Winners & Losers at Mayoral Throwdown

By Jerry Roberts of Newsmakers

During last week’s mayor’s race forum, Cathy Murillo ended a blithe answer to a question about all the recent City Hall turmoil and turnover by serendipitously uttering three words that may define the entire election.

“Change is good,” said the incumbent mayor.


It was an unexpected turn of phrase for Murillo, given that she’d spent much of the previous hour sunnily defending the status quo — “We are better off overall” than when she took office, the mayor asserted –, while her three chief rivals each sought to make a case that “change” is exactly what Santa Barbara needs at this pivotal moment.

“The city is in a weakened state,” stated challenger Deborah Schwartz, as Randy Rowse declared that, “the confidence of the people in the council and the mayor has to be restored,” while James Joyce III promised “a change in tone and approach…from Day One” if he’s elected.

Change vs. More of the Same is a theme that shapes many elections, and Murillo throughout the event doubled down on the latter. Citing her “experience and accomplishments,” she maintained that Santa Barbara is “a tightly run city,” as she assured voters that, “we all work hard, we’re all professionals and we’ve been doing it” on issue after issue, concluding that her leadership has made for “a stronger, more resilient and equitable Santa Barbara.

Now seeking a new five-year term, Murillo triumphed four years ago with 27 percent of the vote, good enough for the winning top spot in a five-person field. Her theory of the 2021 campaign is similar — that there are enough voters in her political base of left-wing Democrats, renters and public employee unions who’ve found her performance acceptable, if not ideal, to push her to another first-place finish, this time in a six-way splintered field.

Sixty-three days before Election Day, Murillo, Joyce, Rowse and Schwartz, along with publisher Mark Whitehurst and small businessman Matt Kilrain, are slated to meet in at least eight – 8, count em, 8 – more forums before Nov. 2. At a time when the city faces big choices about the future, faced with current crises in the economy, as well as on homelessness, housing, governance, equity and public health, the central question of the debates will be whether the current leadership is sufficient to the task — or if change is needed.

Here is a look at the winners and losers from Round One


Cathy Murillo. Mayor Cathy is running her fifth race in 10 years (two for mayor, two for council and one for Assembly), during which she has appeared in scores, if not hundreds, of this type of candidate forum, and as a theatre arts graduate of UCSB, she does just fine in structured venues like last week’s, when she consistently offered well-timed and well-practiced one-minute answers to spin her record to best advantage. The front-runner going into the event, she made no mistakes, employing a rope-a-dope strategy that ignored the gentle taps and jabs of her rivals, none of whom made a noteworthy break through, all of which made Her Honor a winner because the political dynamic and shape of the race remained unaltered.

James Joyce. Joyce delivered a strong and sharp performance that simultaneously displayed his policy chops on homelessness and housing, honed as a longtime district director for ex-state senator Hannah Beth Jackson, and an appealing and engaging speaking style that left little doubt why firms enlist his “Coffee with a Black Guy” consultancy for help with difficult HR issues. Direct, clear and energetic, he earned points for explaining the rationale for his candidacy by drawing a connection between his professional skill set, as a facilitator and teller of hard truths about equity, and the strategy he would employ to tackle other thorny and intractable problems faced by the city.

Deborah Schwartz. With more urgency than any of the others, Schwartz sounded the argument that the city faces truly consequential crises, and with more forthrightness and frequency she criticized Murillo — referencing her as “the mayor,” rather than by name — for a paucity of leadership that is unequal to the task of addressing them. Also indirectly elbowing Rowse in the pro-business lane, she portrayed herself as the best candidate on the economy, identifying the mistrust and “great tensions” between City Hall and the business community as a primary reason for her candidacy: “I am an advocate for employers (and) businesses,” she said in her closing statement. “It’s time for a change.”

