Poodle: Santa Barbara’s Mayoral Race Needs Reform

Run-Off Elections and Campaign Finance Reform Are Wanted

From left to right: Cathy Murrillo, Randy Rowse and James Joyce III | Credit: Erick Madrid

“That rug really tied the room together, did it not?”

Thus spake Jeff Lebowski, perhaps the best-known character ever imbued with the breath of life by actor Jeff Bridges, who himself is perhaps Santa Barbara’s best-known, best-liked down-home celebrity movie star. The theft of Lebowski’s aforementioned rug turns out to be the narrative spark that propels the rest of the movie, The Big Lebowski, which almost 25 years later still reigns as perhaps the best-known and best-liked of all the Coen Brothers’ fabulous films. 

Bringing the rug and The Big Lebowski to mind is this year’s mayoral and City Council races, which come crashing to a merciful end on November 2. 

Whatever happens afterward, we will still be standing. The sword of Damocles does not teeter over our heads.

Even so, the results do matter. So vote. 

This year’s mayoral race is enough of a headscratcher for me to suspect I have lice. Incumbent Cathy Murillo ​— ​the first and only Latinx mayor in Santa Barbara history and go-to gal for all underdogs and Yellow Dog Capital-D Democrats is running against five characters preaching the Gospel of ABC ​— ​Anybody But Cathy. 

It’s got to be tough.

For my money, one of the mayor’s chief jobs is to function as the rug that ties the room together. Now that we have district elections in place, the mayor is the only elected city official who could represent the whole city. That makes the mayoral rug function all the more vital. No mayor can be expected to be all things to all people, but the good ones are something akin to symphony conductors, bartenders, and maître d’s. The mayor doesn’t have the luxury of dancing only with the ones that brung you. You’re supposed to keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer.

I worked with Cathy. I know her to be a courageous ​— ​and at times heroic ​— ​soul who leads both with chin and heart. She works hard and does more than her critics acknowledge. She’s a whole lot of things. But, unfortunately, being a rug ain’t among them. She doesn’t tie the room together. 

To be fair, maybe nobody could. Murillo presided over Santa Barbara’s roughest four years since maybe the Great Depression or the Great Earthquake of 1925. Still, you show up for onetime mayor Hal Conklin’s funeral even if he ran against you. When Murillo was first elected mayor, she ran against four more conservative-minded candidates. They split the vote, thus allowing Murillo ​— ​a champion of the underdog ​— ​to win with a scant 27 percent of the ballots cast. (And yes, “scant” is a loaded term.) 

This time around, it appears the same thing is about to happen, but in reverse. Purveyors of conventional wisdom ​— ​people such as myself ​— ​speculate because of this, Cathy will lose. Her enemies are most definitely all riled up, but it’s questionable how many friends will actually show up. That’s what the smart money dictates. For the record, I have a standing bet with political blogster and prognosticator Jerry Roberts ​— ​a sometimes-hyperventilating member of the ABC Brigade ​— ​that Cathy will win anyway. Full disclosure: I also have a bet with someone else that James Joyce III ​— ​who coulda, shoulda, woulda been more of a contender ​— ​takes it.

So much for my smart money.

One screamingly obvious takeaway from the past two elections is this: We need mayoral run-off elections. And really, how hard could that be?

Another even more screamingly obvious takeaway?

We need our own version of campaign finance reform, which I admit is normally a cause championed only by lactose-intolerant people who worry too much about 5G. The whole point of carving the city into six districts was to make the seats of power more accessible ​— ​i.e. more affordable to a broader array of humanity than the older, whiter, more affluent demographic that’s traditionally controlled City Hall. 

There’s one candidate running for one district ​— ​Barrett Reed ​— ​who has raised more than $250,000. For one district? This should be cause for concern if not a full-fledged regurgitative attack. Right now, the state limits individual contributions to candidates to $4,900. At the risk of being arbitrary and capricious, why not lower that to $1,000.

In the meantime, it would seem, the local Democratic Party has been huffing oven cleaner. A communique from party chair Darcél Elliott infers that Murillo’s chief opponent, Randy Rowse, is in some fashion Trumpian. To be precise, the note doesn’t ever say that; instead it says Rowse ​— ​a former city councilmember afflicted with a bad case of ABCitis ​— ​is backed “by special interest and Trump Republican donors.” Elliott likens the race to the 2016 showdown between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Clinton lost that one, Elliot writes, because of false rumors and sexist attacks from Republicans and the news media. “Today we are risk of history repeating itself in Santa Barbara,” she warns. 

Excuse me?

Randy very may well be the good old boy who morphed into a grumpy old white man; he’s a nondenominational mushy moderate who will be dragged into the future kicking and screaming. But Randy Rowse is not remotely Trumpian. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008. He voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. To tar Rowse with the Trump brush is worse than desperate; it’s just plain silly.

Or to mangle yet another line from Jeff Lebowski, “Yes, well, you know, that’s just my opinion, man.”


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