Councilwoman Cathy Murillo was all smiles at City Hall Tuesday night as she watched the first results come in for the Santa Barbara mayor’s race. Early results showed Murillo leading the field. (JC Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

Former journalist Cathy Murillo, a Westside renter who grew up in East Los Angeles, beat back last-minute anonymous attack ads and challenges from her Democratic political colleagues, and appeared headed to victory in the Santa Barbara mayor’s race Tuesday night.

As of 1 a.m. Wednesday, Murillo had pulled in 28.1 percent of the vote to 21.6 percent for fellow council member Frank Hotchkiss.

Hotchkiss left his party at Ca Dario almost immediately after the first wave of results were revealed shortly before 9 p.m. He conceded the race later in the evening.

“It’s such an honor to stand here as your next mayor of Santa Barbara,” Murillo said during her victory speech at Casa Blanca. “It’s such an honor to win the trust of the public as well. They had a lot of choices out there, and we went door to door and we said to them, ‘I care about your family. I care about your neighborhood. I care about your prosperity.’

“I meant it when I said I would work to create jobs and housing opportunities for the people and the young people.”

Hotchkiss was unavailable for comment, but his campaign manager, Cory Bantilan, spoke to Noozhawk. 

“I don’t think we’ll ever have a Republican mayor in Santa Barbara again,” said Bantilan, who acknowledged that the campaign “underperformed a little bit.”

Businessman Angel Martinez was in third place with 19.5 percent, just 17 votes ahead of former council member and mayor Hal Conklin, who received 19.4 percent.

Councilman Bendy White trailed the field with 11.3 percent. 

The contest marked the first wide-open race for mayor since Helene Schneider was elected in 2009.

It was the most expensive race in Santa Barbara history, with spending in the mayor’s race alone approaching nearly $1 million.

While previous mayoral elections have focused on traditional issues such as neighborhood preservation, traffic and the environment, many of the candidates this year focused on State Street, and ways to reduce the storefront vacancy rate on the street.

Martinez relied heavily on a “save State Street” mantra, attempting to appeal to millennials and young professionals who have difficulty finding rental apartments and studio housing in the city at a cost they could afford.

He blitzed social media with massive advertising spending, lit up the airwaves with commercials, and posted signs on dozens of businesses around town. He didn’t attempt to walk neighborhoods, however, until the last days of the contest, a move that may have cost him.

He chose a different political path, meeting in small groups with business leaders and influencers, even staging a concert featuring Kenny Loggins at Soho.

Cathy Murillo6,05928.1
Frank Hotchkiss4,66922.6
Angel Martinez4,21319.5
Hal Conklin4,19619.4
Bendy White2,44711.3

By contrast Murillo, 56, with help from her legions of Democratic Party volunteers, knocked on thousands of doors throughout the campaign, some of them more than once, hoping to build a personal one-on-one connection with voters.

She held events on the Eastside and Westside, areas that are typically unrepresented during political cycles.

Hotchkiss, 75, stayed true to his base throughout the campaign. The sole Republican, Hotchkiss, unlike Martinez, chose to focus on the good things that Santa Barbara offered: it’s natural beauty, tourism and arts district.

He said it would be his goal as mayor to preserve and maintain Santa Barbara as the world’s premiere city.

Hotchkiss also didn’t shade his opinions on issues such as affordable housing, or even climate change.

Hotchkiss believes that climate change is mostly a natural event, and not man-made. He also takes a pragmatic approach to housing, urging young people to buy in places such as Ventura, Oxnard and Lompoc, and save money for possible entry into Santa Barbara one day. It was a message that appealed to his base — Santa Barbara conservatives.

Conklin, 71, worked for more than 23 years as a public relations executive for Southern Caifornia Edison before retiring to run for mayor.

Conklin was banking on his name recognition among established voters. He also talked about how Santa Barbara had lost its focus and that he was going to create a long-term economic development plan based on environmental principles.

He noted that leadership in Santa Barbara was too top heavy and that he would return the power of decision-making to the voters.

White, 70, had the longest record of public service. He served on city commissions and the council for more than 30 years.

Known for his deep technical knowledge of Santa Barbara’s planning issues, White promised to be the steady hand of Santa Barbara, who would focus on environmental preservation, water quality and public infrastructure.

He jumped into the race late, however, as the final candidate just before the election deadline. White, like Conklin, struggled to raise money to promote his campaign. Even though he was backed by mayor Helene Schneider, his candidacy never really gained steam.

After the initial results were announced shortly before 9 p.m., there was a roughly 3-hour gap with no updates, after which vote totals were trickled out.

Ballots postmarked by Nov. 7 will still be counted as part of the final election numbers. The City Clerk’s office will wait until the mail arrives on Friday for any ballots sent on Election Day.

The mayor’s contest also divided the formal Democratic Party.

Three Democrats ran for the seat, splintering the vote for the democratic candidates, Murillo, White and Conklin. Democrats were worried that three candidates in the race would allow Hotchkiss, the sole Republican to walk into the seat. 

Despite the division, Murillo said she was ready to move on.

“I graciously build relationships with everybody,” Murillo said. 

At her party, Murillo thanked those who supported her in the campaign. She gave special recognition to her family and sisters.

“I only wish that my mom and my grandma could be here to see this,” she said. “They are in heaven right now, and they are proud of me.”

She noted that her grandmother was a naturalized citizen who voted in every election. Her grandmother urged Murillo and all the kids in her neighbor to register to vote as soon as they turned 18.

“I campaigned on being a mayor for all, and that’s my plan,” Murillo said. “I relate to everybody, Republicans, Democrats and Greens.”

She said she looked forward to being a role model.

“I am proud to be the first Latina to serve as mayor on the City Council,” she said. “When you go into our Latino neighborhoods and the little girls look up to me, I am like ‘yeah. This is for you, you belong in this city. You deserve to have pride in your culture and who you are. I am behind you.’

“Our Latino families mean the world to me.”

Click here for Noozhawk coverage of the three City Council races.

Click here for election results for the Measure C sales tax increase.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.