Monday, August 20, 2007

The Field Is Set

The City Council may be “dark” during August, but the political scene is pretty active anyway. Over the past few weeks, a lot of prospective City Council candidates have been out there trying to put campaigns together. Now that the filing deadline is past, the field is set. Nine candidates will be running this year for three seats on the council, including all three incumbents. You can break the field down into four categories: the incumbents; veteran challengers, newcomers, and “the gadfly”.

Overall, I have to say that I’m looking forward to the campaign. I’d say everybody has
something to contribute, and the candidate debates should be both informative and fun. I’ll post the schedule as it evolves.

The Incumbents

All three incumbents – Carl Morehouse, Christy Weir, and I – are running for re-election, and we have all endorsed each other.

It’s unusual for all the incumbents to seek re-election, but Christy and I are only finishing our first term and Carl is finishing his second. Carl is finishing up his two-year term as mayor and Christy is finishing up as deputy mayor. (Mayor and deputy mayor are selected by the council for two-year terms after each election.)

This is only the second time in the last seven elections that all the incumbents have chosen to run. The last time was 2001, when Brian Brennan, Donna DePaola, and Sandy Smith – all finishing their first terms – ran for re-election, along with Jim Monahan, who had already served God-knows-how-many terms.

It’s also unusual for incumbents to lose. The only recent incumbent defeated was Donna D. in 2001. Before that you have to go all the way back to 1993 to find an incumbent who was defeated.

Veteran Challengers

Three veteran candidates are running again – Doug Halter, Jerry Martin, and Brian Lee Rencher.

Doug Halter is a longtime community activist – a guy who’s energetic, passionate, and committed. A lot of people would say Doug is the most viable challenger. He’s run twice before, in 1997 and 1999. He almost won in ’99, when he lost out for the last seat (to Carl Morehouse) by about 500 votes. Since then he’s focused on his businesses and he’s been the chair of the Chamber of Commerce.

Jerry Martin ran a good campaign last time around and wound up as first runner-up, though he was pretty far behind the winners. Jerry’s also a good-hearted guy who has done a lot of positive things for the community. Recently he helped organize a wonderful effort to help out an elderly lady on the Westside whose house needed some renovation. Jerry’s also a favorite of the unions and is likely to get one, maybe two union endorsements.

Brian Lee Rencher has run in every City Council election since 1991. He just barely made the filing deadline this year – he showed up 20 minutes before the deadline, and while he was filing his papers he graciously told me he thought the current council is doing a good job.

A lot of people would put Brian Lee Rencher in the gadfly category, but that would be a mistake. He’s gotten a lot of votes in the last three campaigns, and he runs strong in the western part of the city. (If Ventura stretched only from the Avenue to Seaward, he’d have been elected by now – he always runs in the top three in that part of town.) Brian’s an excellent campaigner and he always raises the level of debate in the campaign. (By the way, most people call him “Brian Lee” but I once asked him what he preferred to be called personally and he said “Brian,” so that’s what I call him.)


This race has attracted two newcomers who seem pretty serious about their campaigns: Lou Cunningham and Mike Gibson.

Lou Cunningham has been around town for a long time. He just retired as a facilities manager from the Oxnard Union High School District, but he’s also been a member of the city’s Mobile Home Rent Review Board (a pretty thankless job) and the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission (which makes decisions about local government boundaries – another thankless job.) He ran for the council in 1991 but got less than 400 voters, finishing second to last (ahead only of Rencher). He’s definitely more serious this time.

Lou seems like a good guy. He’s been sitting through City Council meetings (to the bitter end!) for several months now. I ran into him while he was filing his papers at the City Clerk’s office and he was wearing an American flag tie! Lou appears to be running as a fiscal conservative, but with a “roll up our sleeves” and “common sense’ orientation.

Like Lou, Mike Gibson is a veteran public employee who is running as a fiscal conservative, although his rhetoric is a little more aggressive than Lou’s. I haven’t met Mr. Gibson, who works as the business manager for the Santa Barbara County Parks Department.

He has already written a letter to the editor of the Star criticizing Christy Weir for her supposed opposition to the proposed Wal-Mart on Victoria. (
In his campaign statement (reproduced in Brian Dennert’s blog on the Star web site), Mr. Gibson criticized the current council for supposedly doing nothing on the economic development front to increase city revenues. He states his unequivocal opposition to last year’s Measure P6, which would have increased the sales tax by a quarter-cent to fund public safety. He also says the voters affirmed his view by rejecting Measure P6. I can’t help but note that, although P6 didn’t pass (it required a two-thirds majority), in fact 62% of the voters voted in favor of P6 and only 38% voted against it.

I think the newcomers will contribute a lot to the debate about fiscal and economic issues in the city and that’s part of the reason why I’m looking forward to the campaign.

