Late Monday afternoon, Dolores Huerta — iconic labor leader long associated with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers — held a press conference in front of City Hall announcing her support for Santa Barbara City Council candidate Cathy Murillo, one of the three challengers backed by the local Democratic Central Committee. Huerta praised Murillo, saying that, as a reporter, Murillo “gave voice to people who often went unheard,” and that, as a council member, Murillo would “stand up for children and families.” (Murillo worked as reporter for The Santa Barbara Independent, KCSB, and the Los Angeles Times.)
While Huerta’s endorsement is designed to galvanize support among Murillo’s political base — social progressives and Latino voters — it’s unclear what impact her endorsement can or will have, coming at the 23rd hour and 59th minute of the long race. The polls close at 8 p.m. on Tuesday. And as of this weekend, 14,000 voters had already cast their ballots in the city’s second all mail-in election. (By contrast, 18,000 people had cast their ballots the same time two years ago.) Ballots were mailed out to about 45,000 registered voters a month ago, and they’ve had all that ensuing time to “cast” their vote. If the last election is any guide, a large pulse of last-minute votes — up to 30 percent — could still come in. These ballots would have to be hand-delivered; ballots sent by mail won’t get to City Hall by the Tuesday deadline.
This year’s race — pitting two ideologically opposed three-member slates against each other, as well as four “outsider” candidates scrambling to find traction with voters disaffected with Santa Barbara’s well-established political camps — has the Greek chorus of political prognosticators scratching their beards about what the likely outcome will be. On one side there are three more conservative incumbents — Dale Francisco, Randy Rowse, and Michael Self — who support more cops on the street while running against the union representing the police officers. They want the streets cleaned of aggressive panhandlers and street drunks, and tourists made to feel more welcome. And when it comes to growth, development, and planning issues, they want things to stay the way they are. They are hostile to proposals to increase housing densities — as part of an effort to increase affordable housing opportunities for younger, middle-class families — and regard traffic calming devices with keen suspicion.
Running against the incumbents are three candidates backed by the Democratic Central Committee: Cathy Murillo, Iya Falcone — a former two-term councilmember — and Planning Commissioner Deborah Schwartz. To the extent these three agree on anything, they are appalled that conservatives managed to take control of the City Council last December, the first time in 35 years. They also agree — in general — with increasing residential densities in some areas to heighten the options for housing affordability. Falcone and Schwartz were backed by the public safety unions and advocate for more cops. Murillo — who wasn’t endorsed by the cops and firefighters unions — expressed reservations this could hurt other departments that serve at-risk youth and their families.
Of the four outsiders, Sharon Byrne — affiliated with the Milpas Community Association — has raised enough money to have some impact, though still far less than the other six. The conservative slate regards Byrne as a spoiler and worry that she could take votes away from them. Although Byrne has taken pains to deny that she’s a conservative, she has been closely allied with the council conservatives in opposing medical marijuana dispensaries and advocating for tougher enforcement when it comes to street crimes associated with the homeless. Byrne — also endorsed by the police and firefighters unions — has defied easy categorization. She’s been outspoken in her criticism of the school-to-prison pipeline, an issue typically associated with the populist left, and has been active in grassroots anti-gang efforts and neighborhood cleanup campaigns as well. While the Democratic Central Committee has no love for Byrne, she’s managed to snag support from such prominent Democrats as Pedro Nava — the former assemblymember now famously feuding with the likes of his successor Das Williams and county Supervisor Salud Carbajal — and Olivia Uribe, until recently a prominent player with the Central Committee.
The other three include Sebastian Aladana, a lifelong Santa Barbara resident who, like Byrne, sprang from the Milpas Community Association; district elections advocate Cruzito Cruz; and Jerry Matteo. None of these three have chosen to raise the funds necessary to give them any chance of victory at the voters box. Instead, they’ve availed themselves of the 20 candidates forums to articulate their critique of the status quo and their remedies to it.
The key factor in determining the election’s outcome, all agree, is who turns out to vote and in what numbers. Although Democrats enjoy a major advantage over Republicans in number of registered voters — 52 percent to 30 percent — Republicans can be counted on to vote more reliably, no matter what, than their Democratic counterparts. Likewise, there’s a big division among older and younger Democrats over issues of housing density and affordability. In general, many older Democrats tend to be more comfortable with the traditional slow-growth postures embraced by the council conservatives.
