Who Are Santa Barbara’s Mayoral Candidates and What Do They Think?

Who Are Santa Barbara’s Mayoral Candidates and What Do They Think?

An Inside Look into the Lives and Thoughts of the Six Men and Women Running for the Job

By Nick Welsh | October 7, 2021

Credit: Erick Madrid and Courtesy

As Americans grow more disconnected from our state and federal governments, we increasingly look to our mayors to take care of business. The word “mayor” comes from the Latin maior, meaning the biggest and the best, but technically most mayors are really just one among equals. They run the meetings, help set the agendas, and herd cats.

Since Santa Barbara voted for district elections, the mayor remains the only council position elected citywide. It’s a tough post. The city charter does not give the mayor much actual power. An effective mayor requires imagination, audacity, stamina, patience, and a sense of the moment — all the ephemera for what’s usually described as “leadership.”

In its 171 years as a city, Santa Barbara has had 50 mayors. In the early days, there were four De la Guerras and three Carillos, founding families subsequently memorialized by downtown street names. During the Great Depression, we had Edmund O. Hanson, a proto-Trumpian megalomaniacal populist whack job who was criminally prosecuted and bribed to leave town. 

Some of our mayors were genuinely gifted in the arts of governance. In the 1950s, Jack Rickard (a De la Guerra descendant) figured out how to annex land in the Goleta Valley to create our airport. Rickard’s imaginative thinking proved so crafty that the state legislature outlawed anyone else from trying it.

Our current mayor, Cathy Murillo, the first Latina to hold the office, assumed the reins in one of the rockiest four years in memory. Sworn in the very day the Montecito debris flow claimed 23 lives, she has since presided over a city in nonstop crisis: drought, fire, pandemic, racial reckoning, an uncertain retail core, and a housing market increasingly inaccessible to all but the fortunate few.

Murillo, now seeking a second term, is being challenged by five candidates all convinced they can do a better job. The perennial issues are housing, the homeless population, and the condition of downtown. But the real issue animating this election is leadership. Who knows how to wield it?

That is important because the current six councilmembers, who have met almost exclusively via Zoom since the pandemic, have displayed an animosity toward one another that is palpably jarring. Add the turnover among the city’s top executives — the next council will hire a new police chief and new city administrator — and it’s little wonder there’s a sense of apprehension over at City Hall.

Whoever wins will be the mayor of a city with 91,000 residents and many thousand more daily commuters and tourists, as well as about 1,000 employees, with its own police force, its own commercial harbor, its own airport, its own waste disposal operation, its own water agency — with a desalination plant and two dams — and countless beaches and parks.

By any reckoning, Santa Barbara is a very big little city. 

All the candidates are interesting. All have something to say.

Cathy Murillo

Cathy Murillo | Credit: Erick Madrid

To understand who Cathy Murillo is, you need to know what Maria Hurtado Delgadillo meant — and still means — to her.

Only everything.

Murillo grew up in Boyle Heights, the middle child in a wildly chaotic and alcoholic household. Her mother would marry three times. Her father was a gang member and drug dealer who served eight years in Folsom prison. Murillo remembers getting dressed up on Easter Sunday to go visit him. 

Of her parents — both now dead — Murillo would say, “They taught me resiliency.” 

Murillo’s Rock of Gibraltar through all this was her grandmother Maria Hurtado Delgadillo. She was a garment worker, a stalwart with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. As Murillo tells it, the union is why her grandmother could afford the duplex where Murillo spent much of her childhood and why her grandmother received a pension check “that allowed her a dignified retirement.” 

It’s little surprise then that Murillo has been the most ardently pro-union mayor and councilmember the city has ever had. Shortly after Murillo was first elected to the council in 2011, she cast the deciding vote against a proposed ballot initiative to limit the city’s pension obligations. 

This past year, Murillo played a pivotal role pushing the Project Labor Agreement (PLA) the council recently adopted. This requires union workers be hired for any City Hall capital project valued at more than $5 million.  Critics — and there are many — contend this will hurt local contractors, most of whom are not unionized. The fact that Murillo is now receiving tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from trade unions benefiting directly from this arrangement, critics contend, smacks of pay-to-play politics.

