Critics of Santa Barbara’s regulatory apparatus have long complained about “the People’s Republic of Santa Barbara,” but no one has sought to tag longtime Chamber of Commerce President Steve Cushman, one of five mayoral candidates now vying for the top spot at City Hall, as a practicing socialist. Until now.
A campaign mailer paid for by Texas developer Randall Van Wolfswinkel, titled “From Russia with Love,” shows a grainy, blurry photo of Cushman adorned with a hammer and sickle, long the icon associated with the U.S.S.R, the now defunct Communist nation. The allusion is to the $50,000 campaign donation Cushman received from Russian billionaire banker Sergey Grishin, who has owned property in Montecito for eight years and just purchased the historic Val Verde estate, formerly owned by Dr. Warren Austin, for $15.3 million. Van Wolfswinkel is backing City Council candidate Dale Francisco in his bid for mayor.
Francisco and Cushman are battling it out for the right-of-center voting block against Councilmember Helene Schneider, the mayoral candidate backed by the city’s progressive activist community. (Candidates Isaac Garret and Bob Hansen are also running, but neither works to raise money from donors.)
Cushman, who received the mailer at his home this Friday, joked, “You know, I’ve always wanted to build skyscrapers with onions at the top, and turn Santa Barbara into a communist town.” On a more serious note, Cushman said, “This is like a bad movie. It’s a war. I feel people are going to get mad about the mailers and the nastiness of the campaign.”
The mailer noted that Grishin’s contribution was the largest single donation to a candidate in the history of Santa Barbara city elections. Readers were cautioned to wonder what Cushman had promised in exchange for such a donation. Cushman noted the irony of being attacked by Van Wolfswinkel and his political action committee, Preserve Our Santa Barbara, which have set new campaign spending records of their own, raising $270,000 thus far for the city elections.
Cushman said that Grishin supports him because he’s a businessman and thinks Cushman will bring a pro-business mindset to city government. Cushman said he’d met with Grishin once for 90 minutes earlier this year. Cushman described Grishin as being ardently pro-capitalist, and recounted that Grishin thought there was more capitalism being practiced in Russia today than in the United States. Cushman also said that Grishin did not want to see what happened in his native Moscow happen to Santa Barbara.
After the mailer went out, Cushman said Grishin emailed to see if there was anything he could do help. Cushman said he’ll decline any further donations from Grishin; he said he’d suggest Grishin donate to a worthy charity instead. Cushman said he’s never met Van Wolfswinkel, but that he’d give him the same advice.
Van Wolfswinkel has also sent out mailers attacking mayoral candidate Helene Schneider, likening her to a fiscal Titanic. His political action committee has run TV commercials attacking incumbent City Council candidate Grant House, charging that House was in tax trouble. (House said he got behind with the IRS in 1991, but that he took care of that problem 19 years ago. Since, then, he said, he’s had no problems.) House is the only incumbent out of a field of 13 in the council race.
Besides endorsing Francisco for mayor, Van Wolfswinkel has endorsed Michael Self, Frank Hotchkiss, and Cathie McCammon for City Council. Van Wolfswinkel and his slate of candidates support Measure B, the ballot initiative that would reduce the maximum allowable height of new buildings by one third. House opposes Measure B.
Cushman predicted that the nasty ads would backlash on Measure B, and predicted the initiative would lose. He said surveys he conducted three weeks ago showed that building heights ranked at the bottom when likely voters were asked to list their top concerns. Those results line up with a survey taken in September by the National Association of Realtors that indicated building heights trailed after other issues such as crime, gangs, affordable housing, the budget, and the economy as a priority with likely voters. The realtors’ survey showed that Measure B enjoyed a 6 percent advantage in the polls; it also showed that likely voters-especially Democratic women between the ages of 40 and 65-were apt to change positions when exposed to a series of arguments against Measure B. The realtors’ survey suggested that Measure B would fail by a 4 percent margin if opponents could get their message out to voters.
Supporters of Measure B blasted the survey as a “push poll,” designed to serve as a propaganda tool rather than to accurately gauge public opinion. They noted that the pollsters did not expose the pool of 400 voters to arguments in favor of Measure B, but only arguments against. While opponents of Measure B concede that point, they insist the survey was not a push poll. Typically, push polls involve far more than 400 voters and are relatively brief. These surveys took 12 minutes to complete.
Regardless of the realtors’ survey results, Cushman asserted that the tsunami of campaign money has changed the fundamental dynamics of the race. “This is no longer a grassroots campaign,” he said. “It’s no longer a bunch of people who got together who signed a petition because they didn’t like a couple of big buildings. People are looking at all the money and saying ‘Wait a minute, what’s that all about? Why would they do that?'”
Supporters of Measure B have also called foul, taking exception to mailers sent out by the Democratic Party accusing Van Wolfswinkel of trying to “buy” the election and depicting him as an over-the-top Texas caricature flanked by George W. Bush.
Cushman claimed that his surveys-taken three weeks ago-indicated that Helene Schneider enjoyed a six-point advantage over Cushman and that Cushman enjoyed an eight-point advantage over Francisco. (A Police Officers Association survey reportedly showed that Cushman enjoyed greater name recognition than Francisco, but that Francisco enjoyed greater support from likely voters.) Cushman noted that regardless of the rankings, his survey showed that 35 percent of the voters were undecided. “That just shows that the whole thing is up for grabs,” he said.
In the meantime, Cushman said he expects Francisco to ask him to get out of the race. He said Francisco called him yesterday to meet, though the nature of the meeting was not clear. Cushman said he told Francisco that he’d think about it. “But after getting that hammer-and-sickle mailer, I’m not so sure,” he said. “Maybe I’ll meet with him in Moscow.”