This year’s race for the Santa Barbara City Council is all about the number four. It’s not so much a matter of numerological mumbo jumbo as it is a contest between the council’s rival camps to secure a solid four-vote majority for the next two years ahead. The math is simple. Currently, four of the seven councilmembers are registered Democrats — although that body is technically nonpartisan — and together, they constitute a semi-cohesive bloc giving the council a slightly left-leaning tilt. But because Councilmember Grant House, an outspoken liberal on the hot button issues of affordable housing and alternative transportation, is being termed out after having served two terms, there’s a council vacancy. And that poses the distinct possibility of a directional shift.
It all depends.
In this year’s election, three seats up are for grabs. Two, however, are currently occupied by incumbents seeking reelection — Councilmembers Bendy White and Frank Hotchkiss. These two occupy opposite sides of the political aisle, and if the conventional wisdom is to be believed, both are heavily favored to win reelection. If that proves correct — and recent history demonstrates that council incumbents are by no means invulnerable — that leaves eight other candidates vying for the one remaining seat.
In many ways, this year’s race is a mess. Even with a scorecard, it’s hard to determine who’s who and what’s what. Of the 10 council candidates, four are registered Democrats, five are “declined-to-states” — a significant jump from previous years — and only one, Hotchkiss, is registered Republican. Two were born in Santa Barbara; four grew up here. Two are women, two Latinos, and two speak Spanish. Three rent; the rest own. Two were adopted. Two served in the military, one — Jason Nelson — in Afghanistan. Two have not raised enough money to trigger campaign finance reporting requirements — Cruzito Herrera Cruz and Matthew Hunter Kramer — and have been excluded from several candidates’ forums because of it. Two of the challengers — Gregg Hart and David Landecker — were elected to the council previously and are seeking to make political comebacks. Two currently serve on the Parks and Recreation Commission — Lesley Wiscomb and Megan Diaz Alley — and are making their first bid for elected office. One of the challengers — Michael Jordan — serves on the Planning Commission. Two live on the Mesa, two on the Eastside. Four are over 60, two in their fifties, one is 40, another 38, and two are 34.
The special-interest groups, civic activists, elected officials, political parties, and political “machines” that typically back candidates are far more scattered this year than any time in recent memory. Groups that used to line up their endorsements together this year aren’t. The ensuing fuzziness matters because in low turnout elections, a small handful of votes can make all the difference between victory and defeat. And while all the candidates raise pretty much all the same issues — aggressive panhandlers, gang violence, economic sustainability, affordable housing, residential density, and traffic — they differ significantly in emphasis and approach. Should City Hall hire more cops to deal with the homeless or try something else? Is the proposed gang injunction necessary? Are new revenue sources needed? And will new zoning rules that allow greater residential density make a dent in housing affordability or destroy Santa Barbara’s historic charm and architectural character?
All this rhetoric translates into real action, eventually. A small case in point: the bulb-out recently built at the corner of De la Vina Street to help pedestrians cross what’s otherwise a dangerous intersection. When council “conservatives” briefly held a four-voter majority, they regarded bulb-outs as a four-letter word. Even though outside funding existed to pay for this project, traffic planners steadfastly refused to bring up the idea. Only when the “liberals” took back the council majority two years ago would the plan be discussed.
As a general rule, “liberals” support increased housing densities as a tool to increase affordable housing opportunities, for both rental units and for-sale units. Conservatives tend to believe such efforts can work only for rental housing, but will otherwise undermine neighborhood character. Liberals tend to push harder for transportation alternatives; conservatives are more wed to the inevitability and necessity of the automobile. Conservatives tend to argue more cops are needed; liberals counter more services should be provided and less punitive approaches taken. Liberals contend City Hall needs new revenue streams; conservatives that we should make do with what we have.
As with most general rules, these do not pigeonhole all the candidates with 100 percent precision. Still, they’re close enough for government work. With this in mind, the liberal block of candidates includes incumbent Harwood “Bendy” White and challengers Gregg Hart, David Landecker, Megan Diaz Alley, and Cruzito Cruz. The conservative block includes incumbent Frank Hotchkiss and challengers Lesley Wiscomb, and Jason Nelson. The two who have raised campaign issues and a conspicuous dearth of campaign cash are challengers Cruz and Matthew Hunter Kramer.
