Thirteen candidates have already taken out papers to run in this November’s Santa Barbara City Council election, in which candidates — for the first time in 50 years — will be elected by districts rather than at large. The extent to which conventional political coalitions hold sway under the new manner of elections remains very much an open question. Likewise for how much district elections will open the door of political opportunity to Latino candidates and other candidates pushing more narrowly tailored neighborhood-centric agendas. But with the filing deadline for council candidates still a few days away, the lineup of so many first-time candidates — nine — and the large number of Latino-named candidates — seven — suggests this year’s election will deviate considerably from the political same old, same old.
In this year’s race, three of the six newly created districts are up for grabs, two of which have a majority-minority population of Latino voters. Of those, the Eastside district — also known as District 1 — appears to be the most wide open. That’s in part because there’s no incumbent seeking to hold onto his or her seat. It’s also the area of town from which the fewest number of successful council candidates have come over time. Currently, five candidates are vying for this spot, and only one — Cruzito Cruz — has run before. Although Cruz has run many times, he’s never sought to raise campaign cash and has been seen more as a protest vote. Cruz was also one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against City Hall that led to the adoption of district elections. He ultimately experienced a severe falling out with his fellow plaintiffs and their attorney, and he was effectively “fired” from the litigation.
Another plaintiff suing for district elections in that same case, Jacqueline Inda, is also running for the council. Although this is Inda’s first bid for public office, she achieved prominence fighting the gang injunction proposed by the City of Santa Barbara and subsequently defeated in court. Inda is also involved in a bitter fight among Milpas Street business owners over rival business improvement district proposals. Of the two, hers is by far the smaller and cheaper, and it appears to be backed by a much larger number of Latino shop owners. The rival improvement district is backed by the Milpas Community Association, which is headed by Sharon Byrne, who, not coincidentally, is running for the council’s Westside district. Inda reports having raised $8,400. Of that, at least $2,500 comes from key supporters of the district elections lawsuit.
The Democratic Party has thrown its lot behind Andria Martinez Cohen, who has lived in the district for about two years and just outside district boundaries for eight years before that. Although Cohen has not been involved in local political campaigns, she’s been active with Women’s Economic Ventures and the Santa Barbara Housing Authority. To date, she has raised $10,300. Also running for District 1 are Jason Dominguez — onetime director of the Legal Aid Foundation — who reported no campaign donations thus far, and Michael Merenda, a longtime resident of the New Faulding Hotel, free-thinker, and vocal critic of government-funded programs treating the mentally ill and those with addiction issues. Likewise, Merenda has not reported raising any campaign cash. Rumors abound that the Republican Party is seeking to field a candidate it can back for District 1, but thus far no candidate has surfaced.
Leading the field for the council’s second district — which encompasses most of the Mesa and the upper Westside — is incumbent councilmember Randy Rowse, now seeking his second full term. A business-minded moderate-conservative and downtown restaurant owner, Rowse has strong ties with the business community, the Downtown Organization, and various real estate organizations. Initially, it appeared Rowse might run unopposed, and his campaign coffers — $9,000 — reflected that. Since then, however, a number of candidates have emerged from the woodwork, though none have reported raising any money and none have run for office before in Santa Barbara. The best known is Robert Burke, a military vet given to poetic Zen koans when addressing the council as a member of the public. Burke has been an advocate of sobriety programs and civil discourse, and he only demonstrates an edge of anger when complaining about the administration of certain affordable housing programs. Also running for District 2 are Colleen Ford and Luis Esparza. The last to take out papers is K. Missy McSweeney-Zeitsoff, who served on the Malibu City Council before moving to Santa Barbara. She has indicated she intends to run strictly grassroots, meaning no money will be raised.
The fight for District 3 — which encompasses Santa Barbara’s Westside and constitutes the second “majority-minority district” carved out as a condition of the district elections lawsuit settlement — could prove intense. Incumbent councilmember Cathy Murillo — who holds down the left side of the political aisle on the City Council — faces off against Sharon Byrne, a longtime community activist with the Milpas Community Association. Byrne and Murillo ran against each other four years ago, and since then the two have sparred over the Casa Esperanza Homeless Shelter — Byrne was outspokenly critical that shelter operations were taking a toll on the Milpas neighborhood, Murillo more supportive of the services the shelter provided — and the business improvement district spearheaded by Byrne and the Milpas Community Association. Although Byrne is best known for her work on the Eastside’s Milpas area, she lives near Haley and Castillo streets, where she agitated for more city services after a well-publicized slaying several years ago.
Of all the candidates, Murillo has amazed with by far the biggest war chest, reporting $33,000 thus far. Murillo enjoys strong backing by the Democratic Central Committee and her campaign donations — from labor unions public and private, $2,000 from herself, and former mayors Hal Conklin and Marty Blum. Santa Barbara Independent Publisher Joe Cole — currently lobbying against a tougher proposed city newsstand ordinance — donated $500 to Murillo, a former reporter for The Independent. Although Byrne reported only $1,100, the reporting deadline fell before a campaign kickoff and fundraising event held at El Zarape restaurant, so that amount understates her reserves. Also running for the third district is Cristina Cardoso, about whom little is known yet and who has raised no campaign cash.
Campaign organizers are still trying to get their bearings on how to wage district-wide campaigns as opposed to the citywide races of years past. The relatively small size of the districts — and even smaller number of likely voters — seems to favor candidates who can mount effective door-to-door campaigns as opposed to media blitzkriegs. Already, a few weird wrinkles have become apparent. Although the district elections lawsuit was argued and won on grounds of ethnic exclusion, some of the most active supporters of district elections are backing Sharon Byrne against Cathy Murillo, the only Latina or Latino elected to office in the past 20 years. Murillo — like most elected officials in good standing with the Democratic Party — never embraced district elections, though she has since reconciled herself to playing the role of district representative and is campaigning accordingly. Despite the race-based arguments needed to prevail in court, district elections proponents contend the real issue was always neighborhood representation, and those involved with the lawsuit contend Byrne has been a stronger advocate of neighborhood concerns than Murillo. This is an assertion — not surprisingly — that Murillo strongly disputes.