For a host of reasons, this year’s endorsements proved to be head-scratchers. In part, that’s because it’s the first time in about 60 years that city voters will cast ballots by district. This came about through a lawsuit alleging traditional at-large elections exclude minority voters.
By the time this spring’s settlement was reached, most of the camps that typically field candidates had precious little time to identify and recruit contenders with a modicum of civic experience who live in the three districts up for grabs. As a result, many of those running were totally unknown to us until a few months ago. Yet here we are with choices to be made.
On housing, we would hope the council would focus intently on maximizing resources to increase affordability. To that end, we’re willing to push the envelope on densities within reason. Likewise, we need to see the new council act more creatively and aggressively with Santa Barbara City College regarding the burden out-of-town students place on the rental market.
And where the homeless are concerned, we want bolder leadership on matters of mental health. Cops are expensive, and the jail’s too crowded. Besides, the mentally ill don’t belong on the street.
As for infrastructure, we need a sales-tax increase to cover the $450 million in unmet capital needs. The council had a chance to do that this year and blew it. Try again.
Lastly, the new councilmembers will be representing distinct geographic neighborhoods. This will change how City Hall is governed, not just how candidates are elected. In making our endorsements, we asked ourselves who could best speak for their specific neighborhoods while at the same time representing the city as a whole.
DISTRICT 1: Andria Martinez Cohen
Of the three districts up for grabs, District 1 — which encompasses the Eastside and a significant swath of the waterfront, including the Funk Zone — has traditionally been the least represented on the City Council and is undergoing the most pronounced changes. The term gentrification gets tossed about loosely, but it also happens to describe the reality taking place there.
Of the five candidates on the ballot, three are serious contenders. Of those, Jacqueline Inda and Jason Dominguez have much to recommend them, but not enough to make us comfortable in endorsing either. Though Andria Martinez Cohen is clearly the greenest, her enthusiasm, optimism, and practical brand of political progressivism impress us.
Inda is by the far the most of, for, and by the disenfranchised population she seeks to represent. She also has the most extensive track record of grassroots community involvement. However, there have been a couple of incidents — taking money from the oil industry to oppose Measure P and joining a picket line to protest a Milpas Street restaurant owner with whom she disagreed over a proposed business improvement district — that make us wonder whether her political judgment can keep pace with her activist impulses.
Likewise Jason Dominguez is exceptionally articulate and boasts the most dazzling résumé. Yet his last stint as director of the financially troubled Legal Aid Foundation proved rocky and, at eight months, notably short-lived. If elected, Dominguez, we suspect, would function as a skeptical moderate. But given the dramatic shifts in the political company he’s kept, we’re not really sure. In 2007, Dominguez won a spot on the Democratic Central Committee; in 2015 he’s backed by more conservative business interests and activists associated with the Republican Party.
And yes, we have questions about Martinez Cohen, as well. Her lack of experience and strong support from the Democratic Party and public employee unions give rise to concerns she’ll function as “the stooge” for “the machine.” We’re persuaded, however, that will not be the case. She brings an energetically independent mind and spirit. Her focus is on getting things done rather than promoting sterile gamesmanship and partisan posturing. Martinez Cohen has worked with 10 Southern California cities in her job as a nonprofit loan officer to leverage private funds to promote economic development, so she comes equipped with some of the tools to figure out city finances.
DISTRICT 2: Randy Rowse
With five years of council experience under his belt, Randy Rowse has established himself as a congenial, right-of-center, pro-business moderate. Clearly, we disagree with him on certain issues. We never bought his insistence that homeless people are chasing visitors away from downtown in droves and take exception to his insistence that “perception is reality” where street people are concerned.
But Rowse brings a good-faith energy and common-sense style to the council. More often than not, his insights and arguments are steeped in actual experience rather than ideology. His presence helps keep the debate honest and real. Lastly, we were much impressed by how Rowse stepped outside his political comfort zone when he worked on behalf of a failed sales-tax increase to cover City Hall’s unmet infrastructure needs.
Rowse now finds himself representing a district that includes the Mesa and portions of the Westside. As a 30-year resident of the Mesa, he’ll have no problem taking care of his own neighborhood. But we hope he’ll expand the focus to include the Westside more than his campaign materials reflect.
Challenger Luis Esparza should be commended for the thoughtful intelligence he brought to the race; likewise, Missy McSweeney-Zeitsoff enlivened the forums with her straight talk and direct personality.
DISTRICT 3: Cathy Murillo
District 3 makes up Santa Barbara’s Westside and lower Westside neighborhoods, home to some of the poorest, most densely packed households in town. Murillo has lived there for 15 years, and as the only Latina ever elected to City Council, she has made it her mission to represent the city’s Hispanic community. She spoke out against the gang injunction, arguing it would exacerbate racial profiling. Until Gregg Hart was elected to council two years ago, hers was the only voice of council dissent.
As a councilmember, Murillo has lent an eager ear to the city’s progressive activists. She was an ardent supporter of the plastic-bag ban and spoke out on behalf of endangered steelhead trout. During desalination discussions, she pushed to convert our wastewater into a potable supply. When it appeared the Metropolitan Transit District was about to inflict wholesale destruction on transit service funding, Murillo was the only councilmember attending MTD meetings. She was also the only councilmember to show up when Cottage Hospital neighbors expressed concern about the big bump in helicopter flights.
Murillo used to work at The Santa Barbara Independent, and so some of us have a personal familiarity with her foibles as well as her strengths. What impresses us about Murillo is her passion and commitment, but sometimes there’s too much of a good thing. For her next term, we’d suggest less flag waving would go a long way. Likewise, we’re troubled by reports Murillo is already positioning herself for a mayoral bid two years hence. Her focus needs to be on building relationships with her council colleagues and familiarizing herself with the nuts and bolts of getting things done.
Also running for District 3 is Sharon Byrne, Murillo’s longtime nemesis and doppelgänger who runs the Milpas Community Association (MCA). Although the rhetoric of the MCA has frequently been too strident and polarizing for our comfort level — on issues like the homeless, the gang injunction, and medical marijuana dispensaries — it must be acknowledged that Byrne has been a highly effective neighborhood advocate.
Given that, we were disappointed by the lack of advance notice that she provided affected businesses when she and the MCA unveiled their plans to create a business improvement district along the Milpas corridor. That has since generated a race-infused debate that’s grown increasingly inflamed.
Byrne calls to mind Lyndon Johnson’s classic conundrum: whether it was better to have former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover “outside the tent pissing in or inside the tent pissing out.” Johnson concluded the latter. Where Byrne — a formidable and creative force on the Eastside — is concerned, we favor the former.