If the Hollywood formulation of “opposites attract” held true for the City Council, Bendy White and Frank Hotchkiss would have found themselves in the thrall of True Bromance. Hotchkiss — booming, succinct, and direct — is one of two Republicans on the council and has been outspoken to a fault on such environmental cause célèbres as climate change — he insisted all mention of it as a motivating concern be excised from the city’s updated general plan — alternative transportation — cycling, he’s argued, is a recreational activity but not a way people actually get around — or the plastic bag ban. When Hotchkiss — a practicing Buddhist and real estate agent — famously opined that plastic bags pose no health threat to fish because they can simply poop the plastic out, local Save the Mermaid activists responded by showing up — en masse — armed with plates full of plastic imitation hors d’oeuvres to challenge the councilmember’s digestive prowess. In conversation, Hotchkiss speaks in bold blacks and whites, assiduously avoiding the pitfalls of wonky detail. By contrast, Councilmember Bendy White — a Democrat by party affiliation and a moderate by temperament — is so sensitive to the nuance of an issue that he sometimes sounds as if he’s arguing with himself when soliloquizing from the dais. And when White’s done, as one city department head noted, it’s not always clear which side won.
Such stylistics aside, White is an avid “smart-growther,” pushing hard for increased residential densities and relaxed parking requirements — in hopes of promoting what’s known as “small ‘‘A’” affordable — (otherwise known as “nonsubsidized and affordable-by-design”) — housing that Hotchkiss insists will create nothing but congestion and other nightmares of big city blight. During the council’s tortuous debates over the general plan, White played a key behind-the-scenes role negotiating a compromise just bearable to both sides to garner the five vote supermajority needed to pass. Both, White and Hotchkiss, it turns out, have been budget hawks when it’s come to employee pensions, and both were willing to go to the mat with the politically influential Police Officers Association (POA) over increased employee contributions. Four years ago, the POA endorsed Hotchkiss and not White; this time around the union did just the opposite. Even if White wasn’t on their side, the union explained, at least he’d meet with them. Hotchkiss, they complained, was not accessible.
Public safety is the impact point where law and order and fiscal restraint collide. And it illuminates how differently the two incumbents operate. Both agree that the number of homeless people congregating throughout downtown is a problem. White sees the issue more as a manifestation of the world economy and its recent collapse and the ever-shredding safety net; Hotchkiss sees it more as a case of people behaving badly. Where White sees a need to offer more help — while insisting City Hall is already doing far more than its fair share — Hotchkiss argues Santa Barbara is literally killing the homeless with compassion and that city police need to show a “stiffer spine” in going after aggressive panhandlers. Hotchkiss argues that City Hall needs to expand the size of the police force by five or six more cops, in addition to the four additional positions recently approved. White agonizes over the cost, noting each additional cop costs the city $150,000 a year in salary and benefits and adds to the burden of Santa Barbara’s underfunded retirement system. Instead, he supports an incremental expansion of the city’s “restorative policing effort” — which relies on non-sworn, hourly civilian outreach workers supervised by three police officers.
Where White frets about offsetting new costs with new revenues, Hotchkiss does not. As Hotchkiss sees his job, it’s to set general policy, not sweat the details. And as general policy, he’s against new taxes. City Hall must make do with what it has, he says, pointing out the new efficiencies city administrators were forced to discover by the recession when they cut 81 positions — and $8 million — from the budget. By contrast, White has fixated upon the city’s grossly underfunded infrastructure — the seismically unsafe police headquarters will cost at least $50 million to fix or replace — long before it became politically sexy. He lies awake worrying how this council will manage to leave the network of pipes and plants that make up City Hall at least as good as when they took office.
In the meantime, White takes satisfaction bird-dogging pet projects that have yet to take flight, like the methane cogeneration electrical plant designed to convert the energy-rich fumes generated by the city’s sewage treatment plant into electricity. And, as he points out to all the slow-growth preservationists angry about his smart-growth agenda, White takes pride in the fact that the new general plan effectively reduces the maximum building height from 60 feet to 45 except in exceptional circumstances. “We got something Santa Barbara–scale,” he said.