Murillo is unfazed. In fact, she cites the PLA as one of her proudest accomplishments. 

For most Santa Barbarans, Murillo insists, life is pretty good, especially those who own their own homes and have jobs. But as a councilmember, Murillo was all about underdogs: Steelhead trout. Pit bulls. Homeless people. People living in vans. At-risk teens. Renters. Murillo was the first and most vociferous councilmember to oppose the gang injunction. Today, she takes pride that the city is poised to create a police civilian review board.

Murillo is a blunt force in a community more accustomed to mayoral finesse. Fellow council-
members — including those who supported the PLA — reportedly felt her wrath when they objected to even small details of the plan. When the council adopted a tenant relocation assistance package for renters displaced through no fault of their own, landlords objected — with some cause — that Murillo had changed the rules to push it through. 

As mayor, Murillo has yet to convincingly reach out beyond her own base and the Democratic Central Committee. She famously refused to participate in the Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the City event, citing that oil companies had co-sponsored the event. The Chamber also opposed Murillo in her first mayoral race. She was conspicuously absent at Hal Conklin’s memorial service, a large public event in front of the Old Mission; Murillo explained she had a cold. Conklin ran against Murillo for mayor four years ago and, had he not been stricken with brain cancer, might have done so again.

From the day Murillo was sworn in as mayor, a blistering and disruptive feud began between her and Councilmember Jason Dominguez. (He, it should be noted, started it.) Murillo then moved heaven and earth to help Alejandra Gutierrez defeat Dominguez. But today, Murillo’s relations with Councilmember Gutierrez are almost as toxic as they’d been with Dominguez. 

The level of personal and political acrimony among all councilmembers is as high as it’s ever been.  District elections and Zoom meetings haven’t helped. But many around City Hall contend Murillo has the memory of an elephant when it comes to who has not supported her. Theses tensions have been exacerbated by an exodus of high-ranking city officials, the pandemic, a stream of natural disasters, the dramatic bump in the number of visibly homeless people, and the future health of State Street. 

Murillo, a theater arts major at UCSB and a former journalist with the Santa Barbara Independent, has been conspicuously absent from the bully pulpit during these catastrophic eruptions. Her critics have been quick to cry, “Where’s Cathy?” Murillo, however, said, “The emergency is not about me. The focus should be on the first responders.”

As for downtown, Murillo noted the council hired an economic development czar, created an ombudsperson position to help businesses caught up in red tape, and is embarking on an ambitious collective reimagining of State Street. In the meantime, she is almost giddy about the new promenade. “Every time I walk State Street, there are people, young people, moms with strollers, dog walkers,” and she hopes one day downtown will have a dance floor “so people my age can have a place to dance.” 

Murillo’s ace in the hole is her willingness to work harder than anyone else walking precincts. She’s been doing it since 2009. When people open the door, she said, she often knows them from past campaigns. “I’m doing pretty well at the doors,” she said. She’s also been doing pretty well in her campaign coffers, having raised $190,000. 

Win, lose, or draw, it’s been a long road for a girl from Boyle Heights. “To be in this place in history,” Murillo said, “I never expected to be here.” 

Randy Rowse

At age 67, Rowse finds himself riding the tail end of the Baby Boom comet. He grew up in suburban Southern California — West Covina — where the air was choked with burning smog. Even so, Leave It to Beaver still reflected what passed for real life. Rowse’s father, a soft-spoken World War II vet, ran an auto parts supply shop. His mother ran the family-owned swim school. Rowse worked at both as a kid. He played high school football; though small, he was tough and just a little bit sneaky, and his team made it to the CIF finals.

Rowse is now running for mayor just two years after retiring from the council on which he served for nine years and after selling the Paradise Café, over which he held court for nearly 30 years. The explanation for Rowse’s political comeback? “I cannot remain playing cello on the passenger deck as the Titanic charges toward the iceberg,” he said. 

