Monday, October 12, 2009

Fear and Loathing Inside Preserve Our Santa Barbara

Having carpet-bombed our mailboxes and blanketed the local airwaves with campaign ads promoting its slate of candidates for mayor and city council and its support for Measure B, there's probably not a registered voter in the City of Santa Barbara who hasn't heard of Preserve Our Santa Barbara.

Their campaign started off focusing on their own agenda and the candidates they were supporting. Recently the campaign mailers and TV commercials have taken on a negative tone. Whether the negative campaigning succeeds remains to be seen, but local political history would suggest that attack ads end up backfiring more often than they triumph.

And if you've been reading my blog, The Daily Sound, Noozhawk or the Independent, you know that Preserve Our Santa Barbara is being single-handedly funded by Dallas developer Randell Van Wolfswinkel who has dipped into his big-ass Texas pockets and kicked in over $250,000 for the cause.

That's a lot of money and there's still three weeks left to go before ballots are due. And, make no mistake. The quarter-of-a-million dollars Van Wolfswinkel has given so far isn't like Micheal Towbes giving money to the Granada or even Wendy McCaw chipping in to Free Willy. Unlike charitable contributions, money given to political campaigns or causes can't be deducted from one's taxes.

But while Van Wolfswinkel is writing the checks, he doesn't appear to be the one calling the shots in the Preserve Our Santa Barbara campaign.

Although Preserve Our Santa Barbara has tried to saddle mayoral candidate Steve Cushman with a Russian connection, (and when a group that received $250,000 from a single source criticizes a candidate for receiving $50,000 from a single donor, isn't that like the Politburo calling The Central Committee, communist?) the real Troika in this election is the one that's at the helm of Preserve Our Santa Barbara.

According to Preston Kincaid, who up until September 10 of this year, was a campaign consultant for Preserve Our Santa Barbara, it's John and Sandy Wallace of Montecito, together with the L.A. law firm of Reed & Davidson who, along with Van Wolfswinkel, who are firmly in command of the political action committee.

If the name John Wallace sounds vaguely familiar to you, it's because earlier this year he actively and vocally opposed the replacement of the Union 76 gas station at the northwest corner of Coast Village and Olive Mill roads in Montecito with a three-story mixed-use building. Wallace who owns the property directly north of the project site on Olive Mill Road, objected to it because he felt it was an invasion of his family's privacy.

The city council voted to approve the project on a 6 to 1 vote with Dale Francisco, who has since received the backing of Preserve Our Santa Barbara in his quest to become mayor, the lone dissenter.

According to Nick Welsh's account of the hearing in the Independent, Wallace "went nasty" in his opposition to the project. Among those joining Wallace in his opposition to the project was Van Wolfswinkel, who according to the Independent, was rumored to have been the individual who took out full-page newspaper ads opposing the project and urging people to pack the council meeting to demonstrate their opposition to it.

It always strikes me as a little odd when someone spends a lot of money urging others to take action but won't take that same action themselves. Van Wolfswinkel himself, evidently, wasn't present at the council meeting where the vote took place.

It would appear that out of the alliance that came together to try and put a stop to the Coast Village Road project, Preserve Our Santa Barbara was born.

Kincaid, the campaign consultant, started working with the Wallaces some time ago when he was hired to do a presentation for one of the Coast Village Road hearings. Kincaid told me that the Wallace's presented themselves as being people who could head up the campaign and that Van Wolfswinkel trusted them to run it.

Andrew Russo, a Republican political consultant out of Salinas, California, whom Kincaid had worked with for over 20 years, was brought in to be the professional to run Preserve Our Santa Barbara.

Kincaid designed Preserve Our Santa Barbara's first mailer that went out.

It's not clear when, but at some point the Wallaces became worried that the campaign was not going well. And, according to Kincaid, "Things really started getting weird," when Wallace became convinced that Santa Barbara public relations consultant John Davies, had been "bugging" the Preserve Our Santa Barbara campaign.

It wasn't the first time that Kincaid had heard such an allegation from Wallace about Davies. During one of the earlier hearings about the Coast Village Road project Wallace expressed concern that Davies, who was working for John Price the developer of the Coast Village Road project, had people who would hack into Wallace's laptop and sabotage the visual presentation that was stored there. He insisted that Kincaid make the trip down from the Monterey area for the meeting to guard against any such shenanigans. Kincaid made the trip, and Wallace's visual presentation was made without any problems.

The Wallace's concern about Davies is an example of behavior Kincaid would later describe as, "unbelievably paranoid and pathological."

At some point Reed & Davidson, an L.A. law firm that specializes in political, initiative, referendum and election law, was brought into the campaign. Kincaid believes it was at the behest of Van Wolfsinkel.

According to Kincaid, there was a total shift in the campaign when the L.A. attorneys came on board. Suddenly he and Russo had to start answering to a law firm.

By Kincaid's account, there was no single point of contact with their employers. Wallace would tell him to put something up, someone from the law firm would say, "Why wasn't this run by us?" When Kincaid would respond by removing it, Wallace would then say, "why did you take it down?"

In Kincaid's opinion, campaign ads went from "tasteful" to looking like they were "throwing a tantrum." "Underline this, emphasize that," Wallace would tell him. And, there was a constant rift between Russo and Wallace. Kincaid felt the Preserve Our Santa Barbara campaign had become Wallace's vendetta.

Sometime towards the end of August, Russo called Van Wolfswinkel and told him that Wallace was getting out of hand. A few days later Russo was fired by Wallace.

Not long after that, on September 10th, Kincaid would submit his own resignation to the Wallaces, saying that he could not, "with a clear conscious participate in what I feel to be the most incompetent, and egregiously mismanaged campaign I have ever been witness to."

While Kincaid has nothing good to say about the Wallaces he doesn't have anything bad to say about Van Wolfswinkel.

Throughout our phone conversation he described Van Wolfswinkel as someone who, "has the best interest of Santa Barbara at heart," and who doesn't have any development aspirations.

Nor does he have anything negative to say about the candidates who are being supported by Preserve Our Santa Barbara.

But one can only imagine what those candidates are thinking about Preserve Our Santa Barbara.

Under the California Fair Political Practices Act, PACs like Preserve Our Santa Barbara are allowed to make independent expenditures to pay for mailers and TV and radio ads that advocate for the election, or defeat of candidates. But those expenditures cannot be made at the behest of a candidate and must be made completely "independent" of the candidate. In other words, no coordination can take place between the candidates or their campaigns and the entity that makes the independent expenditure.

How convenient is that for Francisco, Michael Self, Cathie McCammon and Frank Hotchkiss, not to mention the Yes On Measure B crowd?

Then again, nothing is stopping any of the beneficiaries of the negative campaigning from denouncing the tactics of Preserve Our Santa Barbara.

However, if the negative campaign being waged by Preserve Our Santa Barbara backfires, they all may rue the day that Van Wolfswinkel and the Wallaces got together.

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If you're near a radio Monday afternoon, tune into AM1490 Progressive Talk where I'll be the in-studio guest on The Nick & Paul Show from 3 to 4 pm. I'll be talking local politics.
© 2009 by Craig Smith and