Randy Rowse. The former city council member and longtime downtown restaurateur did a solid job of market differentiation by providing a clear contrast with the incumbent, repeatedly assailing the political “partisanship and out-of-town unions,” which he said now dominate City Hall, while promising to lead the council in being “focused on local issues and local issues only.” Formerly a strong opponent of closing State Street to traffic, he also did a nice job of finessing the issue, as he both acknowledged the council’s success in establishing the promenade as an emergency move during the pandemic, and bowed to traditional design criteria of the Pueblo Viejo district, insisting that the parklet environment “needs to be clean.”

Zoom backgrounds. There’s a popular Twitter account called “Room Rater,” which is devoted exclusively to offering aesthetic commentary and numeric grades, from 1-10, to the images of home people display behind them during digitally distanced TV appearances. From where we sat, Whitehurst won the night in this category, scoring a 9 for the bamboo curtains in his Tiki bar inspired home office, while Schwartz got an 8 for a mindful and balanced composition that framed her between fresh cut flowers and a street scene painting, and Joyce captured a 7 for the elegant simplicity of the big campaign banner behind him and the Proclamation from the Legislature on the adjoining wall. Bonus for the plant in the corner.


Matt Kilrain. Santa Barbara long had a tradition of citywide elections that featured one or two offbeat, colorful characters who provided some comic relief to deadly earnest presentations of other candidates, and “Boat Rat Matt” is seeking to fill that niche in 2021. Truth be told, the stakes this time just seem too damned high: his “end the divide, raise the vibe, unite the 805” slogan stopped being funny about the 12th or 13th time he uttered it, and his act really wore thin by the time he lurched into a bizarre rant about abortion and getting into “head games with your spouse or your girlfriend — I gotta teach her a lesson,” not to mention the opining on his web site about JFK Jr. being alive and the “Great Awakening” of QAnon.

Mark Whitehurst. The genial publisher of the weekly “Voice” magazine in Santa Barbara got off to a shaky start when he was AWOL at the 1 pm start time for the event (“I thought it was at six o’clock,” he explained when we finally tracked him down a few minutes after show time, thanks to a private cell number provided by the mayor) and things didn’t improve a great deal from there. He never really explained the rationale for his candidacy and several of his comments about the state of the city — “I think the city is stronger” than when Murillo took office, he said at one point — make you wonder why he’s running at all.

Fiesta. Asked if they believe “systemic racism” exists in city government, most of the candidates (Rowse was a notable exception) rushed to declare that there is: “There’s systemic racism everywhere,” proclaimed Murillo. But it was Joyce who offered the most thorough, concise response, a one-minute tutorial that began with slavery, extended historic racial power relationships to government, business, legal and banking systems today and concluded by noting that in Santa Barbara “we celebrate” the colonialization of Native lands. Viva La Fiesta, indeed.

Senate Bill 9. Embattled Gov. Gavin Newsom currently has other political fish to fry, but soon enough is expected to sign SB9, just-passed landmark housing legislation that would wipe away a vast amount of local control over single family zoning, by giving landowners new state-mandated rights to build up to four units on a single lot. Although liberals Cathy, Deborah and James expressed mild concern about the measure, it was the moderate Randy who gave voice to the views of slow-growthers (not to mention homeowners who would prefer Santa Barbara not be transformed into Pasadena) about water and other resources and the limited carrying capacity of the city, saying that as mayor he would “work with local coalitions to oppose” SB9’s destruction of local control.
Zoom backgrounds. The second trio of candidates did not fare as well as the first in Newsmakers’ Room Rater competition: Randy earned a 5 for putting up a virtual background of the waterfront, a lovely scene that was marred whenever he moved his head a certain way and it appeared to melt into the palm trees, while Cathy got a 4 for the bare walls of her classic hunkered-down-in-the-bedroom look and Matt got a 3 for a nondescript outdoor shot that left him often looking kinda blurry.

Upcoming council clashes

The Newsmakers-SB Talks-TVSB debate team swings back into action on Wednesday night, when we’ll host the first candidate forum of the campaign for the city council contenders in District 6, including Meagan Harmon, Nina Johnson and Jason Carlton.

