THREE FOR THE ROAD: It would behoove those of us lucky enough to lurch into the New Year to acknowledge those whose ghosts gave out before the Earth could take another trip around the sun. All such lists are inherently capricious, but I’d like to highlight the departures of Andy Granatelli, the famed former race car driver infamous for twisting arms for good causes; Harold Simmons, the Montecito robber baron who broke land-speed records giving more money to bad politicians and good causes than almost anyone in history; and Louise Boucher, the insistent civic noodge who for 45 years insisted City Hall protect what makes Santa Barbara special until knocked down by a stroke six months ago.
Long before Beyoncé, Madonna, or Cher would achieve exalted one-name status, Boucher had established herself in Santa Barbara’s civic circles simply as “Louise.” She operated on the theory that if you sweat the small stuff, the big stuff would follow. Accordingly, Louise, who sat on every design-review committee in city history, was said to patrol downtown armed with a ruler to ensure that storefront signs were no bigger than they were supposed to be. However relentless in pursuit of aesthetic orthodoxy, Louise was also known to crack a shrewd joke or three, though she always acted surprised when she did. Louise, it turns out, was born in Idaho, and descriptions of her early family life were hellacious and harrowing. She was saved by relatives living in Montecito and spent the better part of her life trying to repay the favor by saving the town that offered her refuge. As such, she was part of the first wave of slow-growthers who took over City Hall back in the early 1970s. Since then, Smart Growthers, who hold that increased densities and less stringent parking requirements are necessary for more affordable housing, have gained the upper hand. Dubious in the extreme of this formulation, Louise was disinclined to fade gracefully into any sunset and stuck with it until she simply couldn’t. If you find yourself wondering at times how certain buildings got approved, it’s often because they ain’t making new people like Louise anymore.
While I didn’t know Andy G. all that well, I do know wherever he went, he was the center of gravity. Always. Politically, Granatelli was a traditional conservative Republican, and in the see-and-be-seen world of Santa Barbara nonprofits, he was the guy other rich guys wanted to be seen with. Tough, warm, and exceedingly direct, Granatelli repeatedly proved he could draw blood from a turnip and did so with great vigor on behalf of countless charities. Lurking behind Granatelli’s gruff “dese-dose-dem” exterior lay an analytic brilliance that helped propel the man’s amazing success as the marketing genius behind STP — those ubiquitous decals plastered for a while on every car on the road. But Granatelli’s force-of-nature personality could backfire, as it did when he took control of the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Council about 10 years ago. In his zeal to transform the group — which raised private funds to buy law enforcement stuff the Sheriff needed — into a billionaire boys’ club, Granatelli set in motion forces that would undo the sitting sheriff, Jim Anderson, as well as the council itself. Decals on cars helped make STP a household brand, but when the Chumash Casino was allowed to place stickers on sheriffs’ search-and-rescue vehicles in exchange for a $125,000 donation, Santa Barbara’s collective nose hairs started twitching. Likewise with the realistic-looking law enforcement ID cards handed out to anyone donating $10,000 ore more to the cause. And when the media was alerted how one board president — a big-game hunter whose internet address started with the word “BWANA” — had bitch-slapped another prominent boardmember in front of Sheriff Anderson and that no charges were filed — allegedly at Granatelli’s urging — the dominoes really fell. As a result, Anderson would be the first sheriff in at least 40 years not to win reelection, losing out to Bill Brown, who was then chief of Lompoc Police.
Until his recent demise, sometime Montecito resident Harold Simmons ranked 40th on Forbes’ list of richest Americans. Simmons amassed a $10 billion empire borrowing vast sums of money to buy out existing companies, putting as little skin of his own on the line as possible. In recent years, he embodied everything that was legally corrupt about America’s campaign-finance laws, giving roughly $30 million in 2012 to super PACs — immune to traditional campaign donation limits and many reporting requirements — associated with the Republican Party. Simmons did so because he saw Barack Obama as “the most dangerous American alive.” In 2004, he gave $3 million to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which took out ads in 2004 falsely denouncing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry as a military coward despite the many medals Kerry won during the Vietnam War to the contrary. A Texan by birth and business, Simmons donated $1 million to Texas Governor Rick Perry, and in exchange, he secured permits to open a radioactive waste dump in West Texas on land right over one of the biggest underground water aquifers in the country. In Montecito, Simmons remains infamous for his own water consumption during the last drought, irrigating his 23-acre estate in just one year with enough H₂O to keep a typical family of four wet and sassy for 28 years. When a $25,000 fine failed to get his attention, the water district applied an actual lock on Simmons’s water meter. But by then, Simmons had drilled his own well. That being said, he gave hundreds of millions to medical research, hospitals, and education. After reading a few years ago that the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter might have to shut down, Simmons bailed them out with a big check and has been helping ever since. Over the years, he would help out Planned Parenthood and a couple of gay rights organizations. And just to show he had a wicked sense of humor, Simmons donated $25,000 to a D.C. group dedicated to limiting the power of money in politics.
In the meantime, Happy New Year.