Mayoral Candidates Answer Tough Questions in Packed House

Debate Veers into Religion, Reputation, and Climate Change

From left: Hal Conklin, Cathy Murillo, Harwood "Bendy" White, moderators Jonathan Bastian and Nick Welsh, Angel Martinez, and Frank Hotchkiss at a mayoral candidate debate in SBCC's Garvin Theatre

Paul Wellman

From left: Hal Conklin, Cathy Murillo, Harwood "Bendy" White, moderators Jonathan Bastian and Nick Welsh, Angel Martinez, and Frank Hotchkiss at a mayoral candidate debate in SBCC's Garvin Theatre

An impassioned crowd of more than 400 filled SBCC’s Garvin Theatre this Wednesday for a mayoral debate cohosted by the Santa Barbara Independent, KCRW, and the SBCC Foundation. Though the event — one of the last public appearances by the five candidates before one is crowned the winner next month — retrod many of the same topics and information covered in previous debates, it also featured new and pointed questions of each contender.

The Independent’s Nick Welsh set up the first direct question by joking that babies born at Cottage Hospital receive birth certificates printed with the phrase “Santa Barbara, the birthplace of the environmental movement.” How, Welsh asked Hotchkiss — a far-right Republican and climate-change nonbeliever — could he represent a city with such different environmental sentiments than his own?

Hotchkiss responded that predicted climate-change catastrophes — such as the forecast that much of Santa Barbara would flood should the Greenland ice caps melt — “have not come about for various reasons,” and that policies like Santa Barbara’s initiative to go fossil free by 2030 are based on political opportunism, not sound science or smart economics. His statements drew audible grumbles from the crowd. Hotchkiss was similarly rebuffed when asked about the city’s affordable-housing shortage. “I wish I could be more hopeful to those who want to stay here, but honestly, you probably have to go elsewhere or find a way to make more money.”

Cathy Murillo, the most ardently progressive member of the council, bristled slightly at Welsh’s question as to whether she may be better politically suited as an advocate rather than a mayor responsible for brokering peace and agreement on the dais. “People knew what they were voting for,” Murillo said of her past two election victories. “People see me as mayoral, Nick.” The audience roared in agreement. Murillo touted her ability to foster regional cooperation and pointed to her work with the police department to encourage intervention over the incarceration of at-risk youth. “I have a friendly personality, and I bring people together to solve problems,” she said.

Bendy White was asked by KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian how he differentiates himself from his fellow Democrats in the race. “Give me one proposal that you think is radical [or] novel that would set you apart.” White responded that he alone would properly defend the traditions of Santa Barbara laid out by conservationist Pearl Chase. “I propose to feather in affordable housing to take care of this amazing place that we inherited,” he said. “If that’s radical, I’ll take that any time.”

Speaking to Angel Martinez, Bastian noted how the former Deckers CEO has no political experience, has never voted in a city election, and only recently moved to Santa Barbara proper. “You tout your business leadership, but this is not a CEO position,” said Bastian. “It’s about compromise, and as we see in Washington, a strong personality and business background doesn’t translate to effective leadership.” Martinez calmly countered that his experience as the head of Deckers, where he said he successfully pulled people together toward a greater vision, was very different than the approach of the president as CEO of The Trump Organization. Trump, Martinez said, “dictated in a family-owned business with a silver spoon in his mouth what he wanted …. That isn’t how it works in a public company.”

Hal Conklin was asked about his religious beliefs as a member of the Free Methodist Church, whose Book of Discipline condemns abortion and gay marriage and dictates that creationism be taught alongside evolution. “Many see the mayor as a moral compass of the city,” said Bastian. “Please clarify your positions on these issues as the potential leader of a progressive city.” Conklin stated that while he adheres closely to the gospels of the church, its Book of Discipline contains only “recommendations for how to live your life.” As a strong libertarian and lifelong supporter of civil rights, Conklin said, he would never be part of public policy that would infringe on personal choice.

Ballots in this year’s vote-by-mail election were mailed October 9 and must be postmarked for return by Election Day, November 7. They can also be dropped off at the City Clerk’s Office during regular business hours prior to Election Day, or at four locations — City Hall, the Franklin Neighborhood Center, Harding Elementary School, and First Presbyterian Church — on November 7.

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