Randy Rowse | Credit: Erick Madrid

When Rowse graduated from high school, acceptance to a UC campus was not as difficult as it is today. In 1972, Rowse was admitted to UCSB, then famous — or infamous — as a beach party school. Eventually he decided to study environmental studies. “I wasn’t that political in high school, but I cared about the environment,” Rowse explained. “Remember the smog? We couldn’t breathe.”

Despite that, Rowse never got the activist itch to save the world. Instead, he played rugby and intramural football and enjoyed the youthful exuberance of belonging to the Lambda Ki Alpha fraternity. Life was fun. He learned to sail. 

Does all this background help answer the core questions that have dogged Rowse since he first stumbled onto the City Council more than 10 years ago? Is he a liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican? Who and what is Randy Rowse?

Rowse, for the record, insists he’s never been a Republican, though both his parents were. He was a registered Democrat for most of his life, he said, voting for Barack Obama in 2008. But by 2012, he’d switched political streams, re-registered as a Declined to State, and voted for Mitt Romney.

The rest, as they say, is mystery. And Rowse likes it that way. His political leanings were informed by his experiences as a former bartender, where he learned how to see much, say little, and always have a good-humored quip at the ready. 

A fierce proponent of pothole politics, Rowse has grown impatient with what he terms the intrusion of national issues and party politics into the City Council. Rowse believes the local Democratic Party machine holds undue sway over the City Council. And he is especially incensed over the growing influence of labor unions, calling the Project Labor Agreement “a low-water mark in local politics.” 

As councilmember, Rowse was moderate by temperament and cautious in his votes. When the council regained a progressive majority, Rowse consistently sought to apply the brakes. On environmental issues — such as the plastic bag ban — he preferred appealing to the public’s better angels rather than imposing legislative solutions. On homelessness, Rowse favored a stronger enforcement presence in response to what he termed “aberrant behavior.” He fought to fund all 142 positions of the police department and worked hard to build public support for a sales tax increase — Measure C — that would fund the construction of a new police headquarters as well as other unfunded capital projects.

About the present council, Rowse asks, why not use the existing Police and Fire Commission, rather than creating police civil review board, which, he suggested, looks like a national solution in search of local problem? He opposed the council’s recently adopted natural gas ban on new development, as well as the rental relocation assistance package, arguing the latter exceeded the deal hammered out by landlord and tenant advocates. “I always choose mediation over legislation,” he commented. 

Rowse, who has raised $233,000, is now enjoying generous support from downtown property owners, developers, and business interests, not to mention the firefighters’ and police officers’ unions and the Chamber of Commerce. But even many in the business community have expressed cautious concern about Rowse’s skepticism of the downtown’s new promenade and other proposals designed to aid the retail economy. 

When Rowse first announced his candidacy, he questioned the State Street promenade and how its supporters were comparing it to Santa Barbara’s profound physical transformation after the 1925 earthquake. To him, he said, “It’s closer to a neutron bomb.” Today, he says closing of State Street was “the right thing,” but bristles at being described as “a curmudgeon” just because he’s “not getting giddy at the next pep rally.”

His more immediate and simple solution for downtown? “Clean the living you-know-what out of it and light it generously.” 

James Joyce III

“How does a 6’5” Black man disappear in a town like Santa Barbara?” asks James Joyce III, the former chief of staff for then-State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson. “It was my job to be invisible, and I was good at it,” he said. But not anymore. Joyce is running to be the city’s 51st mayor, and the first Black mayor in city history. 

For nine years, Joyce was Jackson’s right-hand man, running her Santa Barbara offices and working with federal, state, and local officials who were supposedly working together but often weren’t. He was at such meetings during some of Santa Barbara’s worse catastrophes: Elliot Rodger’s deadly Isla Vista rampage, the Refugio Oil Spill, the Thomas Fire, the 1/9 Debris Flow, the drought, the Conception’s fatal boat fire, and, of course, the COVID pandemic. 

Joyce said he was notably underwhelmed by Mayor Murillo in many of these situations. “Why are you here?” he remembers wondering sometimes. For instance, he said, City Hall should have reached out more aggressively to local businesses during the economic meltdown following the COVID lockdown. “It’s easy to play armchair quarterback, but we should have been walking these folks through the application process to get their PPP loans.”