To date, voter turnout in this election appears to be significantly lighter than it was two years ago in the city’s first ever all mail-in election. In that election, 49 percent of the electorate cast ballots, a record turnout. But that election was exceptional for a number of reasons. There was a mayoral contest involved, coupled with a polarizing ballot initiative — Measure B — that would lower the maximum allowable building heights downtown by 15 feet. On top of that, Texas billionaire — and occasional Santa Barbara resident — Randall Van Wolfswinkel spent more than $750,000 of his own money in favor of the new height restrictions and a new conservative slate of council members. Van Wolfswinkel’s contributions eclipsed by far any previous campaign spending records, and the campaigns his money spawned were among the ugliest and most negative in decades.
By contrast, this year’s race has barely penetrated beyond the inner circle of community activists and into the broader community. Although candidates have spent more than ever before — the six candidates affiliated with a slate have all raised between $80,000 and $100,000 — there have been no defining issues, no dominant personality, and a conspicuous dearth of mudslinging. This Saturday, the incumbent slate sent out a mailer attacking Schwartz, Falcone, Murillo, and Byrne as being beholden to unions and special interests, referring to the large sums that various unions have poured into their campaigns. (Public safety unions have taken out ads charging that if the incumbents are re-elected, public safety could be in jeopardy.) Last week, the Democratic Party sent out a mailer attacking the conservative incumbents for being insensitive to the needs of the middle class and being out of touch with mainstream Santa Barbara’s environmental sensibilities. However pointed, these are positively tame compared to the personal attacks that transpired two years ago.
Tactically, the two sides have deployed very different approaches to mobilizing their respective political bases. To a large degree, the conservative incumbents have taken their message to the people via TV ads, sending out a flurry of mailers only at the last minute. By contrast, the three challengers backed by the Democrats have focused their resources on direct mail. And they’ve mobilized large numbers of volunteers — and in some instances paid staff — to walk precincts, knock on doors, and organize phone banks. Helping out in this has been Darcelle Elliott, field representative to Assemblymember Das Williams. Williams — a city councilmember until last December — kicked Elliott loose for eight weeks to help get the vote out for the Democratic machine. (Only after Williams left and he was replaced by Randy Rowse did the conservatives secure an outright majority on the council. In addition, Williams and Francisco — the yin and yang of the left-right tensions on the council — regularly went head-to-head. )
On Saturday morning, Williams showed up for a “Das and Donuts” victory pep talk for about 25 precinct walkers organized by the local Dems. Later that day, Hannah-Beth Jackson — now vying for the State Senate — led a similar effort, armed with tamales — made by Murillo — rather than donuts. About 20 showed up for that. Meanwhile, PUEBLO, the progressive social justice organization, dispatched about 20 volunteers into the streets. How many additional votes that shook loose has yet to be seen, but City Hall election officials estimate they received 1,400 additional ballots over the weekend.
Come Election Day, prospective voters will have to walk their ballots into City Hall or to four other sites where elections workers will be posted. Eastside voters will be asked to take their ballots to the Municipal Tennis Courts, located on the frontage road along Highway 101. The Franklin Center, a more convenient and better-known location, was booked and not available. Likewise, Holy Cross on the Mesa was not available, so election workers were dispatched to the lesser-known Pilgrim Terrace community center off Modoc Road, right across from La Cumbre Junior High School. Drop-off centers will also be located at the Braille Institute at 2031 De la Vina Street and Grace Lutheran Church at 3869 State Street.
City election workers say they’ll begin counting ballots at 4:30 p.m. and should have 75 percent of all ballots counted by 8:30 p.m. When final results are available depends on how many last-minute ballots come in and whether there are any technical problems. Those seeking preliminary results are advised to follow on Channel 18 or the City of Santa Barbara’s web page.
For those seeking a more up close and personal immersion into the election’s outcome, there is City Hall itself — open to the public — and the election night victory parties. The Democratic Central Committee — as well as candidates Iya Falcone and Cathy Murillo — will be celebrating at TonyRay’s, a nightclub located in De la Guerra Plaza where Papagallos restaurant used to be; Deborah Schwartz will be congregating with her supporters at the historic El Paseo a half block away. Of the incumbents, Randy Rowse — who owns the Paradise restaurant — will be holding forth in his own establishment. Fellow slate-mates Dale Francisco and Michael Self will be partying at the restaurant Blush. And Sharon Byrne will be watching returns from the comfort of Dargan’s Pub.