The typical mud slinging and sign stealing that accompanies most Santa Barbara City Council elections reached a new level of intensity this week with council candidate Sharon Byrne and incumbent Councilmember Cathy Murillo trading allegations of assault and theft.
Byrne is running to represent District 3, which includes most of the Westside. Murillo is now completing her first term in office. Both ran four years ago before district elections were implemented, and only Murillo was elected. Since then, the two have frequently butted heads over a number of community issues.
Last Thursday, Byrne circulated a media statement accusing a Murillo supporter of assaulting one of her campaign volunteers. According to Byrne, the 62-year-old volunteer was canvassing Kowalski Street at about 11 a.m. that morning when a female Murillo supporter in her thirties driving an SUV pulled up behind the volunteer and started yelling. The driver accused the Byrne volunteer of stealing Murillo campaign signs and said she was taking pictures of the other woman. “It really freaked her out,” said Byrne. “She was all by herself, and she had no idea what was going on.”
The volunteer tried to get away from the driver by turning and walking down other streets, said Byrne, but the driver continued to follow. Eventually, the driver got out of her car, ran toward the volunteer, and struck her from behind with a closed fist, Byrne said. The volunteer tumbled to the ground. It was only then that the Murillo supporter realized the volunteer was not holding a sign — the volunteer’s red clipboard may have resembled a red Murillo sign, Byrne theorized. The driver then returned to her car and sped off.
“I am appalled at this behavior,” Byrne said in a prepared statement. “When a resident can’t walk down the street without fear of being attacked for supporting an opposing political candidate, that has just gone too far. There is no place for thug tactics in this race.”
“I’d like to say I was surprised by this kind of conduct,” Byrne continued, “but we have seen the same bullying tactics from Murillo — on and off the dais — and her supporters, time and time again. Santa Barbara deserves better!”
Byrne’s volunteer filed a police report that afternoon. The case has been forwarded to the department’s investigation division, said Lt. Ed Olsen. The driver of the SUV has not been identified, and no other witnesses provided statements to responding officers. “There are heated debates and arguments every campaign season, but I can’t think of a time when someone was accosted,” said Olson. “In this case, the poor woman wasn’t even holding a sign. It sounds like tensions are running high.” Byrne said her volunteer did not wish to be publicly identified or speak with the media about the incident.
Murillo, for her part, said the allegations against her supporter are patently false and a “cover-up,” as she and her campaign have been the victims of rampant sign stealing in recent weeks. She said she’s called on the police to investigate the thefts and the false allegations.
According to Murillo, a Kowalski Street resident contacted her shortly after 11 a.m. on Thursday to report that someone had stolen her Murillo campaign sign from her front yard. The resident had “confronted the thief who then disposed of the sign by throwing it over a wall,” Murillo said in a prepared statement. The sign was retrieved and “obviously it has the thief’s fingerprints on it,” Murillo said. “A police review will also reveal that no assault took place.”
The Byrne accusations are “trying to distract from the fact that her worker was stealing signs in violation of the candidates’ code of conduct agreement and in violation of basic laws of honesty,” said Murillo. “My signs have been stolen on a large scale, all over the district. We have had to replace them, sometimes more than once.”
“Before Ms. Byrne issued a media statement, I was not aware of who had been taking my signs,” Murillo went on. “It had been my intent to contact both of my opponents [on Thursday] to let them know of this incident and ask that they control their volunteers. My volunteers have been told to always be respectful of my opponents and their supporters.”
Murillo said she has not yet been contacted by the police.