Voters in the city of Santa Barbara have elected their first Latina mayor.
With a 50 percent voter turnout and four other candidates in the ring, City Councilmember Cathy Murillo won with less than 7,000 votes.
KCRW spoke with Murillo about how she plans to represent the other 83,000 people in the city.
KCRW: How does it feel to be the first Latina mayor of Santa Barbara?
Murillo: I was the first Latina ever elected to city council, so for the last six years, I’ve enjoyed representing our Latino families, especially girls and teens. That is one of my goals on the city council, always – to engage the Latino electorate and young people.
What are you hearing from the Latino population? Do you think there is a sense of unrest or frustration in terms of their role in Santa Barbara?
People are not happy about the White House administration and what’s coming down from there. There have been very clear statements against undocumented families and disrespect for people of color. People are awake to that. In Santa Barbara, the main struggles – and this is why my platform included economic development – I want to create job and housing opportunities for people. If you have a place to live and a steady income in Santa Barbara, you’re pretty darn happy.
You got 6,881 votes, total, in a city of over 90,000 people. What would you say to the 83,000 other people living in the city who didn’t vote for you, or didn’t vote at all?
Both times I’ve run before, I didn’t win all the votes or get all the endorsements. The trick is, now, to focus on representing everyone and building relationships. For instance, the Chamber of Commerce didn’t endorse me, but one of my top goals is economic development and job development. In politics, you have to set aside any hurt feelings, and now [critics] are coming to me, people want to have coffee with me and I’m like, yes, let’s build a relationship moving forward.
Some of your critics have said you’re an activist on the far left on the city council. How do you begin to dispel this thought that you only represent a subset of the community?
Painting me as an extremist was part of the political opposition’s drumbeat. The people voted for me because they knew otherwise.
Housing was the issue of this race. How will you provide more housing while maintaining Santa Barbara’s small-town charm?
That will be my biggest challenge – creating housing policy that gives us housing but doesn’t make us feel overdeveloped, crowded, and like things are too tall, there’s too much traffic and too many people. It’s a balancing act. The state has said all the cities in California aren’t producing enough housing and have given housing mandates, so we’re trying to make those rules as Santa Barbara-responsive as possible, and still produce the housing we need. We have such a rigorous process – land use review – that there’s no way we’ll just build whatever.
How do you see your legacy as mayor differing from current mayor Helene Schneider?
I’ll continue to bring City Hall to the community. That ties in with the Latino community, especially people who may not be tied into voting and the electoral process – they see me in their world, and that will get them connected to government. I am in the community a lot more than anybody in city council. That will be how I’m different. People with know me as a mayor in the community.
Let’s say you have a different idea about a set of policy than the council does. Are you going to be the kind of mayor that holds your ground, or will you go along with what council wants to do?
Depending on what issue it is, there’s always room for compromising and shaping a policy. We do that all the time on Tuesday afternoons. We go back and forth and we craft a decision that everybody can live with. I’m really good at that. This is where my journalism training comes in, where you can look at all perspectives and do your homework. Sometimes, maybe, it’s a 5-2 vote, or a 6-1. I’m really looking forward to that part of the job.
What is the number one thing you want to tackle first?
I really need to get to know the new people on the council – Eric Friedman and Kristen Sneddon – and then get together with Paul Casey, our city administrator. How do we navigate the new district system? How do we make sure we’re all working together for the betterment of the entire city? That’s my top priority.