Backed by the full might of the Democratic Party political machine, bolstered by a foot-soldier army of supporters, and buoyed by a reputation for tireless, in-the-trenches work with city residents, former journalist and Westside renter Cathy Murillo is set to become Santa Barbara’s next mayor.
As of press time Wednesday morning Murillo held a comfortable lead over the rest of the field in the five-way mayoral race. Her closest rival, Frank Hotchkiss, sits more than 1,300 votes back, and that gap is expected to widen as the last-minute ballots still uncounted traditionally lean left and liberal. Angel Martinez, Hal Conklin, and Bendy White currently hold the third, fourth, and fifth positions, respectively. Only a miracle would put any of them over the top.
Murillo beamed as she addressed a cheering crowd of supporters at Casa Blanca Tuesday night. “It’s such an honor to stand here as your next mayor of Santa Barbara,” she said. “It’s such an honor to win the trust of the public as well. They had a lot of choices, and we went door to door and said to them, ‘I care about your family. I care about your neighborhood. I care about your prosperity.’ I meant it when I said I would work to create jobs and housing opportunities for the people and the young people.”
In her six years on the council — first elected at-large in 2011 and then reelected in 2015 to represent District 3 — Murillo solidified herself as the most consistent and outspoken advocate for working-class Santa Barbarans, holding the progressive-agenda line through debates on labor contracts, the gang injunction, homeless issues, and environmental protections. Looking ahead, she’s vowed to spearhead State Street revitalization efforts, implement the Bicycle Master Plan, and shore up relations between the South Coast and its North County counterparts.
During her campaign Murillo racked up a long list of endorsements from Santa Barbara’s regional leaders, and she enjoyed widespread support from community organizations staffed with volunteers eager to see Santa Barbara’s first Latina mayor take office. According to Democratic campaign manager Mollie Culver, 60 fieldworkers were canvassing for Murillo as of 5 p.m. Tuesday; 350 volunteers fanned out throughout the day with 500 knocking on doors over the weekend.
Among the political handicappers, the mayoral race seemed a confounding head-scratcher, with three evenly matched Democrats going toe-to-toe with lone Republican Hotchkiss and buzz-heavy political newcomer Martinez. Great anxiety persisted among the Democrats that a split vote would hand Hotchkiss a victory. To many, it was unfathomable that Hotchkiss — a climate change denier and a supporter of President Trump’s Mexico border wall — could lead Santa Barbara, the so-called birthplace of the environmental movement heavily populated by immigrants.
Tuesday morning voters awoke to a last-minute attack mailer taken out by Hotchkiss and lambasting Murillo for being a vanilla progressive who didn’t support a sanctuary city designation for Santa Barbara. City Hall staff had strongly cautioned a lay-low approach to the issue of sanctuary when Trump was first elected president. Murillo, an ardent supporter of immigrant rights, went along with the directive. Hotchkiss’s potshot was notable as he is a vigorous opponent of sanctuary cities himself, and the ad was uncharacteristically tricky for a councilmember and candidate best known for straight talk, no matter how conservatively truculent.
Though he had the enviable distinction of being the only Republican in a tight race among liberal-leaning candidates, Hotchkiss ultimately failed to secure critical support from the constituencies he’s long professed to represent. The city’s police union declined to endorse him — or anybody, for that matter — despite his self-declaration as the “law and order” candidate. Similarly, the business community didn’t rally behind him, instead choosing to back former Deckers CEO Martinez.
Hotchkiss was unavailable for comment Tuesday night, having ditched his campaign gathering at Ca’ Dario early, right after the first results were announced. In an email to supporters, he conceded defeat: “Thanks very much for all your support and help,” he wrote. “I regret to report that we were decisively beaten by the progressive candidate in the race, Cathy Murillo, who will be the next mayor of Santa Barbara. Please do not give up the fight for good values and honest leadership. Eventually, we will win.”
Admitting he was beat but promising to not go gently into Santa Barbara’s political night, Martinez at Paradise Café said he may well become “a real pain in the butt” for City Hall by continuing to demand greater transparency and accountability of its leaders. Martinez emerged as the race’s wild-card candidate, touting his business chops and outsider’s perspective as necessary assets to streamline the city’s overly bloated bureaucracy. Reviving State Street is critical to getting Santa Barbara back on a healthy financial track, he declared, and the city should expend more effort to retain a young, entrepreneurial workforce by creating downtown housing and courting employers in the green and tech industries. Martinez waged the most expensive mayoral campaign in city history, spending more than $350,000.
“The reality is we have work to do,” Martinez explained Tuesday. He said his candidacy “forced the conversation” and galvanized Santa Barbara’s business community, which was no longer content to sit back and watch the city make bad economic decisions. Martinez called his campaign an “eye-opening experience” and said “there are an incredible number of people who care about this community and want the best for it.”
There would be no second acts for Conklin, a former councilmember and mayor back in 1993, who attempted to come out of political hibernation. Although Conklin enjoyed high-profile support from the likes of Lois Capps, Supervisor Das Williams, and the Santa Barbara Independent, his campaign couldn’t keep pace. At the new bar and bistro Basil’s, Conklin held court Tuesday night. He said the energy generated by the mayoral campaign bodes well for the “future of Santa Barbara” and that if his votes and those of White’s were combined, they would exceed Murillo’s.