The Gadfly

Carroll Dean Williams. Need I say more? He also qualified to run for school board. The City Clerk's office told me that if he is elected to both positions, he can actually serve in both capacity. Think that'll happen?

Who Didn’t Run

Mike Tracy, the popular former police chief, flirted with running but decided against it. He definitely would have been a strong candidate if he’s run.

Kimble Ouerbacker, a lawyer who was involved in the Grant Park Cross issue a few years ago, declared his intention to run and raised some money, but then never picked up nominating petitions. Mr. Ouerbacker, whom I’ve never met, is a member of the Ventura County Republican Central Committee. In 2003, he represented the original landowners of the land underneath the Grant Park Cross, who claimed in court (unsuccessfully) that the City had to offer to return the land to them before selling it to a nonprofit conservancy; a few weeks ago, he organized the “Lights on the Cross” event, where many community residents lit up the cross on a Saturday night with their flashlights. Mr. Ouerbacker was the only prospective challenge to file a campaign finance disclosure statement in July. He had raised $2,800, including a transfer from the campaign committee of Paul Kunicki, the conservative member of the county Board of Education from Simi Valley. You can read everybody’s campaign disclosure statements at

And Melody Joy Baker, the deaf, wheelchair-bound homeless vet who ran in 2005, failed to gather enough valid signatures to qualify. (You have to get 20 signatures from registered voters in the City of Ventura to qualify for the ballot.) Melody can be a difficult person and she is sometimes disruptive at public meetings, but I am sorry she didn’t get the signatures. I actually signed her petition because I believe elections are the crux of our democracy and all voices should be heard in our local elections.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Connecting The Digital Coast To The Technology Corridor -- In Ventura

A few weeks ago, Dr. Bill Watkins of UC Santa Barbara, our leading local economist, delivered some pretty depressing news at the Chamber of Commerce’s annual breakfast: Our local Ventura economy is not adding any jobs.

In many ways Ventura is a prosperous town. We have a lot of stable, middle-class employers like the County Government and Patagonia. Home prices are high, which may be bad for newcomers but is very good for most of our residents. And we are fortunate to capture more than our share of retail sales and therefore sales tax as well.

But we’re not adding jobs. And although we have more than our share of jobs compared to the rest of the county, we don’t have as many high-tech jobs – nor as many high-wage jobs – as we should.

That’s why I think the Council’s Monday night to move forward with the “Jobs Investment Fund” (JIF) is so important. At first glance it may seem like an unusual or even risky thing to do. But if we’re going to bring good jobs in growth industries to Ventura, this is the direction we have to take.

Here’s the problem: Here in Ventura, we are swimming in a sea of good jobs, particularly those associated with high-tech and biotech startup companies. But we’re drowning – and not getting very many of those jobs. Santa Barbara – the “Digital Coast” – is the 5th or 6th most important high-tech startup location in the nation. The 101 corridor from Camarillo to Calabasas – the “Technology Corridor” – is breeding fabulous new businesses, spinning off of Amgen and sometimes catching high-tech startups when they spin out of Santa Barbara looking for a somewhat cheaper location.

We like to think of Ventura as the place where “the Digital Coast meetings the Technology Corridor”. But the truth is, Ventura is the place where the Digital Coast just barely misses the Technology Corridor.

Which is ironic. Because I know from my day-job work in economic development that what these fast-growing companies want is what Ventura has: A great quality of life with access to both urban amenities (i.e. arts and culture and downtown restaurants) and outdoor recreation; proximity to research institutions where innovation is bred, such as UC Santa Barbara and Amgen; and an educated labor force. Even the cost of housing is not nearly as important as these other factors. The biggest irony here is that a lot of the high-level workers in these companies already live in Ventura. They just commute out, either to Santa Barbara or Thousand Oaks.

Four years ago – right after I was sworn in as a member of the City Council – we voted to set aside $5 million for economic development purposes. This was money the redevelopment agency got from refinancing some bonds. (Another $2.2 million from the refinancing was spent on paving streets and other short-term needs.) Although the formal vote occurred after I was seated, it was really an idea from the previous (Ray Di Guilio-Jim Friedman) council and the Chamber of Commerce supported it.

At first everybody assumed that this money would be spent either on infrastructure needed for companies (whether that’s new roads, parking garages, land, whatever) or loans to businesses already located in the city. But as the council worked through its economic development priorities, the ideas began to evolve. Both the General Plan and the Economic Development Strategy placed high priority on “high-value, high-wage jobs”. The council appointed an ad-hoc Economic Development Committee – including Ed Summers, Neal Andrews, and myself. We kicked this idea around and even began to hear from local businesses – and nonprofits – that wanted a piece of the money. Over time, we began to explore different options that we thought would help us grab some of those good jobs in growth industries that we seem to be missing out on. Eventually we hit on the idea of the “Jobs Investment Fund” – that is, using the $5 million to actually try to encourage – and possibly invest in – up-and-coming local companies.

