Santa Barbara Mayoral Candidate Deborah Schwartz is Not Your Figurehead

By Nick Schou   |   March 11, 2021
Deborah Schwartz

It’s sometimes said that Santa Barbara, with its powerful full-time city administrator overseeing more than 1,000 city employees in ten different agencies, tends to leave the mayor as a figurehead, not much more than a glorified seventh city councilmember who happens to represent all constituents rather than those in one district.

But don’t tell that to Deborah Schwartz, a veteran city planning commissioner and land-use consultant who announced her candidacy for mayor last December, nearly a year ahead of the November 2 election. Since then, Schwartz hasn’t been shy about sharing her view that Santa Barbara needs a stronger mayor than what we’ve grown accustomed to having. If elected, she said, she plans to make that political figurehead model a thing of the past.

“The mayor sets the agenda,” Schwartz told the Montecito Journal in a February 25 interview. “The mayor must forge collegial respectful productive relations with the other six district council members, because left to their own devices, the six members, with no leadership or no one helping them to build consensus across their districts, leaves a city faced with multiple crises.”

If this sounds like a direct criticism of incumbent Mayor Cathy Murillo, that’s no coincidence. “We have a number a number of crises in Santa Barbara,” said Schwartz. “With no concrete plan either being promoted by the mayor herself or in collaboration with the council members and administrators other than short-term, interim, stop-gap measures, we have no way out of these crises.”

Among the three candidates that include Mayor Murillo and James Joyce (see my February 11 column, “Coffee With a Black Guy Creator James Joyce Announces Santa Barbara Mayoral Bid”), Schwartz is an experienced public official who’s served as a planning commissioner for 11 years, including three stints as its chair. She’s also a decades-long resident whose family has roots in the community.

“I’m a Santa Barbara local,” Schwartz said. “It’s my city, it’s my passion. I think that my deep care of, and commitment to, the community really sets me apart.”

Like Mother, like Daughter

After several years in the Midwest and then Boston, Schwartz and her family moved to Santa Barbara in 1967. That’s when her father, Arthur, became a professor at UC Santa Barbara, a position he held for 42 years. Her mother, Naomi, went into politics and became chief of staff for California State Senator Gary K. Hart before serving three terms on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. After graduating from UCSB with degrees in political science, English, and linguistics, Schwartz in 1984 left for San Francisco, where she started her private sector career as a land use consultant.

In 2005, Schwartz returned to Santa Barbara to help care for her parents. Like her mother, she quickly caught the political bug. “I had always kept one toe in politics,” she explained, adding that she worked on behalf of her mom’s supervisor races. “That’s how I met Salud Carbajal,” she said, referring to the U.S. Congressman who spent 12 years as her mom’s chief of staff. “They were an amazing team. It was a very special relationship.”

Schwartz said that the teamwork she witnessed not only inspired her to go into public service, but will guide her as mayor. “I want to bring forward the value set that Salud has carried forward as a congressman, and that is constituent service,” she said. “That was the number one priority every day in that office. So the number one thing at the top of my priorities is open communication. I am making a pledge that this is going to be a priority under my mayorship because I am hearing from many community members that that is missing under the current mayor.”

Of course, life has changed during COVID lockdowns, altering traditional city council meetings and other forums of communication. Schwartz didn’t say exactly how she’d communicate differently.

Both Sides of Planning Aisle

Schwartz was already serving on the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission when she received an invitation to join the city’s planning commission. “This led me into the private practice of being a planning policy and government affairs consultant, which is what I’ve done the last ten years,” Schwartz explained. “Most of my work is in the county but in the city as well, so I am familiar with how property owner clients have experienced the city. I have both the insider experience and the outside experience working for property owners seeking permits.”

Schwartz doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing the multiple crises that she said threaten Santa Barbara and its residents. “We have a public health crisis and an economic crisis,” she argued. “Prior to the pandemic, we were experiencing an economic slide, but we are now in economic free-fall. I know that is a dramatic term, but without a concrete plan to take us out of the pandemic, it’s been simply a disaster. And we have a homelessness crisis. I receive calls daily from community members about this and the encampments.”

Despite Santa Barbara’s reputation for mayoral figureheads, Schwartz pointed to Harriet Miller, who served as mayor from 1995 to 2001, as an example of a strong leader. “Whether or not the city charter specifies a greater level of authority for the mayor or the city administrator, it’s always about who is in the job,” she said. “The city charter wasn’t any different back then, but Harriet was both a force of nature and a woman of deep conviction. She wasn’t going to let the words in the city charter prevent her from carrying out leadership. That’s what I intend to do, to carry forward much of the Harriet Miller values and approach.”

The fact that Schwartz chose to launch her campaign so early in the season is indication of just how determined she is to get down to the business of turning things around at city hall. “You can’t have an isolationist approach for the job of mayor,” she insisted. “The mayor must forge strong consensus-building relationships with each of the council members. Otherwise, the council including the mayor will be disconnected and not be able to bring policies through that are of necessity to the city or lead us out of the pandemic in a timely way.”

Double Whammy for SB

Schwartz doesn’t hide her frustration with what she sees as the lack of progress on economic recovery under City Administrator Paul Casey or with the city’s relatively new Economic Development Director Jason Harris. “This is where we are,” she said. “The City hired a new economic development manager in March of last year and I like him personally. But one year out, we still don’t have the kind of plan that is needed and that the community is asking for. Local businesses are the lifeblood of our community.”

Schwartz pointed to the COVID-ravaged, double-digit drop in hotel bed tax revenue as a sign that the city is overly dependent on tourism. “We have to diversify our economy,” she said. Another major challenge: solving Santa Barbara’s legendary lack of affordable housing. “We haven’t talked enough with the private sector about the balance between location, the number of units, and amenities on the property,” she said. “All these costs add up for renters.”

To Schwartz and others, the key challenge is finding a way to approve housing developments that help make Santa Barbara more livable for more people, the so-called “missing middle” of workers who should make up the bulk of residents. “We are very clear now that there is a big gap that has come into sharp focus,” she said. “There’s a big housing supply gap for those who are in between the lower-income, rent-restricted nonprofit housing units, and the very wealthy.”

Part of the problem, Schwartz argued, is the fact that Santa Barbara’s housing authority oversees only about six percent of the rental units in the city. “That means that more than ninety percent of rental units are provided by and managed by the private housing sector,” she explained. “That’s a big news flash and it brings into sharp focus that we need to be more of a collaborative partner with the private sector to try to find policy and process common ground. The missing middle is the nut to crack.”

Again, Schwartz said, it all comes back to leadership at city hall. “I don’t believe the City nor the private sector housing developers can on their own provide a solution,” she concluded. “In this case, the public is the customer, and the city isn’t providing any customer service. This whole paradigm has to be turned around to have an outward focus on serving the public. We have an obligation to be of service to business owners and residents that has to be a key priority every day. And it starts and stops with the mayor’s office.”


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