When Southern California Edison quietly notified City Hall it would no longer provide the massive Christmas tree traditionally planted by the Arlington Theatre, Hotchkiss quietly notified Santa Barbara’s media. In the ensuing hullabaloo, SoCal Edison saw fit to change its mind. Likewise, Hotchkiss takes credit for promoting the cruise ships now stopping in Santa Barbara 22 times a year. Yes, Mexico’s bloody drug wars hurt that country’s tourist trade, but Hotchkiss made it clear he thought Santa Barbara should roll out the welcome mats for the big ships. Likewise, Hotchkiss takes credit for that Cabrillo Boulevard is no longer a placed where homeless people in their RVs can camp with impunity. It’s true, City Hall was already pushing in that direction, but it’s easily distracted. “We just kept the pressure on,” he said.
All Dressed Up with No Dough to Go
It’s no doubt a meaningless coincidence, but the two candidates who aren’t raising any money to fuel their campaigns are the only ones to highlight their middle names: Cruzito Herrera Cruz and Matthew Hunter Kramer. More meaningfully, they both have suggested racism was involved when they were excluded from an invitation-only candidates’ forum hosted by the Chamber of Commerce because their campaigns were not deemed “viable.” Kramer showed up anyway — he explained he’d never been notified he couldn’t speak — he was escorted out of the room. Cruz lambasted his exclusion via email. (Kramer said he’d been allowed to address the Chamber when he ran for mayor in 2005, but suggested he was excluded only after he addressed a forum this year in Spanish. Cruz routinely speaks in both languages.)
Kramer, the son of a Top Gun naval aviator and grandson of the former owner of the Casmalia toxic waste site, said he was prompted to run after a mentally ill homeless man approached his 4-year-old daughter in their front yard on two occasions within two weeks. The second time, Kramer said, he tackled the man and held him until police arrived. A Republican until his 2005 mayoral bid — he opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has since been independent — Kramer said the homeless need better case management than they currently get. If people are upset about smelly, homeless people defecating in public and aggressively panhandling, he suggested the homeless need to be provided better access to public showers, toilets, and food. Kramer said the police department needs new leadership, especially seeing how the former business manager managed to embezzle more than $600,000 in parking fines. Likewise, he said, City Hall needed to increase the living wage to $15 an hour, suggesting grants could be obtained so that city could bridge the gap from the current minimum wage to the living wage for businesses taking on new employees.
Although Kramer came from a wealthy family and attended private colleges, he himself is not wealthy. He argued that City Council elections should be publicly financed — to the tune of $40,000 per candidate — to reduce the influence of special interests. For that to work, he said, the number of signatures candidates must submit to qualify for the ballot must be substantially increased. Kramer, who is 38 years old, holds no delusions that he might win, but he explained he’s running “to raise issues.” Throughout the race, Kramer has sent out notices that he’s withdrawn at various times, only to reenter. “Trust but verify,” he said with a cautionary twinkle.
For Cruzito Cruz, this is his third time on the ballot. The first time, City Hall argued he failed to collect the requisite number of valid signatures to qualify, but Cruz fought back in court — representing himself — and won. An accountant by trade and freelance social-service provider, Cruz comes across on the campaign trail as a mix between Aztec poet and jailhouse lawyer. He frequently cites city code out to the sixth decimal point and knows enough bureaucratic acronyms to induce temporary dyslexia. But his main point is that City Hall needs to do more — invest more — in its youth. (The $729,000 in Community Development Block Grant Funds to 52 organizations should be increased to at least $2 million, he says.) At age 40, Cruz says he knows firsthand the inside of County Jail and understands “my mom’s suffering.” He opposes the proposed gang injunction, arguing, “We can’t be policing our way out of a societal problem.” More neighborhood outreach is needed, more social services provided. And yes, he supports district elections so that “the poor, the low income, the black folk, and the brown folk” can have a place at the table along with the “Caucasian Americans.” Forty-five percent of the city’s population, he noted, is now Latino. Still, Cruz saves his sharpest jabs at campaign forums for Megan Diaz Alley, noting in one that he’d lived on the Eastside longer than she’d been alive.