Here’s how it would work: We’ll partner with a venture capital investment fund in Santa Barbara named DFJ Frontier. This fund and its manager, David Cremins, are among the most respected in the business. Their mission is to capitalize startup companies in California outside of Silicon Valley. Their main investor is the California Public Employment Retirement System – the world’s biggest pension fund. Cremins teaches in the Technology Management Program at UC Santa Barbara, and he’s really committed to growing tech companies in the Ventura-Santa Barbara area.

The city would invest part of the $5 million in one of Cremins’ funds, DFJ Frontier II, which will have about $60 million in capital altogether. The fund will invest in many start-ups in California. As is typical in venture capital, most of them will probably fail but a few of them will probably hit it big. There’s no iron-clad guarantee that the money we place in this fund will be invested in companies locating in Ventura, but Cremins is working with a lot of start-ups working on new products emerging from the UC Santa Barbara engineering program. They are looking for places to locate, and Ventura is half the cost of Santa Barbara. It’s got many of the same lifestyle amenities and as I said before a good chunk of the skilled labor force that these companies need lives in Ventura anyway. DFJ Frontier will promise to make their “best efforts” to place companies in Ventura – and they can make an iron-clad promise to organize workshops and networking sessions with local companies and entrepreneurs looking for capital.

To sweeten the pot, the city would invest the remainder of the $5 million in a new fund that Cremins would create, known as the Jobs Co-Investment Fund, which could be used only for companies locating in Ventura. Cremins and his investors would be expected to match our investment; and the money in the Co-Investment Fund could be used as an inducement: We’ll capitalize you to a certain extent if you’re a start-up, but we’ll capitalize you even more if you locate in Ventura.

In theory, there’s a risk here. Our investment in the DFJ Frontier investment fund, in theory, might not produce any jobs in Ventura. Our investment in the Co-Investment Fund may never be used. Our funds will certainly assist some businesses that will fail. And, in theory, we might not get a good return on our investment.

None of these things are likely. By establishing a strong relationship with DFJ Frontier, we will make inroads into the world of venture capitalists who typically overlook Ventura as a location – which is exactly our goal here. We will be partnering with an investment fund – and an investment fund manager – committed to this region and excited about our city. We will likely bring far more than $5 million in high-tech and biotech investment into the city, because DFJ will bring other investors to the table, including CalPERS. We will almost certainly get a fabulous return on our investment – though it will take a long time to cash in on this (as is typical of venture capital funds) and a return on investment is not the main goal here. (Plus, we’re not betting the farm here – the city still has $147 million in very safe investments earning 4% interest.)

As our City Manager, Rick Cole, pointed out on Monday night, simply partnering with an outstanding venture capital firm won’t magically bring good jobs to Ventura. We in Ventura – the city, the Chamber, and other civic leaders – will have to sell the city to investors. We’ll have to make sure that these businesses have the offices and buildings they need. And we will have to work with our colleges to make sure the labor force is ready.

We talked about the Jobs Investment Fund for an hour and a half Monday night – and rightly so, because this is a new idea and a big step forward. Several members of the council expressed concern about the level of risk associated with this partnership – the lack of an iron-clad guarantee that the jobs will be in Ventura, along with the possibility (certain) that we will back some firms that will fail and also the possibility (very remote) that we could lose some money.

In end, we got a 5-2 vote to begin negotiating with DFJ Frontier. (The final deal will come back to us again.) Deputy Mayor Christy Weir expressed concern that the Chamber of Commerce and local business interests had not been consulted sufficiently, and this is a fair concern. Councilmember Jim Monahan said that the city should not be risking the taxpayers’ money and we should use this money to pay for police officers, pave the streets, and so forth. He said that the role of government should be to “get out of the way”. This is a legitimate position which I respect, although it’s worth noting that Mr. Monahan voted in favor of setting aside the $5 million for economic development purposes and he has since voted in favor of every step along the way, including the General Plan and the city’s Economic Development Strategy.

My personal opinion is that if we’re getting whipped at economic development by ultra-liberal Santa Barbara, then there’s probably something more to success than simply us “getting out of the way”. As I said before, this kind of economic development is mostly about proximity to university research centers, having a high quality of life, and having a local labor force.

But one thing is for sure: If we don’t do something like this, we won’t get the companies and jobs we want; and if we don’t get the companies and jobs we want, we won’t create the long-term prosperity we need to provide opportunity for our residents and create the tax base we need to sustain street paving, police and fire services, and all the rest over the next several decades.

