Santa Barbara’s Pre-Trump?

City Once Had Its Own Loud and Contentious City Councilmember

NAME THAT POLITICIAN: Who does this politician sound like? Loud, rude, boisterous, insulting, and given to ethnic slurs, but nevertheless commanding the political stage, backed by a strong following of voters, who saw him as a fearless gadfly, a champion of the people.

Some compare him to presidential candidate Donald Trump. But Trump, for all his bellowing, is nothing like a member of Santa Barbara’s City Council of the 1970s, Gus Chavalas.

Barney Brantingham

Chavalas, born in Greece in 1894 and retired rich from his Bay Area car dealership, charged onto the Santa Barbara scene at age 75, full of accusations that the local garbage company was corrupt.

A gruff bear of a man, Chavalas shouted and shouted at the City Council in the late 1960s, sometimes ejected from the chambers by Mayor Don MacGillivray, who called police.

Eventually, garbage officials got indicted. The indictments were thrown out of court, but Chavalas got elected in 1969, and the city got a new garbage company. And he kept on shouting down anyone who had something else to say, whether it be fellow councilmembers or department heads.

He was known, during at least one City Council debate, to call fellow councilmember Leo Martinez a “dirty Mexican.” Martinez, now living in New Mexico, told me he just saw Chavalas as an angry old man and let it slide. He was free with other ethnic slurs. But you crossed swords with him at your risk.

But beyond his supposed good-government blustering, there was a darker side to Chavalas, known only to few at City Hall.

This week I talked to several city officials I knew from that era. Chavalas, it seems, had a habit of going into City Hall when it was closed on weekends, and when he found one particular woman working overtime, “He would pinch her breasts, leaving dark bruises,” according to one former official, who learned about it much later from the woman.

I knew the woman, a sweet person, and it makes me angry to learn that she suffered abuse from this bully. She never reported it. She’s dead now, and may she rest in peace.

He was well-known as enjoying hugging women workers at City Hall. Whether they enjoyed it is something else. But finally the stories of his behavior with women employees got to the point where some councilmembers decided that something had to be done, another former official told me this week.

Blow the whistle on the abuser? Turn him in? Well, no. “Mayor [David] Shiffman was delegated to take Chavalas for a ride and have a talk with him,” a former city official told me. Shiffman asked city administrator Richard Thomas to come along.

So they picked up Chavalas. Shiffman, according to my informant, turned to Thomas and passed the ball. “Go ahead, Dick.”

I knew Chavalas, and it’s hard to imagine him meekly apologizing and promising to change his ways. But maybe he did. Chavalas, Shiffman, and Thomas are dead, so I can’t ask them.

Chavalas finally decided not to run for reelection. But there was one last ugly chapter in his life before he left office in 1979.

While driving on upper State Street in 1976, he hit and killed a 69-year-old woman. Her family sued for a reported $2 million, claiming that despite poor eyesight, he was not wearing his required eyeglasses and was reckless and negligent. It’s not known the result of the suit. Charged with misdemeanor manslaughter, he was fined $940 and gave up his license. He died in 1987 at 93.

As for Trump, can he really get the Republican presidential nomination? One party activist in Iowa quoted by the New York Times compared him to “the bad boy you date over the summer before returning to college.”

<b>SHOWGROUND OF BOOKS:</b> This year’s Planned Parenthood annual book sale is dedicated to Mary Jane McCord, who led the sale volunteers for 35 years.
Courtesy Photo

WACKY TITLES: Here’s this year’s selection of wacky titles gleaned by volunteers for the annual Mary Jane McCord Planned Parenthood book sale starting tonight, September 17, at Earl Warren Showgrounds:

I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti

My Lobotomy, a Memoir

Never Trust a Thin Cook

There’s No Toilet Paper on the Road Less Traveled

Murder Can Mess Up Your Mascara

Never Lick a Moving Blender

Never Cook Bacon Naked

Wild and Wacky Lompoc

Do Dead People Watch You Shower?

Tonight’s reception, 5-9 p.m., has a $25 admission charge. The rest of the sale, September 18-27, is free and open to the public.

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