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By Frank J. Gruber
Negative campaigning has been part of campaigning since campaigning began. The hotel-owning Slatkin brothers went easy on Kevin McKeown compared to what the Federalists said about the Jeffersonian Republicans and vice versa. In general people try to be nice to each other, though, and there is a gut belief that slamming one's opponent is inherently evil.
But a pretty picture of a candidate walking on the beach can tell a voter less than zero about the election (unless it's Richard Nixon in a suit and tie), so there is no inherent virtue to positive campaigning either.
In this column I'll examine the negative ads in this year's local races.
Santa Monicans for Sensible Priorities vs. Kevin McKeown
The big bad one. For a year at least SMSP, a 501(c)(4) propaganda company, has been laying the groundwork for a campaign against Council member McKeown. Once the election campaign started, the Slatkin brothers took the gloves of and targeted Mr. McKeown explicitly, which meant that they had to explicitly indentify their hotel holding company, the Edward Thomas Management Company, as the financial source for the hits.
Earlier in the week I made the point that singling Mr. McKeown out for votes he took on homeless issues is making a big deal out of small differences at most, although anyone has the right to criticize a candidate for being too humane.
The mailings and TV ads have also attacked Mr. McKeown on his vote for a smaller downtown parking plan. That was a vote that I agreed with, and naturally I believe the attack oversimplifies the issue, although probably no more than the boasting candidates do in their positive ads. (E.g., in one of his mailers, Mr. McKeown claims that "Kevin stopped developers cold when they wanted to put massive 25-story condo towers above Santa Monica Place." Hmmm -- all by himself?)
But Mr. McKeown's vote for 700 fewer parking spaces made a lot of sense if you consider his overall position in favor of limiting traffic and development, since more parking certainly encourages more driving and it may (with bad planning) enable more development.
The repugnant aspect of the attack on Mr. McKeown, however, is not the content of the campaign but the sheer size of it. Millions of hotel money, particularly from the Slatkins, has already played a big role in Santa Monica -- bankrolling the campaigns for the phony living wage in 2000 (which failed) and the campaign to overturn the living wage law that City Council passed (which succeeded).
Those campaigns were bad enough, but at least you could see the hotels' economic interest. Oddly enough, most of the hotels, but not the Slatkin hotels, signed union contracts after the living wage was defeated. Spending a million now to defeat one council member who annoys them has to be God's way of telling the Slatkins that they have too much money.
This is too much money to spend on electing the Santa Monica City Council.
But then, it was ridiculous, too, when Bobby Shriver raised and spent more than $300,000 in 2004.
I know that people -- particularly Mr. McKeown's supporters -- believe that the Slatkins have a rational basis for spending this money, because they believe Mr. McKeown will single-handedly stop them "cold" when they want to "over" develop nearby property, but this assumes that the other six members of the Council are stooges.
In any case, what with Steve Lopez's coverage of the attack ads (I'm sure more Santa Monicans read Mr. Lopez than read me and all other local columnists combined), and the publicity and the rallying of Mr. McKeown's base, I will be surprised if the attacks hurt him. It's quite possible, in fact, that the Slatkins' support of Bob Holbrook and Terry O'Day will create a backlash against them.
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Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City vs. Pam O'Connor
I wrote about this one last week, too, so I won't add much, except that it bothers me less that Council Member O'Connor accepted political donations from Macerich employees -- which like all campaign contributions were part of the public record -- than it does that the Coalition took $36,000 in payments from the City to pay the Coalition's lawyers in a suit to get documents, when so far the Coalition hasn't told the public what the documents said. (see story)
If the Coalition has evidence of corruption in Santa Monica, let's see it. Otherwise, stop making accusations.
Community for Excellent Public Schools vs. Pam O'Connor
As a former member of CEPS, I am disappointed that the group singled Ms. O'Connor out as an "unreliable" supporter of education. After all, notwithstanding her anti-CEPS diatribe, she did vote for the funding agreement with the school district, and she has generally supported Santa Monica College both with respect to its relations with the City and on its bond issues. Her temper may not be reliable, and she may not be a supporter of CEPS, but the schools have been able to count on her vote.
CEPS has given better treatment to candidates in this and past elections who have shown lukewarm support or even antipathy to Santa Monica College. Kevin McKeown, for instance, has always taken a neutral stance on the College's bond issues and in 2004 CEPS endorsed Richard Bloom and Ken Genser, both of whom opposed the College's bonds.
I don't doubt that Mr. McKeown is committed to K-12 education, but he has to recuse himself from education votes because he works for the school district. Those absences count as No votes. How reliable is that?
I admire what CEPS accomplished, but sometimes discretion is the better part of endorsements. The group should have been content with its victory on the funding contract and stayed out of City Council politics.
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"Friends of Santa Monica College" (address: 1212 S. Victory Blvd., Burbank) vs. Tom Donner
Perhaps the worst aspect of this hit was the attempt to hide who paid for it with the front "Friends of Santa Monica College." The text says that "Santa Monica College Faculty, its staff and students, and the college's neighbors respectfully ask that you say NO to Tom Donner," but no one is willing to identify themselves further than that.
The mailer blames Mr. Donner for everything and anything that went wrong, or was perceived to go wrong, with the College over the past few years. If Mr. Donner had had such unilaterial power, you would think he'd get some credit for what went right, too.
What I remember most recently about Mr. Donner were his appearances before the Santa Monica City Council last year gamely defending the College's plan for the Bundy Campus. I also remember the support he received then from many professors and staff from the College. So this all sounds hyperbolic to me.
This hit also raises the implication that some element of the College's faculty is allying itself with the College's disgruntled neighbors. This is political bad news. The last thing the College needs is a Fifth Column, but Andrew Walzer, the former member of the faculty union's executive board who is running for the Board of Trustees was quoted in The Lookout last week as having said in a debate, "'First and foremost we need to listen to the residents.'" (see story)
I am all for being neighborly, but the Board's "first and foremost" obligation is to listen to Friends of Sunset Park?
* * *
What's interesting about negative advertising in this election year is that although the major focus has been on the Slatkin hits against Kevin McKeown, hits that will probably backfire, more hits have come from the so-called and self-denominated "progressives" -- the no-growthers at the Coalition, the pro-schools people at CEPS, and the faculty at the College and perhaps their no-growth neighbors.
Combine these hits with the underlying negative message of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, that a vote for anyone other than SMRR's candidates is a vote to get evicted, or a vote for "massive" development and "big business," and what do you see?
Obviously, you don't need to be paying big money to the Dolphin Group or to be advised by Karl Rove to believe that going negative works.
But don't let all this negativity get you down. Remember everyone, vote!
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