Who's the Most Independent? Candidates Spar for the Coveted Label
By Susan Reines
October 18 -- Apparently responding to a backlash against business as usual at City Hall, everyone from a 16-year council member who is part of an entrenched majority to challengers backed by the business community to those on no slate at all touted themselves as independent thinkers at the City Council candidate forum last week.
The powerful tenants' group Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights has controlled the City Council for the better part of the past quarter century, but even the SMRR-backed candidates sought to cast themselves as independent thinkers at the League of Women Voters candidate forum Thursday night.
SMRR incumbent Ken Genser, who is seeking a fifth term on the council, described himself as "one of the seven independent members of the City Council, where votes are sometimes 5 to 2 but never along party lines."
Fellow SMRR incumbent Mayor Richard Bloom, too, said he made independent decisions.
"There are only a couple of us up here who can really do anything we want," he said.
The two SMRR challengers seemed to seek to distinguish themselves from the current SMRR council majority, with both women pledging to address problems at City Hall in their opening remarks.
"I care about the fact that people don't feel that City Hall is working for them," said SMRR candidate Maria Loya, who would be the first elected council member from the Pico Neighborhood, Santa Monica's poorest and most diverse area.
SMRR candidate Patricia Hoffman, a former School Board chair, said she would work to be "more responsive in City Hall." Neither Loya nor Hoffman specified whether they believed the problems at City Hall stemmed from the council or City staff.
Meanwhile, the candidates competing against the SMRR slate seemed eager to capitalize on the apparently snowballing resident protest against the status quo.
Herb Katz, a Chamber of Commerce-endorsed incumbent who is one of two non-SMRR council members, said, "I want to see independent voices, not a machine, running this council."
"I don't owe anybody anything," he said. "I try to make the decisions independently on each issue."
Public opposition to the current status quo at City Hall was spotlighted in June when the council upheld a limit on hedge heights that has been highly unpopular with property owners.
Since then, groups deriding the bureaucracy at City Hall -- including Santa Monicans for Change and Santa Monica Citizens for Sensible Priorities -- have sprung up, firing off a series of mailers to voters. While the later group claims it doesn't support candidates, SMMR challengers have used the momentum to call for ousting the tenants' group from power.
"This City Council is simply not providing the leadership this city deserves," said chamber-backed candidate Matt Dinolfo, who said at the chamber's candidate forum last week that the four chamber-backed candidates needed to pull together and wrest control from SMRR.
Kathryn Morea, another candidate on the first-ever chamber slate, spoke of an "epidemic that has finally reached a critical proportion that we don't have the leadership that we need."
Chamber candidate Bobby Shriver, the nephew of John F. Kennedy who entered the race after clashing with the council over the hedge height limit, suggested he could begin a new chapter at City Hall, describing himself as a "starter of things" and citing the AIDS relief group he began in Africa as an example.
Shriver seems to have gained a wide base of support even though he entered city politics only a few months ago. Morea, in fact, used her closing remarks to call on voters to vote for the other chamber candidates, as well as Shriver.
"Our leaders are out of touch," she said. "Bobby can't do it alone. Bobby can do some amazing things, but just changing one or two people on the City Council is not going to do it."
The two members of the self-titled Team for Change, like the chamber candidates, hammered at the theme of stale leadership in City Hall.
"I think things have gone terribly wrong in this city," said challenger Bill Bauer, a local political columnist. "There's not one thing that's gone right."
An "army of vagrants" had taken over the city, and it had become "dirty and dangerous," Bauer said.
"Our priorities are all wrong," he added.
David Cole, the other member of the Team for Change, echoed Bauer's sentiments.
"In my neighborhood, and maybe in yours, over the last few years, things have gotten worse," he said. "I think there are things we can do about it."
Independent challenger Jonathan Mann, who is making his fifth council bid, said it was "very apparent that the City Council is run by special interests." Mann said he would implement an online service residents could use to communicate with the council.
Incumbent Michael Feinstein -- who failed to win the SMRR endorsement he had counted on for his two previous victories -- was one of the few candidates who did not mention the issue of independent thinking on the council.
Instead, Feinstein highlighted his accomplishments securing open space and outlined his plans to implement public transportation and push cooperation between the City and the school system.
Independent candidate Linda Armstrong was the only other candidate to stay away from the issue of SMRR control of the council. She said her first priorities would be to house the homeless in cheap hotels and speed up police response to crimes.
In response to the two questions every candidate answered, the SMRR and chamber candidates largely divided along party lines. On the issue of a living wage, the independents lined up mainly with SMRR, while they sided with the chamber candidates when it came to the issue of managing City Hall.
The four SMRR candidates said they supported a law requiring City businesses to pay their employees a living wage, while the chamber-backed candidates expressed wariness.
Morea rejected the idea, saying a mandatory living wage would drive businesses to neighboring cities, and Shriver said he would try to convince businesses to pay a living wage "without legislating on them."
Katz and Dinolfo said their support for a future living wage law would depend on the specifics of the proposal.
Feinstein, Armstrong and Mann said they supported a living wage. With no living wage law, Feinstein said, the City would continue providing "corporate welfare to the businesses that are underpaying people."
Bauer and Cole said they would not support a living age law. Cole said he supported other incentives for businesses to raise wages, such as tax breaks for those that pay a living wage. Bauer said businesses would stop filling entry-level positions and raise prices if forced to pay employees a living wage.Asked whether they supported regulating the heights of walls and hedges surrounding a property, all of the independents except Feinstein joined the chamber majority in saying they would let residents do as they pleased unless safety hazards were posed. Loya broke from the other SMRR candidates and said she, too, would oppose regulating hedge and wall heights.
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