With an uncharacteristic display of political theatricality, Santa Barbara City Councilmember Bendy White — better known for his quiet, wonky reserve — finally jumped into the city’s crowded mayoral fray, bringing to an end many months of will-he-or-won’t-he head-scratching among political insiders.
Only hours after confirming his candidacy, White led the charge for a council resolution to ban further oil and gas development off the coast, to phase out existing oil operations, and to shift to more renewable energy development. This resolution was put forward in response to an executive order signed by President Donald Trump to open up the outer continental shelves to expanded development. Although the City Council has no jurisdiction over oil and gas development, White noted that “it’s a statement we can make that shows our environmental stripes.” He added, “This is Santa Barbara policy here — it cuts across political party lines.”
The threat is less than immediate. The low price of oil has discouraged industry interest, and the next federal offering for offshore oil leases won’t happen for another five years. Offshore fracking, however, is another matter, and the federal government has approved 53 fracking permits in recent years. “What we see with this is the camel’s nose under the tent,” White said during a recent interview. “We want to make sure this doesn’t get a toehold.”
Earlier that same day had White announcing he was “all in” when it came to the mayor’s race. White’s entry brings the total number of candidates to five, three of whom are now sitting on the City Council. The other two are councilmembers Frank Hotchkiss and Cathy Murillo, who respectively define the race’s right-left, Republican-Democrat polarities. Hotchkiss, predictably, cast the sole vote against the oil resolution. In addressing many of the 25 people who spoke in favor, Hotchkiss said, “What many of you had to say is not truthful — passionate but not truthful.” He did not elaborate on what any of those untruths were.
Also running for mayor is former mayor Hal Conklin and political newcomer Angel Martinez, former CEO of Deckers Brands. White, now 70, acknowledged he took his time making up his mind, joking he had plotted out his “cliché retirement,” even down to the Winnebago. “Is a marathon runner lazy because he’s running slow?” he asked.
During his two terms on the council, White has assiduously held down the moderate middle, becoming a master of minutiae and aggressively playing the swing vote. “I don’t see any other candidates who can deliver what I can in terms of teamwork and team building,” he said. A land-use agent by trade, White has been a continuous presence at City Hall for the past 32 years, chairing the Water Commission during the height of the last drought, serving on the Planning Commission, and then, most recently, serving two terms on the council. There he has allied himself closely with Mayor Helene Schneider and more recently with council newcomer Jason Dominguez.
White has been a certified infrastructure freak long before it was considered politically sexy, waxing rhapsodic at times about accelerated rates of pipe replacement. White figures that his understanding of City Hall’s deep structure will prove invaluable next year when all councilmembers will represent geographically distinct districts. Beyond that, White’s the only mayoral candidate to be born in Santa Barbara. In fact, his family goes back in town nearly 150 years. “Our determination over generations to stay here has been an act of will, an act of purpose,” he said.
To the extent other candidates run as agents of change, White hopes to win over voters with his experience and knowledge. As the debate heats up over high-density housing projects springing up across town, White points with pride to getting “story poles” installed at project sites during design review. These poles, he said, give the public a much clearer picture of the mass and scale of what’s being proposed. “It’s a little thing, but a huge thing,“ he said. He should know. White, after all, helped craft the language and the political compromise needed to get the experimental program passed. He also has championed subsequent efforts to rein in the program as controversy has mounted.
In 2013, White was the highest vote-getter among all council candidates in a citywide race, beating out Hotchkiss by 2,300 votes. He quietly bristles at the suggestion that he’s too nice for politics. “I have a flinty side that has to be acknowledged,” he said. As for those who question whether he has the “fire in the belly” to make a successful mayoral bid, White noted, “It’s more like a sustained glow.”