And next Wednesday, Sept. 8, we’ll moderate the discussion for District 4 candidates, the first smackdown of the season between Councilmember Kristen Sneddon and challenger Barrett Reed.

Both programs will be available online on Newsmakers and “SB Talks,” on the air on TVSB and at finer local news organizations everywhere.


Written by Jerry Roberts

“Newsmakers” is a multimedia journalism platform that focuses on politics, media and public affairs in Santa Barbara. Learn more at

What do you think?


0 Comments deleted by Administrator

Leave a Review or Comment


  1. We can all make up our own minds on what matters, but Jerry is welcome to comment on whatever he likes. Video is a visual medium; what we see matters. I thought Rowse’s background was a bad color choice. The sepia tone (?) made it look like the skyline during a fire—yellow-brown air. Scary. I didn’t like it at all, but that’s not why I won’t be voting for him. Not sure Schwartz’s flowers were fresh—I think those were silk poppies. I do think it’s fine to critique the visuals, but we shouldn’t let those affect our votes.

  2. Good job, Jerry – you’re the one keeping the mayor’s race alive for voters. We the people would have to, and should, initiate rank-choice voting. We don’t even do runoffs, so Cathy could slide in for a 2nd term with 20% of the vote this time. Yuck. I though James Joyce III came off the most polished and insightful of the bunch, with good jabs and assertiveness from Deborah and Randy.

  3. Don’t agree on several points with Jerry’s assessments:
    When the chips were down, including the floods and the ongoing Covid pandemic, Cathy continued to fail using her bully pulpit as mayor to be a conduit for information and keeping her constituents informed. She was also on the wrong side of Black Lives Matter. Santa Barbara is not a racist city and she did not defend it.
    James Joyce has never held any city position, appointed or elected. He has no administrative experience of any kind of governing. He knows little about our city’s history. He has the same old political voice of most politicians on subjects like homelessness and affordable housing. Yes, they are not good situations, but how do we solve them, James? Affordable housing locally in meaningful numbers is a pipe dream. It cannot be built by private investors unless government subsidizes them. If you cannot afford to live her, you must move to where you can afford to live, just as millions of other people in the USA are doing. Helena, Montana is calling! James Joyce has no constituency locally. Have he ever attended city council and board meetings?
    Deborah Schwartz is trying to ride her mother’s name into an elected position. While she has been on the planning commission, she has not had a good working relationship with city staff. They do not like her because she is overbearing and orders them around. She has had some severe financial problems and was sued for non repayment of a large debt and she also failed to pay CA State income taxes and the state came after her. Now she wants to handle my city’s budget?
    Randy Rowse is the most logical choice for mayor. Local government experience and businessman. My only concern is that he also recognizes that there is more to Santa Barbara than the downtown business core. At present, State Street looks like an Indian Bazar and is dirty, unsafe and unwelcoming. He might be able to help bring it back. Booze purveyors are not the salvation of our downtown area. There is far too much flowing there as it is. Lastly-It is way past the time where the city council needs to spend more time and money addressing the needs of our residential areas. The streets are filthy and they get little in the way of police patrols. It’s time local taxpayers get what they have so log paid for and not received from city hall!

  4. Which candidate will tell us how many affordable units this city already offers, how many total housing units are now under some sort of government subsidy or price control, how many charitable groups provide affordable housing and what has that done to the tax revenue base of this city. When every year you have 5000 or so UCSB students alone who graduate and never want to leave, there will alway be a clamor for “more affordable housing”. Which candidate has the courage to ignore than perennial siren call and lay out the case and fiscal impacts of the numbers of subsidized units we already have, and also provide an estimate of how many illegal units are out there renting under market as well.

