February 18, 2020

Helene Schneider: How the mayor of Santa Barbara does it

With its prime oceanfront location, fabled history and elegant architecture, it is not surprising Santa Barbara is still identified as one of Los Angeles’ swankiest backyards, as well as one of America’s hippest college towns. 

New York native Helene Schneider, now 41, followed her heart (and future husband) to Santa Barbara, and thus began a long-standing love affair with this sophisticated little city. Today, as mayor of Santa Barbara and still very much in love with the town she calls home, she is working hard to transform it into one of America’s most outstanding, civic-minded communities — beyond the veneer of the famed Santa Barbara International Film Festival, numerous high-profile charity events and a popular NBC soap opera.

Educated at Skidmore College, Schneider also received her human resources certification from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Extension program in 1997 and built a career in human resources consulting before entering politics at a relatively young age.

Santa Barbara-based journalist Bonnie Carroll, who interviews Schneider regularly in her coverage of fundraisers and cultural events, describes the young mayor — one of the city’s youngest ever — as a “universal woman.” Carroll points out Schneider’s knack for connecting with individuals, even with mayoral initiatives that need to be engineered collaboratively with the city council to cover a large cross section of Santa Barbara’s ethnically and economically diverse population. 

“When I hear [Bonnie’s comment], I think of Einstein’s quote, ‘How do you define insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,’ ” muses Schneider as she begins her fourth year as mayor. “Santa Barbara is dealing with major issues and complex problems, especially with the economy and financial setbacks that not only affect the city but also the nation. You have to think differently and creatively to come up with solutions that will address them and serve as many people as possible. You must be willing to work with people you normally wouldn’t work with, and expand partnerships in unexpected ways.”

Michael Rassler, executive director of The Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara, agrees wholeheartedly with Carroll’s assessment. Even with Schneider’s busy schedule, Rassler observes that she makes it a point to participate in various public discussions involving both the Jewish and general community (she attends services at Congregation B’nai B’rith in Santa Barbara). Even with a world weighing heavily on her shoulders, she never misses the city’s Chanukah menorah candle lighting, and she manages to make appropriate appearances at her congregation.

“Her nature as a person is welcoming, and she showed a genuine interest in me and my family when we moved to Santa Barbara,” Rassler recalls. “She was concerned with how we were acclimating, and what my wife and sons were up to at work and school [both sons are UCSB students], respectively. She represents Santa Barbara very well on the highest local level, and I am proud that one of our own is so successful, appreciated, respected and has done such an incredible job so far.”

Schneider, without hesitation, credits her family’s example along with the values imbued in her as major influences on her career choices and her leadership approach as mayor. She beams when talking about how her maternal grandfather organized a litter control volunteer troop on the eastern end of Long Island, and how, from early childhood, her parents made her keenly aware of issues such as civil rights and the environment. 

She is also proud of the fact that she is a part of a Santa Barbara tradition of electing strong Jewish women into critical positions of power. The list includes past county supervisors Naomi Schwartz and Susan Rose, current county supervisor Janet Wolf, former assembly member Hannah-Beth Jackson — who is now running for the state senate — and former city councilwoman Elinor Langer. 

In the midst of the High Holy Days, Schneider said that the timing of the interview got her thinking about how the themes of social justice and new beginnings transcend the holidays, to become year-round concerns. 

“These elected officials have risen to the occasion because of a shared core belief focusing on fighting against different kinds of oppression,” she explains. “This translates into a variety of societal issues, such as gay marriage as a civil right as well as continued support of women’s and minorities’ rights. As Santa Barbara has that strong Jewish community that interacts together, it was easy for me to get involved immediately after moving here [in 1992]. I helped many of these women with their campaigns, and later on, in turn, they helped me in my campaigns.”

According to city councilman Harwood White, who has seen Schneider through some tough executive decisions, she is steadfast in her efforts to “give back.” 

“(Budget) cuts have been attained with a minimum of staff layoffs, yet regrettable cuts in services throughout most of the organization,” White explains. “It has been a difficult balancing act, yet the city, under Schneider’s leadership, continues to make voluntary contributions to our less fortunate populations and to foster the arts. Police and fire services have received modest new investments in order to assure public safety. Although Helene is the city’s youngest mayor in modern times, her many years’ experience as a councilmember and human resources expert shines through in her work. Her youthful energy gives her the stamina to grind out ribbon-cuttings, plaque dedications and rubber-chicken festivities morning, noon and night, week in, week out.”

Beyond her regular docket of activities, Schneider makes it a point to find time to escape City Hall and visit with local business owners to get “a real flavor of day-to-day life in Santa Barbara.” In her (rare) spare time, she favors relaxing, low-key activities such as participating in a local book club (“a way for me to read things other than council agenda reports”), attending UCSB women’s basketball games, hiking, walking on the beach and enjoying a meal at one of her favorite restaurants (including Wine Cask, Edomasa and Brophy Bros. Seafood Restaurant).

While the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and other Hollywood-related events help the city put its best foot forward with California and the rest of the country, Schneider says the city’s celebrity cache is only a minor part of what makes Santa Barbara so special. She stresses that she constantly finds herself inspired by the stewardship of individual citizens, famous or otherwise. 

“I find that people who grew up here and appreciate what a beautiful place it is want to give back, while successful people from around the world who choose to live here continuously invest in the community,” Schneider says. “The philanthropic vibe here is tremendous, considering the size of our city. The people here want to nurture it as their own, whether their interest is in the arts, the environment or social justice issues. Most of the time, [influential citizens] don’t just throw huge parties for their own sake — everything benefits a cause or charity.”   

Although Santa Barbara’s growing and thriving cultural arts district is a source of pride, Schneider reminds her constituency that affordable housing remains a big issue, and that environmental problems often dovetail into the quality-of-life issues. She cites a watershed moment where her predecessor, Marty Bloom, joined several other mayors in signing the Kyoto Protocol, pledging that Santa Barbara would reduce its carbon footprint by 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. When Schneider assumed the mayoral post in 2009, the collective leadership and team effort to honor the promise was so organized that this formidable goal was accomplished three years ahead of schedule. With homelessness also being a pressing but decades-old issue, she says the same kind of innovative thinking and teamwork will be required to find solutions that will benefit individuals and the community without major consequence to the environment.

“We’re still developing ways to offer housing to people at all economic levels while avoiding overdevelopment,” she says. “The challenge is to keep Santa Barbara a small town instead of allowing it to become a huge city. Although [the city government] is not a social service agency or a housing developer, we set out to partner with and fund other agencies who are experts in these arenas. These different groups collaborate with us, which results in people getting off the streets, frees up jail cells and hospital beds, creates an economic benefit and helps people turn their lives around.”

As she nears the end of her first four-year mayoral term, Schneider muses that when she gets old and gray, she will remember this as being one of the best jobs she’s ever held. Not surprisingly, she has decided to run for a second term in 2013, which would be her last, based on the two-term limit. 

“As a mayor of a city this size, you get to interact with your constituents daily, see change happen, and have some control over how you prioritize your budget and funding,” she says. “You get to set the tone, and put your values forward. Though being a mayor of a city like this is an awesome responsibility, it’s great to be mayor of a city where people pay attention to what is going on and choose to get involved. As a Jewish woman, the job allows me to [encourage citizens] to embrace our diversity. I have found through experience that creating meaningful solutions to social problems come about when we all come together with good leadership.”