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Dedicated to Marco

By Frank Gruber

This column is dedicated to Marco, a senior at Santa Monica High School who recently turned eighteen and last week became a citizen. Marco came to this country when he was ten months old. I've known him since he was five.

I learned that Marco had become a citizen last week from Marco's mother, who said Marco knew there was an election coming up and that he wanted to register to vote -- she said he had been inspired by his Civics teacher. She asked me where Marco could register.

I told her that usually before an election there were people hanging out at street corners registering voters, but that this was not that kind of election, and that Marco should walk over to City Hall after school.

All this made me remember my own first vote. I was in college, in Chicago, and the voting age had just been lowered to eighteen. I was registered back home in Philadelphia, so I voted absentee. It was a mayoral election pitting infamous thug-policeman-turned-politician Frank Rizzo against his polar opposite, a Republican patrician straight out of a Philip Barry play named Thatcher Longstreth.

That was the first and last time I voted Republican.

Fortunately, that dismal choice (and Rizzo's victory), didn't discourage me from voting in the next election. Nor have all the other dismal candidates I have had to choose from since.

I'm coming to the conclusion that the important part of democracy is not who gets elected, but the chance that the ones who get elected will ultimately be thrown out.

It was discouraging enough to have to cast my first vote in a losing attempt to prevent Frank Rizzo from becoming mayor of Philadelphia, but consider poor Marco, who has to cast his first vote to decide the fate of Prop. A, the "Homeowner's Freedom of Choice Initiative."

Marco comes from Guatemala, where people still die for the right to vote. Here he gets to exercise our most important right to decide a spat between two groups of rich people.

As anyone knows who has been reading the letters columns of the local media, Santa Monica, at the cost of the salaries of a couple teachers, is conducting a mail-in election to decide whether the City must obtain the consent of homeowners in R1 districts before declaring their houses landmarks.

But you wouldn't know that if you only read the lawn signs. Based on one side's slogans you'd think you were voting about abortion rights -- "choice" -- and based on the other side's slogans you'd think you were voting to "save [y]our neighborhoods."

Memo to Marco: this is not uncommon. Whenever groups oppose or propose an initiative, you can be sure the first object of the campaign is to make sure ordinary voters don't know what the initiative is about.

In a previous column I have expressed my reason for opposing Prop. A., namely, that when it comes down to it, we can't have an important function of government rely on voluntary compliance. ("WHAT I SAY: History There is No Escape," Nov. 18, 2002).

I have also written about how broader political forces in Santa Monica -- no-growthers on one hand and anti-SMRR conservatives on the other -- have hijacked the narrow issue of historic preservation. ("WHAT I SAY: Landmarking," April 4, 2002)

So I won't repeat myself -- not too much, anyway -- except to say that if there was ever a case when both houses deserve the plague, this is it.

In one house, an old Spanish bungalow hybrid built with sticks and stucco from a form book, now shot through with dry rot and termites, lives the landmarks community or, rather, the no-growthers who co-opted the landmarks community and turned a process that had worked well for many years into an arrogant, dysfunctional mess, alienating the very constituency -- homeowners -- who should be the bedrock of historical preservation.

It's not enough that these very, very principled people condescend to anyone so benighted as to desire a new house with a second story, but then they go on and base their campaign against Prop. A on cynical arguments that Prop. A is a developers' plot. Lately they are stirring up absurd fears about rent control to get renter votes against the measure.

Are those many residents with "No Historic Districts" signs on their front yards evil developers, bent on destroying the very neighborhoods they live in?

It's almost enough to make me vote against my principles and for Prop. A.

But not quite. Because I also have to consider who lives in the other house. This is another "Spanish" concoction, this time one with a two story atrium, fronted by an elliptical picture window, in which lives the mob -- and I use that word advisedly -- of homeowners and their political cheerleaders who gave us this costly initiative.

I have sympathy for the people on 18th Street whose lives the Landmarks Commission put on hold by playing slow and cute with "structure of merit" determinations, but this initiative is overkill. Had the Prop. A crowd used the normal political process, there would have been no way City Council would have turned 18th Street or any other controversial district into an historic district.

No, that wouldn't have been enough, just as live and let live isn't enough for the no-growthers. This is all an exercise in the politics of the over-privileged, a fight among the entitled, in which everyone can wallow in their sense of right and outrage, and no one needs to compromise because after all no one is going to go unhoused, hungry, uneducated or jobless no matter what happens.

So, Marco, there you have it -- a real Civics class.

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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