Ken Pettit: 1940-2019

Super Tuesday in March 2020 was the first major county election Ken Pettit didn’t observe, or manage, in 40 years. After serving as County Clerk Howard Menzel’s senior deputy, Pettit succeeded Menzel, serving four terms running a “picnic basket” of duties, including chief election officer.

Service is something people always associated with Ken. He loved helping people and building community. Candidates all say they have some sort of platform they’re running to implement. But when I asked Pettit why he was running for County Clerk, his regular smile momentarily vanished, he looked right at me, and he said, “I really want to make a difference for people.” And he did, in so many ways.

There was County Executives Association Ken Pettit, regaling meetings with side-splitting jokes while nudging them toward more honest, open government. Department head Pettit, knowing every employee’s name, always inquiring when a family member was ailing. Lions Club Ken, urging anyone he met to “stop by for a free eye screening.” Santa Barbara Boys & Girls Club supporter Ken, telling every new-to-town family about all their great sports, recreation, and learning opportunities. Old Spanish Days centurion Ken, encouraging people to find a reason to “celebrate” local history and “find a reason to Fiesta.”

Ken enjoyed being County Clerk-Recorder-Elections Officer. “When you help someone complete the forms for their wedding or business license, record the deed for their first home, that’s something you never forget.” Visitors for a romantic County Courthouse wedding would be surprised when the fellow guiding them through the paperwork emerged from behind the counter to witness their ceremony or notarize their new business form. Ken collected the photographs newlyweds sent him of their courthouse wedding — Ken standing to one side, as witness or guest.

Charles Dickens novels aren’t taught enough in local schools anymore. Pettit had read several, and meeting local members of Dickens’s extended family thrilled him. Yet it was hard for him to talk much about why David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and Great Expectations meant so much to him.

They mattered because, like many plucky Dickens protagonists, Ken had grown up abandoned, born in Southern California but raised in an upstate New York orphanage. He knew kids whose undiagnosed eye problems held them back in school or undermined their health. He knew kids who only found acceptance in team sports, where family, income, race, and religion didn’t matter. He knew kids who overcame their sense of not belonging in a party, festival, or hearty laugh at a shared joke. That’s why the Lions Club vision programs, the Boys & Girls Club team and intramural sports, and the Old Spanish Days’ open, accessible revels meant so much to him. It was why, of all the area’s elected officials, the one who resonated most with Ken was crusty, outdoorsy Republican Dr. Dan Secord, who had also been raised as orphan and was “sometimes the only political person I could ask about something who really understood.”

That was why this funny, laid-back guy could become as serious and focused as a lion if someone tried to mess with any citizen’s right to vote, which was sacred to Ken, no matter where you lived, whether you owned or rented, whether you had a home at all.

Ken became famous when he let members of the South Coast’s homeless population register, then vote, using “The Fig Tree” as their legal residence. Some scoffed, but to Ken, every citizen’s right to exercise their franchise was paramount, no matter where they slept.

Ken became widely known after being grilled in Superior Court for two days about UCSB/Isla Vista student voting. Pettit explained why students could register to vote where they attended school, how their votes were accurately tabulated, and what efforts our Elections Office made to assure that any and all votes would be counted if possible. That was during legal challenges to a county election whose winning margin was fewer than 20 contested votes. “In a democracy, our system’s essential right is for every eligible voter to have their chance to vote, and to have their vote counted,” Pettit explained.

Big, burly, bearded baritone Ken Pettit, legendary fisherman, proud dad to his own family, battled the scale much of his life. The year Denver Airport installed “moving sidewalks,” a voice called to me from the other side of a concourse; it was Ken.

“Goin’, or comin’ home?” he shouted.
“Going,” I said.
“Okay, have a good trip,” Ken replied.

As the sidewalk pushed us along, I realized the people in front of me were staring at Ken. “Isn’t that Orson Welles?” one traveler asked the other.

“No, of course not. That’s Raymond Burr.”

When I got back home and told Ken what they’d said, he began to laugh so heartily his assistant came in to see what was happening.

Ken Pettit, raised without a conventional family, spent his whole life creating new ones with everything he did and helping make Santa Barbara a better place for everyone while he did it, one tall tale at a time. And as that Denver Airport encounter illustrates, he never took himself too seriously.

In the Founders’ time, public service was seen as a public trust, extolled by Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. Recently, however, some view people who devote their lives to public service with suspicion or animosity. Ken Pettit was the answer for such people.


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