Despite district elections, the Golden Triangle still rules Santa Barbara elections.
The Riviera/San Roque, the Mesa and the Outer State Street/Samarkand neighborhoods have traditionally turned out to vote in the highest numbers, and the 2021 election was no exception.
The turnout is so significant that it cost Mayor Cathy Murillo the election.
The ousted Murillo lost in all three areas. Murillo finished third in District 2, the Mesa, behind James Joyce III and Mayor-elect Randy Rowse. And she finished third in District 4, the Riviera/San Roque area, and in District 5, which includes outer State Street and the Samarkand area.
Murillo’s two strongest districts were Districts 1 and 3, the Eastside and Westside, respectively. Those two districts have the largest Latino populations in the city; they also had the lowest voter turnout in the Nov. 2 election.
Four years ago, Murillo won the Mesa and placed second in Districts 4 and 5 to Frank Hotchkiss.
Overall turnout was 51% four years ago but fell back to 47.1% this time.
Murillo’s vote total also dropped from 2017, when she was elected to succeed her term-limited predecessor, Helene Schneider. Four years ago, Murillo received 6,977 votes but just 6,551 this year.
Two major factors in Murillo’s loss were the strong showing by Joyce, who likely pulled Democratic votes from her in the officially nonpartisan race, and the incredible performance of Rowse, who piled up 10,037 votes to become Santa Barbara’s 51st mayor.
Rowse was the only non-Democrat among the top contenders on the ballot so, for voters who wanted a break from the all-Democrat City Council, he was the only choice.
“The presence of two other Democrats on the ballot, (Deborah) Schwartz and Joyce, split the vote and, in the more conservative parts of the city, that dynamic was more pronounced,” Pat Dennis, Murillo’s political consultant, told Noozhawk.
Joyce was perhaps the biggest surprise of the election. The political newcomer won District 6, City Councilwoman Meagan Harmon’s downtown district, with 1,208 votes, edging Murillo, who collected 1,149.
In all the other districts, Joyce finished second, suggesting that he had steady, even support throughout the city of 92,000 residents.
“I had great support, particularly on the Eastside,” Joyce said. “I love that you’re asking this question because the Eastside was a perfect example of what this campaign was all about: bringing people together.
“We had both Alejandra (Gutierrez) supporters and Jason (Dominguez) supporters with our signs in their yards,” he added, referring to the District 1 councilwoman and her predecessor, respectively. “I’m really proud of that.”
Joyce was proud of his showing throughout city, especially among Westside and Eastside voters. Joyce said the Eastside “is an old-school Santa Barbara neighborhood.”
“I feel like that’s a district where folks feel like they’ve been ignored for too long, and they have been,” he said. “They’re ready for something different and that showed throughout the campaign.”
Rowse, on the other hand, finished behind Murillo in the city’s largely Latino Districts 1 and 3. Murillo topped Rowse by more than 300 votes on the Westside, where she lives, and nearly 350 votes on the Eastside.
But it was Districts 2, 4 and 5 that won the election for Rowse. More than 80% of his votes came from the Mesa, Riviera/San Roque and the Outer State Street/Samarkand area.
The city implemented City Council district elections in 2015 in response to a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit alleging that the previous at-large system diluted votes from minority citizens.
While district elections have resulted in two Mexican-American council members getting elected in Districts 1 and 3, the numbers from the at-large mayoral race demonstrate that voting power for the mayor’s job still lives in higher turnout, whiter neighborhoods.
Darcél Elliott, chairwoman of the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party, which supported Murillo, said the outgoing mayor won the areas of the city with the highest proportion of registered Democrats, renters and Latinos.
“The party and Cathy’s campaign definitely canvassed the whole city for the whole campaign,” she said “The party shifted our attention to the Eastside, Westside and downtown districts for the last two weeks because they had lower turnout.”
Rowse, a popular longtime business owner and former member of the City Council, said he was not district-focused during the campaign.
“We used data that wasn’t related to districts,” he said. “Our focus was on houses where people had voted in previous elections — higher-propensity voters.
“Regardless of districts, all of us on council represent all of Santa Barbara when it comes to policy making. My thoughts on governance and equity are all-inclusive and all neighborhoods have my attention.”
Wade Cowper, managing partner of CCA Enterprise, a strategic consulting firm, said a turnout of less than 50% may have had something to do with the election results. Voter fatigue from the unsuccessful September recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom may have played a factor.
“Lots of folks thought they had already voted,” he said.
It’s clear from the results — and Murillo’s third-place finish — that voters wanted to go in a new direction, said Cowper, who also worked as Joyce’s consultant during the campaign.
“It’s clear we needed a change, and voters knew that,” he said. “The current mayor was unpopular — that’s now a mathematical fact — and nothing was ever done to change course.
“That’s usually not a recipe for electoral success.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.