For those addicted to insider baseball, the Santa Barbara City Council’s selection process to fill a vacant council seat this Tuesday night had no shortage of changeups, fastballs, and screwballs. At the end of the night, Mayor Cathy Murillo looked magnanimous, Councilmember Jason Dominguez looked strategic and crafty, and Santa Barbara residents got their first look at their brand-new councilmember, Meagan Harmon, who arrived seemingly out of left field — at least by traditional political standards — to beat out a field of formidable, connected, smart, and experienced contenders.
Harmon won the appointment only after the six-member council first found itself deadlocked 3-to-3 on two votes between her and Brittany Heaton, a public works professional for the County of Santa Barbara and the chair of the city’s Neighborhood Advisory Committee. Harmon, a Harvard-educated real estate finance attorney who grew up in Lompoc, wowed councilmembers in private meetings and in her public audition two weeks ago.
Smart, articulate, and charming, Harmon was the first choice for councilmembers Randy Rowse, Kristen Sneddon and Jason Dominguez. Although she’s a registered and active Democrat, Harmon comes from outside the orbit of Santa Barbara party politics. That fact — and her background in the private sector — sealed the deal for Councilmember Rowse, a business-minded middle-of-the-roader increasingly impatient with any faction giving a whiff of the activist left. Harmon also got a big push from downtown business owners associated with Plum Goods owner Amy Cooper, who is spearheading a ground-up effort to revitalize State Street, working both with and against City Hall simultaneously. Likewise, Harmon got a big but quiet push from Ray Mahboob, a rising star in Santa Barbara’s firmament of commercial real estate operators and a growing presence around City Hall.
Harmon was sworn into office at approximately 6:01 Tuesday night, answering with an emphatic “Yes,” after being asked if she would uphold the Constitution and protect the city’s interests. She sported a black pin — and a big grin — proclaiming herself to be “A Feminist with a To-Do List.” As of 6:02 Tuesday night, that “to-do” list just got significantly longer.
Who Harmon is will become more apparent in the nine months between now and November when she’ll have to run for election if she wants to hold the post. Harmon was one of 12 to apply for the appointment and one of 10 to be deemed qualified to serve. Her only competition Tuesday night was Heaton, who commanded the support of Mayor Murillo, and councilmembers Eric Friedman and Oscar Gutierrez until the third round of votes, when Murillo switched, reaching across the aisle to support rather than prolong what could have become a protracted stalemate.
Also vying for the appointment was former councilmember Grant House, a strong supporter of affordable housing and alternative transportation. Based on experience, House would seem a clear front-runner; he didn’t get one vote in all three rounds. Equally surprising was how poorly Gina Fischer, who works for 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, fared. Fischer, a trench warrior in Democratic Party politics with strong support from the Planned Parenthood wing, has been “running” for the seat for nearly a year now. She was nominated by Councilmember Dominguez, a personal friend, but ultimately he never actually voted for her.
Dominguez, a loquacious and polarizing member of the council, appeared to nominate Fischer as an effective ploy to prevent Councilmember Sneddon from switching her vote from Harmon to Heaton. The logic involved is convoluted, but it worked. Sneddon had made it clear she could not vote for either Fischer or Heaton if they were both nominated because both work for the County of Santa Barbara, where her husband also works. If only one of the two were nominated, however, she explained she would not feel conflicted about having to choose one over the other. When Sneddon announced she would switch her vote to Heaton in the next ballot, Dominguez nominated Fischer, thus re-creating what Sneddon described as a “personal” conflict of interest. Rather than prolong the stalemate, Mayor Murillo — who has feuded long and loud with Dominguez — then switched her vote from Heaton to Harmon.