James Joyce III | Credit: Erick Madrid

More underwhelming was Murillo’s response to the Black Lives Matters march last May in the wake of the George Floyd murder, when she showed up behind a phalanx of police officers, all holding body shields.

It was then that Joyce’s name as a potential mayoral contender first surfaced. 

Joyce was born and raised in Westminster, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. His father, James Joyce Jr., was a Marine combat engineer who saw action in Vietnam. “He didn’t know how to be a father to children,” Joyce said. It was his mother, Charlotte Brown, a former model and social worker, who raised Joyce and his sister.

In his 8th grade class, Joyce wrote a report on “Do You Understand the Black Man in Your Community?” Westminster was largely white. His work impressed the teacher. “Have you given any thought to journalism?” the teacher asked. “What’s that?” Joyce replied. “It seems like it comes naturally to you,” the teacher said.

Good grades and an athletic talent for running high hurdles got Joyce into Ohio University. Joyce worked for the NAACP, joined the oldest Black fraternity in the country, wrote for the school newspaper, and participated in the student senate. “The best way to be successful is to surround yourself with successful people,” he said.

Out of college, Joyce got a job with a paper in Marion, Indiana, infamous for being the site of the last lynching north of the Mason–Dixon Line. While there, Joyce interviewed an elderly man who miraculously survived a public lynching. “That real-life conversation happened in my lifetime,” James exclaimed. “We’re not that far removed no matter how much of a bubble we’re in.”

From there, he took a reporting job in Yakima, Washington, where so many Latinos worked harvesting crops that it had a direct bus line to Tijuana. Joyce learned Spanish in Yakima, and, four years later, he joined a paper in Toledo, Ohio, where the Tea Party was in full flower of angry insurrection. Joyce was initially apprehensive about interviewing the crowds rallying outside the auditorium where Barack Obama and John McCain were about to hold a debate. “It wasn’t what I was expecting,” he said. “They were nice.” 

In the recession of 2008, romance brought him to North Hollywood, but a community organizing job with CAUSE took him to Oxnard. That’s where he connected with Das Williams, then a state assemblymember. He hired Joyce first as a campaign organizer and then as administrative staff. In 2012, Hannah-Beth Jackson offered Joyce a staff job, and, with Williams’s blessing, he took it. 

When Jackson got termed out last year, Joyce focused on the business he started in 2016, Coffee with a Black Guy, a format that offered a safe space for people to talk about race. Conversationally, Joyce is both low-key but definite. He’s not about diversity training or dissecting micro-aggressions, he said. It’s about separating intent from impact and figuring out how to integrate these concepts into one’s life.

The Joyce campaign has been a work in progress. Many admirers worry it’s been too low-key to be viable. Despite much favorable media coverage, Joyce has raised only $51,000 in the last campaign report; the mayoral front-runners are posting in excess of $200,000. 

On the issues, Joyce has called for campaign finance reform by limiting the amount of money donors can contribute and requiring a time gap before elected recipients can vote on issues benefiting their donors. He’s called for a vaccine mandate for city workers and has suggested City Hall issue bonds — requiring a vote of the people — to underwrite the cost of new affordable housing. 

Joyce takes a dim view of Ed. St. George’s proposed four-story development on Milpas Street — recently approved by the council — saying it will gentrify one of Santa Barbara’s oldest neighborhoods. He would not have approved the construction of a new police station at the site of the current farmers’ market until the farmers’ market had found a new location. 

As for the State Street promenade, he would have voted to make that permanent and has faulted City Hall for failing to address the fate of the historic brown pride murals in Ortega Park. As far as homelessness goes, James stressed, individualized plans should be crafted and followed up on to help these people off the streets. “You really think these people would prefer to be a nuisance in the park if they had a pathway to success?” he asked. 

In the meantime, the former high hurdler finds himself running for office while recovering from surgery from a torn quadricep that for many months made it almost impossible for him to even walk. “There’s a need for leadership,” he said. “Someone needs to be the conductor of the orchestra, to set the tone and to set the pace.” 

