A Hero’s Journey?

By Gwyn Lurie   |   April 22, 2021

In November, Santa Barbara residents will vote to elect their next mayor. Over the past weeks MJ writer Nick Schou has profiled in these pages the four candidates who have thrown their hats into the mayoral ring to lead Santa Barbara into its next chapter: Incumbent Mayor Cathy Murillo; James Joyce III, founder of Coffee With A Black Guy and former District Director to State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson; Randy Rowse, former Santa Barbara City Council Member; and Deborah Schwartz, longtime Santa Barbara Planning Commissioner. The outcome of this race will have serious implications for our city and likely determine whether the next chapter in Santa Barbara’s saga will read as a comedy of errors, a tragedy, or, God-willing, a triumph of the human spirit story. But for that final outcome to happen, we’ll need the one thing our city has lacked for too long: a hero.

It’s no secret that Santa Barbara faces profound challenges, made greater by the COVID pandemic. As Warren Buffett famously said: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of nudity in these parts over the past few years and it’s time to put on a suit. 

In fairness, being mayor in Santa Barbara is not easy. In part that’s because we see that position as a mover of important needles, while in actuality the balance of power in our city government leans heavily toward the City Manager and City Hall’s cadre of career employees. The fact is, the power of Santa Barbara’s mayoral position lies mostly in its bully pulpit potential which only comes into play when the mayor has something important to say. 

I recently sat down with former Santa Barbara Mayor Hal Conklin, who served on the Santa Barbara City Council from 1977-1993 and even after his tenure continued to play something of an ombudsman role advocating for the arts and downtown revitalization. As a longtime Santa Barbara booster and a shining example of lifetime public service, I thought Hal might have a sage thing or two to say about Santa Barbara’s upcoming mayoral race.

I was right. 

Santa Barbara’s Mayor Needs Inspiration, Perseverance, Imagination

“I’m shocked at the lack of imagination in some of the people who want to run for mayor,” Conklin said incredulously. “What do you want to do? This is not the worst question in the world to ask a candidate; why do you want to do this? What is your vision? And I would think you’d have at least some creative thing you’d want to do. Whether I like it or not is irrelevant. But just tell me you’ve got some plan and something you want to do.”

I asked Conklin what he would do and, no surprise, the man who was brought here for a summer in 1970 by local resident Maryanne Mott to help start the Community Environment Council for Earth Day and stayed for 50 years has plenty say about where our focus as a city should be. 

For starters, Conklin thinks Santa Barbara should double down on its heritage as a health destination – harkening back to 1944 and the founding of the Sansum Diabetes Research Center where Dr. William Sansum became the first U.S. physician to manufacture and administer insulin in the treatment of diabetes.

“You’ve got some great people who can go in there and clean the place up. Just on health care alone, if you declared Santa Barbara the Mayo Clinic of the West… really promote this is as the premier health location on the West Coast.”

Having recently undergone brain surgery at Cottage Hospital, Conklin could not be a bigger believer in the power of Santa Barbara’s medical community.

“You’ve got all of the major (medical) institutions of Southern California, including Cedars Sinai, UCLA, and Cottage, all opening up research centers in Santa Barbara… And the fact that the UCSB economic forecast says that investment in medical technology is one of the top economic generators of the South Coast. There’s a huge amount of investment going on in real estate in buildings for medical science. And into research from people like the Ridley-Trees in the cancer center here. A huge amount of philanthropy going into all of these hospitals. Just that alone puts Santa Barbara on the map in terms of a place where important medical research is being done.

“I said to Cathy (Mayor Murillo), ‘look, if you’re smart, if you want to promote economic development here, you can go ahead and promote tourism. Everybody knows that. You can go out and you can promote education and bring money into UCSB, everybody knows that. But how many people know that you’re investing in the health care industry as one of the places in the U.S. where you can come and be healed in almost anything? Or that research is going on at UCSB about massive major health crises? And if it is, tell the story.’”

Conklin had a lot more to say about where our city’s leaders should be focusing their energies – reviving State Street, boosting tourism, the environment, homelessness, locals supporting local business, building community – but he would agree that what matters right now is what our mayoral candidates have to say. Because whoever becomes Santa Barbara’s next mayor is going to play a big part in determining whether our city’s is a hero’s journey, or one that continues to feel a little like… well… the Little Train That Couldn’t.

In the coming weeks, the Montecito Journal will talk further with each candidate in an effort to get the would-be mayors to answer Hal Conklin’s very reasonable questions: “What do you want to do? What are your ideas?” Because it’s not enough to want to play the role of mayor, cut the ribbons, and kiss the babies. We need a hero… A mayor with some vision, a little courage, and real ideas on how we can turn our current city drama into a triumph of the human spirit story.

 

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