Firestone Steals the Spotlight in a Week of Political Drama in Santa Barbara

Times Staff Writer

It was a week that left even the savviest of Santa Barbara County politicians surprised.

First came Supervisor Naomi Schwartz, one of the liberal gurus of Santa Barbara politics, announcing Wednesday that she will not seek reelection next year.

Then, in a morning ceremony Thursday in front of the Santa Barbara Courthouse, came the announcement of her longtime chief aide, Salud Carbajal, that he has decided to run for his boss' job. Not only does he have her backing, he has the endorsements of almost all of Santa Barbara's liberal establishment.

Schwartz wasn't even the first supervisor to announce retirement plans in a one-week period. Last week, Supervisor Gail Marshall, a liberal Democrat who was targeted in an unsuccessful recall election last year, announced that she would not be running again in March in the county's 3rd District.

That touched off a political scramble by Republicans and Democrats to figure out who might be the best candidate to bring some semblance of political peace to Marshall's district, which covers an area ranging from UC Santa Barbara to the Santa Ynez Valley.

Not that it was all county politics. At the local level, three seats were at stake in the Santa Barbara City Council race. And when the votes were counted, the liberal City Council was even more liberal.

But the council vote and the moves by Marshall and Schwartz turned out to be just the warmup for the biggest surprise. That came with the disclosure Thursday that former Republican Assemblyman Brooks Firestone is seriously considering running for Marshall's seat in an effort to bring peace to a county that has been at war with itself in recent years.

Declaring that the time has come to heal deep political differences between north and south Santa Barbara County, the millionaire Santa Ynez Valley wine grower told The Times that it is 100% accurate to say he is close to a decision on running for Marshall's seat next year.

Firestone, a moderate who served two terms in the state Assembly, is widely respected in the county and viewed by many Democrats as virtually unbeatable in the political wilds of the 3rd District.

The 3rd District has often been the swing vote in a series of controversial 3-2 votes in recent years, with Marshall frequently voting with the south county's two liberal supervisors. Although she lives in the north, two-thirds of her constituents live in the south.

Although Marshall survived the recall vote last year, her political stands have helped fuel an initiative drive to split Santa Barbara County at the Gaviota Pass into two counties, one the wealthy south coast area and the other the rural north county. The issue could be on the ballot as early as 2006.

Firestone, 67, made it clear Thursday that if he decides to run it will be in an effort to help bridge the gaps that divide the county.

"I've lived here 30 years and it just seems like I'm uniquely qualified for this role," he said.

Firestone wasn't the only man interested in Marshall's job. The incoming mayor of Solvang, David Smyser, an attorney who specializes in mediation and describes himself as moderate, is also planning to run. And Los Olivos businessman Steven Pappas has expressed interest. But liberal Democrats now in control of the 3rd District were most concerned with Firestone.

"I think it would be really tough to defeat him," said Ben Romo, a political consultant to many Democratic candidates. "I think he has a real desire to bridge the gap between the north and the south."

Discussing his plans, Carbajal, 39, chief aide to Schwartz for the last 11 years, was playing it a little more cautiously when it came to the issue of splitting the county.

He said that splitting the county "isn't necessarily in anybody's interests," but called it an issue that "the people will decide."

Schwartz, 69, has represented the 1st District, an area that starts at Carpinteria and includes Montecito and half of Santa Barbara. She is currently chairwoman of the board. Even though the election is in March, she will remain in office with Marshall until January 2005.

"It's very hard to decide something like this when there is no pressure on you," said Schwartz, a founder of Santa Barbara's increasingly influential Women's Political Committee. "I've been in politics for a very long time, and I want to work less now. But I will remain involved in this community. I haven't decided exactly how yet, but I will be around."

Leaders of the initiative drive to split the county have said it doesn't matter to them if a Democrat or a Republican replaces Marshall. They say the differences between north and south are too great for a mere change in politicians. They have collected 38,000 signatures and plan to submit them for certification later this month. They need 20,800 to qualify for ballot consideration.

Three seats were at stake in the Santa Barbara council race. Helene Schneider, past president of the Women's Political Committee and one of a new generation groomed by the group to succeed Schwartz and other committee elders in elected office, was the top vote-getter. Also elected were Das Williams and Brian B. Barnwell, strong environmental protectionists.

Only one incumbent sought reelection. Babatunde Folayemi, the council's only African American, came in fourth out of nine candidates in the voting.

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