In past efforts, Cruz ran as a classic outsider, raising no money and garnering no endorsements. This year, however, he successfully managed to shoehorn an endorsement out of 1st District Supervisor Salud Cabajal, who was eating at a Casa de la Raza menudo breakfast where Cruz was working. Carbajal had already endorsed three other candidates when he gave his blessings to Cruz, none of whom — conspicuously — happened to be Diaz Alley. “What can I say?” said a clearly defensive Carbajal. “I don’t always agree with the guy. I don’t always approve of his tactics. But he walks the walk.”
With registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans by more than 2 to 1, securing the third council spot — and crucial fourth vote — should be, by any reckoning, a slam dunk. But Santa Barbara’s Democratic Party — with all its many clubs and committees — has always been a fractious big tent in which personality disputes and competing ambitions have held as much sway as political cohesion. That’s how four card-carrying Democrats have come to be squabbling for the three slots. The Democratic Party has weighed in behind Bendy White, Gregg Hart, and Megan Diaz Alley. (White’s endorsement was almost perfunctory, though some organizations affiliated with the party have conspicuously withheld their support based on White’s endorsement of the proposed gang injunction.) The unofficial party of Mayor Helene Schneider, however, has thrown its weight behind David Landecker and White, leaving Diaz Alley out in the cold.
Gregg Hart, the first to throw his hat in the ring, has already served two terms on City Council — 1996 to 2003 — and prior to that on the city’s Planning Commission as well. He also put in a stint on the California Coastal Commission, all of which gives him a serious leg up when it comes to actual experience. The 53-year-old Hart was known as a moderate Democrat and a skillful player. Although he never got along well with slow-growthers and preservationists, Hart pushed hard for Measure B, which secured for the city — via bed-tax revenues — $2 million a year to keep the city’s creeks and waterfront clean. This time around, Hart has been reincarnated as a more progressive candidate. “The world is different. The economy tanked. Income disparities grew. More people are suffering,” he said. Hart said he’s frustrated by the way the council’s conservative faction limited affordable housing opportunities in the general plan, terming the document “emasculated.” The new plan, he charged, doesn’t go nearly far enough, and he vowed to reopen that process if elected. “I’m on the side of trying to do more for people who need help,” he declared. Hart grew up in Santa Barbara, the son of the city’s library director, and he remembers a time when middle-class families could find an economic toehold here. City Hall can’t solve the problem, he said, but it can tinker positively at the edges. “I want to be the one fighting that fight.” He took exception to those who argue that increased densities can’t be accommodated without doing violence to Santa Barbara’s character. Many such developments have been built over the years without drawing much notice at all: “It’s not fair to say people who want to be more flexible are putting Santa Barbara’s aesthetic preciousness at risk.”
Today Hart works for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) as public information officer and is working to win approval for Caltrans’ freeway-widening and HOV-lane plan. Given that City Hall is now at serious loggerheads with Caltrans over key details of this plan, Hart’s employment has given rise to allegations of conflict of interest from opposing candidates on both sides of the aisle. Hart has said he’d seek guidance from the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission but that he would not unilaterally recuse himself from such deliberations. Hart has argued that the city’s bargaining posture is self-destructive and that City Hall could achieve more by working cooperatively. “This is the dance,” he said. “We’d be better off dancing together.” Not surprisingly, the answer Hart gives to many questions posed at community forums is to finish the freeway widening.
Hart managed to secure the endorsement from the Sierra Club, even though the Sierra Club — and the League of Conservation Voters — ranked his voting record while on the Coastal Commission as consistently among the worst during his four years in office. “If I wanted a 100 percent voting record, I could have voted against everything,” he said. ‘But being an environmentalist is more than just saying no.”
Competing most immediately with Hart — in terms of dollars and endorsements — is David Landecker, who served on the council for less than two years 22 years ago. Landecker is still dogged by the fact that he was forced to resign after he got caught switching price tags at Home Improvement Center. Since then, Landecker put in serious time in the nonprofit world, running the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics and later the Environmental Defense Center, where his chief function was fundraising. Through it, Landecker remained up to his eyeballs in local politics. “It’s where you can actually make a difference,” he said. “It’s not abstract or remote.” Landecker had just retired from the EDC and was about to take six months off when he said Mayor Helene Schneider — and later former Mayor Marty Blum — asked him to consider running. The argument was that Hart was vulnerable because of his connection to SBCAG and Diaz Alley was too inexperienced. “The council could swing back 4 to 3 the other way,” he explained. And as everyone in town knows, Landecker — a mainstay of the liberal environmental establishment — has always had an insatiable itch for public office.