Deborah Schwartz

If political pedigree and years of experience counted, Deborah Schwartz would be a slam dunk to become the city’s next mayor. But if recent polls are to be believed, Schwartz, now in her 12th year on the city’s Planning Commission, is struggling to get her message out.

Schwartz, the first challenger out the gate, was genuinely formidable as a fundraiser, having raised $149,000, largely from architects, commercial real estate owners, and developers. But those downtown business interests who initially backed Schwartz because of her brisk efficiency running meetings and outspoken impatience over City Hall red tape now think another pro-business candidate, Randy Rowse, has the more approachable personality needed to connect with mainstream voters.

Deborah Schwartz | Credit: Erick Madrid

Schwartz talks about “a great hollowing out of our community” with high housing prices severing the bonds that used to define the Santa Barbara where she was raised. Had her parents moved to Santa Barbara today — as opposed to the 1960s — they could never afford to buy a home.

Schwartz’s father, an acclaimed linguistic professor, moved his family here from Harvard when he accepted an appointment at UCSB. Her mother, Naomi Schwartz, eventually became one of the most revered figures of Santa Barbara’s progressive movement, serving on the California Coastal Commission, as State Senator Gary Hart’s chief of staff, and for many years as 1st District county supervisor. 

Schwartz was in 4th grade when the family moved to Santa Barbara, first settling in the horse-friendly haven of Arbolado Road in Noleta. The family later bought a fixer-upper on Middle Road in Montecito for less than $100,000. Because of that address, Schwartz said, she would be inaccurately tagged as a rich kid at Santa Barbara Junior High School, then equal parts white, Latino, and Black. 

After graduating from UCSB, Schwartz moved in 1984 to San Francisco, where she lived for 21 years. There she worked for a large national telecommunications company as a governmental affairs lobbyist dealing with the Public Utilities Commission. But when she was assigned to Dallas, Texas, she cashed out and moved back to Santa Barbara, where she started her own land-use-permitting firm, Mesa Consulting. 

Schwartz ran for City Council 13 years ago as a competent, business-minded professional but lost. Shortly after, she was appointed to the Planning Commission. Supporters praise her performance there as smart, businesslike, efficient, and painstakingly thorough. Critics, however, contend that she’s condescending, rough on staff, talks too long, and tilts toward  pro-development.

As Schwartz sees it, the City of Santa Barbara is in serious need of leadership. Of incumbent Mayor Cathy Murillo, she stated, “I don’t see her as a match for the requirements of the job. In ordinary times, a more modest skill set would be sufficient. But these are not ordinary times.” 

The city has failed to reform its convoluted land-use-permitting process and has no comprehensive plan for economic development, Schwartz said, and the effort to reconfigure State Street should have included the Mesa, Milpas Street, and outer State Street. “There’s a leadership vacuum,” she said, “and someone has to step into the void.” 

Schwartz takes issue with most of what the council has accomplished: Its vote for 15 percent of inclusionary housing in new rental housing was too much. The council’s ban on natural gas in new developments was too abrupt. The tenants’ relocation assistance program giving three months’ rent goes too far. And instead of the city commission now drafting recommendations for a police civilian review board, Schwartz thinks an audit of the city’s hiring, training, pay, and promotional practices would be best.

Of Schwartz’s three brothers, one — a mathematically brilliant former rock drummer — is now living on the streets in Northern California. “He would have benefited with some form of mental-health intervention in his early teens,” and his plight, she said, underscored the urgency for City Hall to craft a more comprehensive plan to address homelessness.

“What Santa Barbara was, we can’t go back in time and get,” Schwartz said. “But we can do our best in rebuilding an economically diverse and vibrant sense of community.”

Mark Whitehurst

Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, Mark Whitehurst played the starring role in the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, about the imaginary adventures of a gentle man living an uneventful life. Since then, Whitehurst has sought to live a life of adventure. His entry into this year’s mayoral race — which caught all political observers flat-footed — would be a case in point. “Fun, Nick,” he told me. “I’m having fun.”

Mark Whitehurst | Credit: Erick Madrid

Throughout his many incarnations as an itinerant newspaperman, he wandered from Oregon, throughout the Midwest, and eventually to Santa Barbara. During that time, he earned degrees in education, government administration, and, here in Santa Barbara, mythology from Pacifica Institute. 

