Published April 8, 2021 in the Montecito Journal
By Nick Schou
Readers of this column may have noticed that the Montecito Journal has in the past few months published a series of stories highlighting three candidates running for the office of Mayor of Santa Barbara: James Joyce, Deborah Schwartz, and last week, Randy Rowse. Noticeably absent on that list is the mayor herself, Cathy Murillo, who on March 30 answered our questions about her reelection campaign as well as her policy plans for a second term should voters choose her this November.
For those that don’t already know Murillo’s background, she grew up in East Los Angeles, raised by both her mother and grandmother while her father, a gang member, was serving hard time in prison for selling drugs. Above anyone, Murillo credits her grandmother, Maria Hurtado Delgadillo, a Mexican immigrant who became a U.S. citizen and lifelong voter, as playing a vital role in her upbringing.
“One of the things that shaped my values was the fact that my grandmother registered us all to vote, not just me, but the neighborhood kids as well, as soon as we were eligible,” Murillo says. “She was also a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, a seamstress in the L.A. Garment District, who helped unionize her shop. I come from a union family and that’s the backstory of my connection to the labor movement.”
After arriving in Santa Barbara to pursue a major in dramatic arts at UC Santa Barbara, Murillo taught theater classes to local children before becoming a print and radio journalist, a career that began with an internship at the Santa Barbara Independent and lasted until 2012, when she transitioned into politics as a member of the city council. Her tough childhood circumstances not only cemented a lifelong dedication to the labor union cause, but also a special awareness of the challenges facing young people in urban environments. “The lesson I learned from my childhood is that we are not our parents,” she explains. “Just because they may have made mistakes doesn’t mean you have to repeat them.”
One of Murillo’s early projects as a councilmember was reopening all city public libraries on Mondays and funding a special children’s library; she has carried this commitment to youth issues with her as mayor, most recently in the form of a summer pilot program that she’s in the process of launching that will allow teens to keep active by playing kickball and enjoying an evening meal at the city’s three high schools. She hopes the program wi11 expand to include more activities in the summer of 2022. “Teens are having a particularly hard time during the pandemic,” she says. “They miss their friends, their campuses, and their parents aren’t making as much money now as they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Another of Murillo’s major concerns as mayor has been homelessness, a problem she began seeking to address even before she went into politics. “Part of the reason I ran for the council in the first place is that the city, as it is now, was struggling with issues of homelessness and I wanted to be part of that solution,” she recalls. “As a reporter at the Independent I went undercover at the shelter, which back then was called Casa Esperanza, and I stayed there for two nights.”
Given Santa Barbara’s legendarily high cost of living, and the fact that 60 percent of city residents are renters, Murillo has spent much of her time in public office seeking help to alleviate the impact on the city’s most vulnerable residents. Among her accomplishments: Creating a daytime parking program for RV dwellers. “When the City banned oversized vehicles on City streets, I held meetings so that people who lived in their cars and RVs could understand the new ordinance, and we developed a program for daytime parking locations to complement the Safe Parking (overnight parking) Program,” Murillo says. “I secured the Castillo commuter lot where the vehicles could gather for organizing meetings.”
Murillo also served as the liaison to the city’s Living Wage Advisory Committee. “We sponsored a 2017 panel discussion about housing costs, low wage jobs, the minimum wage increase, bringing housing to State Street, the need for universal health care, among other topics,” she recalls. “In 2018, we organized a Career & Apprenticeship Fair at Casa de la Raza, with a focus on recruiting Santa Barbara youth into the construction trades.”
During Murillo’s first mayoral term, she helped deliver balanced budgets and grow the City’s operating reserves, work which proved vital when Santa Barbara’s revenue sources flatlined because of the pandemic. “Under my leadership, our city continued delivering all services, and we immediately began working with businesses as the economy stalled,” says Murillo. “We formed a Business Advisory Task Force and connected businesses with resources provided by the state and federal governments, responding to COVID-19.”
Under her leadership, the city council also provided assistance to renters unable to pay their rents, Murillo says. “Also to protect tenants, we passed the Just Cause Eviction Ordinance that included robust relocation assistance. I also successfully pushed for another employee in the Rental Housing Mediation office, which prevents evictions and provides resources for renters.”
To help honor the demands of Healing Justice, Santa Barbara’s local Black Lives Matter movement, Santa Barbara’s city council has appointed a 13-member commission to review police department practices and recommend a system for civilian oversight of response to charges of misconduct and police brutality. “Beyond criminal justice reform, I fully support our Black community’s efforts to celebrate their culture and history in Santa Barbara,” Murillo adds. “The City has designated St. Paul’s AME Church as an historic landmark and is in the process of identifying other buildings and spaces to include as historic resources; the City is funding the Juneteenth celebration on an annual basis, and staff is helping the effort to establish a Black community resource center.”
Should she be elected for a second term, Murillo hopes to continue to focus on supporting affordable housing production, bringing transparency and responsiveness in law enforcement, getting small businesses back on their feet as quickly as possible this year, creating policy that aggressively transitions away from fossil fuels, staying focused on solutions for homelessness, and continuing her work helping gang-risk youth and their families. “Working with the business community and all stakeholders, I will continue to help create a new downtown with housing, new uses for retail spaces, and when pandemic conditions change, family programming and entertainment to help revitalize and re-energize our ‘village center,’” she says.
Responding to critics who claim that Santa Barbara’s political establishment suffers from a lack of transparency, Murillo says she has pushed for the hiring of a bilingual public information officer who can help City Hall do a better job of getting its message out. She dismissed allegations of corruption involving the licensing of cannabis dispensaries that were brought up in a recent Los Angeles Magazinestory as largely erroneous but insisted that the results of the city’s outside investigation will be made fully public once it’s complete.
“I’m waiting for the investigation to finish, and we will see what it uncovers,” says Murillo. “We are in the process of hiring a new police chief, so there is a lot going on. As we recover from the pandemic and hopefully return to a ‘new normal,’ it will be a crucial time for our city. I hope the voters will keep me in the position and allow me to continue to serve them.”
There’s much more to this story than Mr. Peanut Butters. Among other things, the Montecito Journal is aware that Santa Barbara’s Grand Jury has begun interviewing various parties in this dispute regarding last November’s failed Measure L bond proposal. Stay tuned!