On issues like the homeless, Landecker says there’s no magic bullet. “We need to get to know them one-on-one,” he said, to determine their needs. If aggressive panhandling is a problem, he said residents and visitors alike need to not give away their spare change. It doesn’t make good financial sense, he said, to allocate the costly time of sworn police officers on obnoxious street people. “We need to make Santa Barbara unprofitable and uninviting for these people,” he said. Landecker said he tried to practice what he preached, telling a “gaggle” of young men he encountered on the 500 block of State Street two weeks ago that they were not welcome. “It was kind of awkward,” he said, noting the exchange made his associates uncomfortable.
To the extent Landecker has an agenda he’s passionate about, it’s to maximize the amount of rental housing that gets developed and to ensure that what’s now on the ground is not converted to condos. “Most people just don’t have the $100,000 needed to make a down payment in this town,” he said.
Landecker dismissed most of what happens at Tuesday council meetings as “theater.” He said he hope to serve as a “conduit” by which different sectors of the public can better interact with City Hall to get their needs met. “I like that job,” he exclaimed. Like Hart, Landecker faulted the current council for embracing the proposed gang injunction without vetting it first. This, he said, strained relations with a community that’s already alienated from government, and the benefits — in crime prevention — could be achieved by means that already exist. “It just wasn’t worth it,” he said.
Among the many challenges Landecker has to overcome is his personality. Even friends and admirers say he can be brash and needlessly step on toes. “I know there’s something about my voice and countenance that comes across as arrogant,” Landecker conceded. “But sometimes, it’s not really there. I’m not a hard guy to work with; I just want to see results.”
Of all the Dems, Megan Diaz Alley is the most outspokenly populist progressive in the pack. At age 34, she represents the activist enthusiasm of the Community Environmental Council — where she worked for three and a half years — and the Environmental Defense Center — where her husband currently works. But Diaz Alley is also hoping to represent Santa Barbara’s renters, Latinos, and young families struggling to survive economically, whom she refers to as the “underserved and underrepresented.” The rap on Diaz Alley is that she’s still too green for the City Council. She’s served just one year on the Parks and Recreation Commission, and at candidates’ forums, she speaks haltingly and has yet to find her stride. But knocking on the doors of prospective voters is another matter. One-on-one, Diaz Alley comes across direct, clear, and confident. Although she has the endorsement of the Democratic Party, it may be the support of Councilmember Cathy Murillo that matters most. Murillo — a former reporter at The Santa Barbara Independent — surprised the experts two years ago when she out-hustled and out-muscled all her fellow Democrats and came within 15 votes of front-runner Dale Francisco. Murillo stitched together a coalition out of dog lovers, pot smokers, gays, and lesbians — as well all the usual suspects — to get elected, and she’s putting all her eggs in Diaz Alley’s basket.
Diaz Alley grew up in the Chicago suburb of Crown Point, Indiana, the only child of second- and third-generation immigrants from Mexico. Her parents, she said, were passionately political, and Crown Point could be very conservative. Although she personally was much removed from the immigrant reality, that didn’t stop her classmates from, on occasion, calling her “burrito butt.” She studied journalism and worked a gig doing TV news in the Midwest before moving to Los Angeles to work for Warner Brothers on several TV shows. In 2008, she’d had enough of Tinseltown and moved to Lompoc to work for the wild horse recovery program “Return to Freedom.” She lived the idyllic life with chickens in the backyard, and soon landed a job with CEC doing outreach and education. For a while, she took the bus from Lompoc to Santa Barbara. Then she moved to the Eastside, where she’s lived for the past six years. When council conservatives argue no one would move from Lompoc — where housing costs are so much lower — to live in a postage-stamp apartment in Santa Barbara, Diaz Alley begs to differ. “I live that life,” she said. She rides her bike to work and has two dogs.
