With the City of Santa Barbara’s last odd-year election right around the corner, Santa Barbarans find themselves confronting many uncertain futures all at once. Issues that have perennially confounded us — like housing affordability and chronic homelessness — have achieved new critical mass. Other issues, like the cultural and economic vitality of our downtown, have popped up recently with a sudden urgency. Looming in our peripheral vision are more dire global threats that call into question the city’s water supply and sea-level rise.
In other words, lots of big questions. No easy answers.
Objectively speaking — it must be acknowledged — Santa Barbara is a well-managed, professionally run city. Our problems, as piercing as they feel, would be the envy of most municipalities on Planet Earth. But the growing level of public frustration and impatience with the lack of leadership and direction from City Hall is palpable. And for good reason.
Much of the responsibility lies with the council itself. It’s become a merry-go-round running at warp speed thanks to term limits, district elections, ambitious political career trajectories, petty personal infighting, and the undue intrusion of party politics. Generally speaking, the councilmembers are all smart, dedicated, and well intentioned. Collectively, however, they’re considerably less than the sum of their parts.
Consider this: The outcome of two of the four seats now up for grabs have already been determined because no candidates emerged to run against incumbents Meagan Harmon and Oscar Gutierrez. District elections, we were led to believe, would engender greater choice, not no choice. Both Harmon and Gutierrez were appointed to fill council vacancies. Harmon, who represents the downtown’s District 6, has yet to garner a single a vote in a single election. Gutierrez, who represents the Westside, did run a year ago after having first been appointed to fill the vacancy created when then councilmember Cathy Murillo was elected mayor.
Now, with less than a full term under her belt, Mayor Murillo is running hard for the State Assembly in 2020, a seat that opened when Monique Limón, our current assemblymember, announced she would be running for the State Senate. In this case, the game of musical chairs is uniquely discordant. Councilmember Jason Dominguez, now running for reelection in the east side’s District 1, is also running for that same Assembly seat. Murillo and Dominguez have famously feuded on the council, polluting many deliberations with their heat and smoke. The outcome of this one Assembly seat — in which five Democrats will be running — will not likely be decided until next November. That leaves 12 long months, during which the bad blood that currently exists on the council will only get worse.
Exacerbating matters has been the reluctance — or inability — of City Hall’s executive staff to fill the leadership vacuum. City Hall did not create the collapse of downtown retail (online shopping did), nor can it be expected to singlehandedly fix it. But City Hall can — and must — take far more decisive action. It can relieve the needless red tape that is heedlessly strangling small businesses. Santa Barbara’s signature look was not easily accomplished; it’s been protected over time by the focused exertion of collective will, for which we can all be grateful.
But for Santa Barbara to survive, we all need to be more flexible, nimble, and experimental in what we are willing to try. Inevitably, there will be failures, some perhaps spectacular. But the worst failure of all is the failure to try.
Into this context, voters in two of Santa Barbara’s six council districts have some serious, if imperfect, choices to make. The Independent endorsements will run over two weeks. Here, you will find our endorsement for District 1. Next week, beginning on October 17, we will publish our endorsement for District 2.
Although a newcomer to electoral politics, Alejandra Gutierrez is no stranger to the nitty gritty of civic affairs. She grew up on the city’s Eastside, the child of immigrants. In the past five years, Gutierrez has run one of the most important and quietly effective nonprofits — the Franklin Family Service Center — targeting the neighborhood’s poor and underserved Latino population. It functions as a social service hub, a one-stop-shop helping residents access such necessities as health insurance, job training, driver’s licenses, immigration advice, and a host of other services designed to promote scholastic success and achievement as a path to higher education. In recent years, Franklin Elementary has experienced a dramatic upswing in test scores. Helping to make that happen has been the work of Gutierrez and the Service Center.
At campaign forums, Gutierrez does not shine. Glib or polished she is decidedly not. But Gutierrez has a rare connection to the community that campaign contributions can’t buy. That she happens to be related to Santa Barbara Police Officer Adrian Gutierrez — almost iconic in the field of community policing — is a huge bonus. If elected, she will have a learning curve, but given what she’s already accomplished, we’re confident she can find her footing quickly.
