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SMRR and Its Discontents

"Why must I be like that? Why must I chase the cat? Nothin' but the dog in me." George Clinton, "Atomic Dog" (1982)

Why is it that during every election in Santa Monica, the most left-wing jurisdiction south of the Tehachapis and west of the Hudson, the opposition to the ruling center-left party takes the form of aliens from Orange County 1957? (Revenge of the long-departed Robert Dornan?)

The opposition to Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights must either seek professional counselling or open a branch of the Hemlock Society.

What glimmering flame attracts not normally delusional people like Herb Katz, Donna Block or David Cole to align themselves with a train-wreck like KK, a measure that from the beginning was so out of sync with the politics of the city? (For that matter, why would candidates support a measure that would reduce the power of the body to which they aspire? I thought the idea of campaigning was to encourage us to vote for a candidate because we could trust his or her judgment once elected. If you can't govern, don't run.)

The SMRR-opposition is blinded by primal hatreds. Like an old boxer with blood in his eyes, the opposition thrashes about, landing few blows on SMRR, but cutting itself rather deeply on the ropes. Meanwhile the spectators in the front rows-the electorate-either flee the spray of blood and sweat in disgust, or watch the carnage, transfixed with glee.

I write from experience. Two years ago, after years of voting the SMRR slate, I found myself on the other side, supporting the opposition candidates. We thought we were going to run a thoughtful campaign consistent with Santa Monica's liberal ethos, but in the end our consultants created mail pieces just as bad as those clunkers the "Santa Monica Hospitality Industry Coalition" mailed last week on behalf of their hapless candidates.

"The Santa Monica Hospitality Industry Coalition" (SMHIC). What a name to engender confidence and trust. With friends like these, the opposition candidates didn't need enemies.

I am being harsh. I should applaud the refreshing guilelessness of the hotel people for actually identifying themselves for what they are. They could have picked a name like "Taxpayers Against Traffic (TAT)" or "Santa Monicans United Against the Marine Layer (SMUAML)." After all, the proponents of Prop LL called themselves "Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights" (FTCR), not "Holier than Thou Busybodies Against the First Amendment (HTBAFA)."

Fortunately for the opposition, SMRR has a sense of noblesse oblige and left a seat open for the "loyal opposition."

Nonetheless, one can sympathize with the opposition. It is hard to run against SMRR because the city is in good shape and they are the incumbents, and there weren't any scandals involving sex, money or photocopies. Notwithstanding the incessant whining of our chattering class, people who live in Santa Monica know they've got a good thing going. If traffic, crime, the homeless were truly such problems, if our schools were in real crisis, then why would everyone in the world want to live here? People vote with their feet, and Santa Monica is a very desirable place to live right now.

"But when a number of individuals have a common or collective interest-when they share a single purpose or objective-individual, unorganized action… will either not be able to advance that common interest at all, or will not be able to advance that interest adequately." Mancur Olson Jr., The Logic of Collective Action.

It is hard not to admire Santa Monicans for Renters Rights. SMRR is a grass-roots organization. It is open to anyone who wants to join. Its nominating conventions are open and use the secret ballot. SMRR does what it says it is going to do and its success is daily proof of "the logic of collective action."

(I should mention that I have been a member of SMRR since I moved to Santa Monica in 1983 and even as I let my membership lapse, now that I have joined the Fourth Estate, my wife may choose to keep our "household" membership going. At the same time I have not publicly supported a SMRR candidate for City Council since 1996.)

Yet, even as SMRR's candidates have swept all before them in this election, one must wonder if there are pitfalls in its path. For one thing, SMRR so dominates Santa Monica politics, including the school board, that if for any reason residents become seriously disenchanted, as they did in the early 1990's, SMRR could be in trouble.

SMRR dodged a bullet last year during the school district's budget crisis. By putting themselves in at least the rhetorical forefront of efforts to get more money from the City for the school district, SMRR leaders and council members were able to avoid blame, not only for the budget problems, but also for myriad other complaints that surfaced during the crisis, notwithstanding that they had elected most of the school board.

Two years ago Nancy Greenstein crowed at the SMRR victory celebration that a school board candidate needed to know how to spell "SMRR" to be elected. This year, in the aftermath of the crisis, SMRR endorsed three candidates for the board, and all of them won. SMRR may have a harder time avoiding trouble this time if there is another budget crunch, or other problems with the district.

SMRR is particularly susceptible to this kind of criticism because it has so much power. The vote that matters now in Santa Monica elections is not the one on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, but rather the vote of the SMRR Congress to endorse or not to endorse a candidate. Typically 125 or 150 people vote on candidates at the SMRR Congress. It is as if the national political parties still picked their candidates at conventions, rather than by primaries. Perhaps SMRR should consider adopting a primary system, which the organization could easily conduct by mail.

The inability of SMRR-endorsed candidates to raise much money on their own has created another problem. What about the endorsements and support SMRR candidates receive from the unions that represent the city's workers? The SMRR candidates receive major support from the very unions representing police, fire and (for the first time this year) other municipal employees, against which the city must negotiate come contract time. If you think the police endorsed Mike Feinstein because they thought he would be tough on criminals, then you are being rather unfair to Mike and his admirable positions on civil liberties.

Who will oversee employee overtime policies if the city council is beholden to city workers?

Finally, at a certain point SMRR has to deal with contradictions in its "line." What happens when demands for social justice, in the form, for instance, of the living wage, come up against the service economy SMRR has nurtured so well in the Bayside District? Or when the need for housing, or the goal of historic preservation, conflicts, on the former RAND property, with the Greens' mantra of "open space." Or when the need for affordable shopping and entry-level jobs conflicts with the fear of more traffic at Fifth and Broadway?

Trouble for SMRR? I wouldn't expect anything they can't handle. SMRR has the uncanny ability to adapt to circumstances by co-opting the issues of its opponents. It is no secret that as the organization has done so, many of SMRR's old leftie stalwarts have either left the party or no longer actively participate. Still, new members are attracted to the organization by the power it has, and SMRR rolls merrily along.

Of course it doesn't hurt that each election year the opposition manages to find an issue to tie itself to that is so outrageous that SMRR can rally Santa Monica's liberal majority to its side, even though SMRR's positions, or those of its candidates, often resemble those of a homeowners' association in the Valley more than those of a radical political group seeking to empower the powerless.
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