While with the CEC, Diaz Alley testified in front of the City Council on behalf of a plastic bag ban — just passed — bike lanes, and going “Fossil Free by ’33.” She worked on a campaign to stop Venoco’s slant drilling plans in Carpinteria and to secure the urban limit line — beyond which development could take place only with the voters’ consent — in Buellton and Goleta. Two years ago, CEC hit hard times, and Diaz Alley was laid off. Ironically, the day she found out, she bumped into Mayor Helene Schneider, who — asking about her plans — suggested she consider a run for council. (The mayor, however, has not endorsed her in this election.) Diaz Alley made inquiries, found the Democrats already had a full slate, and was appointed to the Parks and Recreation Commission with help from Councilmember Murillo. When Skater’s Point was shut down for the Fourth of July — after repeated skirmishes between law enforcement and a handful of skateboarders — Diaz Alley objected. When other commissioners suggested video cameras be posted at the park to deter hooliganism, Diaz Alley also voiced opposition.
In Santa Barbara’s ever-perseverating dialectic about growth and development, Diaz Alley says she would be a strong voice for working families. “We have a real identity crisis in this city,” she said. “Are we going to allow some growth and opportunity or are we going to shut the door in the name of preservation?”
The biggest challenge facing Diaz Alley come from her fellow Democrats who contend she’s too green. “I was kind of naïve,” she said. “I thought we were all friends.” Diaz Alley counters that she’s “a quick study” and that her lack of immersion in the ways of City Hall is, in reality, a benefit. “Are people saying you can’t be a viable candidate unless you’ve already served?” she asked. “They’ve had their time. This is my time. This is our time.”
Lesley Wiscomb is a contemporary manifestation of Santa Barbara’s long-storied political tradition of “sensible shoes” preservationist activism. Only in Santa Barbara’s idiosyncratic political universe — where smart-growthers do battle against slow-growthers — could Wiscomb, a former Wall Street trader turned landscape architect, be considered a “conservative.” In fact, prominent local Democrats expressed interest early on in backing Wiscomb — chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission — but backed off when she disclosed she was not a registered member of their party. Wiscomb described herself as a lifelong decline-to-state, and she is guarded about divulging details about her political inclinations. “I probably did vote for Ronald Reagan,” she said, “and I probably did vote for Clinton.” But the politician about whom she expressed unabashed enthusiasm was former New York mayor Ed Koch, followed by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Born in Minnesota, Wiscomb grew up in Boston — one of two kids — the daughter of an insurance company executive. An avid athlete, she played lacrosse, field hockey, and studied hard. She graduated from college — Bennington — in 1971 but never got involved in the political turmoil then roiling American campuses. “I was skiing and studying,” she explained. After college she began work on Wall Street, first as a corporate bond analyst and then as a trader. There were no women “on the deck” at that time, and Wiscomb credits a supportive boss with easing her way. She would mentor other women who came after. The action was loud and fast; she had to be quick on her feet. She did it for 17 years.
In 1990, Wiscomb — an avid outdoors person and an accomplished triathlete — switched gears, earning a degree in landscape architecture. Eventually settling in Seattle, her first major gig involved a major restoration effort involving Green Lake, then as now the most popular park in the state. “I had no idea what Green Lake was,” she said. She learned fast. Between then and 2006, she handled major municipal contracts of that magnitude.
Nine years ago, Wiscomb and her husband bought a house in Santa Barbara. Five years ago, they moved to town full time, building a new home on the Mesa. Since then, she’s quietly jumped into Santa Barbara civic life feet first, serving on the boards of Santa Barbara Beautiful and the Master Gardeners, as well as the Parks and Rec Commission.
In person, Wiscomb is crisp, personable, and a little guarded. As chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission, she garners rave reviews as a hardworking, apolitical problem solver. On the campaign trail, Wiscomb’s still finding her voice, and in TV commercials, she comes across as the tough City Hall outsider, declaring “Not on my watch!” to any aggressive panhandlers who might make Santa Barbarans feel unsafe.
Wiscomb got into the race after planning commissioner and former mayor Sheila Lodge twisted her arm. Lodge, perhaps the ultimate sensible shoes preservationist, takes a dim view of smart-growth density schemes, contending that no matter what incentives developers are given, they still can’t build anything for sale that’s genuinely affordable. (Rental housing, she says, is another matter.) Lodge, once a bastion of Santa Barbara’s liberal-slow-growth community, joined forces about five years ago with conservative Councilmember Dale Francisco and his political mentor and collaborator Jim Westby, a retired General Motors executive, and all three are strongly backing Wiscomb’s bid.
