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Tuesday, March 26 , 2019, 2:18 pm | Partly Cloudy 63º


4 Candidates for Santa Barbara City Council Face Off at League of Women Voters Forum

Elizabeth Hunter, Oscar Gutierrez, Ken Rivas and Michael Vidal are seeking District 3 seat formerly held by Cathy Murillo

Santa Barbara City College student Elizabeth Hunter addresses a forum Tuesday night for candidates for the District 3 seat on the Santa Barbara City Council. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara City College student Elizabeth Hunter addresses a forum Tuesday night for candidates for the District 3 seat on the Santa Barbara City Council. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

After weeks of intrigue, Santa Barbara City College student Elizabeth Hunter made her District 3 debut Tuesday night at a wide-ranging League of Women Voters Santa Barbara City Council forum in front of about 100 people.

Hunter, 22, joined Oscar Gutierrez, Ken Rivas and Michael Vidal at Harding University Partnership elementary school in the heart of Santa Barbara’s Westside.

Hunter, in her third year at Santa Barbara City College, has been absent on the campaign trail up until the past few days.

At times reading from notes, Hunter said if elected she would focus on environmental protection, creating more affordable housing, allowing storefront recreational marijuana dispensaries to raise city revenues, and improving safety on the Westside.

“We need more street lights,” Hunter said. “Our streets need to be well-lit. We can definitely improve public safety.”

Hunter was brief and concise in her answers to the questions, offering short sound bites, or no answer at all if she didn’t have one.

On gun violence at schools, she responded, “We need to let the politicians know that our voice won’t be drowned out by NRA lobbyists.”

On the issue of pension reform, she said, “I would need to look into that.”

Santa Barbara’s move to district elections, where small pools of voters select a representative based on six geographic boundaries, have made Hunter, a white female, the minority candidate in the district. With four candidates in the race, someone could win the seat with as little as 400 to 500 votes.

She grew up on the Westside, lives in her childhood home, and plans to transfer to UCSB so that she can go to school and remain on the council if elected.

She came across as studious, subdued and entirely nonpolitical when she spoke, a sharp contrast to the battle emerging between Gutierrez, 34, and Vidal, 37, over who is the “true Westsider.”

Candidates for the District 3 seat on the Santa Barbara City Council, from left, are Oscar Gutierrez, Elizabeth Hunter, Ken Rivas and Michael Vidal. They appeared at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Click to view larger
Candidates for the District 3 seat on the Santa Barbara City Council, from left, are Oscar Gutierrez, Elizabeth Hunter, Ken Rivas and Michael Vidal. They appeared at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Gutierrez has locked up some notable endorsements, including the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party, Mayor Cathy Murillo and Councilman Gregg Hart.

Murillo gave Gutierrez $5,000 and Hart contributed $2,000 to help with his campaign.

Gutierrez, a producer at TVSB and documentarian for Life Chronicles, has cast himself as a journalist and educator, with roots on the Westside.

“I learned to walk on these streets,” Gutierrez said. “I learned how to ride a bike on these streets. I learned to drive on these streets. I learned how to fight on these streets.”

Gutierrez began the campaign a couple months ago shy and soft-spoken, but has since emerged with a little more spunk. He mentioned several times Tuesday night that he was born on the Westside, drawing a distinction between himself and Vidal, a Fresno native, who bought his Westside house seven years ago.

“I’m from the Westside, for the Westside,” Gutierrez said.

He also took a shot at one of Vidal’s strengths: “I might not be a smooth talker, but I am a doer,” Gutierrez said.

Vidal, a financial planner, frequently engaged the audience at Tuesday’s forum, asking them questions: “How many of you know what it’s like to work two jobs?” he asked.

Vidal said his mother was his “hero,” and told the story of how his parents divorced when he was 23, and he decided that he was going to help provide financial assistance to his mother.

He co-signed to help her buy a house. He said that she took care of him his entire life and that it was his turn to take care of her.

Vidal also displayed his knowledge of the city’s budget, $360 million, and a $40 million pension liability by 2025.

“It’s financial malpractice to have this much financial liability and say, ‘We are doing OK,’" Vidal said. "And I’m the only one who can fix it.”

Vidal said if elected he would be able to navigate the “red tape” to get things done.

“In the past, the city has been well-managed, but the Westside has been neglected,” Vidal said. “I have been in leadership my entire life, and part of being a leader is cutting through the red tape."

In response to a question about gun violence, Vidal said more guns is not the answer.

“Teachers need pencils, pens, paper, computers, they need iPads, but they don’t need guns,” he said.

On the issue of panhandling and retaining businesses on State Street, Vidal said, “I don’t think panhandling is the problem,” noting that La Cumbre Plaza doesn’t have problems with panhandling, so panhandling alone can’t be blamed for the problems on State Street.

Rivas was the least specific on the issues.

“Parking has been a major issue,” he said.

On climate change, Rivas said: “Climate change is real and we have to take it seriously.”

Rivas said people should vote for him because of his commitment to the city, his community activism and that he is family oriented.

On his volunteerism he said: “I’ve been helping the Westside for a longtime. The Westside has been neglected.”

The candidates are looking to fill the seat vacated by Murillo, who was elected mayor in November. Former mayor Helene Schneider and current councilmember Kristen Sneddon were among those in attendance at the forum on Tuesday night. It was the second forum in the past week at the elementary school. 

The election is June 5.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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