Mail-in Ballots | Credit: Courtesy

As we sit here snugly in the donut hole of the apocalypse — with wildfires raging to the north and south — it’s easy to forget that the fate of western civilization hangs in the balance as we wait to see which way voters in the City of Santa Barbara’s Districts 1 and 2 tip or tilt. The way it looks now, it appears the vast majority might not get out of bed in the first place, preferring to sit this one out while lying down. 

As of this Friday afternoon, only 18 percent had mailed in their ballots to city elections workers, who in turn dispatch them to points south — through who knows how many blazing infernos along the way — in the city of Norwalk. By any reckoning, that’s abysmally low. Anywhere from 30-40 percent is more broadly typical.

This gives the rest of you a couple days yet to figure out your vote and mail your ballots in. Turnout numbers for District 2 — the Mesa — are said to be notably higher than those in District 1 — the city’s Eastside. Maybe that’s because Mesa voters have five candidates from whom to choose, none of whom is an incumbent. That means it’s a wide-open question as to who replaces Randy Rowse, who for the past eight years has played the role of grumpy white male of aggressively indeterminate party affiliation to the hilt while injecting some semblance of business-guy common sense to council proceedings. Rowse, who is known to wield a savagely funny poison pen, is up to his eyeballs in the perfidious partisan pettifoggery that he complains has invaded the inner sanctum of the council chambers and is eagerly awaiting the day the screen door hits him on the ass on the way out.

City Council District 2 candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara. (October 10, 2019)

District 2

Based on the numbers — five candidates seeking one open seat in what appears to be a record low turnout — the three Democratic candidates: Michael Jordan, Teri Jory, and Tavis Boise (and Luis Esparza, who might as well be) could split the vote sufficiently to give victory to Brian Campbell, who in so-called normal circumstances would clearly be the odd man out. That’s because Campbell is the only bona fide Republican in what is only a nominally nonpartisan race to represent what is an overwhelmingly blue district.

In a city dominated by political pastels, Campbell is boldly black and white. I am still reeling from the collective whiplash induced at a Rotary Club forum when Campbell opined that the Mesa was fast “becoming another skid row.” In my book, that seemed way more than a stretch.

Likewise, at another forum, Campbell asked, “Do we really, really know what affects climate change?” and answered with a sardonic, “Some people think they do.” At the time, I heard this an expression of skepticism about climate change. But after writing something to that effect, Campbell protested we got it wrong; he does indeed believe in climate change and sea level rise and threatened to sue for libel and slander. From this, we have learned the error of our ways and will endeavor not to jump to faulty conclusions when he speaks in dog-whistle campaign code speak.

A political newcomer, Campbell has many advantages. Campbell is graced with an endearing smile. He and his family take an attractive family photograph in campaign mailers. And his distinctive black-and-orange yard signs are the same colors for Halloween and perhaps more ominously for Dodger fans, the much despised San Francisco Giants. More to the point, his signs are everywhere — enjoying such broad distribution one might think he’s running for governor of Montana, not merely a seat on the City Council.

Campbell is plugged into the parent-teacher universe of his kids’ schools — a significant constituency — and of course he brings the innate marketing prowess of Village Properties, where he works. Campbell’s mother-in-law, in fact, started Village Properties, which ranks among the reigning real estate mother ships in Santa Barbara.

All that’s to say, in a field of five, Campbell has carved out a distinct — if at times overstated — identity. As such, that should stand him in good stead running against a field of candidates who have more in common with each other than they do differences.

By any reckoning, this should be candidate Michael Jordan’s race to lose; a moderate’s moderate who only recently registered as a Democrat, Jordan has more practical experience on city boards and commissions than all the candidates in all the races combined. He lives on the Mesa, the third of five generations of Jordans to have occupied the family home. He shares the premises with a 30-year-old daughter who famously reacted to Jordans’s announcement he was running by pointing out he was “old, white, and had a penis.” Jordan may be the only person in the history of the universe to sit on the Water Commission and the Planning Commission at the same time. But this may not be the best time for City Hall insiders to run as such; Jordan’s experience has been dismissed by other candidates alternately as “more of the same” and “part of the problem.”

