While this year’s Santa Barbara City Council elections remain far from over, the proverbial “fat lady” has clearly started to warm up. Given that 30 percent of this year’s ballots won’t be counted until this Friday, the election remains — at least technically speaking — too close to call.
District 2 front-runner Michael Jordan is ahead of his nearest challenger, Brian Campbell, in the five-way race for the Mesa district by 144 votes. And first-time candidate and challenger Alejandra Gutierrez is — at least for the time being — just 31 knuckle-biting votes behind incumbent Jason Dominguez for the city’s Eastside district, District 1.
Although the final results won’t be released until the end of the week, an undeniable air of celebratory certainty permeated the election-night festivities Tuesday at the Casa Blanca restaurant on lower State Street. That’s where Democratic Party backed candidates — Jordan and Gutierrez — gathered with the party organizers and volunteers who got up at 5 a.m. on Tuesday to walk precincts, knock on doors, and make enough get-out-the-vote phone calls to border on harassment.
In public statements, both Gutierrez and Jordan confined themselves to expressions of “cautious optimism.” In actual fact, however, election night for these two was an expression of cautious euphoria.
If long-established, historic voting trends hold true, Jordan should expand his lead over Campbell, and Gutierrez should close the gap on Dominguez and ultimately score an upset victory that few of the pundits thought was likely or even possible. That’s because traditionally, the Democratic Party launches intense get-out-the-vote efforts just days before the election. Typically, as a result, votes cast in the final days skew heavily Democratic, favoring liberal, more progressive candidates.
Tuesday, in other words, appeared to be a very good night for the Democratic Party.
Not only did it appear the party candidates were on their way to winning the two contested seats, two other party candidates — Meagan Harmon and Oscar Gutierrez — had been acclaimed victors for District 3 and District 6—the Westside and downtown districts, respectively — when no other candidates showed up to run against them.
Complicating this picture somewhat is the fact that Dominguez is himself a registered Democrat. In many years past, he’d been elected to serve on the Democratic Central Committee, ironically beating out Daraka Larimore-Hall, who would emerge later to become a true party boss.
Santa Barbara remains a small-enough community that the politics of personality still trump party affiliation and ideology. On the council, Dominguez clashed frequently and heatedly with Mayor Cathy Murillo and former councilmember (and now county supervisor) Gregg Hart, both major figures in the constellation of party personalities. Among party faithful, Dominguez was nothing less than radioactive.
On election night, Murillo — a fierce and relentless competitor for whom party loyalty is a key virtue — denied the District 1 contest was in any way a grudge match. “Absolutely not,” she stated emphatically. “Not at all. It was all about Alejandra Gutierrez and getting a good representative for the Eastside.” Murillo donated $3,000 to Gutierrez’s campaign.
Dominguez and Murillo are among a handful of candidates now vying for the opening in the Assembly created when incumbent Monique Limón announced she was running for Senate. That election takes place in March 2020, which put Dominguez in the difficult spot of running for two different seats at the same time. This doubtlessly distracted his attention away from his council reelection effort.
Four years ago, Dominguez ran against a field of three candidates, none of whom waged a credible campaign. But even his detractors acknowledged Dominguez was a formidable, energetic campaigner This time, he was running against a well-regarded first-time candidate with lifelong, deep roots in the District 1 community. And he was running two campaigns at once.
Hart was grinning ear-to-ear election night, exclaiming, “Whoa!” Hart would be the first person Gutierrez thanked by name in her speech of “cautious optimism,” describing how Hart’s coaching proved invaluable in calming down a first-time candidate and getting her focused on the things that mattered. “I wanted to rock the boat,” Gutierrez said. “I think I did that.”
Jordan, for his part, expressed gratitude the Democratic Party would take a risk by endorsing “an old white male,” like him, a “big tent” moderate more temperamentally inclined to seek out compromise and middle ground than stake out positions of ideological purity. Jordan — a member of the Planning Commission and Water Commission and archetypic City Hall insider — had long been registered as declined-to-state until he reregistered as Democrat shortly before announcing his candidacy. According to some sources, it was Hart who pushed Jordan to reregister. On election night, Jordan singled out Hart for praise, describing him as the guy he’d call late at night when he needed to talk.
This marks the last odd year election for the City of Santa Barbara, a deliberate effort by the powers-that-be to inoculate election outcomes from the prevailing winds of political fashion. But the new even-year system — which starts 2024 — was adopted because it’s cheaper and it generates higher voter participation. Given the reality of Santa Barbara’s demographics, that high participation also promises to provide Democratic candidates an even greater edge than they currently enjoy.
City Council races are nominally nonpartisan, but in recent years, the role of party influence — the Democratic Party, not the Republican — has grown more obvious and pronounced. To the extent Santa Barbara still has a Republican Party, its glory days are long past. That City Hall had to farm out its ballots to the City of Los Angeles to be counted this year adds an element of irony to the city’s last city-centric race.
S.B. City Council Semi-Final Election Results
Jason Dominguez — 563 votes
Alejandra Gutierrez — 532 votes
Cruzito Cruz — 68 votes
Michael Jordan — 935 votes
Brian Campbell — 791 votes
Teri Jory — 449
Tavis Boise — 232 votes
Luis Esparza — 189 votes
Total Votes Counted: 3,759
Total Votes Still to Be Counted: at least 2,500
Estimated Voter Turnout: 30 percent