READING WITHOUT WEEPING: The Tomahawk Choppers just won the World Series (against the Liars and Cheaters), Virginia voters have elected a Trump-backed Republican, and even with more than 4,500 votes as yet uncounted, Cathy Murillo appears to have been decisively pushed off her perch as Santa Barbara’s first Latina mayor. Voters have replaced her with grumpy old white guy Randy Rowse, making him the first XY chromosomal candidate to be legally* elected to the exalted post in 40 years.
Gott im Himmel!
Is Mercury now frozen in a perpetual state of right-wing retrograde? Is it time for all good progressives to pack their bags and move to Vermont?
Not even hardly.
Election results, like bad dreams and the entrails of pigeons, are pretty much what you make of them.
For those freaking out, it’s worth noting that two card-carrying quasi-commie progressives — Kristen Sneddon and Meagan Harmon — appear to have posted insurmountable leads over their respective challengers, Barrett Reed and Nina Johnson, both of whom enjoyed strong — if legally questionable — financial support from business and development interests intent on taming City Hall’s Red Tape monster. While Sneddon and Harmon famously do not get along and seriously differ over such intractable issues as housing density, relaxed building heights, and historic preservation, they are both strong supporters of tenants’ rights, criminal justice reform, and Santa Barbara’s newer, friskier, friendlier downtown promenade.
The big change, of course, is at the top. As of election night, Murillo — who won four years ago with 27 percent of the vote against a fractured field of moderate and business-minded candidates — was coming in third with about 24 percent. Challenger James Joyce III was slightly ahead of her Tuesday night, and that might change. But the Big Winner was Rowse, former owner of the Paradise Café and a former city councilmember who is making a political comeback in hopes of becoming the proverbial grownup in the room. At last count, Rowse was ahead with more than 40 percent of the vote.
Rowse wins with just 40 percent for the only citywide seat at the table?
Murillo won it four years ago with just 27 percent?
The punch line of the joke here is that Santa Barbara needs to either hold a run-off election or adopt ranked-choice voting — which I will not attempt to explain other than to say they do it in Europe, Maine, and Burlington, Vermont, where I think Bernie Sanders hails from.
Here’s the other punch line. If you start out with just 27 percent, you need to work hard to expand your base if you hope to survive politically. Murillo — who can legitimately lay claim to heading one of the most aggressively progressive councils ever — famously did not do that. If your downtown business community is on the ropes, you are not betraying your principles by reaching out to help. And if you run for another office just one year into your mayoral term — in her case, a predictably unsuccessful bid for State Assembly — city voters might feel you’re not all that into them. And lastly, if you show up at a Black Lives Matter protest — in any capacity — be prepared to take a knee.
Murillo won four years ago because the other side — four candidates — split the pot and her chief rival, then-councilmember Frank Hotchkiss, was, in fact, a card-carrying Republican who denied climate change and affirmatively supported Trump’s border wall.
Fast-forward four years. We’re having absurd arguments over basic foundational facts: The 2020 election was not stolen; vaccinations improve your odds for staying alive; masks are genuinely depressing but the cheapest life insurance you can buy.
This election, Murillo’s strategy was to tag Rowse as a right-wing conservative, backed by Trump supporters and greedy special interests. Wrong. Stupid. And worse yet, ineffective. Politically, Rowse has always been a chameleon, but never has he been a Republican, let alone a Trumper. And everyone knows him. So they know that glove don’t fit.
Bad strategy. What will the Democrats do? Probably blame the Independent for endorsing James Joyce III, which took votes away from Murillo, thus giving Rowse the victory. Heard it already. But I’m not sure our endorsement accounts for all the 5,000 votes Joyce got and that Murillo needed to have won.
And I’m not sure what the Democratic Party means anymore. What I do know is that on election nightthere were five candidates who were Democrats holding five separate “victory” parties.
Last punch line: As councilmember, it worked for Rowse to drag his feet and slow down pet progressive projects. As mayor, he needs to expand his repertoire. Yes, there’s such thing as being too “woke” for one’s own good. But tenants really need more protection, the criminal justice system needs reform whether you believe the police are systemically racist or not, and climate change — responsible for the deadly acceleration of California’s megafires — is as real now than it ever was. Whether you’re red, blue, or purple, it don’t get more local than that.
Lastly, Rowse needs to talk about the State Street Promenade with a lot more exclamation points and not nearly as many question marks for a change. Act like you actually like it.
In the meantime, the council has a new city administrator to select, a new police chief to pick, and a whole lot of impossible issues to figure out. I’d say good luck with all of the above, but as I was told by the one-armed guitar player now on State Street, we make our own luck.
So congratulations and condolences, instead.
*In 1993, voters elected Hal Conklin mayor, but his election was invalidated by Judge William Gordon on the grounds that his candidacy violated the city’s term-limits ordinance.