Giving Jordan a run for his money is Teri Jory, a neighborhood activist with a track record of community engagement. Of Jory, one might have said that she is one to roll up her sleeves and get stuff done. But Jory — a fitness instructor, motivational speaker, and life coach with a PhD and a black belt — sports an impressive set of gun boats and is loath to enshroud them in sleeves of any kind. In person, Jory, the Marianne Williamson of the race, says things that might come off as audacious, but she tends to back them up. And she is decidedly not more of the same. Her ads, by contrast, convey the same wattage one might absorb by sticking one’s finger in light sockets.  Given that Jory got her PhD in the cognitive processing of political advertising, this is mystifying.

Travis Boise, a radiant and cheerful millennial doom-and-gloomier — has used the campaign to castigate the adults supposedly in charge for screwing up the planet and the economy big time. His generation, he’s pointed out, will spend their lifetimes trying to clean things up. Boise is who Beto O’Rourke wakes up in the morning wishing he could be; Boise’s website shows him in a tight tuck taking a wave while dressed in an only slightly retro button-down shirt. As far as yard signs, Boise’s easily get the award for more artistic and original; they are, however, also the most inscrutable. In political contests, scrutability counts.

Of all the candidates running, I think Luis Esparza is the one I’d most like to have a beer with or perhaps share a joint, if that’s something I did anymore. (I did buy one joint the other day from one of the legal pot houses. I asked for something to help shut up the incessant jabbering of my brain. I got a well-rolled joint wrapped in a bottle that definitely required opposable thumbs to open, which in turn was inserted snugly into a tight cardboard container that likewise required both opposable thumbs to open. I know times have changed, but $15 for a single joint seemed steep enough to require grappling rope and carabineers.)

Esparza is thoughtful and nuanced in way candidates not likely to win are allowed to be. He’s plenty shrewd but not inclined to show it off. I never checked to see if Esparza carries a big stick, but he definitely speaks with a soft voice. In politics, that’s not always advantageous.

District 1

That’s District 2, in which I happen to dwell. District 1 — where I happen not to — is likewise going through an anything-can-happen-but-probably-won’t upheaval.  There, incumbent Jason Dominguez is facing off against challenger Alejandra Gutierrez; if conventional wisdom holds, Dominguez should win easily. He is the incumbent, after all, and he has grown considerably more polished in the four years he’s held office, lacing his remarks now with self-deprecating quips. And Dominguez, who has an impressive head the size of a small boulder, most definitely looks the part.

But as intelligent as Dominguez undeniably is, he a great one for poking bears and ruffling feathers. He doesn’t merely question city staff; he gives them the third degree. An attorney by profession, Dominguez claims to be doing the people’s business, not the bidding of City Hall’s “deep state.” I get it. But too often, he appears to be auditioning for a role in the TV show Perry Mason. 

The problem with all this is that there are important questions Dominguez is seeking to ask. Too often, the issues he is attempting to raise are undermined by the delivery.

Four years ago, Dominguez ran against a field of three candidates, none of whom were in a position to mount a credible campaign. In that race, Dominguez worked his ass off, walked precincts hard, and filibustered people who opened their doors until they voted for him. This time around, Dominguez is waging not just one campaign but two. At the same time he’s seeking re-election, he’s running for the State Assembly seat that will be vacated next year by Monique Limón as she runs for State Senate. Five Democrats are now vying for that post. One is Dominguez. Another is Mayor Cathy Murillo. The two have famously feuded during their time together on the council. None of this bodes well for the quality of council deliberations during the next few months while the Assembly race plays itself out.

In this context, Alejandra Gutierrez might pose more of a challenge than purveyors of what passes as conventional wisdom acknowledge. At campaign forums, Gutierrez has knocked off precious few socks. Her campaign has suffered from a few significant hiccups. But one-on-one, Gutierrez reportedly shines. She grew up on the Eastside, she has family on the Eastside, and for the past five years, she’s run the Franklin Family Services Center, connecting families with a host of social services that will allow their kids to focus on scholastic achievement. By all reckonings, that center has made a significant difference.

Here’s my agenda. Whoever gets elected, I’m going to have spend considerable time and psychic resources covering them in the years ahead. Selfishly, I’d rather spend my time writing about people who were affirmatively selected by the voters of their district than candidates who managed to squeak through almost by default because most voters were too busy buying milk or feeding the cat.

It’s too late now to deploy the old line, “Vote early and often.” So do me a favor. Just vote.

Information on how to vote can be found here.


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