Whitehurst has spent 27 years in the trenches of Santa Barbara community journalism, first running Casa — a real estate shopper — and more recently Voice Magazine, a print megaphone for those toiling to create a downtown arts scene. During this time, Whitehurst served 14 years on the board of the Downtown Organization, where he helped create 1st Thursday, the monthly downtown art and wine crawl.

Whitehurst favors the new State Street promenade. “It has to be professionalized and Santa Barbarized in terms of circulation and architecture, but I love it. We need to figure out places for musicians and places where kids can play. But it’s wonderful,” he said. The promenade, he noted, was an emergency response to the pandemic; it was not, as it should be, the by-product of deliberate vision and leadership. “Big energy needs big ideas,” he said. “I know how to follow the energy.” 

As far as homelessness goes, Whitehurst parts company from many in the business community. “I don’t think the homeless are the cause of our economic decline. Of the city’s 900 homeless people, maybe 40 of them are downtown…. I think these people need mental-health beds instead. They need meds. Some need to be institutionalized.”

The quixotic nature of Whitehurst’s candidacy — he was the last to enter the race and has not raised enough money to warrant filing financial disclosure reports — has some questioning whether he’s a spoiler, designed to take votes from Randy Rowse, the pro-business candidate more likely to prevail against incumbent Cathy Murillo. “I’m not a spoiler,” Whitehurst insisted. “I’m running my own campaign on my own issues. I see a clear path to victory.” 

That’s what Walter Mitty would have said.

David Matthew ‘Boat Rat Matt’ Kilrain

David Matthew Kilrain exudes the fevered intensity of Old Testament prophets who walk too long in the desert. During an early-morning interview, Kilrain forcefully jabbed with his index finger, loudly denouncing the “corruption and crookedness” of City Hall. “I can’t handle any more oppression and tyranny,” he said. Kilrain has clashed frequently with City Hall and claims it was he who successfully pressured Paul Casey — among other city officials — to resign. 

Kilrain, a boat dealer by trade, is running a classic outsider’s campaign. His yard signs are hand-painted, and his nickname, “Boat Rat Matt,” is certainly unforgettable. “In Santa Barbara,” he explained, “a ‘rat’ is like a ‘bro,’ a cool person.”

David Matthew ‘Boat Rat Matt’ Kilrain | Credit: Courtesy

During forums and interviews, Kilrain espouses a “four cornerstones” platform. His first cornerstone is to make Santa Barbara a safer community for children. Child abuse, he said, is not merely tolerated in Santa Barbara but encouraged, pointing to “transvestite hookers” walking the same early-morning streets as junior high school students and to young girls forced to share public restrooms with sexually fluid individuals endowed with male genitalia. 

He said he “knocked up” a woman — his son’s 1st grade teacher at the time — who got an abortion without notifying him. If elected, he’d push an initiative to give would-be fathers some say to stop “spontaneous pregnancy terminations.” And he would propose an anti-discrimination initiative to protect those who have smoked pot and those who have refused vaccination shots.

Now 60, Kilrain moved to Santa Barbara at age 24. His own father — Joseph “Duffy” Kilrain — was murdered in 1979 after being arrested with 200 pounds of marijuana. Kilrain described his father as “the greatest entrepreneur in history” and someone who helped create the nightclub scenes in Miami and Atlanta. Kilrain’s mother died when he was still in 1st grade. 

In Santa Barbara, Kilrain has run a car detailing business and valet parking operation and brokered the sale of many boats, claiming such sales have saved hundreds of people from lives of homelessness. Kilrain also said he invented the electric bike in 1993.

At the first in-person forum held this season, Kilrain’s fellow candidates were astonished to learn that he had not been vaccinated. When he was asked to put on a mask, Kilrain delivered a tirade against masks. The forum ended abruptly, however, when a woman in the audience had a stroke, so the issue was never resolved. 

If elected, Kilrain would be the first man since 1993 to be elected mayor. “This town is run by women,” he said. “Men get no choice in this town; they do what the women say.”


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