Wiscomb cautioned against tampering with Santa Barbara’s architectural style, which she argued is a major tourist attraction. “We don’t want to destroy the sense of place so that no one wants to come back,” she said. She’s willing to see how the experimental program included in the new general plan plays out. She noted that the Cottage Hospital workforce housing development at what used to be St. Francis Hospital turned out far better than she — and many of the neighbors concerned about density — had thought it would. “Is that too dense for me?” she asked. “As a designer, probably.”
In politics, candidates are known by who supports them. Wiscomb expressed great respect for Francisco and Westby, but she stressed she would not be a “Francisco clone.” She disagreed with Francisco on a number of major issues — developer Mark Lee’s housing project off Las Positas and the City Council’s decision to assume control and financial responsibility for Highway 225.
Every election, there’s a candidate who comes seemingly from out of nowhere who ignites by more power of personal energy and charisma than experience on any of the usual boards and commissions. This year, that’s Jason Nelson, a self-described “American patriot” who served in Afghanistan with the Army Reserves for the better part of 10 months. Nelson figures if he could sit down and talk turkey with the tribal warlords of Afghanistan, then certainly he can do the same in Santa Barbara. Endowed with startlingly perfect teeth, bright eyes, boundless energy, and a playful sense of humor, Nelson set out to knock on at least 10,000 doors before all the ballots are cast. What he’s heard along the way has confirmed his own feelings that something needs to be done about homeless vagrants. Nelson said he and his girlfriend had been accosted by a group of homeless kids while walking along the waterfront this January. Given his size — 6’2” and 220 pounds — he said he was surprised they’d hassle him. He was even more surprised when a Mercedes drove up, stopped, and one of his tormentors — a young woman — hopped in. “Hi, Mom,” she said as the car drove off. “Wait a minute,” Nelson said. “That changed my whole perception of the issue.”
For starters, Nelson says Santa Barbara needs more cops. A lot more. At a press conference held when the Police Officers Association announced its endorsement, Nelson said 20 additional sworn officers were needed. Later, he explained he asked for 20 in hopes of getting 10. If cops cost $150,000 a year, either number would constitute a big chunk of change. That money, he said, could be obtained by cutting redundancies and middle management. He does not support asking the voters to approve more taxes. That the council considered hiring a polling firm to explore the matter, he derided as “laziness and a lack of executive leadership.” He claimed a survey that he conducted informally indicated that 70 percent of the respondents opposed any such increase. Nelson has been outspoken in his criticism of Chief Cam Sanchez, expressing dismay that the chief was not held accountable when a mid-level manager was caught embezzling more than $600,000. Likewise, he argued that the emergency communication center should not be moved into the Granada Garage, as is planned — but that the city could save money by contracting out such dispatch services with the County of Santa Barbara. (Police spokesperson Riley Harwood suggested that such a transfer might entail a significant loss in service levels for a vital function and would probably not save much money.) On another police matter, Nelson said he opposed the proposed gang injunction on “constitutional grounds.”
Nelson’s personal story is somewhat kaleidoscopic. Until age 12, Nelson said he was raised by his dad, a single father, who worked as a military contractor in a variety of places. In fourth grade, Nelson said, he attended five different schools. On his 18th birthday, Nelson said he enlisted in the Marine Corps, serving four years in active duty and four in reserves. For a while, he was deployed in the Pacific assigned to noncombatant evacuation duty. He got out in 2001, lived in San Diego, and then spent a year living off the grid outside of Tahoe. He moved to Santa Barbara in 2004 to be close to his older brother. He worked at Four Seasons and Trader Joe’s and took classes at City College. He was a volunteer intern with KZSB Radio general manager Les Carroll and while at the station, met former Chamber of Commerce director Steve Cushman, who had a weekly radio show.
When Cushman ran for mayor four years ago, Nelson joined the campaign as a coordinator. He had no prior experience. Cushman lost after being savaged as a communist — by the Texas billionaire then bankrolling Dale Francisco’s campaign — for taking money from Russian businessman Sergey Grishin, then living in Montecito. The attack was a low blow, Nelson thought, and has soured his feelings about Francisco’s political advisor Jim Westby. Nelson said he was approached by Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss — also backed by Westby — to bow out. He declined to do so.
