The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

The City Council Election -- Part 1

By Frank Gruber

I have previously written that this year's City Council election is the most predictable in decades. There are four incumbents running for four seats, and Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), the city's strongest political force, chose not to challenge Herb Katz and Bobby Shriver, the two non-SMRR incumbents.

But I'm going to hedge my bets a little. I still expect that all four incumbents will be reelected, but I can imagine a scenario where if Measure T, the "Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic" (RIFT), wins, the non-incumbent who is most associated with RIFT, Ted Winterer, could win a seat on the council.

It's a big "if" whether Measure T will win in the first place, and even if it does, it's not clear that Mr. Winterer would benefit enough to win. As I write this, my household has received one mailer promoting the measure; it mentioned the endorsements from Bobby Shriver and Kevin McKeown, but not the names of Mr. Winterer or any of the other council candidates who support it.

Nonetheless, it could happen. But so much for handicapping. What about the race? My analysis is that this is an election about the incumbents. You like them or you don't.

The political careers of Ken Genser, Herb Katz and Richard Bloom, the three incumbents up for reelection who have been on the council the longest, go back to the '80s and '90s when political associations such as the All Santa Monica Coalition or the Civic Forum opposed SMRR in a coordinated manner.

Back then, politics in Santa Monica had more of an ideological basis rooted in the fights over rent control, but the ideological battles ultimately extended to issues like social services, policies regarding the homeless and development.

Ever since the last (or maybe only the latest) of these big ideological issues, the living wage, was resolved (rather nastily) at the ballot box in 2002, ideological issues have been less prominent. My theory is that there has been, at least on a de facto basis, a "grand compromise," or at least a number of small compromises that add up to something grand-ish, between SMRR and what were its more mainstream and organized conservative opponents ("conservative" being always a relative term in Santa Monica).

The central tenet of the compromise is that rent control, as modified by Costa-Hawkins, is an established and inviolable fact.

On the homelessness front, the non-SMRR council members have accepted the SMRR program of extensive social services, but the SMRR council members join the non-SMRRs every year or so to enact some law or other that aims to address some bad conduct issue -- such as sleeping in doorways or panhandling from benches. This compromise originated with the big task force on homelessness the City convened in the early '90s, but has been flexible enough to accommodate new thinking about how to get homeless people off the streets.

Of course everyone agrees to fund the police at a high level, as well as other municipal services -- to expand parks, etc. -- and typically after a gang shooting all the council members will reiterate that solving the gang problem is the City's highest priority.

On development, there's also been a compromise. The down-zoning that SMRR instituted when it came to power in the'80s and expanded over the years has also become part of the baseline politics of Santa Monica, accepted also by the non-SMRR members of the council.

But at the same time, most of the SMRR leadership has concluded that the down-zoning they achieved in the '80s and '90s was sufficient to preserve the quality of life in Santa Monica they sought to protect, and that targeted development, particularly housing, within those reduced parameters could be a good thing.

Even the growth-skeptic wing of SMRR that rose to prominence and power in '90s, epitomized by council members Ken Genser and Richard Bloom, supports further development, so long as it's predominantly residential development that includes affordable housing, on commercially-zoned sites.

Under this compromise, most of the development in the city since the recession of the '90s has been residential, and most of it has been downtown. This has enabled the City to achieve state-mandated goals for housing construction, as well as create a residential community in the downtown that most members of the council like.

Those are the major elements of the compromise. It's resulted in a situation where, as shown in the Matrix of council votes I have prepared each election year since 2004, the council members agree most of the time, and where they disagree the disagreement usually reflects the disagreeing council member's particular perspective on an issue, rather than the ideology of a group.

What this means politically is that if you like the compromise (even if you never thought about it) -- which would probably mean that overall you like the direction the city has traveled the past 15 years -- you're probably voting for the incumbents, or most of them, and if you don't like it, or if you feel left out from the "deal" on the compromise, or if you're unhappy about one thing or another in this town, then you are probably looking to vote for the non-incumbents.

There are differences among the incumbents, however. Five of them have the deepest roots both in the ideological battles that presaged the compromise and in the compromise itself; I consider them the mainstream group, and they are Richard Bloom, Ken Genser, Robert Holbrook, Herb Katz and Pam O'Connor. Three of them -- Bloom, Genser and Katz -- are up for reelection.

It's not coincidence that these five council members oppose RIFT.

One attribute the five share is confidence in what they have been and are doing; if you don't like the status quo, you probably think that I should have used the word "arrogance" instead of "confidence" in the previous sentence.

The fact is that Bloom, Genser and Katz do not believe that in running for reelection they have to apologize for the current state of the city, and they don't believe they need RIFT to make sure they make good decisions about development.

The other two members of the council -- Kevin McKeown and Bobby Shriver -- came to politics and the council somewhat differently than the other five, and although they don't disagree with their colleagues much more often than the others when the council votes, they carry somewhat different attitudes.

They both have endorsed RIFT.

Mr. McKeown, perhaps reflecting his start in the Green Party, projects a kind of moralism that can offend his pragmatic colleagues. For instance, in the context of the debate over Measure T, he has implicitly accused council members and SMRR leaders who oppose the measure of being beholden to developers. This has not gone over well.

Mr. McKeown, however, is not running for reelection this year. Mr. Shriver is, and he'll be the first subject of Part 2 of this column.

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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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