  5. from where I sit and watch:
    1. tired of Cathy; lack of leadership and vision, even though I supported here before
    2. think Randy has best change to garner enough votes (26%?) to win
    3. but thought Randy was weak in debate/forum and not progressive enough for me.
    4. liked JJ the 3rd but does he stand a chance?
    5. Deborah is smart, but not sure if she’s just carrying developer’s water.
    6. wondering why Mark W. is in the race? to take old white guys votes from Randy and to help Cathy?
    7. someone needs to intervene and get some mental health help the last candidate whose name I have intentionally wiped from my memory bank.
    so if I don’t want Cathy and don’t really like Randy, what should I do?

  6. Anyone of Native peoples descent would probably feel icky about celebrating colonizing holidays. I am not Native, but as a white person, I feel uncomfortable seeing other white people dress in traditional Mexican clothing and sombreros acting like its not appropriation. Joyce is correct in his views

  7. Not only that but her ONLY executive experience was overseeing a few dozen kids and a budget in the $100’s for construction paper and paste!!!! How that (in)experience translated into role overseeing a nine figure budget with thousands of employees is the scariest aspect of Murillo and her legacy of ineptitude… Who the hell thought that she was a good choice? That’s the real problem with our city. Who are the Queen Makers and what is their goal?

  8. The local QueenMakers are SEIU and the other city employee unions, along with the DCC and their lock on all the rest of the local government employee unions votes. Time people woke up to this fact – to the winners go the spoils – funded by our own tax dollars. But we see little benefit for monies expended only for the public sector unions benefits. Can’t fix your pot holes, because we need to fund the city employee pension shortfalls. So sorry, but please vote for us again. This is now a company town and government is the largest employer. There you have it, to the Queen goes the spoils

  9. I’m doing the same math. Can’t support Randy, the vision needed just isn’t there. Cathy has to go. Not remotely qualified. I had same question re developer money for Deborah, and got a group email from Ed St George asking to toss $1000 her way. So I’m going with James Joyce. He’s got serious governmental chops from working in state government, is approachable, articulate, and I think will do the best job. I wish we had more robust choices, but there it is.

  10. Rowse makes the most critical point voters should appreciate far more – something is wrong when city council members take major campaign money and election support from city employee groups, and then turn around and collectively bargain with those very same peoples city employment contracts, perks, benefits and pensions. Being a government employee does not teach anyone how the system works at all; just one perspective of the system – the receiving end of a tax dollar funded paycheck . We need people outside of government employment who are grounded in the wider economy to best represent us on city council. JJ is simply a non-starter for this role. Let hope he brings his energy to another position, where he can build more comprehensive experience than simply being a government employee. Planning Commission was formerly the farm club for later political office, since at least it requires a very comprehensive view of all the dimensions of this. town. Community non-profits or civic organizations are also good places to start too. Plus at least demonstrated evidence in public finance, administrative literacy and sound parliamentarian skills. I’d rather vote for someone who used to be a least a former student council president, than taking a chance on someone who just demonstrates a high likability factor. Deeds and proven track record, not just words is what we badly need right now. Keep in mind whomever is elected mayor will be in a free-floating situation with the dual loss of both the City Administrator and the Asst City Administrator for back-up, history and context. Not the time to risk a total unknown and neophyte to become the titular leader of this city, not a this time until the new top city administration team has more experience to back up too many new faces on city council. Electing the experienced Nina Johnson to the downtown District seat over the scattered Meaghan Harmon will help the overall city council direction during this shaky interim transition period, until a new permanent city administrator is selected. Electing Deborah Schwartz at this time would spell disaster since she wants the mayor and council to take over the city administrator’s role. and the current city council makeup is simply not up to the task at all, so basically electing her would be a one-person dictatorship – guard against that since she has chosen to be the developer’s inside candidate. The fundamental direction of this city will change with this election at this critical formless time in its long history. Rowse has the most comprehensive skills package, a very nice public persona, as well as a demonstrated love for this city. It is greatly appreciated that he stepped up to this challenge at this critical time.

SB Act Homeless Services Video

Frontier Fiber Optic and 5G Internet Service