Challenger Nina Johnson (left) and Mayor Cathy Murillo. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file) & Daniel Dreifuss (file)

If there were any doubt this year’s City Council elections would defy any paint-by-numbers prognostications, this week’s round of endorsements from three of the South Coast’s most politically influential women’s organizations proved it. Incumbent mayor Cathy Murillo, now running for a second term, failed to secure an endorsement from the Democratic Women of Santa Barbara County or the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee, though both organizations had endorsed her when she ran for mayor four years ago. 

The Women’s Political Committee didn’t endorse any of the six candidates vying for the mayoral post. Democratic Women threw its weight behind mayoral challenger and longtime planning commissioner Deborah Schwartz, who is campaigning as a can-do Democrat who knows how to reform the city’s design review system. 

Murillo, still the first Latina mayor of Santa Barbara, managed to secure the coveted endorsement of Planned Parenthood’s Action Fund. In addition, she noted, she had already been endorsed by the Democratic Central Committee and the Sierra Club. 

Murillo’s mixed record with endorsements could be chalked up to growing restiveness over her mayoral style after an especially bumpy first term. It could also reflect the fact that there are three nominees who can wave the Democratic flag, the third being James Joyce III, founder of Coffee with a Black Guy and former chief of staff for former state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson.

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Democratic Women also backed council challenger Nina Johnson over incumbent Meagan Harmon in the battle for the downtown’s District Six. That’s a bona fide shocker in Democratic Party circles, given the enthusiastic support Harmon, an appointee to her council post now in her second year on council, enjoys from the local Democratic Party organization for her outspokenly progressive views. 

Johnson is a longtime assistant city administrator now making an attempted and unprecedented leap from administration to council and is warmly regarded by downtown business and property owners for being responsive to their plight. 

All three organizations, however, endorsed incumbent Kristen Sneddon against challenger Barrett Reed, a planning commissioner and downtown developer in the race for District Four, which encompasses much of the Riviera and Mission Canyon. They also endorsed incumbent councilmember Eric Friedman, perhaps the council’s most outspoken moderate, who is facing no opposition for the district representing San Roque. 

Planned Parenthood, it should be noted, is endorsing all of the above: Sneddon, Harmon, Murillo, and Friedman.

Three of seven seats are up for grabs in this November’s election at a time when there’s been unprecedented turnover at many of the top administrative posts, including that of Paul Casey, who will be stepping down as city administrator on September 10 after eight years at the helm and 24 years at City Hall. One of the paramount decisions facing the new council will be the selection of a new administrator.

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