Conklin emerged out of the Community Environmental Council (CEC) in the 1970s, and on Tuesday it sounded as if he’d never left. He talked about community-sponsored environmental initiatives that could still be launched by groups like the CEC, and with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day right around the corner, he discussed making Santa Barbara a leader in environmental innovation once again. Echoing the leadership-from-outside theme he banged on throughout the campaign, Conklin conceded that even if he had been elected mayor, the city would not have been in a position to play much of a leadership role. “Real leadership always comes from the community,” he said.
Of all the mayoral candidates, White has the deepest historical Santa Barbara roots, with his family going back 150 years. In that vein, it made sense he spent election night in the Pickle Room, former home to Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens restaurant — in its day, one of the city’s most beloved watering holes. White whiled away the night scanning the TV screen for fresh results. Coming in last with about 2,400 votes, he was left to wonder where the 7,000 additional votes were that he’d secured the last time he ran for office. “Where did they go?” he asked more to himself than anyone else. “Who got them?”
A moderate’s moderate, White got caught in the stampede of mayoral candidates that his will-he-or-won’t-he political indecision helped foment. When he finally announced his candidacy in August — essentially to stop Murillo, whose policies and style he considered fiscally and environmentally reckless — the field was already crowded. White, however, quietly rejoiced in the victory of Measure C, which will generate $22 million a year to address the city’s massive backlog of unmet infrastructure needs.
City Council Winners
City College environmental geology instructor Kristen Sneddon basked in her long-shot victory in District 4, trouncing Dem-machine-backed candidate Jim Scafide, an attorney, and edging out moderate Jay Higgins, a land-use planner and city planning commissioner. Hunkered down with her husband and their two young children at Benchmark Eatery, Sneddon — who entered the race at the last minute at the persistent behest of Mayor Helene Schneider, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, and other female Democratic leaders — remarked on the diversity of her district, which runs wildly from east San Roque neighborhoods, along the Riviera, up Gibraltar Road, and over to Eucalyptus Hill, the Santa Barbara Zoo, the Clark Estate, and Montecito’s Coast Village Road.
This summer, Sneddon met with business owners along Coast Village; they expressed concern about the traffic along the corridor and up into the neighborhoods during rush hour. “The traffic’s bad,” she said. “We’ve got to get a roundabout there [at Coast Village and Olive Mill roads].” Inspired by the March for Science and productively frustrated by the direction and tenor of the Trump administration, Sneddon made a strong impression on voters during debates and her personal door-to-door appearances. District 4 resident and school board member Laura Capps remarked: “I spent 15 minutes with her and thought, ‘How could I not support her?’”
Eric Friedman — a longtime county staff aide to former 1st District supervisors Naomi Schwartz and Salud Carbajal, and now an employee of the De la Vina Street Trader Joe’s — took out fellow District 5 candidate and former city fire chief Warner McGrew with more than 55 percent of the vote. Both Democrats, Friedman and McGrew overlapped on most issues involving their San Roque and upper State Street territory, though Friedman set himself apart as a younger, working father with a more attuned appreciation for middle-class families trying to lay roots in an increasingly expensive city. He was also the only candidate in any of the races to bring up an exceptionally critical topic: The 25-year contract between the county and the Bureau of Reclamation to manage Lake Cachuma that expires in 2020.
Downtown District 6 winner and current councilmember Gregg Hart was all grins as Tuesday night bled into Wednesday morning. For Hart, the election was a case of Goliath versus David in which the giant won handily. Going up against Berniecrat newcomer Jack Ucciferri, who raised less than $4,000, Hart raised $144,000. That’s the most any candidate has ever collected in a council race, and that record will hold only until the next reporting period, when it’s revealed Hart has raised even more.
All that money has generated speculation that Hart’s days on the council are numbered and that he will soon be running for Supervisor Janet Wolf’s 2nd District seat on the County Board of Supervisors. When asked about such aspirations on election night, Hart replied, “Come on; I can’t believe you’re going to ask me that now.” Hart reveled in his own victory and that of Murillo, and was heard exclaiming that the new City Council will be “the most progressive” ever.
With Murillo’s ascension to the mayoralty, the $64,000 question is who will replace her as the councilmember representing District 3. That decision rests with the new council, who take their seats in January.
Election 2017, by the Numbers
As of 5:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, the results are as follows:
Cathy Murillo: 6,059 (28.1%)
Frank Hotchkiss: 4,669 (21.6%)
Angel Martinez: 4,213 (19.5%)
Hal Conklin: 4,196 (19.4%)
Bendy White: 2,447 (11.3%)
Kristen Sneddon: 2,921 (51.0%)
Jay Higgins: 2,084 (36.4%)
Jim Scafide: 726 (12.7%)
Eric Friedman: 2,395 (55.4%)
Warner McGrew: 1,930 (44.6%)
Gregg Hart: 1,578 (56.3%)
Jack Ucciferri: 804 (28.7%)
Aaron Solis: 421 (15.0%)
Yes: 11,947 (55.7%)
No: 9,492 (44.3%)
Overall Voter Turnout: 45%
Kelsey Brugger and Keith Hamm contributed to this report.
Visit independent.com/election2017 for the Independent’s full archive of 2017 municipal election coverage.