They Say He Can’t Win. “We” Think “They” Are Wrong.

By Gwyn Lurie   |   October 10, 2021
James Joyce has received the Montecito Journal's endorsement for mayor

It’s become a useful axiom in national politics to ask voters: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Applied to the City of Santa Barbara, I don’t know anyone who would answer that question in the affirmative. 

I don’t even believe the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party (known to insiders as the DCC, run by Supervisor Das Williams’ chief of staff), which endorsed Mayor Cathy Murillo for a second term, believes we are – even if we put aside the exceptional circumstances of COVID, and before that the fires and debris flow. Nor do I suspect they think Murillo has what it takes to lift our city out of the morass through which it has been desperately slogging.

When you receive party endorsement literature in the mail, you might assume the endorsed candidates have been thoughtfully vetted. Not necessarily so. What you’re actually getting is an endorsement that’s part of a spoils system designed to reward loyal minions who are beholden to the party and its interests. 

Such are party politics, which is a shame considering the fortune spent on advertising even the most tepid of endorsements.

To be clear, I believe the folks at the DCC are good people who are involved for the right reasons. And I trust they fundamentally care about our county, and beyond. But it is strongly believed (not just by me but by many others) that their current selection process is flawed. That loyalty and discipline have become priority that no longer benefit local politics or the populace; and I think they are missing the forest for the trees.

At the DCC endorsement interview for City Council District 4, the first question asked of Kristen Sneddon was not about homelessness, or racial equity, or vaccine mandates, or affordable housing. It was instead a blatant test of party loyalty. “Why did you support Laura Capps (for County Supervisor), and Kate Ford and Virginia Alvarez (for School Board)” they asked Sneddon, about her support for candidates not endorsed by the party apparatus. 

How dare Sneddon use her own judgement without fear of retribution from the local party, the penalty for which can be years of shunning, if not an eternity.

The behind-the-scenes conversations I’ve had with local leaders have been telling. Those who depend on DCC support would not go on record and say as much, but simply rolled their eyes when I pleadingly ask them if they really believe that the best thing for Santa Barbara, at this critical juncture, is a repeat performance by Murillo.

Can we be honest? We’ve all seen that movie; we’ve struggled through its clunky plot; even nodded off a few times; none of us would go rushing back to see that sequel – I don’t care how much was spent on marketing.

I take no pleasure in writing this. I have nothing personal against Mayor Murillo. She seems like a fine person. And I appreciate her service and the important work done during her term – like the approval of parklets on State Street – a lifesaver for local restaurant owners (but which were also adopted by every major municipality in the country – hardly visionary). But at this moment the stakes are too high for us to spend another five years without strong leadership. When Santa Barbara is struck another devastating blow, natural or otherwise, this is not the leader we want at the helm.

In last week’s mayoral debate, I listened carefully to all six candidates. As did my colleagues at the Journal. We agreed that for the most part, they each acquitted themselves well. And they all agree on some fundamental priorities – the need to find and enact a clear vision for State Street and the greater downtown area, the importance of adaptive reuse for affordable housing, the importance of settling on and enacting a plan for homelessness, etc. Every candidate wants to lead a more cohesive City Council, and to support local business.

But here’s the reality: The power of the mayor, as it exists in Santa Barbara, is first and foremost the bully pulpit it provides to communicate a vision around which a city can unite. So, to whom do we want to hand that bully pulpit?

There’s an elephant in the room. Three leading mayoral candidates – Mayor Murillo, Randy Rowse (10 years on City Council), and Deborah Schwartz (a decade as a city planning commissioner) – have all been deeply involved with city politics for more than a decade during which time none of them has emerged as a visionary leader capable of building consensus and bringing the city together behind a singular vision during a time of great division – and need.  

It is said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome. If we want a different outcome, we must support a candidate who comes to the table with a fresh perspective and God-given leadership skills. And I for one would prefer to take a risk on someone who could be interesting and possibly inspired rather than double down on those who have proved they are not. 

That brings us to mayoral candidate James Joyce.

Joyce understands first-hand how the state puts mandates in place when local governments fail to act. As the long time District Director for State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who endorses him for mayor, Joyce successfully worked to bring disparate groups of people together over complicated issues. And as Jackson points out, he has the perfect strong-yet-calm demeanor to do so. Joyce organized Jackson’s JEDI Program (Jobs & Economic Development Initiative) that brought together more than 100 key entrepreneurs, business, educational and community leaders from the region. With his hands-on experience at various levels of government up and down the Central Coast, James has the experience to work regionally, with the county and our adjacent cities, to provide workforce housing options, as well as best practices for other critical challenges facing Santa Barbara.

“He’s very thoughtful and doesn’t bring a lot of ego to his job,” says Jackson. “He did an excellent job with our JEDI project – an entrepreneurial haven. He took the ball and ran with it… creating innovation centers. He made things happen.”

Joyce understands the importance of state and federal grants for funding local solutions and has the relationships and the experience to bring those to bear for Santa Barbara. He speaks openly about the need for a cultural shift in government and the importance of holding elected officials to high ethical standards – hence his ethics plan which calls for, among other things, campaign contribution limits and banning contributions from anyone with business before the City Council. (Just for a little perspective, 46% of Murillo’s contributions come from craft unions that stand to benefit from the city’s new Project Labor Agreement policy, which requires the city to use union workers, almost exclusively, on public works projects of $5 million or more.)

It is true that Joyce has raised less money than other candidates. He has chosen to spend more time knocking on doors and talking to people than on the phones with local developers and wealthy individuals asking for money. Was that a good decision? We’ll see. But he believes it’s more important to connect face-to-face with voters so that he can hear them, and they can hear him, than to fill his campaign coffers to pay for expensive ads.

Even before the national racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd, Joyce founded Coffee with a Black Guy, “an innovative social impact movement that seeks to merge the tactile and digital worlds to bring greater understanding, compassion, empathy, and love in our shared global community.”

So, can James Joyce win? The other candidates want you to believe he cannot.  Why?

They want you to believe James Joyce can’t win purely because he can! It’s a time-tested dirty tactic used by campaigns to spread the rumor that a candidate “can’t win” so that voters will vote for their second or third choice candidate that they think can win. (Anyone remember back in 2020 when people said Warnock and Ossoff couldn’t both win Senate seats in Georgia? Or in 2016 that Donald Trump, who was not the least bit obedient to his party’s machine, couldn’t win the presidency? Now look who’s running that machine.)

What the DCC and the other candidates don’t want you to see is that Joyce is the only viable candidate who’s not been hanging around city politics, to no great effect, for more than a decade. Plus, he’s levelheaded and inspired – something most people would never say about our current mayor. 

Joyce may be a fresh face in the city, with a fresh point of view, but he’s experienced in legislative politics and politics in general. He’s a wicked smart social entrepreneur who brings together diverse groups of people, with diverse interests, to talk about and think through difficult, sensitive topics. He knows how to listen, and genuinely wants to. But he also has strong opinions he’s not afraid to voice. He’s principled. And perhaps most importantly, he’s neither controlled by nor beholden to any special interest, political party, or machine.

It’s time for this city to wake up and get out of bed on the other side. Let’s for once do something different and see what happens. We need fresh, strong, bold leadership and it’s right in front of our face. 

We endorse James Joyce for mayor and believe that he is the best chance we have to push beyond the endless committees and factions and reports and bureaucracy that have kept our city down and behind the eight ball for far too long.


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