A conspicuous lack of any support for Santa Barbara’s proposed gang injunction marked this year’s first City Council candidates forum, which was organized by a consortium of five Latino organizations and spearheaded by the Latino Democrats. Even Jason Nelson, the only candidate to list youth violence as the city’s most pressing problem, dismissed the injunction as a bad idea “for civil liberties reasons.” If the response was notably one-sided, that may be because four of the 10 candidates — including incumbents Bendy White and Frank Hotchkiss, who have supported the injunction in the past — were not present.
Last week’s meeting was organized in a hurry, and candidates were given only a week’s notice. In addition, it was held two weeks before Labor Day — the traditional start of the campaign season — when the City Council is on a three-week recess. Candidate Gregg Hart, one of two former councilmembers now seeking to make a political comeback, sought to make hay out of these absences, expressing “surprise and disappointment” that White and Hotchkiss did not show, nor did candidates Michael Jordan and Lesley Wiscomb, a planning commissioner and parks commissioner, respectively. “I don’t think that’s appropriate,” Hart said.
And while all candidates present were critical of the injunction, Hart — a moderate Democrat during his previous tenure on the council — proved the most outspokenly so. He objected that City Hall had spent at least $500,000 to pursue the injunction, claiming it would only affect 15 people, when there were other legal remedies to control and incarcerate repeat offenders. He also objected that the current council embraced the injunction without first holding any public hearings. “That’s extremely poor judgment,” he said. By contrast, he noted City Hall has funded only one half-time position for youth services.
Candidate David Landecker, the other former councilmember on the comeback trail, said the current council was given bad political and legal advice about the injunction, noting that as an attorney, he could have added much-needed legal expertise to the council deliberations, which took place behind closed doors. But Landecker — who enjoys key support from Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmember White, both injunction supporters — was more circumspect in his criticism, saying only that the council needed to be given “space” to move away from its commitment to the injunction. First-time candidate Megan Diaz Alley — a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission — termed it “a travesty” that youth programs had been cut as much as they’d been, a note frequently sounded by third-time candidate Cruzito Cruz. The gang injunction, first unveiled two years ago, remains embroiled in the courts.
In this November’s council race, the mayoral seat is up for grabs — challenging incumbent Helene Schneider is outsider candidate and Mesa maverick Wayne Scoles — as are three council seats. Of those, two council seats are occupied by incumbents — White and Hotchkiss — who have already raised sizable sums to retain them, leaving one bona fide open spot. With no obvious unifying issues, both sides of the political aisle have been stricken by fragmentation. As a result, there are more “liberal Democrats” running than there are available seats; the same holds true for the conservatives. On the so-called left are White, Landecker, Hart, and Alley. Alley — a political newcomer — is running as a renter, Latina, and environmentalist. On the right the lines are more blurry, with Hotchkiss the one clear-cut conservative Republican in the fray, though Wiscomb and Nelson — both decline-to-states — can be expected to draw from that same voter base. Candidate and planning commissioner Michael Jordan, also a declined-to-state, should garner support from the downtown business community having served many years on the Downtown Organization board. Cruzito Cruz, now on his third campaign, and Mathew Kramer, running his second, will use the forums to raise issues throughout the race, but not money. In fact, at last week’s forum, Kramer dismissed campaign contributions as “bribes” and urged those in attendance not to give him any.
Absent the emergence of any defining issues, the race promises to be a contest about personality, experience, and leadership skills. To that end, none of the candidates hit any home runs; none blew it either. When asked to identify the top issues of concern to Latino residents, all but one of the candidates — Nelson — cited lack of affordable housing and explained to what extent they would — or would not — push existing zoning densities to promote the development of affordable rental housing. Traffic congestion came in a close second. Regardless of ethnicity, it appears, housing and transportation remain the alpha and omega of Santa Barbara politics.