Gutierrez is running against incumbent Jason Dominguez, a councilmember whose intelligence is exceeded only by a quarrelsome nature. That’s unfortunate because Dominguez frequently asks insightful questions from the dais. We have supported contrarian candidates in the past; they provide a crucial antidote to political group-think. But they must articulate a clear vision. Yet even after four years on the council, we remain uncertain what Dominguez’s agenda is. To his credit, Dominguez hasn’t been coy about his determination to run for other offices. But it’s a problem. Dominguez is running for the State Assembly at the same time he’s seeking reelection to the city council. That election takes place in March. Should he make the run-off in November — which is entirely likely — that level of distraction will leave residents of District 1 and the entire city poorly served.
We urge a vote for Alejandra Gutierrez.
District 2: Michael Jordan
Of the five candidates now seeking election to represent the Mesa, the upper Westside, and the West Beach neighborhood, all are passionate and care deeply. Several are thoughtful, engaged, and involved enough to warrant serious consideration as council fodder. But given the disturbing lack of leadership emanating from City Hall, only Michael Jordan has the necessary knowledge and experience that the historic moment demands.
Few candidates have ever run for city office as deeply steeped in relevant civic involvement as Jordan, a crusty, outspoken moderate whose roots on the Mesa date back to his childhood. He was actively involved in the business community, including sitting on the Downtown Organization board. For the past 10 years, Jordan has served on the city’s Planning Commission. For the past four, he’s also served on the Water Commission, making him the only person to ever sit on both simultaneously.
After serving on Santa Barbara’s Creeks Advisory Committee, Jordan was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board. There he learned about the terrible conditions other regional communities now face — their aquifers contaminated, their impoverished residents forced to rely on weekly supplies of bottled water. While serving on that board’s first environmental justice committee, Jordan’s outrage over this pollution got him in such hot water with large agricultural interests the governor disinvited him from serving a second term.
Beyond this ridiculous depth of experience, what most qualifies Jordan in our eyes is his political temperament and inclination. In the world of political reality, Jordan recognizes that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line. It’s a zig and a zag. Jordan has an almost obsessive belief that there are at least two sides to every issue. Where the balancing act between housing affordability and community character are concerned, for example, this aspect is crucial.
With the current council so bitterly riven by personality squabbles and distracting political ambitions, and hindered by the new members’ lack of experience in City Hall’s political bureaucracy, Jordan brings serious insider knowledge — wonky as it may be — to a host of crucial matters. Housing, water, and the vibrancy of Santa Barbara’s downtown — now ailing — are just a few.
Three of the other four candidates show talents that are vitally needed for the health of our city. We hope they consider serving on any of Santa Barbara’s boards and commissions where they will acquire greater skills needed to be effective council members.
- Teri Jory has a can-do spirit that would energize even the most mordant bureaucrat.
- Luis Esparza brings a sense of fiscal restraint, a life-long commitment to the Mesa community, and a deep knowledge of the intricacies of government.
- And Tavis Boise, who sounds a cheerful wake-up call to the perils of climate change, sea level rise, and economic inequality, can quickly overcome his lack of practical experience by participating more directly in the city’s civic life.
Brian Campbell, though seemingly open-minded to solving Santa Barbara’s difficulties, has undercut this by doubting climate change and exaggerating beyond recognition our city’s serious homeless problems.
Based on comments Campbell made at a candidates’ forum on the Mesa organized by the League of Women Voters, we were given serious reason to wonder how much Campbell believed human activity has been responsible for climate change. In subsequent communications, Campbell has asserted that he believes climate change is very real. We take him at his word. But his comments — quoted in this week’s news story — still give us pause as to how energetically he would push for policies that would address the impacts of climate change.
It is with great confidence we urge a vote for Michael Jordan.
N.B.: The Indy endorsements were updated on Oct. 13 to add that of Michael Jordan, and updated on Oct. 16 to clarify concerns over Brian Campbell’s stance on climate change.