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City Council Endorsements Are Purely Partisan

Dems’ Early Endorsements Advance Long-Term Strategy

Photo: Paul Wellman City Councilmember Meagan Harmon

This just in: Article II, Sec. 6 (a) of the California Constitution reads as follows: 

All judicial, school, county, and city offices … shall be nonpartisan.

All righty then.

That quaint 1911 constitutional dictate, allegedly still operative, came to mind as the Democratic Party of Santa Barbara County announced its influential endorsements for four, purportedly nonpartisan, City Council seats ​— ​six weeks before the official filing period for the November 5 ballot opens.

As chosen by several dozen members of the county committee last week at Pea Soup Andersen’s, the Dem candidates:

District 1 (Eastside):  The committee selected Alejandra Gutierrez, Franklin Service Center director, an effort to oust incumbent Jason Dominguez, arch-foe of Mayor Cathy Murillo; kudos to Jason for showing up at the endorsement meeting to make his case.
District 2 (Mesa):  Dem deciders picked longtime Planning Commissioner Michael Jordan over activist Teri Jory and newcomer Tavis Boise.
District 3 (Westside):  Although unopposed, incumbent and Cathy loyalist Oscar Gutierrez got an early endorsement.
District 6 (Downtown):  When Gregg Hart was elected supervisor, councilmembers appointed attorney Meagan Harmon to the vacant seat; with at least one eye on the election, she delivered for the Dems on her first big vote, favoring pro-union Project Labor Agreement legislation, and last week won the endorsement.

So far unopposed, she’s nonetheless hired go-to Dem strategist Mollie Culver, closing a cozy political circle: Molly ran Gregg’s campaign before she went on the county payroll as his aide; she also will manage Jordan’s campaign.

Those who forget history party chair Gail Teton-Landis, who has made the party’s endorsement process more transparent, said that picking candidates early provides a jump start over potential foes. 

Early endorsement is one tactic in a decade-long strategy by which Democrats have come to dominate “nonpartisan” government. 

The strategy’s prime mover has been former longtime local chair Daraka Larimore-Hall. In 2011, with several Republicans in office, he famously announced a campaign to “take back City Hall.”

In a recent speech at the Democratic state convention, where he lost a bid for state party chair, Daraka cited the transformation of Santa Barbara’s political landscape as a key accomplishment: 

“I’m running for chair,” he said, “because I have been behind the scenes in Santa Barbara, building a party that puts principle before deals. That puts progressive values before anything else.

“We flipped Santa Barbara from a purple county to a blue county,” he added. “The thing that makes me the proudest about the work that we’ve done locally is … the fact that I’m not chair anymore and they’re still kicking ass.”

Indeed.

APPARATCHIK AGENDAS:  The current makeup of local government backs Daraka’s take: Democrat-backed politicians hold majorities or super-majorities on the Board of Supervisors and city councils and school boards in Santa Barbara and Goleta.

To be sure, Santa Barbara is not exceptional in this regard.

Amid epochal demographic shifts ​— ​and the Republican Party’s decline into cult status ​— ​Democrats established one-party rule in Sacramento; around the state, ambitious Dems use local offices as stepping stones, aided by a landmark 1990 federal court ruling that struck down a state ban on partisan endorsements in nonpartisan races, and by establishment of district elections, which magnify party impact in low-turnout campaigns.  

In a generation, the Democratic organization, in alliance with labor unions, has become the sine qua non for candidates seeking office in Santa Barbara. No other group ​— ​not the GOP, not business, not cultural conservatives ​— ​comes close in political influence.

As a policy matter, Democratic power is seen in victories which manifest its platform, like the union-friendly Project Labor Agreement (PLA) legislation, a “just-cause eviction” ordinance, and approval of controversial housing projects like the huge Milpas Street development.  

“We’re getting our asses run over by Daraka and company,” said termed-out councilmember Randy Rowse, complaining of heightened partisanship. 

“There is a set of driving instructions from the Democratic Party that says, ‘You shall support PLA,’ ‘You shall support just cause eviction,’ and on and on,” he said. “And I’m going, ‘Wait a minute, why are the people I sit with answering some outside call?’”

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