I’m frustrated by the lack of deep scrutiny of the candidates running in the current city election. We no longer have a daily print paper in town, and the worthy news sources that are covering the city lack enough resources to do the best job, I think. Personally, I’ve been among those trying, since the News-Press mess a decade ago, to encourage more investigative and in-depth reporting of the local scene. Results have been mixed.
Jerry Roberts, former editor in chief at the Santa Barbara News-Press (whose journalistic integrity was violated by owner Wendy McCaw, thereby precipitating the Mess) has admirably been working to create some online coverage — video interviews and panels, occasional personal mini-essays on the mechanics of the campaign — and most importantly, a just released poll of city voters on their mayoral preferences.
The results indicate that Frank Hotchkiss and Cathy Murillo are in a statistical tie for the lead — the other candidates lag in single digits, and 40 percent said they were undecided. Hotchkiss’s slight numerical lead has provoked a surge of worry for a lot of people. The worry is justified — we can’t have a climate denying representative of the most complacent property class as mayor of Santa Barbara!
In past elections, the only reason a candidate representing such views has had a chance of election is that the much larger pro-environmental, liberal vote was split among several candidates while the demographic makeup of those who vote was skewed heavily toward the older homeowning sector. A Republican like Hotchkiss can count on about one-fifth of the vote — so in a five-way contest without a runoff, that can be enough to win. The situation revealed by the poll has reinforced already strong feelings that Hal Conklin and Bendy White in the race can help elect a Tea Partyish guy like Frank.
The good side of that widespread feeling is to encourage a lot of the undecided to finally choose Cathy — even some of the Bendy/Hal supporters are probably considering that. Conklin and White rather arrogantly decided to run in the face of Cathy’s earlier announcement and the evidence of grassroots enthusiasm for her candidacy; we’d have to be very surprised if either decided to throw in the towel and endorse her (as some are wishing!). But supporting Cathy shouldn’t be based simply on the need to rally round the liberal flag. She is the person best suited to serve the community now.
This is where the lack of media scrutiny comes in. Hal Conklin runs now, decades after having been removed as mayor by a court ruling saying that he violated the term-limit law. I’ve read and listened to his campaign pitches — and can see no overriding reason why he has inserted himself back in the electoral scene. He’s a knowledgeable guy but he hasn’t displayed detailed understanding or clear positions on key policy matters.
Bendy has served a long time on council and Planning Commission. He knows the policy dilemmas — and often makes the wrong choices. He’s taken the lead in trying to undermine the AUD [Average Unit-Size Density] zoning incentives aimed at expanding the supply of rental housing, despite the crisis of housing affordability — siding with NIMBY scares about “density.” He could have led instead in amending the AUD to make sure that the housing being developed downtown is for the local workforce — a stance that Cathy takes, helping to account for her grassroots support. Poignant evidence of Bendy’s values might be reflected by recalling that he joined with Republican councilmembers to privatize maintenance jobs at the city golf course, terminating many unionized workers after years of service, in order to keep golf fees low. It’s hard to imagine that the workers and renters in the city will find Bendy a champion. Nor is it evident that he’s really concerned about the fate of a city that can’t house its young labor force.
Least scrutiny is being given to Angel Martinez. The former Deckers CEO is running a campaign on the theme “Make Santa Barbara Great Again” (not in so many words — but in spirit). His well-financed TV ads appear to be saying that the decline of retail stores downtown is the heart of the problem. No one has asked how Martinez is qualified to revitalize the retail sector when, as he was retiring from Deckers, the company was closing a couple dozen of its own stores around the country (having suffered considerable revenue losses).
Martinez publicly complains about city employee salaries. I heard him state that the median salary in the city was $117,000 — but failing to say that that figure is the combined wage and benefit average. The median wage is more like $85,000. Martinez complains that this is higher than the citywide median income. There’s a good deal of bad faith in that argument, which fails to examine how that average compares with other cities, nor with labor market demands for the wide range of jobs the city requires.
Martinez poses as a problem-solving business leader. There’s been little scrutiny of the ways in which he has distorted the above issues (even though he surely knows better) and of the problems of his own business. There’s something sort of dubious about a multimillionaire, exaggerating or misrepresenting a community’s problems, financing a lot of his own campaign, questioning the modest wages of others.
Which brings me to Cathy Murillo. The scrutiny she gets is often rather snarky comment on her public performances. She’s too rehearsed or underprepared. She doesn’t always have a smooth answer. Unreported — the depth and breadth of her engagement in the citywide and neighborhood organizations and committees and structures that address people’s needs. Her leadership in opposing the authoritarian gang injunction, in organizing opportunities for youth to have voice, in hiring an innovative (female) police chief. Her effort to defend policies promoting housing affordability and tenants’ interests. Her active engagement with support for libraries and other services — and with the improvement of the neighborhoods she represents. Her great, cheerful presence in the everyday grassroots social life of the town — not so much the charity galas, but the street celebrations and community festivals and the like. Cathy as mayor would be a champion for the less represented and more marginalized — but at the same time she is a responsive listener to all relevant viewpoints — in no way an ideologue or a knee-jerk.
It’s time to decide to make her mayor.