Up for grabs in this year’s Santa Barbara City Council race is the whole ball of wax. Four of the council’s seven seats could change hands. At the very least, three new faces will be sworn in come January. Depending on the outcome, there could be a new council majority next year, one that tilts significantly further to the right than the council – long a bastion of liberal leaning Democrats – has for decades. But whoever wins, City Hall will be a decidedly grimmer place. With budget cuts – ranging from the painful to the excruciating – being the first, second, and third order of the day, the real mystery is why anyone would want the job.
Yet want it they do and in unprecedented numbers. Running for the three council seats are 13 candidates, eight of whom have enough money, backing, and endorsements to be reckoned with. Likewise, five candidates are vying for the mayoral post, three of whom are genuine impact players.
The defining reality of this year’s race is the astonishing quantity of campaign cash that’s been raised and spent – enough to carpet comb the airwaves and tax the carrying capacity of most mailboxes. The 8,000-pound gorilla, of course, is Randall Van Wolfswinkel, a one-time Santa Barbara resident turned Texas billionaire, who has spent well over $250,000 bankrolling a conservative slate of candidates: Dale Francisco for mayor and Michael Self, Frank Hotchkiss, and Cathie McCammon for council. In addition, Van Wolfswinkel is spending lavishly on behalf of Measure B, the lower heights initiative that would reduce the maximum allowable size of new buildings to 40 feet downtown and 45 feet elsewhere. Van Wolfswinkel’s donations have been unprecedented in tone as well as size, paying for negative attack ads the likes of which Santa Barbara hasn’t seen in 70 years.
This more conservative slate – which includes two Republicans, one Democrat, and one-declined to state – is hoping to tap into the public’s clear anxiety over the dismal state of the economy. Its candidates regularly blast the current council for mismanaging the current fiscal crisis and squandering City Hall’s reserves by giving out pay-raises to politically generous public employee unions. In addition, they claim that law enforcement against gangs and panhandlers has been too lax, and that City Hall has bent too many rules on behalf of too many developers pushing projects that are too big and too dense. In general, they complain that City Hall has been taken over by the younger, activist wing of the Democratic Party and that the current council turns a deaf ear to the concerns of neighborhood watch-dogs and average citizens.
Although registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of 2.5 to 1, conservative slate strategists point to the success councilmember Dale Francisco – the sole Republican in City Hall – enjoyed in 2007. In that race, Francisco – an outspoken critic of bulb-outs, roundabouts, and a mother-knows-best attitude emanating from City Hall – came in first in 10 high turn-out precincts dominated by Democratic majorities. By supporting Measure B, they’re hoping that Francisco and the slate – with Van Wolfswinkel’s money – can garner votes from older and established traditional Democrats disgruntled about high density development, affordable housing, and alternative transportation policies embraced by the younger breed of “New Urbanist” planning activists, also associated with the Democratic Party. That support, coupled with the city’s base of Republican and conservative voters, might prove sufficient to “kick the bums out,” especially if turn-out is low. (Traditionally, liberal candidates fare better in Santa Barbara in high turn-out elections; conservatives do better in lower-turn out elections.)
With so many candidates in the race, it’s mathematically probable that the victorious candidates will prevail with only a small percentage of the actual votes cast. Adding to a sense of uncertainty and confusion, this year marks the first time City Hall is holding an all mail-in election.
Running against the conservative “slate” is a de facto slate unified only by the fact that its members have been backed by most of the major South Coast organizations associated with the Democratic Party. And they all share the same campaign chief, the ever opinionated and acerbic Jeremy Lindaman. These include councilmember and mayoral candidate Helene Schneider and, for council, incumbent councilmember Grant House, planning commissioner Harwood “Bendy” White, and preservationist Dianne Channing.
Members of the Democratic slate – like those backed by Van Wolfswinkel – insist they’re running alone. They point out that on Measure B – this year’s defining wedge issue – their positions are all over the map. (Schneider declines to take a position, House opposes it, and White and Channing support it.) On fiscal matters and planning controversies, they also run the gamut. But regardless of how critical they at times are of various city policies, they have all enjoyed considerable success painting within the procedural lines by which City Hall currently operates. They may recoil at being tagged City Hall “insiders,” but if they’re not quite “the bums” the conservative slate wants to kick out, they qualify as kissing cousins.
Vying for traction as viable candidates independent of established power structures are David Pritchett, a bluntly outspoken populist and environmentalist who vows to “shake things up,” and John Thyne, the successful businessman who pledges to bring a sense of social justice to his pragmatic approach to problem solving. What follows are rough sketches of these eight council candidates who’ve managed to attract some serious endorsements and to raise some serious campaign cash. (The other five candidates were profiled last week in “The Outsiders”. Next week, we will, look at the mayoral race. For complete and ongoing election coverage, see Independent.com/elect-09.)