In a bold rebuke of the local Democratic Party’s endorsement of Meagan Harmon for reelection to the Santa Barbara City Council, Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez is throwing her support behind Harmon’s challenger, Nina Johnson.
Gutierrez, herself backed by the party when she was elected to represent District 1 in 2019, said Johnson has the practical chops and personal temperament to more effectively represent District 6, which spans most of State Street and Santa Barbara’s downtown.
Gutierrez said while Harmon “talks a good talk,” Johnson ― who has worked at City Hall for 25 years, most recently as an assistant city administrator ― is better equipped to navigate the community’s various stakeholders and the city’s bureaucracies to “really move us forward,” especially with respect to the flagging commercial corridor.
“Nina has been working her whole career to bring people together to make things happen,” said Gutierrez, citing Johnson’s role as go-to person at City Hall for businesspeople, property owners, and arts organizations looking to navigate Santa Barbara’s jungle of red tape. She made the 2019 closure of the State Street underpass for an arts and music event happen, Gutierrez said, which then served as a successful model for the current promenade. Johnson also helped organize a charrette or architects who provided the council ― free of charge ― a thick portfolio of creative ideas for a future downtown.
“She’s doing the job already,” Gutierrez said. “Her work speaks for itself, and her credibility is impeccable.” Gutierrez said she’d be especially excited to collaborate with Johnson, who has campaigned on taking a machete to some of that red tape, on other art projects, and to leverage her expertise in negotiating with landlords and business owners on downtown revitalization plans. “You need to sit down and talk with these people to actually make progress,” Gutierrez said. “She knows how to do that.”
Gutierrez recognized her endorsement of Johnson over Harmon will likely create waves within the Democratic Party and lose her favor among some political circles. “But I don’t care about that,” she said. “This is the right thing to do.” As an educator, she said, “I always tell my students that doing the right thing is not always easy or popular.”
In their time on council together, Gutierrez accused Harmon of sowing discord among her colleagues, cliquing with some and ignoring others. “She creates division,” Gutierrez said. “I don’t want a person like that leading our community.” Gutierrez also claimed Harmon is effective at pandering to a liberal crowd but not rolling up her sleeves and making a difference in people’s everyday lives. “She sounds progressive, but how much has she really done?” Gutierrez asked.
As an example in contrast, Gutierrez went on, Johnson worked quietly behind the scenes during the pandemic to connect her with funding sources to get learning pods in her district up and running. Parents at the time were desperate for Wi-Fi access and space to hold Zoom classes. “Thanks to Nina and other community members, we were able to help students from low-income families attend school again,” Gutierrez said. “Nina is all about finding resources to fill local needs. She always does what’s best for the greater good, not just rubbing shoulders with other politicians.”
Johnson said she was grateful for Gutierrez’s endorsement. “I’m deeply honored to have her support and confidence,” she said. “As women of color, we know how hard it is to be recognized for our contributions and strengths. She’s a courageous leader who is passionate about solving problems at hand ― homelessness, the high cost of housing, and economic recovery for businesses. I’m excited to work with her and bring more people together to be innovative downtown.”
In another endorsement surprise, Johnson previously secured the support of the Democratic Women of Santa Barbara County over Harmon.
Meanwhile, Harmon is backed by Congressmember Salud Carbajal, State Senator Monique Limón, and Assemblymember Steve Bennett, among other big names within the county’s political establishment. She is also endorsed by the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, and the Central Coast Labor Council.