People who don’t take Michael Self seriously do so at their own peril. At first blush, Self, a 23-year resident of Santa Barbara and founder of SAFE Streets, might seem a bit eccentric. After all, she owns 10 cars and she’s given each one a name. There’s Fudd, Spot, Mouse, and Arnold. She named her favorite, a BMW, Angel, which she notes could be either masculine or feminine. But as Public Works chief Browning Allen learned the hard way, Self is an exceptionally formidable opponent. “I don’t like to be lied to and I don’t like to be treated as a child,” she declared. When it’s come to installing traffic calming devices – like roundabouts and bulb-outs – Self said city officials have been guilty of both.
For Self, it started in 2004 attending a meeting at Cottage Hospital to discuss traffic calming devices in the neighborhood. She didn’t see the point, remembering, “I asked what the problem was.” She didn’t like the answers – evasions and “black lies” she calls them – so Self went to work. She knocked on doors, made phone calls, demanded city documents, attended public meetings, and spoke out. When City Hall sent ballots to gauge neighborhood support for the traffic improvements, Self lobbied her neighbors to vote no. To make sure the ballots were submitted, Self collected them herself and turned them in. When city officials initially declined to accept them – citing procedural irregularities – Self raised hell. “It was like Russia,” she said.
When similar traffic calming devices were proposed for the Upper East Side, Self expanded operations. Teaming up with the likes of Dale Francisco – now running for mayor – and Jim Westby (the retired General Motors executive who serves as unofficial campaign strategist for the conservative slate), they formed SAFE Streets, arguing that streets are already so narrow that constricting them would pose unnecessary challenges to emergency vehicles. (Fire Department officials, however, contend they can safely navigate such obstacles and deliver timely service.) If speeding was such a problem, Self said put more cops on the street. “Don’t punish the rest of us for the sins of a few,” she said. But City Hall’s hidden agenda, Self surmised, was to get people out of their cars and into alternative transit by making driving inconvenient. Members of Cars Are Basic had been making the same charge for years before Self appeared on the scene. But their tone was angry, conspiratorial, and ultimately alienating. Hers would be sweet and cheerful.
Among alternative transit advocates, Self is still dismissed as a single-issue “car nut.” If so, she’s one of the more effective ones. When City Hall attempted to re-engineer the intersection of State and De la Vina streets earlier his year to make it more safe for pedestrians and bicyclists, Self and crew packed the council chambers and challenged in opposition. “They said there had been nine pedestrian accidents there, but there hadn’t been one since 1942,” Self claimed. “They just lie.” Self and crew applied enough heat to force the council – and Public Works – to beat a strategic retreat
Self, a child of San Gabriel, was named Michael because her father wanted “a Pat and a Mike,” she said. Her older brother was already Pat, so she was stuck with Michael. On the ballot, Self included her middle name – Kathleen – so voters would know she’s a woman. Self’s father died when she was eight; at 16, she left home, got married, and started a family, settling down in West Covina. At 22, she started a house cleaning business that would eventually employ 20 women. She moved to Santa Barbara 23 years ago when she remarried, and until 1992, ran her husband’s electrical contracting business. She was national sales rep for a luxury line of eye wear until 2000, when she retired.
Self began thinking about a council bid a year ago. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” she said. “Did we want to continue to nibble around the edges or did we want to become a force to be reckoned with?” To that end, Self has been backed by billionaire Van Wolfswinkel, whose money she has no qualms about taking. “I say bring it on,” she declared. Self is not registered Democrat, Republican, or anything else. “I’m disgusted by all of them,” she explained.
On affordable housing, Self is skeptical of how much more the city should do. “Eleven percent of the housing stock is already subsidized,” she said. “How much is enough?” She pointed out that cities like Indian Wells provide no affordable housing at all, and there, she said housecleaners can charge $100 an hour. When it comes to gangs, panhandlers, development, zoning, big buildings, spending, and speeding drivers, Self said City Hall is afflicted with a general lack of enforcement. “In all areas – not just the police – there’s no real teeth in anything,” she said. “I hear all this stuff about social justice, but to me the biggest injustice is all the rules that are ignored.”