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Santa Barbara Westside City Council Race Features High-Powered Matchup

Incumbent Cathy Murillo looks to win reelection over challenges from community activist Sharon Byrne and newcomer Cristina Cardoso

Voters in the Westside and West Downtown neighborhoods have three candidates to choose from for the District 3 City Council race: Sharon Byrne, Cristina Cardoso and Cathy Murillo.
Voters in the Westside and West Downtown neighborhoods have three candidates to choose from for the District 3 City Council race: Sharon Byrne, Cristina Cardoso and Cathy Murillo. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

When it comes to politics, Santa Barbara has a reputation for playing nice. There’s a cultural understanding that “going negative” could backfire, and that the politically educated want to see a robust debate about the issues, not the personalities.

But you can throw all that out the window in this year’s contest for control of Santa Barbara’s Westside neighborhood.

The marquee matchup on the election ballot pits the social and accessible incumbent, Cathy Murillo, 54, the first Latina ever on the City Council and a former journalist for KCSB and the Santa Barbara Independent, against 47-year-old community activist Sharon Byrne, whose booming voice and impassioned speech would suggest that she’s competing for a spot on the national stage, not polite Santa Barbara.

Also on the ballot is Cristina Cardoso, a newcomer to city politics whose biggest role may be to play spoiler in the District 3 City Council race.

This is a contest fueled by personal beefs, battles over territory and conflicting ideals about what kind of person is best suited to serve the Westside.

Byrne and Murillo have feuded publicly over a matter not even on their side of town — the proposed Eastside Business Improvement District.

Byrne, the executive director of the Milpas Community Association, along with many business owners, pushed the idea of creating an assessment district to build revenue for Milpas Street improvements.

Murillo opposed the idea publicly, and the whole thing blew up during a high-profile protest of El Bajio restaurant, one of the Eastside businesses that supported the EBID.

Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Cathy Murillo is running for a second term in the newly-created District 3. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Cathy Murillo is running for a second term in the newly-created District 3.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

And while Byrne and Murillo are both strong-minded and interested in improving their community, they are opposites in just about every measurable way.

Byrne emerged onto the local scene in 2009, when a teenager was stabbed to death on her street on the Westside. She was stunned at the violence — and more shocked at the apathetic response to the homicide.

She organized her neighborhood and a march in opposition to gang violence.

City Hall took notice of the woman with a thunderous voice and a heap of homespun charm, who managed to make people feel safe and threatened at the same time.

Byrne wasn’t a one-hit wonder. She moved her attention to Santa Barbara’s Eastside and assumed the role of advocate for the businesses there that felt that the Eastside had become the city’s overstuffed closet, where the city attempted to hide its homeless and other undesirables.

As the newly hired executive director of the MCA, Byrne took on the homeless problem near The Habit, Tri-County Produce and Trader Joes, which was exacerbated by the nearby shelter, Casa Esperanza.

In Byrne, some of the Eastside businesses had found their savior, their unofficial mayor who was willing to stand on the street corner and talk to the homeless and mentally ill while trying to understand how to successfully deal with them.

She was equally engaged in trying to remove graffiti on the Eastside, and led street clean-ups to remove litter, pick-up trash and talk to the mom-and-pop shops about their challenges.

Community activist Sharon Byrne, executive director of the Milpas Community Association, is running for City Council in her own neighborhood. Click to view larger
Community activist Sharon Byrne, executive director of the Milpas Community Association, is running for City Council in her own neighborhood.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

But Byrne didn’t exactly ingratiate herself with the decision-makers at City Hall. 

Byrne offended the town’s Democrats, who historically have enjoyed a political advantage in the city, largely because she spent much of her time ripping on parties, all of them, and instead framed herself as a moderate and independent.

The local Democratic Party generally does not embrace any candidate who doesn’t rise up through their ranks.

But Byrne was not immediately welcomed by the Republicans either. While it was clear that she had right-leaning tendencies, she didn’t align herself with the GOP.

In fact, when she ran for City Council the first time, she enraged Republican Frank Hotchkiss and other conservatives, who worried that her entry into the at-large council race could split Republican votes and hurt the chances of conservatives Dale Francisco and Michael Self and moderate Randy Rowse.

Despite her popularity among Eastside businesses, Byrne tanked in the 2011 citywide election. Some voters saw her activism as showmanship and self-promotion. She received 2,900 votes, or just 5.6 percent overall. She finished in seventh place on a ballot with 10 candidates.

She has the GOP behind her in this election, and she’s hoping that under the microscopic lens of the Westside neighborhood, which she calls home, she will have a better chance.

“My main priority is serving the needs of the Westside community,” Byrne told Noozhawk.

“I consistently hear residents and businesses are concerned about traffic, parking congestion, illegal dumping, and speeding. It’s clear from walking the district extensively that the traffic congestion has matured considerably in the area, but street configurations and traffic control infrastructure have not been updated to keep pace.”

