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Off the Grid

By Frank Gruber

I had the rare experience during my week backpacking in the Sierra Nevada of perfectly realizing a fantasy.

I caught fish in a lake high in the mountains and then cooked them up in a frying pan and ate them with friends.

Besides achieving the fish fantasy, I will best remember my week in the Evolution Valley of Inyo National Forest for the combination of physical beauty and emptiness. Usually, when you see natural beauty like that we lived in, you are surrounded by other tourists, but there are strict limits on the number of visitors who can enter the wilderness area, and, even if there weren't, the seven-mile hike over the Piute (sic) Pass, rising from 9,300 to 11,400 feet in elevation, is a strong deterrent to the casual sightseer.

It was also strange to be off the grid, not knowing the latest presidential polls, or how my beloved Phillies were managing to break my heart this year, or how many candidates there were for the City Council.

Instead, except for one's own thoughts, conversations with your fellow travelers, and the wind, there was just a rushing silence: the hushed week flew by, so that at the end I couldn't remember what I had done in the beginning.

Muriel Lake (Photo by Frank Gruber)

* * *

It was better to be off the grid than to return to Santa Monica and learn that nineteen hopefuls had submitted signatures to quality for the City Council ballot.

Tag team debates?

With so many running, Santa Monicans for Renters Rights would seem to have the advantage. Its opposition looks to be scattered, divided among the Chamber of Commerce endorsees and the Bill Bauer/ Kathryn Morea/David Cole, "Team for Change" slate.

SMRR has its own uncertainties, however, to deal with. For one, the wild card candidacy of Bobby Shriver is hard to handicap. Depending on how he runs his campaign -- will he choose to focus on his unhappy homeowner issue of hedges or his broader liberal credentials? -- Shriver could either further divide the opposition and perhaps take Herb Katz's seat, or leap over the opposition and take a SMRR seat.

That vulnerable SMRR seat presents an inherent difficulty for SMRR, because by not endorsing Michael Feinstein, SMRR will need to depose an incumbent (Feinstein) to keep its 5-2 majority intact.

I could only attend about an hour of the SMRR convention two weeks ago. I didn't witness the counting of the votes, and missed the shock that greeted the revelation that none of the SMRR incumbents received an endorsement on the first ballot, but I did hear the calls for unity before the vote. ("SMRR Hands Out Coveted Endorsements; Passes Over Longtime Council Incumbent," August 2, 2004)

Ken Genser and Richard Bloom professed their loyalty to the cause, but two years ago they slammed SMRR candidate Abby Arnold at the convention and gave her no support during the election.

Michael Feinstein had the honesty to say that there were occasions when he wouldn't support everyone on the slate -- as was the case in 2002 when he bolted SMRR to support fellow Green Josefina Aranda, the reckless act that caused SMRR, rightly from a political view, to refuse him its endorsement this year.

SMRR leaders Denny Zane, Nancy Greenstein and Judy Abdo emphasized the importance of loyalty and fretted over the evils of "bullet-voting," but when the votes were counted, Maria Loya, the newcomer candidate from the Pico Neighborhood, had 40 some bullet votes and an endorsement, and Mayor Bloom didn't even have a majority.

In fact, even without her bullet votes, Loya had more votes than Bloom, whose opposition years ago to the Ralph's Market on Olympic still rankles Pico residents more concerned about economic growth than traffic congestion.

On the second ballot the Pico residents led by School Board member Oscar de la Torre came around and supported SMRR old-guarders Genser and Bloom, but it was plain that if they had wanted to, for instance if Abby Arnold had been running again, SMRR's new blood could have forced SMRR to drop its endorsement of either or both Genser or Bloom.

Instead of trying to figure out why Latinos and African-Americans from the Pico Neighborhood might choose not to endorse the likes of Bloom, Genser and Feinstein, the SMRR insiders I've talked to either express indignation that the Pico residents came to the organization with their own agenda and candidates, or dismiss their bullet voting as simply "tactics."

The insiders don't consider it possible that the Pico residents might rightfully believe that for all the years SMRR has been in power, for all the nice words, SMRR has cared little for the issues -- traditional liberal issues like jobs, education, and housing -- that matter to them.

What have Bloom, Genser and Feinstein done to create jobs in Santa Monica? On the whole, have they encouraged or hindered the building of enough apartments to keep up with demand? What's been their attitude toward Santa Monica College, the best way out of poverty and into the middle class for people of color, and immigrants and their children?

Consider the Lantana studio development. NIMBYs living near Lantana, including SMRR stalwarts like Michael Tarbet, blocked Lantana's expansion for several years over hyped-up traffic issues. Now it looks like the project will go forward, with Lantana having to pay a small fortune for traffic barriers and curb extensions that may not be needed.

In the meantime, the new leadership of the Pico Neighborhood Association got involved. What did they want from Lantana? A jobs center. Was this on the list of "public benefits" planning staff proposed in response to direction from no-growth SMRR Planning Commissioners and City Council members? No.

It's hypocritical for SMRR leadership to bemoan people organizing to get the SMRR endorsement when the incumbent City Council mandarins use SMRR for their own purposes. Sure, anyone who gets the SMRR endorsement will vote a certain way when it comes to anything to do with the interests of existing renters, or certain social services, but otherwise, as for content, what does the SMRR endorsement mean?

SMRR talks a lot about its platform, but in the real world it has little control over what its council members do. Some will vote for Target, some against; some will vote for fluoridation, some against; some will vote for keeping Kelly Olsen on the Planning Commission, some against; etc.

The SMRR convention takes place at Olympic High, the former site of Muir Elementary. People gather outside on the playground. The image I have of SMRR is of one of those big, bouncy red rubber balls; the hollow ones that kids easily bat from one side of the playground to the other.

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