Mystery and History Behind Mayoral Race

Digging into Cathy Murillo’s Victory, Red Hats, Edmund O. Hanson, and the Jerry Roberts Poll

Cathy Murillo at City Hall in Santa Barbara waiting for results to come in. (Nov. 7, 2017)
Paul Wellman

The votes have been counted. The dust has settled. History got made.

No, I’m not talking about Cathy Murillo being elected the City of Santa Barbara’s first Latina mayor ever. That’s, of course, interesting but, to my painfully self-referential sensibilities, only merely so.

No, I’m referring to the fact that Santa Barbara voters just elected the first former Santa Barbara Independent reporter to be their mayor. To steal a line from Samuel F.B. Morse, “What hath God wrought?!” Or to steal another line, from the late, great Larry Crandell ​— the former Mr. Santa Barbara ​— ​when nominated Local Hero, “What took you so long?”

It should be acknowledged that Murillo won big-time on election night thanks not at all to the Independent, where she used to work. Instead, the Independent saw fit to endorse one of Murillo’s competitors, Santa Barbara’s once and future mayor, Hal Conklin, who wound up squeaking into third place. Murillo’s critics are quick to paint her as a wild-hair, doctrinaire creature of, for, and by the Democratic Party. And there’s some truth to that. But as someone who regularly got into shouting matches with Murillo about whether the term “pit bull” was inherently inflammatory and prejudicial or whether the breed should be more appropriately referred to in news articles as “Staffordshire Terriers” ​— ​she yes, me no ​— ​I can tell you that Murillo has always created her own party. She brought it with her wherever she went. In this case, Murillo has graciously allowed the Democrats to be part of her show. They are as much her hood ornament as she theirs. (When we worked together, Murillo had a pit bull named Ridge, whom she’d rescued as an abandoned pup wandering the sandy bottom of the Ventura River near a homeless camp. Ridge would routinely sack out behind my chair, sigh, snore, and donate generously to the world’s methane emission inventory. Despite carbon-footprint issues, Ridge was a major-league sweetie and always welcome.)

The Independent chose instead to endorse Hal Conklin ​— ​who finished his most recent 17-year stint on the council dais back in 1993 ​— ​perhaps because his first name sounded vaguely Shakespearean. There are, I am told, multiple “Prince Hals” in various Shakespeare plays. This seemed to dovetail thematically with Conklin’s boast of creating Santa Barbara’s first and only downtown arts district. There are many reasons Conklin didn’t do better, but chief among them was his dogged determination to wear that bright-red ball cap ​— ​much like the one perpetually adorning the dome of President Donald Trump ​— ​emblazoned with the questionably cute phrase “Hal Yes.” That phrase, however catchy, constituted strike one. The hat itself? Strikes two and three. As the talking heads like to say, “Bad optics.” If the Style Police had only been awake, Hal would have been hauled off as Public Enemy Number One.

Santa Barbara’s only precedent for Cathy’s ascension to the mayoral throne took place in 1935 ​— ​in the depths of the Depression ​— ​when Santa Barbarians elected a certifiable populist wing nut and former soap company executive, Edmund O. Hanson, as mayor to clean up this town. The cleanup Hanson had in mind involved News-Press owner and publisher T.M. Storke, whom Hanson saw as the root of all evil. Upon becoming mayor, Hanson started a newspaper of his own called the Bugle, which focused all its energies on exposing all the evil machinations of Storke and the News-Press.

If Cathy’s past is prologue, can we count on Murillo and the News-Press taking up where Hanson left off? Maybe not, but when News-Press owner Wendy P. McCaw engineered the paper’s nosedive into the wood chipper of mean-spirited irrelevance in 2006, Murillo ​— ​who’d moved on from the Indy ​— ​and her former husband, David Pritchett, were among the loudest ​— ​and most ubiquitous ​— ​cheerleaders for the many reporters, writers, editors, and photographers who quit, resigned, struck, or otherwise protested the paper’s retaliatory news coverage and punitive working conditions. To say there’s no love lost between Murillo and Santa Barbara’s alleged daily paper is a gross understatement. To the extent the News-Press could be roused to cover this year’s election at all, it was a flaccid front-page “hit piece” ​— ​written a full week after the fact ​— ​detailing how ex-husband Pritchett asked a clearly planted question at a forum. “If I was really going to plant a question,” Murillo retorted, “don’t you think I’d get someone else to ask it?” Reasonable question.

It’s worth noting the significant role played in this election by former News-Press editor in chief Jerry Roberts ​— ​now an Indy columnist, blogger, and one-man public-TV media sensation. Roberts ​— ​never one to let a good midlife crisis go to waste ​— ​blogged more on the mayoral and City Council races than all the other reporters covering it combined, his writing salty, astringent, and fun to read. No one, incidentally, was ever more slimed by McCaw in the Meltdown than Roberts. She published a front-page, above-the-fold article ​— ​with no byline ​— ​all but accusing him of amassing kiddie porn on his News-Press computer even though every law enforcement type who’d investigated the matter said the charges were flat-out bogus. With settlement money he got from McCaw, Roberts paid for a candidates’ poll showing mayoral candidate Frank Hotchkiss ​— ​a conservative Republican councilmember and climate-change denier ​— ​slightly ahead of Murillo, the other three candidates ​— ​Prince Hal Yes, Councilmember Bendy White, and outsider business CEO Angel Martinez ​— ​significantly behind, and 40 percent of the voters undecided. The poll crystallized the choice for many voters: Support Cathy or elect Frank, Santa Barbara’s equivalent to Donald J. Trump. Frank, it should be noted, is also a former journalist. The Roberts poll didn’t elect Murillo, but it definitely moved the needle a few points her way.

In the meantime, Cathy, congratulations, our condolences, and good luck. You made history; now don’t let it go to your head.


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