Two days before James Joyce III was vetted as an official Santa Barbara mayoral candidate, he was lobbing email broadsides at City Hall — and at incumbent Mayor Cathy Murillo by implication — for not doing enough about the resurgence of COVID and the Delta variant.
James, host of Coffee with a Black Guy and former chief of staff for former state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, issued a media statement demanding that all City Hall employees be vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID tests, as the Santa Barbara Unified school board and Santa Barbara City College Board of Trustees had just done. “At a bare minimum, the government should focus on keeping people alive,” he stated. “This is a time for leadership, people.”
It’s also a time for politics when talk of leadership — and the lack thereof — is much in the air.
Early this Tuesday, 13 candidates — for mayor and three council seats — were declared ready for prime time by City Clerk Sarah Gorman. That means these 13 submitted enough valid signatures of registered voters— at least 100 — to qualify for the November ballot. Of those, six — including Murillo — are running for mayor.
Only Councilmember Eric Friedman, who represents San Roque’s District 5, got a free pass when his only potential challenger, a UCSB sociology professor specializing in revolutionary movements and climate change, opted not to turn in any signatures by last Friday’s deadline. Friedman, one of the more moderate councilmembers by temperament and ideology, has already been endorsed by the Democratic Party, despite concerns by some of the more progressive activists.
The real action (and money), however, is focused on the seat occupied by Mayor Murillo — a progressive Democrat, a former journalist, and the first Latina mayor elected in Santa Barbara — whose term has been bookended by unimaginable catastrophes. The deadly 1/9 Debris Flow killed 23 the day of her 2018 swearing-in. And COVID is now threatening to mount a deadly comeback, with 563 active infections throughout the county and 37 patients sick enough to warrant hospitalization.
In neither of these nightmares has Murillo had an assigned governmental role to play. And in neither did she exploit her position’s bully pulpit.
During her tenure, the collapse of State Street achieved new critical mass; homelessness, a new urgency; housing prices, new highs; and the exodus of high-ranking, long-term administrative executives, an unprecedented breakneck pace. As mayor presiding over the first council elected by district, Murillo found herself in the unenviable role of herding cats.
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While none of these challenges were of her making, there’s been no shortage of naysayers eager to blame her for not displaying more leadership and generating more group cohesion among a council whose members have a hard time getting along. But even her harshest critics acknowledge that on the campaign trail, Murillo — true blue in her loyalty to unions and the Democratic Party, and they to her — is formidable in the extreme.
Lining up against Murillo is Joyce, who, if elected, would be the city’s first Black mayor.
Former councilmember and onetime downtown restaurant owner Randy Rowse is running as the voice of sensible moderation from the standpoint of a slightly right-tilting, declined-to-state perspective.
Vying to give voice to downtown business interests and arts advocates is Mark Whitehurst, who for 14 years served on the board of the Downtown Organization and for 27 has played a founding role in the arts, news, and real estate publication Voice Magazine. Whitehurst, like Rowse, is registered as a declined to state, though, until recently, he was a Democrat.
Likewise, longtime Planning Commissioner Deborah Schwartz is arguing the times demand greater leadership from within City Hall and is advocating for the structural reform needed to make the mayor — not the city administrator, as is the case now — top dog in the pecking order of political power.
These four candidates all hail from the political mainstream with long and impressive track records of community involvement. What leadership skills and policy positions they might bring to the equation — aside from not being Murillo — will be hashed out in the months ahead.
Less well-known is candidate David Matthew Kilrain, a harbor resident, whose claim to fame at this point is that he goes by the colorful moniker “Boat Rat Matt.”
For the first time since district elections were imposed upon City Hall as part of a legal settlement several years ago, downtown’s District 6 has a genuine contest, and Meagan Harmon — an appointed incumbent who has yet to win her first vote — is facing a real match.
Lining up against Harmon, a progressive Democrat who enjoys strong support from the party, is Nina Johnson, a senior assistant to the city administrator and a consummate City Hall insider who enjoys enthusiastic support from the downtown business community and many arts organizations. With this support, Johnson will be able to raise funds, but downtown voters skew heavily in favor of the Democratic Party, and the party is strongly behind Harmon.
Also entering the District 6 fray are electrical contracting business owner Jason Carlton, whose website suggests a grassroots vibe coupled with back-to-basics political values, and freelance disk jockey Zachary Pike.
The fight for Mission Canyon and the Riviera’s District 4 promises to be intense, pitting incumbent Kristen Sneddon — who embodies old-school slow-growth-ism coupled with new-school social-justice concerns — against Barrett Reed, a planning commissioner and downtown developer. Both Sneddon and Reed grew up in Santa Barbara; both are smart and thoughtful; neither aspires to higher office. When it comes to values and vision — and political chops — they diverge sharply. This one could get hot.
As for Joyce’s demand that City Hall require its employees be vaccinated, Murillo said City Hall is moving in that direction already, adding that “details and timing need to be worked out.” Murillo said she’s been discussing that matter with the head of Local 620 of the Service Employees International Union. “Overall, we have been working with our employees rather than imposing a mandate on them,” she said.
City Administrator Paul Casey cautioned that most vaccine requirements adopted by other cities won’t take effect until later this fall after the Food and Drug Administration issues final approvals for the vaccines rather than the emergency approvals now in effect. He also noted that the availability of COVID testing remains problematic, noting that one city worker recently had to wait six days before he could get tested.