WHERE PIGS FLY: As we enter the final stretch of Santa Barbara’s mayoral and City Council elections-where the number of candidates promises to exceed the number of actual voters-I’m reminded of the old adage: “Beware of Billionaires Bearing Gifts.” We have no less than two big-spending billionaires-one from Russia, the other from Texas-who have entered “small-town” Santa Barbara’s political fray, spending enough to buy up about half the radio and TV air space available during the next month, plus enough glossy, oversized political mailers to rupture the discs of all postal carriers who deliver them.
When it comes to checkbook politics, the 10,000-pound gorilla in the race clearly is Randall Van Wolfswinkel, a Texas-based residential developer so big he ranks among America’s top 50 home builders. He’s already donated $270,000 to various candidates and causes, most notably Measure B, the ill-considered if well-intentioned initiative to reduce maximum allowable building heights. He’s backing the conservative slate of Dale Francisco for mayor, and Michael Self, Frank Hotchkiss, and Cathie McCammon for council. While Van Wolfswinkel has given substantial amounts directly to all of those campaigns except Francisco’s-Francisco has pledged he would take no money from developers or public employee unions-he’s focusing most of his time, money, and attention on the campaign currently being waged by Preserve Our Santa Barbara, the political action committee he created. To get his message out, Van Wolfswinkel has hired some of the scariest political hitmen money can buy. One, David Gilliard, led the successful recall campaign against former governor Gray Davis, thus paving the way for the Terminator’s ascent to power.
In contrast, billionaire Russian banker Sergey Grishin seems like small potatoes, having coughed up a mere $50,000 on behalf of mayoral candidate Steve Cushman. That’s roughly half of Cushman’s entire war chest. Grishin declined to discuss his political philanthropy, so we don’t know if he’ll be giving to other candidates or not. We do know he has owned property in Montecito for eight years and just bought the historic Val Verde Estate-once a retreat for the nation’s gay elite-for a cool $15.3 million. Cushman tells us he’s met just once with Grishin for a 90-minute chat, during which time Sergey explained he didn’t want to see “what happened to Moscow” happen to Santa Barbara. To that end, he whipped out his checkbook and gave Steve a whopping $50k. Frankly, I fail to see any parallels between Moscow and Santa Barbara. But then, not being a billionaire, I probably wouldn’t understand such things.
I’ve also heard from others in the Cushman camp that Grishin is interested in getting involved in the area’s banking scene and might want to be part of the new Bank of Santa Barbara now being created by the exceptionally talented Eloy Ortega. That Ortega happens to be a key member of the Cushman campaign team-treasurer-might just be a curious coincidence.
Until now, a typical council race costs $35,000-$50,000 to run. In recent years, when councilmembers Iya Falcone and Das Williams exceeded the $80,000 mark, good-government types like the League of Women Voters began muttering indignantly about campaign finance reform. Strangely, it is conspicuously silent now. Could that be because Van Wolfswinkel also supports Measure B, a cause near and dear to the league’s heart? I have no idea. But I do know that the League of Women Voters-which in years past has been outspoken in its quest for campaign reform-felt so strongly about Measure B that it endorsed the measure after having declined numerous entreaties from the other side to discuss the matter. I was also struck that the league’s forum-usually notoriously balanced-on Measure B featured four speakers who supported the height restriction and not one who was against it.
I have not spoken with Van Wolfswinkel-though I’ve placed more than a few calls-and I don’t pretend to know his real motivation. I am told he grew up in Santa Barbara and attended the area’s public schools. Although he made his fortune in Texas real estate, his heart belongs to Santa Barbara. When the City Council approved plans to demolish the Union 76 in Montecito and replace it with a mix of commercial space and condos, over the heated opposition of some neighbors, Van Wolfswinkel-who also owns property in Montecito-reportedly was outraged. In response, he vowed to get new, more responsive leadership on the council, and was willing to spend as much as $50,000 per candidate to get the job done. In this light, he’s yet another masked billionaire selflessly coming to Santa Barbara’s rescue. How could anyone object?
Maybe Van Wolfswinkel, having re-sculpted vast swaths of the Texas landscape-building roughly 1,500 new homes a year-really has a princess-and-the-pea sensitivity when it comes to development back in his native land. Maybe he’s really offended by the behemoths that have sprung up on Chapala Street, giving rise to Measure B.
But even if all that’s true-and if Van Wolfswinkel is exactly what his political beneficiaries want to believe he is-he’s still scary. The last Texas billionaire to come to town on a political spending spree was Republican Michael Huffington, who spent five million of his own dollars in 1992 to wrest control of our just-redistricted congressional seat from longtime incumbent Robert Lagomarsino. Because he was spending his own money, Huffington repeatedly declared, he was beholden to no one. Naturally, we bought it, hook, line, and sinker. And why not? Huffington had a glamorous celebrity wife, and he sneezed $10,000 checks written to all the right charities.
But what Huffington really meant, as we would soon discover, was that he was accountable to no one but himself. He routinely refused to tell his own staff people where he was, and his chief of staff was ordered to destroy official annual reports of Huffington’s voting record. His press secretary was told to stiff arm reporters seeking basic information. “It’s for me to know,” she said Huffington told her, “and for them to find out.” Before serving his first term, Huffington grew weary of Congress, finding it petty, tiresome, and beneath him. He opted to take on Dianne Feinstein in the Senate race in 1994, and spent nearly $20 million-mostly his own money. Huffington would have won, too, had it not come out how he’d hired an illegal immigrant to care for his daughters. The timing could not have been worse: This revelation was sprung just after he’d endorsed Proposition 187, the virulently anti-immigrant initiative then on the statewide ballot.
The other altruistic billionaire who has given Santa Barbara a terminal case of buyer’s remorse, of course, is Wendy McCaw, owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press. When she bought the paper from the New York Times in 2000, everyone in Santa Barbara rejoiced. A local buyer! With deep pockets! What could be better in the age of corporate cookie-cutter journalism?
The honeymoon quickly turned into a nightmare. McCaw’s pathological “talk to the hand” attitude-to all but the abused animals-profoundly alienated just about everyone in town, not just her own newsroom. The paper’s meltdown is now the stuff of journalistic legend, but no one could (or should) forget how the News-Press attempted to smear former editor Jerry Roberts-then in litigation with McCaw-as a child-porn aficionado. The paper ran an unsigned article on the front page strongly insinuating, without actually stating, that Roberts had downloaded kiddie porn onto his hard drive. At the time the article was written, police investigators had stated emphatically there was absolutely no way to tie the porn to any one employee; anyone, they stressed, could have done it. Even those utterly indifferent to the plight of newsroom workers-and actively hostile to unionization efforts-were appalled. Subscribers cancelled by the droves. Although the News-Press has improved since those dark days, it remains at best an anorexic shadow of its former self.
Maybe Randall is the best thing since sliced bread. Maybe Sergey is as pure as the Russian snow. But when it comes to civic-minded billionaires, we’ve been burned before. Not just once, but twice. In this arithmetic, I’m afraid to find out what kind of “charm” the third time will be.