The tall stranger in the Stetson strides slowly into Santa Barbara's City Hall as a lone guitar plays in the background. His cowboy boots click as he smoothly makes his way up the stairs. In a corridor, he slips a wad of cash to a man in a suit and an unseen announcer describes the mysterious Westerner in words meant to send a chill through the hearts of Santa Barbara voters.
"Why is this Texas developer spending more than a quarter-million dollars on the elections in Santa Barbara?" a voice asks ominously in an ad financed by the League of Conservation Voters. "What does he want?"
At last count, the total had zoomed up to more than $500,000 -- said to be an unprecedented sum coming from one individual in a Santa Barbara city election. And while the commercial fails to note that its target -- a Texas home-builder named Randall Van Wolfswinkel -- graduated from Santa Barbara High School and has a second home in nearby Montecito, it raises questions that have swirled through the city for a couple of months: Just who is Van Wolfswinkel and why is he contributing so much to races in which he can't even vote?
The chief executive of First Texas Homes, a major Dallas-based builder, Van Wolfswinkel keeps a low profile and gives few interviews. Calls from The Times went unreturned. Acquaintances describe him as an unassuming guy who just wants the best for the city he visits frequently, a place where he spent his youth and hopes to retire. But his critics say he is trying to buy the election for unknown reasons and has showered ordinarily civil local campaigns with some rather un-Santa Barbara-like mud.
At stake are three spots on the City Council and the mayor's post. Also up for a vote is Measure B, a passionately debated proposed restriction on the height of new buildings. But to some, no single issue -- gang violence, homelessness, the city's strained budget -- eclipses the importance of Van Wolfswinkel's quiet emergence.
"He probably does have an ulterior motive," said Joe Armendariz, director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Assn. and a public affairs consultant. "He wants to change a leadership that's been decidedly and consistently and dramatically left and far-left of center for the last 20 years."
A self-described conservative, Armendariz said Van Wolfswinkel's political action committee -- Preserve Our Santa Barbara -- has leveled a field long dominated by Democrats, environmental groups and municipal unions. "There's no shortage of very active organizations in Santa Barbara that are under the influence of left-of-center points of view," he said. "That, in my view, makes his half-million-dollar investment fairly equitable."
Others complain that the field has been made unnecessarily rough. Angered by a Preserve Our Santa Barbara mailer that looked like a League of Women Voters election pamphlet, the group's local chapter sent the PAC a cease-and-desist letter.
Candidates who have been targeted by the PAC's advertising contend that it crosses the line. When mayoral candidate Steve Cushman accepted a $50,000 donation from Sergey Grishin, a Russian billionaire banker who now lives in Montecito, Preserve Our Santa Barbara sent out a mailer headlined "From Russia With Love," with a hammer-and-sickle standing in for the O in love.
"I'd call this surreal," said Cushman, president of Santa Barbara's Chamber of Commerce for the last 20 years. Cushman said such negative tactics would turn voters off.
While elections in many places have routinely been seen as the dirtiest in memory, especially by candidates who are struggling, the Santa Barbara contest has stood out for many people. Votes in Santa Barbara's first election solely by mail-in ballots are to be counted Nov. 3 and participation is expected to be low.
"City elections here used to be patty-cake patty-cake," said Jeremy Lindaman, an advisor to mayoral hopeful Helene Schneider and three council candidates, all endorsed by local Democrats. "There was hardly ever a piece of mail or a TV ad that even mentioned somebody's opponent."
Sheila Lodge, a former mayor, said Van Wolfswinkel has been "very badly advised" on advertising. She said he offered her a $50,000 donation should she run, but she decided against it.
"There's nothing in it for him personally," said Lodge, whose daughters went to high school with Van Wolfswinkel. "He just really cares about the place he considers his hometown." Lodge said the developer, who moved to Texas after graduating from Cal State Northridge, became politically involved only recently, when the city approved a mixed-use complex replacing a gas station near the house he owns.
Dale Francisco, a councilman running for mayor, has been endorsed by Van Wolfswinkel but said he has accepted no money from him or his PAC.
"People complaining about this 'mysterious Texan' -- and it's so important to them that he's from Texas -- say he must have some nefarious development scheme. But with developers lined up against Measure B, he's supporting it. That says it all as far as I'm concerned."
Measure B would lower the maximum height of new buildings downtown from 60 feet to 40 feet. Its supporters, including Preserve Our Santa Barbara, contend it would protect the city's charm from an onslaught of luxury development. Opponents, who include an odd bedfellows mix of environmentalists and developers, say it's a rigid and simplistic measure that would encourage sprawl elsewhere.