A couple years ago, Nelson reenlisted, this time in the Army Reserves, and did a hitch in Afghanistan as part of a civil affairs reconstruction effort. “I got tired of reading about 18- and 19-year-olds coming back in body bags,” he said. “I figured I’d lived a full life. Maybe I could go and do some good, maybe save a life.”
Among the lessons learned, Nelson said, was how to assess and analyze a situation and then later determine how effective any intervention had been. Although much of Nelson’s support comes from the conservative end of the political spectrum, Nelson denied the existence of any “aisle” in Santa Barbara. “I don’t believe my policies are liberal or conservative,” he said. “How is public safety liberal or conservative?” Win, lose, or draw, Nelson said he’s committed to public service. And at the very least, he said, Santa Barbara has already given him something he’s never had — a home.
No Country for Middle-Aged Men
By all reckoning, Michael Jordan ought to be a shoo-in. Not only does he have great name recognition — okay, he’s not the guy who runs Santa Barbara’s most famous basketball camp — but he’s currently the chair of the city Planning Commission. For years, that was the sure-fire path to City Council. But Jordan is an engaging contrarian who defies any categorization. That hasn’t helped. He looks at recent city councils and he sees “mature retired people” or “very young people out to save the world.” He’s decidedly neither. What he doesn’t see are people like himself: Working fathers, middle-of-the-road, middle-aged homeowners with kids still at home. “I think that’s a dynamic that needs to be addressed,” he said. There’s another key difference. “I am by nature a pessimist,” he explained. “But I work really hard to make sure my predictions don’t come true.”
Jordan grew up in San Pedro in the house his father built. Like all his brothers, Jordan had a paper route as a kid. He attended Lutheran schools where he was an avid jock, good at lots of sports, but great at none. Finally, he “escaped,” to Cal State Chico, where he earned a degree. He and his wife then moved to Japan for 10 years, where he worked at American naval bases as a recreational director. It was a great job and even better adventure. He moved to Santa Barbara in 1993. The recession was raging; there were no rec jobs to be had; so Jordan sold insurance.
Despite his affable grumpiness, Jordan was a joiner. He joined the Lodging & Restaurant Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Downtown Organization, where he emerged an energetic worker bee. As such, he landed a spot on the city’s Creeks Advisory Committee, formed to oversee the disposition of $2 million in bed taxes collected from tourists frequenting the city’s hotels and motels. At first, he was just looking out for the tourist dollar. “Before long I got hit by the bug,” he recalled. The committee was just getting off the ground; Jordan was there to help define the mission. He started caring about creeks. “It’s one of the better examples of a tax being levied and used for the purposes the voters approved,” he said.
Based on that experience, Jordan — another decline-to-state candidate — found himself appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the Regional Water Quality Control Board. And about five years ago, he found himself appointed to the city’s Planning Commission. At that time, he said, the Planning Commission was the venue for packed meetings and much melodrama. Then the recession hit, developments stopped, and the Planning Commission was not as exciting as Jordan had supposed. But there were endless meetings about the general plan update, in which Santa Barbara’s rival factions debated growth and preservation. The Planning Commission would ultimately adopt a plan far more aggressive in terms of affordable housing and increased densities than the one approved by the City Council. “It took too long, and it cost too much,” Jordan said. “But in the end, the general plan is exactly what it should be.” The experimental program adopted by the council — increased densities in a limited area until 250 housing units are built or eight years lapse — is okay by Jordan, with one major caveat. “We have no measure of what’s success or failure,” he objected. “When we get to the end, we’ll have to have the same arguments all over again.”
On the campaign trail, Jordan advocates for the creation of a third party ombudsperson to help people get through the development review process. It makes no sense, he said, to have the same people causing the problem decide whether the complaints are valid. To meet the city’s unfunded infrastructure needs — $250 million worth — he said new revenue streams will be necessary, most likely a parcel tax capable of generating $70 million a year. For that to pass, he said, City Hall needs to persuade voters it’s spending their money wisely.
But Jordan’s campaign got a slow start raising funds. He wasn’t aggressive enough pigeonholing donors. By the time the first reporting figures were disclosed, the front-runners had collected four times what he’d generated. He’d never catch up. When asked how a guy with such credentials got behind so fast, Jordan has one answer. “I can only look in the mirror,” he said.