diane Channing, Frank Hotchkiss, and Michael Self. As a political package, the POA’s is decidedly unique and at first blush ideologically incongruous, offering a blend of two outspoken conservatives-Self and Hotchkiss-and two active liberals-Schneider and Channing. Union spokesperson Sergeant Charles McChesney explained the POA endorsed candidates most knowledgeable with law enforcement issues and those who have the leadership abilities to work together. He said the union’s biggest law enforcement concerns were gang suppression, graffiti removal, alcohol-related crime, and disturbances caused by the homeless.
Firefighter spokesperson Tony Pighetti explained that his union looked for candidates who were already familiar with firefighting issues and who would listen to the union’s budgetary concerns. Schneider, he said, had supported firefighters’ efforts to craft a list of comparable cities when it came to pay and responsibilities prior to the most recent contract negotiations.
Typically, the police and firefighters unions back the same slate of candidates to achieve maximum political impact. Sometimes, however, that’s not possible, and this year is one such instance. The City Firefighters Association endorsed Schneider for mayor earlier this week, but backed a decidedly different slate for council. Rather than supporting Hotchkiss and Self, the firefighters endorsed incumbent Grant House and Planning Commissioner Harwood “Bendy” White; the firefighters additionally endorsed Diane Channing. Aside from Schneider, Channing is the only candidate to be endorsed by both public safety unions.