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Frank Gruber

The City Council Election, Part 2

By Frank Gruber

If my point yesterday in Part 1 of this analysis of the Santa Monica City Council election was that the election was about the incumbents, then the initial point of this Part 2 is that while no incumbent is exactly like any other incumbent, some incumbents are more different than others.

Of the four incumbents running for reelection, Bobby Shriver is the most different. He no doubt agrees with this, because he projects a maverick image almost as assiduously as Sarah Palin.

The first reason Mr. Shriver is different is that since he's only running for a second term, he's "less" of an incumbent than the other incumbent candidates (who are running for up to a fifth term). If you believe that council members should exercise voluntary term limits, Mr. Shriver is the incumbent you probably prefer.

But it's more than that. Mr. Shriver's attitudes toward the council, the City and his role as a council member differ from those of the mainstream bloc on the council. Those attitudes are based on how he came to be a council member and his policies.

Mr. Shriver doesn't owe his election to the council either to Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) or to the organized SMRR opposition of the '80s and '90s. He only became involved in politics over the hedge issue in 2004, and owes his election to his own qualities -- his engaging personality and his name -- rather than to any group.

In 2004 when Mr. Shriver ran for council I wrote that he was a "magical mirror into which people gaze and see what they want to see;" four years later people know more about him. (WHAT I SAY -- TheChamber Challengers, October 27, 2004)

Mr. Shriver has pursued an independent path while on the council, although if you look at the Matrix of votes, he agrees more often with his colleagues than he disagrees. But on policy matters he characterizes himself as the representative of those who consider themselves unrepresented.

I trace this back to the hedges controversy. Mr. Shriver came to local politics because of an issue that pitted aggrieved residents against City Hall, not because of any larger social or policy issue.

Mr. Shriver has continually identified politically with residents who have grievances -- regardless whether, as it turned out with the hedges, there are other residents who have contrary views (or grievances against the originally aggrieved), or whether the aggrieved proposed anything more than simplistic solutions to the problems that grieved them.

Given that Mr. Shriver's own personality shades towards ebullience, it's always surprised me that he seems to side with whoever is most unhappy about something.

If you listen to some of the aggrieved, you would think that Santa Monica is a hellhole, but that doesn't mean that genuine grievances don't exist. Mr. Shriver deserves credit for arguing the case for, to take two examples, parents of special education children and apartment renters who have to live with their neighbors' secondhand smoke. (Although his admonitions might go down better if he didn't adopt the persona of a crusading district attorney from a movie in the '30s.)

This election Mr. Shriver has made two decisions that separate himself from his mainstream colleagues: his support for Measure T and his opposition to Measure SM, which secures the City's utility tax on telephone service while extending it to new technologies. Endorsing Measure T connects Mr. Shriver to those residents who feel unrepresented on the council, but his opposition to SM better illustrates the "outsider" reputation Mr. Shriver has sought to develop.

By opposing SM (as well as by dismissing fears that T would reduce city revenues), Mr. Shriver puts himself in opposition to the central tenet of the consensus that unites the SMRR and non-SMRR mainstream council members, that Santa Monicans want an activist city government that develops sources of revenues and then spends those revenues on services -- from police to parks.

Mr. Shriver is a complex figure, however, and his identification with Santa Monica's aggrieved is not total. As I remarked during the 2004 campaign, where he draws a line is over the homeless. ("WHAT I SAY -- Back to All Politics is Local," Septmebr 13, 2004)

Mr. Shriver deserves credit, given his rhetoric and associations, for not ever adopting a "blame the homeless" position, notwithstanding the level of grievance around town about that issue. Instead he has made development of successful programs, on a regional basis, to assist the chronically homeless the major focus of his time on the council, and he can make the argument that his efforts brought new thinking to the table.

* * *

All right, so let's say for one reason or another, you're not voting for all (or any) of the incumbents. Who else is out there?

As I said in Part 1, the most likely non-incumbent to win a seat is Ted Winterer, currently a Recreation and Parks Commissioner. Mr. Winterer has many good qualities -- not the least being his amiability and conscientiousness -- and he's been active in his (and my) neighborhood, Ocean Park, and the Ocean Park Association, of which he's the current president, for many years.

As a co-author of Measure T, he's the challenger most identified with it. He probably would have received an endorsement from SMRR but for his connection to T.

There's no hiding the fact that I disagree with Mr. Winterer over Measure T and related development issues, and in the past I've characterized him as a "Santa Monican Fearful of Change." That's a category into which I put anyone who believes that we don't have the ability, through government, to shape the future into something good, but instead need measures like T to protect us from change.

But as with most of my fellow residents, although the issues may vary among them, in the end I probably agree with Mr. Winterer 80 percent of the time (that may lose him votes), and most significantly we agree on the importance of neighborhood associations holding pancake breakfasts, Fourth of July parades, etc. ("WHAT I SAY -- When Not to Have an Opinion, May 12, 2008)

After Mr. Winterer, the prospects for the challengers drop off precipitously.

The best-known candidate from among the other challengers is activist Jerry Rubin, who received about 5,000 votes when he ran in 2000. This year Mr. Rubin is running after having co-founded Treesavers to oppose the City's plan to remove ficus trees from Second and Fourth Streets downtown.

One can argue -- as I have -- that Mr. Rubin took the opposition to the City's plans, once the City changed those plans, too far, but in general Mr. Rubin has been a beneficial, if ubiquitous, figure in Santa Monica's civic discourse. It's rare to find a person who comments so frequently on public affairs to do so in such a logical, polite and genial manner.

As for positions, Mr. Rubin opposes Measure T and is in favor of establishing a Tree Commission. If he were elected to the council, which is unlikely not least for the fact that he eschews the normal politicking that is necessary to get elected, such as seeking donations or endorsements, I predict that he would fit into the mainstream consensus on the council.

Which says a lot about Santa Monica.

Another co-founder of Treesavers, Susan Hartley, is also running for council, but she has a different attitude toward the city government than Mr. Rubin. Ms. Hartley, a former Airport Commissioner, supports Measure T; in fact, her campaign is built around the theme that the City Council and the City's staff are completely out of touch with the desires of residents; in her words, "they are destroying the Santa Monica we love." She also opposes Measure SM.

It's safe to say that she is aggrieved.

Of the remaining candidates, Michael Kovac stands out as someone who is interested in government at a serious level and who has campaigned hard. He's knocked on a lot of doors. However, he hasn't raised the kind of money to run the kind of campaign that is necessary to reach the 50,000 or so households that there are in Santa Monica, and he doesn't have any groups supporting him.

As I said in connection with the school board election, local politics is a team sport, more like baseball than tennis. You need an organization. Bobby Shriver's election in 2004 to the council without that kind of support was an exception that illustrated the rule. Mr. Kovac should look for a group to become involved with.

I don't mean any personal disrespect for the other candidates who are running for council, but they seem to be doing so for personal reasons without any plan about how to run or to win, and so I'll leave them out of this analysis.

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