To the extent that Santa Barbara voters sent any message election night, it’s that they’re of decidedly mixed minds on a host of issues and intend to send candidates to office that reflect that split. As a sign of that dichotomy, voters chose as their top vote-getter incumbent Dale Francisco, the political lightning rod and strategist of the conservative resurgence that has held a slight majority in City Hall during the past year. Francisco is the first Republican to win the most votes in many moons. But voters also elected challenger Cathy Murillo, by far the most left-leaning and progressive of any of the viable candidates in the race. Murillo, who trailed Francisco by a mere 104 votes, is the first Latina ever elected to the Santa Barbara City Council. Coming in third was restaurant owner Randy Rowse, clearly the most moderate member of the so-called conservative slate of incumbents. (Although Rowse clearly ran as part of that slate, he voted for Barack Obama in the last election.)
Michael Self, the outspoken conservative whose political talents shone more in one-on-one interactions than when speaking from the council dais, did not win reelection, coming in fifth behind former councilmember Iya Falcone’s fourth-place finish. With Murillo replacing Self at City Hall, Democrats once again control a majority of the nominally nonpartisan seats, and the conservatives lose their brief numerical advantage. How that plays out until the next election in two years remains anybody’s guess.
Many of the hot-button issues regarding growth, development, housing densities, and affordability actually require a five-vote majority for passage; four just won’t do. And although party-line issues defined much of the campaign — with the Democratic Central Committee backing a slate of three challengers “to take back City Hall” — many of the issues confronting City Hall don’t lend themselves to easy Red-Blue categorization. Ultimately, if Murillo proves to be more flexible and less ideologically stubborn than Self — whose vote on key issues was almost never in doubt or in play — there could be more flux and interplay during deliberations.
Candidates and their campaign consultants found themselves at a loss to explain the seemingly contradictory results. Francisco, slowly working his way through a plate of food at the Paradise Café — owned by Rowse — said, “People always try to figure out what voters meant. I don’t know that that’s really possible.” After having run for office three times in the past four years — and having served that long on the council — Francisco said he’s “a well-known commodity.” And Rowse, as the owner of a popular watering hole for 30 years, has come to know and get along with people of all political stripes. But Francisco was at a loss to explain Murillo’s dramatic success, other than to comment, “She ran a hell of a campaign.”
To the extent there was a Cinderella story to this race, it’s Murillo. A onetime reporter — with The Santa Barbara Independent, KCSB, and the Los Angeles Times — Murillo’s initial candidacy was regarded with raised eyebrows even from her own party’s establishment, who privately worried if she was ready for prime time. She was too radical, too outspoken, they worried, to connect with mainstream voters. But at forums, Murillo managed to come off both professional and passionate on the issues. She spoke for the have-nots from the perspective of someone who grew up in East Los Angeles, the daughter of a drug-dealing gang member. When it came to fundraising, she more than held her own, even though the deep-pocketed police and firefighters unions decided not to endorse her. And absolutely no one worked harder than Murillo, mobilizing volunteers to walk precincts and call voters. Even on election night, her volunteers remained fully engaged until the polls closed. “She did absolutely everything you could ask a candidate to do,” exclaimed former councilmember and Assemblymember Das Williams. “She burned all her boats, man. She burned all her boats.”
On election night, Murillo celebrated at TonyRay’s, along with fellow slate-mate Iya Falcone and the Democratic Central Committee. “Frankly, I’m a little overwhelmed,” said Murillo as the results poured in. “It’s a little scary.” The biggest change, she said, will be letting go of the habits of being a journalist, which she’s been for 15 years, and taking on the mantle of elected representative: “It’s not just about being a role model; people look to me to show leadership.”
Murillo was the only member of her slate, which included Falcone and Planning Commissioner Deborah Schwartz, to win office. While Falcone managed to place a strong fourth, edging out Self as the ballots (which typically lean liberal) cast on Tuesday were counted, Schwartz placed sixth, despite having amassed the biggest campaign war chest — $92,000 — and secured the most high-profile endorsements. Schwartz’s campaign was not helped by news accounts that a collections agency had secured a judgment against her for having walked away from a $34,000 personal loan. (She claimed the banks doubled her payments without notice and refused to negotiate.)
On election night, Murillo danced with her husband, David Pritchett, who ran for council himself two years ago, and with Falcone. Outside, Mayor Helene Schneider exclaimed, “It’s about damn time; Santa Barbara elected a Latino to the City Council!” Schneider, a liberal Democrat, had opted not to endorse anyone in this race, arguing that to do so could jeopardize relations with the incumbent conservatives and compromise key votes on homeless and traffic-calming matters. While that argument has not mollified some party activists, there was little evidence of grumbling Tuesday night.
Perhaps the biggest losers of the election were the “guns and hoses” coalition of the police and firefighters unions. None of the candidates endorsed by the unions — Falcone, Schwartz, or Sharon Byrne — the scrappy outsider from the Milpas Community Association who sought to find electoral success by going around, over, and outside the established camps — won. That’s the first time since anyone can remember that the public-safety unions pulled a goose egg. Nationally, public-employee unions have been under considerable attack — though the Ohio anti-union proposition went down to defeat Tuesday night — and in Santa Barbara, the Police Department has been roiled by scandals, pseudo-scandals, and instability at the top. Rather than play it safe and lay low, the public-safety coalition came out swinging, targeting Francisco especially, for political oblivion. Francisco attacked back, accusing the unions of being more interested in pay than public safety and termed as “corrupt” the system allowing public unions to donate to council candidates.
Santa Barbara City Council
(Results Last Updated: 11:46 p.m.)
Dale Francisco: 8,246 votes (15.91 percent)
Cathy Murillo: 8,142 votes (15.71 percent )
Randy Rowse: 8,007 votes (15.45 percent)
Iya Falcone: 7,753 votes (14.96 percent)
Michael Self: 7,316 votes (14.12 percent)
Deborah Schwartz: 7,025 votes (13.56 percent)
Sharon Byrne: 2,882 votes (5.56 percent)
Sebastian Aldana: 1,058 votes (2.04 percent)
Cruzito Cruz: 954 votes (1.84 percent)
Jerry Matteo: 438 votes (0.85 percent)
– Registered Voters: 44,562
– Ballots Counted: 18,127
– Voter Turnout: 40.68 percent