Despite the opposition of every member of the City Council, district elections have come to Santa Barbara. So-called progressive Democrats had opposed district elections in large part because they claimed that they would jeopardize the progressive coalition that has dominated city politics for years. In particular, it was predicted that the two Latino districts would elect conservatives. But it now appears that that is very unlikely to happen. On the Westside Cathy Murillo remains the favorite despite the entry of Sharon Byrne and the likely entry of Cristina Cardoso who appears more progressive than Cathy. On the Eastside, the three strongest candidates appear to be Jacqui Inda, who was one of the litigants in the District Elections lawsuit, Jason Dominguez, an experienced attorney and former head of Legal Aid, and Adriana Martinez-Cohen, the choice of the Democratic Central Committee. All three appear to be progressives, and despite Jason Dominguez’s backing by the MCA, it is highly unlikely that he would align himself with the City Council’s conservatives.
Moreover, the candidacies of Jacqui Inda and Cristina Cardoso are strongly focused on what has been missing from the self-styled progressive coalition — sensitivity to the needs of low-income residents, primarily working-class Latino immigrants, voiced by bilingual, longtime residents. The best example of this insensitivity is the unprecedented behind-closed-doors decision to pursue a gang injunction at a cost of millions of dollars to the city and county. When Judge Colleen Stern rightly ruled that there was no case for an injunction, The Santa Barbara Independent belatedly termed the idea of an injunction wrong. But two of the four “progressives” on the City Council — Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmember Bendy White — joined the three “conservative” members in strongly supporting an injunction until its well-deserved death.
Progressive Democrats should now acknowledge that their dire predictions of a conservative takeover were simply wrong. The next test will be the campaigns. Will they bring lively debates over real issues? Will money and endorsements continue to be the key to electoral success (as Deborah Schwartz stated four years ago), or will we see the emergence of true low-cost grass roots democracy with door-to-door campaigning? Will voter turnout increase? (The final test of the system — the quality of the council’s decisions — may take several electoral cycles to determine.)
I think the most important result of district elections will be a significant increase in electoral participation by the Latino community as a healthy step toward its integration into the larger community. Because the local media has focused on distorted negative stereotypes of Latinos, and the local police have viewed (with the blessing of the City Administration) low-income minority communities as a direct and indirect source of revenue, cynicism and nonparticipation in civic life have been the norm in our Latino communities. This will, I believe, change as local residents learn that Latinos can meaningfully participate in changing the status quo.
What about the progressive-conservative split on the council? As long as the major political parties view the City Council as a training ground for “higher” office — that is, as a training ground for partisan warfare on the state and national level, effective negotiation over local issues will suffer. These issues have little to do with the policies that divide the nation and everything to do with the allocation of funds within the city. Focusing on practical local issues will serve to eliminate the kind of knee-jerk us-them division that has characterized recent City Councils and that has — despite the domination of “progressives” — not only been adverse to the interests of low-income neighborhoods but has distracted the attention of councilmembers who live in wealthier neighborhoods from their constituencies’ local needs.