Why the S.B. City Election Matters

Ballots have just arrived in mailboxes of registered voters in the City of Santa Barbara. This election season is a rare one in which there is practically nothing on the ballot except for the race for mayor and three city councilmembers in the city. It’s an “off year,” and that usually means low voter turnout. It’s the kind of election where those who vote are likely to be a good deal older, more financially comfortable and conservative than the population as a whole. And so it’s the kind of election where right-wing candidates, who would have little chance in a high turnout year, can win. And that’s made more likely this year, when there are more progressive candidates than there are seats to fill.

Moreover, one of the candidates running for reelection is Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss, former committee member of the county GOP Central Committee. Incumbents usually stand a better chance than challengers, so if the voter turnout is typical of off years, and we don’t get it together, we’ll have another four years with Frank. We need to recognize that he represents, in a rather sweet, amiable way, the most retrograde politics in the U.S.A. Here’s a sampling of his publicly aired thoughts:

• The city general plan shouldn’t be guided by concerns about climate change (like planning for ways to conserve energy, reduce emissions, promote public transit): “Conclusions and proposals based on climate change have no place in the general plan update as they are speculative at best,” he said.

• The city should not try to ban plastic bags: “As for the serious charge that plastic bags kill sea life, the good news is that plastic cannot be digested. Polyethylene is nontoxic and indigestible by birds and sea mammals. It passes right through them without effect,” he said. Of course, given the evident popularity of the ban, he wisely voted for it despite his belief that the animals just poop the plastic away.

• Mr. Hotchkiss ran initially with a declared hope to offer gang members this choice: “Get out of the gang, or get out of Santa Barbara.” This time he’s sounding more mellow: “I will … encourage people to reject the violent ethos of gang membership and turn to a more productive and satisfying way of life.” But this is a coded reference to the city’s gang injunction, a measure bitterly opposed in Latino neighborhoods.

• One of the main reasons he wants to continue to serve us: “Four years is more time to address the unsolved problem of transients, vagrants, and indigents on our streets. We should insist that they help themselves as we help them on their journey forward.”

• Mr. Hotchkiss, as you can see, has lots of street smarts. That was evident, in a public meeting called to deal with local patterns of police profiling of minority youth, when he declared: “There are some universal experiences that sometimes we relate to perhaps our color, or our stature, or our age that in fact are not related at all. I can assure you that no matter what color you are, when you see those flashing lights suddenly come on in the rearview mirror of your car, your heart is in your mouth. So please don’t think that that’s because of what you look like at all; it’s for all of us.” Members of the audience were not enthusiastic about his insights at the time.

Frank Hotchkiss is entitled to his beliefs, even when contradicted by science as well as social reality. And maybe it’s a good idea to have at least one council member who speaks for what we currently label as the “Tea Party”. But if I were a member of that party, I might feel that Hotchkiss lacks the courage of his convictions. As Election Day approaches, he tends to vote for the things he previously was denouncing. And if I were a more rational conservative, I’d be pretty embarrassed by his public presence.

So, if you were wondering whether to vote, or to contribute time and money to alternative candidates, consider that nonparticipation is essentially a vote for Frank Hotchkiss — since the folks who like the sound of his voice always do turn out.

But who to vote for? The problem is that there are four solidly liberal, environmentally conscious candidates running for three seats. A similar situation four years ago split the liberal vote, and Republican-leaning candidates were elected, including Hotchkiss. This time, the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party Central Committee tried to avoid such a split vote. The committee listened to all of the Democratic candidates seeking endorsement, and it took an early initiative to endorse a slate of three. It’s a well-balanced slate including veteran incumbent Bendy White, longtime progressive public official Gregg Hart, and a new young candidate, Megan Diaz Alley, whose personal experience and commitment is to renters, working people, minorities, and women, all of whom are presently quite underrepresented in local government.

I think Megan’s decision to run, the energy and dedication she’s been showing on the campaign trail, and the support she’s gaining from those sectors of the community who often feel left out of local politics gives all more reason to vote — and to join the campaign. While our elected officials have split their endorsements between the four Democrats running, social justice organizations have been more united. It is worth noting that many unions and the CAUSE Action Fund (formerly PUEBLO Action Fund) have endorsed Megan and Gregg, and the Women’s Political Committee endorsed only Megan.

Every election helps determine the future of the town and the region. It’s a future we have every reason to be worried about — but a future that also holds promise. Take a look at Megan’s Facebook page.

Let me know what you think about all this! And if you like this post, please share it!

Dick Flacks has been on the faculty at UCSB for 45 years and is a longtime political activist in Santa Barbara.

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed to reflect Frank Hotchkiss’s actual relationship with the local GOP Central Committee. He was never its chair, but was a member of the committee.


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