Tuesday, January 16 , 2018, 8:25 am | Fog/Mist 52º


Local News

Party Endorsement Process Sparks Drama in Santa Barbara Mayoral, Council Election

As some prominent Democrats split from local party’s backing of Cathy Murillo, Jim Scafide in favor of Hal Conklin and Kristen Sneddon, others worry about creating an opening for non-Democrats

With five powerful candidates competing to be Santa Barbara’s next mayor after the Nov. 7 election, the nuances and possible edge of every endorsement are under scrutiny. From left, candidates Frank Hotchkiss, Bendy White, Angel Martinez, Cathy Murillo and Hal Conklin. Click to view larger
With five powerful candidates competing to be Santa Barbara’s next mayor after the Nov. 7 election, the nuances and possible edge of every endorsement are under scrutiny. From left, candidates Frank Hotchkiss, Bendy White, Angel Martinez, Cathy Murillo and Hal Conklin. (Noozhawk illustration)

The days of lockstep endorsements in Santa Barbara City Council elections are over.

Prominent Democrats have broken ranks from the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party to back candidates not selected by the party. The surprise endorsements have come amid competitive races for mayor and the District 4 council seat.

The local Democratic Party endorsed Cathy Murillo for mayor and Jim Scafide for the District 4 seat.

However, former Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, and her daughter, Laura Capps, a Santa Barbara Unified School District trustee, along with Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams, have endorsed another Democrat, Hal Conklin, for mayor.

Lois Capps has long served as the unofficial matriarch of the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party, but her endorsement could end up hurting Murillo, who also is competing against a third Democrat, Bendy White, as well as Republican Frank Hotchkiss and independent Angel Martinez.

A splintered state of endorsements is precisely what the Democratic Party fears; if voters are conflicted about who the best Democrat is in the officially nonpartisan race, a non-Democrat could slip in.

The problems extend down the ballot. In District 4, the party endorsed Scafide, a local attorney, but Kristen Sneddon has emerged as formidable candidate, after locking up the support of some of the region’s most prominent Democrats, including state Sen. Hannah Beth-Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, county Supervisor Janet Wolf, Mayor Helene Schneider, former Mayor Sheila Lodge, and Laura Capps and fellow SBUSD trustee Kate Parker, to name several.

With the exception of Schneider, who fell out of favor with the local Democratic Party about two years ago, most of those names are typically behind the party’s choice, and have received past party endorsements for their own campaigns.

Creating more of a challenge for the party, Sneddon, the daughter-in-law of the late Tom Sneddon, who served as district attorney from 1982 to 2006, has received the endorsements of the Santa Barbara City Firefighters Association and the Santa Barbara Police Officers’ Association.

Party Perspective

“I am disappointed,” local Democratic Party chairwoman Gail Teton-Landis said of the schism. “These elected officials have been endorsed by us in the past and have been completely supported by the party.”

She said some of those who endorsed Sneddon had not interviewed Scafide.

“They endorsed without meeting Jim,” Teton-Landis said. “I don’t find that fair or democratic.”

The party asked for candidates to come forward on Jan. 16, and the party endorsed in March — well before Sneddon entered the race. Political parties typically like to get behind a candidate early in the process, so they can tap fundraisers, build messaging and clear the field of prospective rivals.

In this case, that didn’t happen. Sneddon said she didn’t get the idea to run for council until the Santa Barbara March for Science in late April. She also didn’t start raising money until after July 1.

“There’s no way on earth that any endorsement group could endorse that late,” Teton-Landis said. “The most viable campaigns need to start early.”

Teton-Landis said the party ran a clear process and that it was advertised on its website.

“I stand by that process and the people we endorsed,” she said.

Scafide proudly lists the endorsements he has received.

“I’m proud of the strong support I have received from the Democratic Party of Santa Barbara County, the Democratic Women of Santa Barbara County, the Women’s Political Committee, Supervisor Joan Hartmann, UCSB Campus Democrats, the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors and, most important, the tremendous support the voters of the Fourth District who have been sharing their priorities for our city as I meet them walking door to door,” he said in a statement.

Relationships Matter

Mollie Culver, the political consultant working with both Murillo and Scafide, said she was upset with elected officials who didn’t endorse her clients.

“It’s disappointing when we as Democrats don’t coalesce behind each other,” she said. “Certainly I wish we were on the same side of this.”

The Conklin endorsement from the Cappses and Williams also has surprised many. For the first time in years, there is no obvious front-runner in the mayor’s race, and the party division could result in the first non-Democrat to hold the seat in decades.

The support for Conklin can be traced back to relationships. He was a strong supporter of the late Rep. Walter Capps, D-Santa Barbara, who was succeeded in Congress by his widow, Lois Capps, after his unexpected death in 1997.

Williams describes Conklin as a mentor.

“I think that in a five-person race it is amazing that we have candidates of the caliber that we have, but Hal and Cathy are unquestionably the best,” he said. “They recognize the imperative to integrate our sense of aesthetics with our need to have housing, and they have had the courage to talk about tough issues.

“And they have the experience to do more than talk, but to solve problems. Hal has been a mentor to me, and I know and trust his heart.”

Across-the-Board Disruption

The political drama is not confined to Democrats.

The Chamber of Commerce of the Santa Barbara Region has endorsed Martinez, the former CEO and board chairman of Goleta-based Deckers Brands, over Hotchkiss, the only Republican in the mayor’s race. Hotchkiss has been tough on downtown homeless and a supporter of free enterprise and business development during his time on the council, yet the chamber opted for Martinez.

“Mr. Martinez is the epitome of a self-made man, having started off as the third employee at Reebok in 1980,” according to a chamber of commerce statement. “He helped that brand become one of the best known in the world before joining Deckers in 2005.

“Under his leadership, Deckers grew rapidly, with one of its better known brands, UGG Australia, now topping $1 billion in sales a year.”

Martinez’s campaign consultant, Brian Robinson, said his client appeals to the business community because people want change and not the status quo, particularly in terms of a new vision for State Street.

“We feel fundamentally that people don’t want politics as usual,” Robinson said.

Martinez is even straying away from the traditional door-knocking campaign, choosing instead to meet with influential locals in small groups and relying on a hefty social media presence to spread his message.

“Angel is a different candidate,” Robinson said. “Going and knocking on doors and making small platitudes is not what we’re about.”

Although a single endorsement is usually not enough to sway a contest, an accumulation of endorsements does matter. Candidates endorsed by the Democratic Party typically receive a wealth of benefits from volunteers, many of them UC Santa Barbara students, who will make phone calls and knock on doors on their behalf.

Undecided or indifferent Democrats often just vote for the party slate, if they vote at all.

But when a candidate such as Sneddon has a myriad of supporters who are closely associated with the Democratic Party, as hers are, the line gets blurred and the party message might suffer.

Laura Capps called Sneddon “a dream candidate for City Council,” in spite of her later start. She noted that Sneddon is a graduate of Santa Barbara High School and a mom who has been active in her children’s schools.

“It is a proven fact women are less likely to run for office, and tend to make that decision later in the process,” Capps said. “I am grateful that Kristen has made this commitment to our city’s future.”

The party differences could result in some unexpected outcomes in the Nov. 7 election and possible changes in the endorsement process in the future. Perhaps in this new era of district elections, organizations will wait longer before endorsing.

Meanwhile, the other Fourth District candidate, Jay Higgins, a land-use planner and chairman of the Santa Barbara Planning Commission, has been endorsed by the chamber of commerce, City Councilman Randy Rowse, former Councilman Dale Francisco and many other community leaders.

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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