The race to become Santa Maria’s next mayor is one of the most contested in Santa Barbara County this election year, with four candidates vying for the post at the polls on Nov. 6.
Lavagnino announced last year that he would not seek re-election after serving as mayor and on the five-member City Council since 1996.
Within the race to replace the Santa Maria native lies an interesting dynamic, according to some contenders.
If Councilwoman Alice Patino is not elected mayor, she would still remain on the council through 2014, because she is only half way through her four-year term. If Councilman Mike Cordero falls short in the race, he would be off the council because his term is up this year.
A new council member would either be appointed or elected via special election to serve the remainder of Patino’s council term is she wins the mayoral post.
Cordero has lived in Santa Maria for 40 years, with 36 of them spent working in the Santa Maria Police Department.
After serving four years on the City Council, the retired police lieutenant now has his eye on the mayor seat.
“Santa Maria has been great to me. I’m all in,” Cordero said, referring to his council seat expiring if he isn’t elected. “I really enjoy doing this.”
Cordero, 63, retired from law enforcement in 2008 after 39 years on the job. Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Cordero worked in the Carpinteria Police Department for three years before moving to the city, where he wants to improve public safety and add jobs.
He says experience in law enforcement makes him the best candidate to lead a community where some members have lost faith in police amid recent shootings and investigations into the department.
“I think that one of the key points will be to appoint a dynamic police chief,” Cordero said, referencing the recently retired Danny Macagni.
Cordero wants to meet with business owners and combine forces with Allan Hancock College to ensure the city’s workforce mirrors job opportunities.
“‘Santa Maria is not a destination place.’ I’m so tired of hearing that,” Cordero said. “We need to create something that makes Santa Maria a destination place.”
Cordero hopes that his connections in the nonprofit community, where he donates much of his time, will help form partnerships.
His wife of 38 years, Linda, is a retired teacher running for re-election to the Santa Maria-Bonita School District board of trustees. They have three grown sons and three grandchildren.
“I honestly do enjoy doing what I’m doing,” Cordero said. “The community has given a great deal to me. The worst that could happen to me is that I retire.”
Dan Gebhart isn’t really interested in politics. But a desire to bring Santa Maria back to the All America City it once has compelled Gebhart to run for mayor.
Gebhart, 62, moved to Santa Maria from San Diego in 2005. He owns and operates Mission Creek Postal Center in the city’s Mission Creek Center.
“I’m a pretty average guy,” Gebhart said. “I’d be a good politician because nobody could buy me. I’m kind of running now to find out the feeling of the people.”
Gebhart, who grew up on a South Dakota farm, first traveled through Santa Maria in 1985 when his car broke down and needed repair. His girlfriend, Xe Craver, has family in the area.
So many things have worsened since Gebhart’s arrival, he said, including gang activity, graffiti and a lack of fiscal responsibility.
He doesn’t understand why candidates are wasting money on campaign signs. Current council members have ignored Gebhart’s pleas for change.
“I don’t believe in spending money on that,” Gebhart said. “If people are going to vote for the people with the most signs, I don’t want to be their mayor. There’s so much waste here.”
Gebhart said he’ll likely move if he’s not elected mayor because that would mean voters are OK with the status quo.
“Once you get a quality of life, you’ll get quality people,” Gebhart said.
A vibrant, dynamic mayor with vision could help fix the “image problem” in Santa Maria, according to mayoral candidate Marty Mariscal.
Too many people inside and outside Santa Maria view the city as a rural town with crime and not enough opportunities for businesses, said Mariscal, a 33-year resident who was appointed to the City Council in 2000 and lost a reelection bid in 2004.
“I’ve really enjoyed the work,” Mariscal said. “I’ve always been a community-oriented guy. If you ever want something done, ask a busy person.”
Mariscal said he’s proud of the work accomplished while he served on council, including passage of the city’s Downtown Specific Plan, which set a vision in place to revitalize the downtown area with retail and other business.
Mariscal said he realized how hard a business has to work to get into Santa Maria when he opened the 510 Event Center on Broadway as part owner seven months ago.
As someone who studied business at Santa Barbara City College and also owns Mariscal-Rumbaugh Insurance in Santa Maria, Mariscal said he’s upset that the city is not the “economic engine” it was 20 years ago.
“I am frustrated,” he said. “It seems that being on the council now is a popularity contest. For me, it’s doing the work. My experience is local, regional, county and statewide.”
Mariscal has been involved in nonprofits, including being a founder of Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley, Santa Maria Police Council, Breakfast Club Rotary, a public member of California Association of Local Agency Formation Commissions and others.
Mariscal has been married to his wife, Marye, for 27 years. They have three grown children.
“I’m representing everybody,” Mariscal said. “There is no vision right now.”
Patino said she put her hat in the ring for mayor because she truly loves this city.
Becoming the city’s first-ever female mayor and inspiring women everywhere would be a bonus, said Patino, who was appointed to City Council in 2000 and was last elected in 2010.
Patino, 72, said she’s learned a lot in her council role, and from the departing mayor, who has endorsed her to replace him.
“He had encouraged me to run,” Patino said of Lavagnino. “I’ve been involved in the community. I know the community. I think it’s time. I think it’s important to inspire any female.”
Patino graduated from Santa Maria High School, and has been involved in Santa Maria schools since 1972.
She taught in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District for 10 years, and served as a trustee of the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District from 1976 until 1991.
She said the mayor and City Council are responsible for the city’s infrastructure and for helping citizens feel safe in their own community.
“I think people need to start getting involved in their neighborhoods,” Patino said. “We’re a city like any other city. Public safety is always important.”
Patino thinks her community involvement could help the city move forward.
Fiscal responsibility and gaining youth involvement are also important, she said.
She is a founder of Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley and a member of the Rotary Club of Santa Maria, the Minerva Club, Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, Santa Maria Valley Republicans and others.
Patino has been married 49 years to her husband, John. They have two grown sons and four grandchildren.
“You’ve got to really love the city,” she said. “There’s a lot of good in Santa Maria.”