Byrne said as a councilwoman, she would continue to engage residents and make sure they are heard.

“People enjoy the satisfaction of identifying a problem, being part of its solution, and seeing their results at the street level,” Byrne said. “That’s measurable and demonstrable, and I really enjoy working this way with neighbors. It gets results.”

Byrne said she is not bothered by those who want to point the finger at her for her strong stands against gang violence or homeless problems.

Cristina Cardoso wants to improve affordable housing in Santa Barbara, she told voters at a recent City Council candidates forum. Click to view larger
Cristina Cardoso wants to improve affordable housing in Santa Barbara, she told voters at a recent City Council candidates forum.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

“To me, this election is about neighborhood issues,” Byrne said.

“There are those that want to frame this election in other ways, or use tactics that rely on personal attacks to gain traction or scare voters into believing one thing or another; that’s extremism and I won’t stand for it.” 

Byrne, who has raised $26,000 for her campaign, said what separates her from Murillo is that she gets specific things done.

She said she helped tackle illegal dumping and encampments, revived the Milpas Street holiday parade, and worked to create more street lighting for the West Downtown neighborhood.

“I work on actual neighborhood issues, with a track record of accomplishments of serving our community,” Byrne said.

Murillo, who is running for a second term, stunned the political establishment when she won a seat on the City Council in 2011.

She placed second, less than 100 votes behind top vote-getter Dale Francisco. Murillo rose to the public eye as a left-leaning political reporter for the Santa Barbara Independent.

She once spent the night at Casa Esperanza, posing as a homeless person, for a story. She wanted a view of what life was really like from the inside.

Murillo chummed around with politicos on the left, and developed a respect among them. She left the Independent and worked in radio at KCSB.

When Murillo ran for City Council in 2011, she was widely embraced by many of the elected officials and activists whom she had reported on. She was endorsed by labor groups and the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party, a huge coup for her because of the resources the party provides.

Voters in the Westside and West Downtown neighborhoods have three candidates to choose from for the Nov. 3 City Council election. Click to view larger
Voters in the Westside and West Downtown neighborhoods have three candidates to choose from for the Nov. 3 City Council election.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

While Republicans tend to write big checks in support of their candidates, Democrats locally tend to organize and campaign well on behalf of their chosen candidates. They unite to knock on doors, make phone calls and spread the word up until the final day to cast ballots.

She had other assets — she’s nice and unpretentious.

If Byrne owns every room she walks into, Murillo connects with people in that room on an individual basis. Perhaps because of her reporter skills, she comes across as a listener who wants to help you, not necessarily change you.

On the City Council, she has stuck to the typical Democratic platform. She’s pro-affordable housing, pro-labor and was against Santa Barbara’s controversial proposed gang injunction.

She hasn’t gained a conservative or moderate following while on the council, but as the first Latina, she’s carved a niche as the one who connects with the working class and working poor throughout the city.

Murillo leads all council candidate fundraising with $51,000.

As a councilwoman, Murillo said she is most proud of her advocacy to re-open city libraries on Monday, which was one of her campaign promises.

“As a child, I spent my after-school hours in a public library,” said Murillo, who grew up in Los Angeles. “All that reading helped me be a good student and later a good writer.”

Murillo said if re-elected she will continue to focus on improving street lighting, sidewalk repairs, expanding law enforcement and improving traffic and pedestrian safety.

The race turned ugly this summer when Byrne said one of her supporters was hit in the back by one of Murillo’s supporters, in an attack over a stolen sign. The alleged victim filed a police report, but the Police Department could not verify an assault.

Murillo categorically denies any assault involving her campaign took place.

“There is no place for name-calling, not in the community, the election, nor in public service as a city council member,” Murillo told Noozhawk.

“As for the allegations of assault, police detectives investigated and closed the case with no charges being filed. I believe the voters will judge me by my actions and how I carry myself in public and during council meetings.

“I am respectful. I listen to people, and I act on those concerns. I know so many people personally, my neighbors in the Westside and beyond, from my public service and from my days as a journalist and youth advocate. People know me.”

Cardoso, who is running for council for the first time, has raised about $4,000 for her campaign. 

She’s bilingual and says she is running for City Council because she wants to “strengthen our community” in the areas of education, public safety and transportation.

According to some political theories, she could take votes away from Murillo. 

Cardoso said on her ballot statement that big changes are needed at City Hall.

“Our people, our community will need a strong voice on the City Council to make those changes,” she said.

At a recent candidate forum, Cardoso said if she is elected, she would work with the youth and improve affordable housing.

“We need to find a system to control the rents,” she said.

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.

Challengers Sharon Byrne and Cristina Cardoso are hoping to win the City Council seat currently held by Cathy Murillo. Click to view larger
Challengers Sharon Byrne and Cristina Cardoso are hoping to win the City Council seat currently held by Cathy Murillo.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

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