We could do other things with this money, even to promote economic development. We could pay for new roads, new business parks, and other things that such businesses need – but we are going to do that anyway. We could loan money to individual companies – a typical economic development strategy – but this is very risky. We are certain to suffer some losses and they may not be counterbalanced by big successes. Or we could “throw the bomb” and use all the money to back some big idea – as Oxnard is currently doing with “Big League Dreams”. But as somebody who has written and consulted on economic development for more than 20 years, I have to say the throwing the bomb usually fails. It’s very risky.

Instead, we’re going to partner with a very solid and well-respected investment fund manager that has not only our money, but tens of millions of dollars from the world’s largest pension fund; as well as a mission that conforms to our goals and true passion for our area. We’ve been harmed by a lot of economic bad news since I moved to Ventura 20 years ago – the loss of the oil industry, the loss of Cal State, the loss of Kinko’s. That’s why I think we have to focus on long-term, sustainable prosperity for our community.

The Jobs Investment Fund will prove that we are serious about jobs and strengthen our connections to start-up companies, capital markets, and research centers at UCSB. It may be unusual – it may seem risky – but it’s exactly the kind of thing we need to do.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

What It's Like To Run For Office

In the next week or so, the City Council campaign will begin in earnest. On Saturday, I’ll be in the Fair Parade. On Sunday, I’m having a kickoff campaign event at Architexture (25 S. Ventura Ave.). The filing deadline is next Friday, so within a week we’ll know who’s running and who’s not.

There are three incumbents up for re-election – Carl Morehouse, Christy Weir, and me – and we’re all running. There are quite a few other folks running as well; I won’t list them here because the group isn’t set yet.

Fortunately, Ventura’s campaigns are not big-money affairs. Generally speaking, there are no campaign consultants and (with at least one exception, which I’ll mention below) no polls. There are no television ads and usually few radio and newspaper ads. We spend most of our time talking in people’s living rooms, seeking endorsements from local constituent groups, and debating each other in candidate forums. It’s pretty grass-rootsy, and I like that.

It costs somewhere around $20,000 to run a good City Council campaign. The vast majority of this money goes to design, print, and mail those four-color mailers you get right before the election.

But raising the money requires a lot of effort. Some years ago, Ventura’s voters passed a ballot measure on campaign finance. This ordinance places strict limits on how much money people can give to our campaigns, and in some cases it limits how much money we can spend. The idea is to limit the role of money in the council campaign – and, in particular, to ensure that one business or wealthy individual can’t bankroll a candidate, as often happened in the past.

The ordinance gives candidates a choice: We can either limit our contributions to $275 per person and limit our overall spending to $26,000; or we can limit our contribution to $175 per person and raise as much money as we want. (The City Clerk sets the amounts before each election according to a formula contained in the ordinance.)

Almost everybody chooses the first option, and you can see why: If you know 40 or 50 couples who are fairly affluent and strongly support you, you just get each one to give you $550 ($275 for each spouse) and you’re done with fundraising. But, in my opinion, even this isn’t really a grassroots effort. So I do it differently.

I choose the other option – a $175 limit on contributions, no limit on expenditures. I do this for a couple of reasons. For one thing, some candidate have gotten into trouble in the past because they’ve run up against the expenditure limit, and I’d just as soon have one less compliance issue to worry about. More important, though, is the fact that it forces me to run a grassroots campaign.

Last time out, the average donor gave me about $75 – that’s way lower than any other candidate. Lots of people wrote me a check for $25. Some people sent $5 or $10 bills to me as contributions. But I also raised more money than anybody else -- $30,000 – which I spent mostly on doing extra campaign mailings right before the election. (I was a challenger then so I was trying to get known, and it was right after the gubernatorial recall so it was hard to get voters interested in the race.) This also means I had more donors than anyone else, about 400.

I like this approach because it requires real grassroots campaigning – buttonholing people I know, going around to people’s living rooms to talk to neighbors, and having “addressing parties,” where my campaign volunteers and I address envelopes and lick stamps. (I sign every one of my fundraising letters myself, and I try to write a personal note if I can.) This year, almost 100 people have already donated to my campaign, and the average donation is once again well under $100.

What’s great about this level is that there’s really no difference between fundraising and campaigning. You’re looking people in the eye and asking them both for a check and for their vote.

That’s one of the many reasons that I like running for the Ventura City Council. It’s so much more satisfying than running for, say, the Assembly or Congress – or even for County Supervisor – where there’s a lot more fundraising and a lot less direct contact with voters.

Let me know if you’d like to contribute to my campaign – even if it’s only $5 or $10. Campaigning in Ventura is so grassroots that I’m not even set up to accept online donations! So I’ll send you a contribution envelope, either via email or snailmail.

And also please let me know if you would like to host a house party. This is usually a neighborhood event where you invite your friends and neighbors, provide a few refreshments, and we chat in your living room or backyard about the issues that really matter to you. It’s my favorite part of campaigning.