OCCUPY THIS: Even in beatific Santa Barbara, where the rich are uncommonly generous and “class struggle” is typically reserved for the pissing matches between billionaires and millionaires over rearranging the furniture at the Coral Casino, reverberations from the Occupy Wall Street movement are thankfully being felt. This past weekend, hundreds of protestors took to the streets throughout downtown Santa Barbara. City Hall is still scratching its collective head about how to respond to the handful of Occupy S.B. campers seeking to pitch their tents out front in De la Guerra Plaza. My daughter was camping out there last week when the police moved in to arrest people. Around 2 a.m., my wife’s cell phone rang. “Tell Dad to get down here,” my daughter ordered. “The police are trampling our constitutional rights.” I rolled over to go back to sleep but not before issuing her instructions not to call if she got arrested. Any response was obliterated by the foghorn created by City Council candidate Cruzito Cruz blowing — yet again — on his conch, broadcast sonically via a corporate cell-phone conglomerate from De la Guerra Plaza into our bedroom. When my daughter didn’t pick up the next morning, I called a city cop well-known for his uncanny habit of always being everywhere to see if he might have arrested her. He hadn’t. He attended a Journey concert instead. His own daughter, it turns out, had been at De la Guerra Plaza that night, also protesting the obscene concentration of unrequited wealth that’s taken place the past 20 years. That’s Santa Barbara.
While the whole Occupy Thing has not animated the City Council election like a Red Bull-Monster Drink cocktail, it has managed to infiltrate some of the debate, however subliminally. In some ways, the council race is like a long shaggy-dog story — 10 candidates, 20 forums — with no apparent punch line. To the extent there’s any narrative, it’s that the fractured slate of candidates backed by the liberals, Democrats, and unions want to “take back” the council majority that they lost last year, though to do what exactly remains unclear. By contrast, the conservatives — who gained ascendancy for the first time in 35 years last year — are blasting away at the public-employee unions bankrolling the Democratic slate, contending such unions bankrupted the state with their extravagant salaries and bloated retirement plans and buried the California Dream. While pension reform is absolutely necessary, people would do well to remember that it was the financial meltdown triggered by Wall Street’s suicidally reckless and short-sighted investment schemes — not the unions — that pushed many local governments to the brink of bankruptcy. And when anti-union crusaders, like Santa Barbara’s peripatetic minister-without-portfolio Lanny Ebenstein, trot out lists of retired government workers who make six figures to not work, it’s worth noting the vast majority are former executives and senior managers. Despite efforts by Ebenstein — now pushing a statewide ballot initiative to bar public employees from negotiating wages and benefits — to misdirect our class resentments, Wall Street remains a far more worthy target than public-employee unions, no matter how egregious their faults.
At a candidates’ forum last week at the Vista del Monte retirement home, City Councilmember Dale Francisco — leader of the council’s conservative majority — blistered as “corrupt” the system that allows public-employee unions to donate to City Council candidates. Conservative Councilmember Michael Self put it less stringently, expressing concern about the conflict of interest. While I get the point, I also wonder why Self did not make it in 2009, when she ran with the endorsement and financial support from the Police Officers Association (POA). The POA, for the record, is not endorsing Self in this election, in part because of her habit of showing up at press conferences with Ebenstein.
In a related but different vein, Deborah Schwartz, the putative frontrunner among the Democratic challengers, is availing herself of an “Occupy This” explanation for the $34,000 lien secured against her for a loan she defaulted on. The News-Press broke the story — clearly the fruit of opposition research conducted by a competing campaign — of Schwartz’s financial troubles Tuesday morning, and the timing could not have been worse. Ballots had just been mailed out the week before.
Voters will forgive candidates with messy financial pasts — Councilmember Grant House was the top vote getter in 2009 despite a blitzkrieg of hit pieces exposing his previous troubles. But it’s hard when City Hall is confronting a structural deficit of $2.5 million. It’s even harder for a candidate like Schwartz, who has made a big deal of her corporate savvy gleaned from working for a “Fortune 500 company” — AT&T — on the campaign trail. Schwartz contends that she got in trouble on the loan — taken out to tide her over as she moved from her job to start her own business — when the Bank of America, with whom she’d banked for 20 years, unilaterally doubled her monthly payments. No, she was never late making payments, she insisted, and no, the bank would absolutely not negotiate with her. When the B of A — now infamous for its harsh and unforgiving refusal to negotiate with foreclosed homeowners throughout the state — passed her on to collections, Schwartz said the collection agency proved as nonnegotiable as B of A. While the posture of the bank and the collection agency in Schwartz’s recitation definitely seems more than a little incongruous, it’s also entirely possible. Who hasn’t found themselves on the short end of a very greased stick when dealing with banks or credit-card companies? And the banks’ collective refusal to come to the table with foreclosees has sparked a desperate call to action uniting Tea Party agitators on the right and iPod revolutionaries Occupying the left.
Home foreclosures in California jumped 26 percent this August, fueled in large measure by the B of A. As to whether this revelation will sink Schwartz’s boat — and that of the Democratic slate — we’ll have to wait and see. I wouldn’t expect to see Schwartz camping out in front of City Hall — or handcuffing herself to the flagpole — in solidarity with Occupy S.B. anytime soon, but I’d be surprised if she’s not humming from their hymnal.
In the meantime, the real question isn’t when will the Occupy movement go away and life get back to normal; it’s what took us so long in the first place. And no, my daughter didn’t get arrested. She just wasn’t answering.