Santa Barbara County supervisorial districts, December 10, 2021 | Credit: SBC

Ain’t in Kansas: With absolutely zero fanfare, Santa Barbara’s independent redistricting commission put the finishing touches on the final map for the county’s five supervisorial districts late this Monday and then proceeded to collapse into a vast exhausted heap. It’s been a long slog. Nine-hour Saturday meetings with 200 speakers. More than 100 proposed maps winnowed down finally to one. Before the process was over, five original members would resign. One would die. That sort of thing. Because of their handiwork, about 135,000 county residents woke up one morning to find themselves living in “new” supervisorial districts. You might say the cards got seriously shuffled, the eggs scrambled, and the furniture rearranged. As undeniably heroic as the commissioners’ exertions were, they demonstrated how, under even the most pristine conditions, the art of sausage-making ain’t for the faint of heart.

Many winners will emerge from this process, but none more overwhelmingly so than 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson, now completing his first year on the board. Under the new boundaries, Nelson — as stalwart a Republican as anyone can find in Santa Barbara still to the left of the QAnon Crowd — will be in a 4th District with Orcutt, the reddest city in Santa Barbara County, as its epicenter. 

The real point, however, is that none of this would have happened the way it did were it not for the behind-the-scenes intervention of the same Bob Nelson, when he was chief of staff and political strategist to former supervisor Peter Adam. Way back in 2018, Nelson was a key player in a conservative cabal that strategically set out to “rig” the redistricting process — then two years hence. That, in fact, was the very name the group chose — RIG — an unfortunately apt acronym short for Reason in Government.

Who says Republicans have no sense of self-aware irony?

RIG’s sole objective was to redraw the district boundaries to defang the UCSB and Isla Vista voting bloc — about 26,000 reliably knee-jerk Democrats — by extricating them from the 3rd Supervisorial District, which otherwise would sprawl bucolically through the Santa Ynez Valley all the way up to Guadalupe. Every four years — in the heat of presidential elections — these citizens can be counted on to show up in large numbers and cast their votes for the most progressive candidates on the ballot. Because that’s also when 3rd District candidates are running, these voters have kept the 3rd District — ostensibly the county’s key swing district — reliably blue for 40 of the last 50 years. 

It was Nelson who led the signature-gathering effort for a ballot measure to force the 3-to-2 (South-North) Supervisors to create an independent redistricting committee made up of citizen appointees to draw the new district lines. Traditionally, the supervisors drew the new district lines themselves based on the new census numbers released every 10 years. 

The hegemonists running the Democratic Party quickly realized that the new committee envisioned by RIG gave Republicans disproportionately more sway in drawing the new district lines than was warranted based on Republican Party registration numbers, then small and getting smaller every day since. If RIG got enough signatures, the supervisors would have no choice but to put it on the ballot. 

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With heaping support from oil companies and North County business interests, RIG got all the signatures it needed and then some. The Dems — led by Supervisor Das Williams and political consultant Mary Rose — crafted a countermeasure that would create a redistricting commission of their own but one whose members reflected the prevailing party registration of the county at large. 

Things like this are what make politics a profession, not an avocation.

When voters decided the matter in 2018, they were given a choice between RIG’s Measure H or the rival Williams-Rose Measure G. Rose quickly branded her campaign “G is for Good; H is for Horrible.” Voters — no doubt confusing these for novels by the late Santa Barbara resident detective writer Sue Grafton — overwhelmingly picked the Good one.

One might have thought RIG’s goose was cooked and that Isla Vista’s mythical voting bloc would continue to control the balance of power in county affairs. Not so. Independent commissions are called independent for a reason. They have a life and a mind of their own, no matter who their friends are, how many maps groups like CAUSE or the Taxpayers Associations submitted, or how many hundreds of speakers were given one minute to speak their piece during more than 30 public hearings. 

Out of a process fraught with grievous technical and administrative problems, two South Coast districts — 1 and 2 — wound up getting even more reliably blue than they already were. District 4 got more reliably red. District 5 was carved up to create a new supermajority minority district; Latinos now make up 67 percent of citizen voting-age residents. And with District 3, Nelson and RIG would get their wish. IV and UCSB were booted out of District Three and sent packing to District 2. 

The 3rd District would be carved up with a host of new body parts added — big chunks of Goleta and all of Lompoc — like some sort of Frankenstein’s monster. This seems historic. Seismic, even. It might actually be so. But maybe not. Life does go on. And in her last election, 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann — who lives just outside of Buellton — managed to win outright in a three-way March primary with a well-funded pro-oil conservative running against her. Isla Vista voters were utterly irrelevant in that victory. 

We’ll know the implications — bruised feelings, noses out of joint, and new friendships — of the new map over time. Right now, it seems there are significantly more winners than losers. Of all of them, Bob Nelson is probably the biggest. He got what he wanted without rigging anything. 

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