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Who Owes Who

By Frank Gruber

"In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of subjects than in America." -- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. I, Ch. XII.


Kurt Petersen, head of the local hotel employees union and one of the leaders of the living wage movement, may never have had the City Council votes to be elected to the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) board, but by not even mentioning that he had applied for the position the five sitting council members whose candidacies have been endorsed over the years by the living wage movement sent the living wagers a message.

"We need you less than you think we do."

Harsh. Politics at its most elemental. As has been widely reported, the political arm of the living wage movement, the "Committee to Protect the Living Wage" (CPLV), infuriated some council members by its endorsements and non-endorsements for the upcoming City Council election.

Not even Kevin McKeown, whom the CPLV has endorsed, bothered to mention Petersen's candidacy or explain why he wasn't voting for him, even though Petersen's desire to serve on the CVB board had been a hot topic of political discussion for weeks.

Back in June, before the CPLV endorsements, when asked about Petersen's bid for the CVB board, McKeown told The Lookout that "Kurt brings a lot to the table, and he genuinely represents a part of the tourism industry that's not at the table." At that time McKeown thought adding labor representation to the CVB had "the potential to forge a new partnership."

It's times like this when you realize how sexist it is to repeat the old saw that it's a woman's right to change her mind.

It would be incorrect, however, to suppose that the motives of the five council members were identical, and one can only speculate whether anyone other than McKeown would have voted for Petersen even if there were no dispute. But it's clear that relations between the five and the living wage movement that supported them are now different from what they were.

Some of the five, for instance Pam O'Connor herself, are probably unhappy that the CPLV did not endorse her, even though she had voted for the living wage ordinance.

The CPLV presumably offended at least three other council members, Ken Genser, Richard Bloom, and Mayor Michael Feinstein, by endorsing Abby Arnold, and by helping her obtain the endorsement of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR). Genser, Bloom, and Feinstein all signed a denunciation of Arnold that they distributed at the SMRR convention.

Lastly, judging by the comments Feinstein and McKeown gave the press, the CPLV mightily offended them by not endorsing fellow Green Josefina Aranda.

Regardless of his merits, Petersen's non-election was "over-determined."

Last week I chided the living wagers for not endorsing O'Connor. In response, I received some private, but contradictory flak. One critic chided me for using "kid gloves" on the CPLV for its ingratitude to O'Connor in the same column that I use bare knuckles on Feinstein for his ingratitude toward SMRR.

The counter-criticism was that in criticizing the living wagers, I didn't understand what had gone on between O'Connor and the CPLV, specifically that O'Connor had doomed her chance for the endorsement by failing to show much empathy for the movement when she spoke to the CPLV membership.

These points prompted me to give a ponder to the meaning of "obligation" in American politics. Our politics cloak a myriad of conflicting interests with a mantle of the simplest cut, the two party system. Even with legally non-partisan bodies like the Santa Monica City Council, politics typically evolves into bipolarity, and it is impossible for two parties to represent all competing interests without conflicts.

Americans like the stability of a two-party system, but, as a result, and as de Tocqueville noted almost 200 years ago, we are crazy for forming associations and using collective action to achieve our goals within the parties and with government.

To achieve goals, the "favor" is extremely important, and in politics, "who owes who" is often the crucial question. "Clout" in Chicago dialect.

Feinstein's scorning of SMRR outraged me because he owes his political career to SMRR. But the nature of the obligation between O'Connor or, for that matter, any of the other SMRR council members, and the living wage movement, is more nuanced.

While most Santa Monicans support the living wage (as demonstrated by the defeat of Prop. KK), and while union workers and living-wage volunteers rang a lot of door bells for their candidates in the past two elections, and have done a lot to revitalize SMRR (a lot more than the Green Party ever did), it's a stretch to believe that SMRR-endorsed candidates need them to win elections.

SMRR did quite okay on its own, before the living wage.

I suspect that the way the offended council members see it is not that they owe the living wagers for their election, but that the living wagers owe them for enacting an unprecedented ordinance, which, as opposed to rent control, will benefit few of their constituents directly. While this doesn't give the council members the right to tell the CPLV whom to endorse, certainly the CPLV needs to infer a certain amount of "empathy" no matter what they may say or not say in an interview.

When the living wage and union leadership start telling the council members what to do, and withhold endorsements, that's bound to raise a few hackles on the necks of people who are used to getting their way.

Given that I believe the CPLV should have been more sensitive -- more grateful, even -- to what O'Connor and the other SMRR council members did by voting for the living wage, why am I not harder on the CPLV for not giving O'Connor the endorsement?

Aside from the fact that some of the SMRR council members (not O'Connor) have been giving it to the living wagers as hard as they were getting it back, at a certain point "inside politics" bumps up against the outside real world. The hotel workers and living wage volunteers who walk precincts in Santa Monica deserve respect. They deserve empathy.

It's harder for a poor person to ring a doorbell than a rich person to write a check.

Even if you don't agree with their goals, even if you think their leadership can be heavy-handed or left-footed or both, even if you're on City Council and you think you can be elected without them, these door bell ringers remind us what it's like to be Americans.

"It is difficult to say what place is taken up in the life of an inhabitant of the United States by his concern for politics. To take a hand in the regulation of society and to discuss it is his biggest concern and, so to speak, the only pleasure an American knows." Ibid., Vol. I, Ch. XIV.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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