In Santa Barbara, the city manager is tasked with overseeing the budget and running the day-to-day operations. But the mayor is the face of the city, and responsible for building coalitions that lead to effective city council votes and action. Santa Barbara voters are currently deciding who will be the city's next mayor.
KCBX News spoke with a Santa Barbara reporter to learn more about the candidates. Joshua Molina is a staff reporter at Noozhawk.com. He described the election as exciting, because for the first time in recent history there's no clear front-runner.
MOLINA: So we have five candidates, and three of the Democrats are splitting the vote. And that is of concern to a lot of the Democratic activists and insiders, because we have one Republican and they fear that he's going to win the election because of this split vote. We have an outsider candidate who is running as somebody who's going to reform Santa Barbara and bring some business sense to it and he is spending a lot of money. So he could have an impact in the election. We have this wide dynamic and stuff that we have not seen in Santa Barbara before.
KCBX: What is the name of that candidate?
MOLINA: Angel Martinez. He just moved into Santa Barbara recently about a year ago, and he's running as an outsider candidate who's looking to shake up City Hall and transform State Street. As a lot of communities have dealt with, we are losing retail storefronts, largely because of Amazon, but other factors. We do have a homelessness issue on State Street. So, he's running as this candidate who is going to bring a business sense to Santa Barbara. He's trying to target millennials. He's spending a lot of money on social media, on Facebook and he's trying to reach voters in a different way than traditionally has been done in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is 52 percent registered Democrats, so Democrats are the ones who vote in Santa Barbara, and they typically have a lot of success in elections. They are on the ground, they have a good network of grassroots activists, they're knocking on doors, mailers, phone calls...so they typically hold a lot of the elected power. Martinez is trying things differently, in that he's doing a lot of social media, he's having these neighborhood groups with influential people, and he's hoping to try to build a base. He's very much running a an executive marketing-type campaign where he's trying to reach people in real specific targeted ways. And just recently has he started to knock on doors. There was a recent poll that was done - an independently-paid-for poll by Validity research that said he was tracking in fourth place, out of five, but he was really close with a third place per person. So he's got to make up a lot of ground. We don't really know, but right now the race is looking like it's between the one Republican in the race, and Cathy Murillo who is an incumbent council member, and she's endorsed by the Democratic Party. It’s looking to be a two-person race, with some other people within striking distance.
KCBX: So tell me about Cathy Murillo, because I heard some news that [Salud] Carbajal supported her.
MOLINA: So, Cathy Murillo is the endorsed Democrat by the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party. And right now there is a big battle over endorsements. Sometimes endorsements matter, sometimes they don't - in this election they matter because we have a fractured base of Democratic activists. Just this week Salud Carbajal came out in support of Cathy Murillo. That was significant only in that he hadn’t endorsed her sooner...you would expect somebody of his level, who's endorsed her in the past, to come out sooner. But they felt they needed him, it’s a close race. We have other prominent Democrats who have endorsed Hal Conklin, who is one of Murillo’s opponents. Former Congresswoman Lois Capps has endorsed Hal Conklin. This was a big surprise, because Lois had always been supported by the Democratic Party and here she is breaking ranks a little bit, and going with Hal Conklin, who is also a Democrat and he's actually a former mayor and council member back in the ‘90s. So he's sort of coming out of retirement seeking new glories to sort of save the city. So we have these endorsements that are going around, and it's not unified, which is giving Frank Hotchkiss, the Republican candidate a lot of hope, and he's actually leading in that poll that I referenced.
KCBX: Interesting. Yes, I've been here about a year and so - Lois Capps was out of office when I got here, but from everything I've heard, people really respect her.
MOLINA: Yeah, among Democratic voters she's she's the matriarch of the party, she served almost 20 years. She was elected over and over again and she's very highly regarded among Democrats. So the idea that she would break ranks from the institutional, organized party and support Hal Conklin - this is somebody with whom she had a professional and political relationship dating back several years. Hal Conklin was a supporter of hers, a supporter of her husband who held that seat before Lois did. So it goes back a long time, and that's one of the reasons why she's supporting him. So there's a lot of division, and there's a lot of bad blood among the Democratic infrastructure right now because the Democrats are casting it as, “we've split the vote and we're going to allow the first Republican mayor in Santa Barbara in nearly 50 years?” because they can’t organize. That's what their fear is...whereas the Republicans are saying, “hey, all we need to do is lock down the conservative base in Santa Barbara, let the Democrats split the vote,” and we've got a situation where you've got a Republican mayor...pretty conservative, pretty skeptical of climate change...who is leading Santa Barbara, which was the birth of the environmental movement. So that's sort of a narrative that is at play here.
KCBX: OK got it. And tell me about the other Democratic candidate, Harwood “Bendy” White. Where does he stand in all this?
MOLINA: Well, Bendy is a long time Santa Barbara council member and planning commissioner. He is somebody who has a lot of respect among the historical preservationists in town. He's a ‘Pearl Chase’ Democrat, which means he is basically a ‘slow-growther.’ And he has a wide base of support. People really like him. He got into the race very late though, he got into it after Cathy Murillo did, he got into it after Hal Conklin did. And there's only so much life to a campaign. There's only so much money to a campaign, and activist base. So he came in late. And that means he's been playing catch up the whole time...he's not been able to secure the major endorsements, he's not been able to raise as much money as he needs. So right now according to that poll, he's in fifth place. He's going to rely on is his connections, his community involvement. He knows a lot of people from just generations of public service. So he does know a lot of people and relationships matter in politics. But we've got...he's running against Angel Martinez, who spent $50,000 of his own money, is raising money from business organizations. That's tough to compete with in this contest. So Bendy is sort of a long shot at this point.
KCBX: The Republican candidate...is he getting the full support of the Republican Party? Is he getting a lot of money?
MOLINA: Republican Frank Hotchkiss is backed by the organized, formal Santa Barbara County Republican Party. He has lost support, however, to Angel Martinez - business support - some of those traditional business conservatives. They've jumped from Hotchkiss, who they've supported in previous elections, to Martinez because they feel that, “hey, Frank is on the council now, you're part of the problem with the homelessness issue, with the retail exodus issue. We need somebody new.” So they've looked to this former CEO Martinez as somewhat of a savior. So there's a little bit of a rift there. But in terms of traditional Republicans, Hotchkiss is trying to line those up, he's just lost some of the more business types to Martinez, who's saying he's going to save State Street.
KCBX: OK, got it. Well, let's wrap it up. It sounds like a fascinating election. Is there anything else I haven't asked you that you really want people to know about this election?
MOLINA: Well, Santa Barbara has a vote-by-mail ballot, which means the traditional going to the polls, in an off year election, is not how it works here. Now, you mail your ballot in, as soon as you cast your vote. So a lot of the votes have already been cast. People have already made their decision. We're coming down to the last week and it's a different sort of format. So, we don't know about what voter turnout is going to be, we don't know any of those factors. It's traditionally low. So in order for the Democrats to hold onto that seat, they're going to have to boost voter turnout. And to Frank Hotchkiss, the Republican, win, he's going to have to hope for lower voter turnout, because if all the Democrats vote in Santa Barbara and they vote for one of their candidates, one of them is going to get in. And that's a big matrix that's going on now as we lead into the election.
Vote-by-mail ballots in Santa Barbara's 2017 general municipal election must be post-marked by November 7.