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Let the Politics Begin  

By Frank Gruber

July 19, 2010 -- It's late July and another Santa Monica election is upon us. Elections come early in the Bay City because the single most important day in the campaign always occurs in early August -- this year, August 1 -- when Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) holds the convention where its membership votes on which candidates to support in the November municipal and school elections.

The SMRR endorsements are by far the most important in the election, as the organization has a loyal following, particularly among the city's renters, who make up approximately 70 percent of the population. The fact that this November's ballot will include a renter protection measure that is expected to bring more renters to the polls makes the SMRR endorsement even more valuable.

Predicting what will happen at a SMRR convention is difficult because the members voting at the meeting vary significantly from election to election. The reason is that during the spring candidates hoping for endorsements encourage supporters who are not already SMRR members to join the organization in time for their votes to count at the August convention.

From what I have heard, this year there has been more of this than usual. SMRR's leadership must expect a larger than normal turnout, because they have moved the convention from the cafeteria at the old John Muir elementary school site to the larger cafeteria at John Adams Middle School.

Predicting endorsements is even more complicated this year, because there will be two elections for the City Council. One ballot will be for the "regular" four-year seats currently occupied by Robert Holbrook and previous SMRR endorsees Pam O'Connor and Kevin McKeown.

The other ballot will be for the remaining two years of the two seats that were vacated when Herb Katz and Ken Genser died. Gleam Davis (a past co-chair of SMRR) and Terry O'Day were appointed to fill these seats until the election, and they are both seeking election for the balance of the terms. Both will be seeking SMRR endorsements.

One thing to keep in mind is that it's not easy to get a SMRR endorsement. The organization requires candidates to be supported by a supermajority of 55 percent of convention voters. Not only that, but because of factions in SMRR (not to mention vendettas), and the "blocs" at the convention favoring particular candidates, "bullet voting" is common, which increases the difficulty of reaching the 55 percent threshold. As a result, SMRR often fails to make endorsements for all the seats in play. For example in 2008 there were four City Council seats on the ballot, but SMRR only endorsed two candidates.

The situation is so complicated this year that Planning Commissioner Winterer pulled nomination papers for both ballots; he hasn't yet announced whether he will run on the four-year ballot or run against Davis and O'Day.

I suspect Mr. Winterer is trying to balance a number of factors. For one, he needs to decide which incumbents to challenge -- those who were elected (Holbrook, McKeown, O'Connor) or those who were appointed (Davis, O'Day). The conventional wisdom is that it will be harder to run against the longstanding incumbents than against O'Day and Davis.

Incumbents in Santa Monica usually win reelection, but this is not a fact that is independent of the SMRR endorsement process. Most incumbents receive SMRR endorsements since most of them over the past 30 years were elected the first time with SMRR's backing and SMRR has rarely revoked an endorsement. But since SMRR often cannot agree on endorsements for all contested seats, that helps non-SMRR incumbents.

Conventional wisdom may have it that Mr. Winterer would have a harder time against the four-year incumbents, but he also has to factor in the likelihood that it will easier to get a SMRR endorsement in the four-year race, as Mr. Holbrook does not seek the SMRR endorsement. If Mr. Winterer had had a SMRR endorsement in 2008, which he almost received, he may well have defeated non-SMRR Herb Katz.


If Mr. Winterer runs in the two-year election, it's quite possible that neither he nor Mr. O'Day, who both have significant support within SMRR, will garner the 55 percent to receive the endorsement. (Ms. Davis, a former co-chair of SMRR, is considered to have a lock on an endorsement.)

The situation could be even more intriguing. While it may seem crazy to think that SMRR stalwarts O'Connor and McKeown might not win endorsements, the fragmentation of the SMRR membership makes even them vulnerable.

Ms. O'Connor opposed the 2008's Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT) and is perceived in the Santa Monica context, especially by the anti-growth community, as being pro-development. Mr. Winterer was a co-author of RIFT, and he's attracted supporters to SMRR who want him to receive the endorsement he nearly received in 2008. These new convention voters will not likely vote to endorse Ms. O'Connor.

At the same time, Mr. McKeown may run into trouble if the School Board election attracts a lot of education activists to the convention. Although he is a vocal supporter of the schools, Mr. McKeown works for the School District and therefore he has to recuse himself from City Council votes on school funding. This makes him an effective "no" vote on school funding issues, since giving money to the schools requires four out of the seven votes on the council.

This may be more important because if the City's half-cent sales tax passes, even with the advisory measure calling for half of the money to go to the district, inevitably there will be pressure on the council to use the money for City purposes. The education activists are therefore wary about Mr. McKeown and may not vote for him to receive an endorsement.

I wouldn't be much of a local columnist if I didn't mention that it's no secret that Ms. O'Connor and Mr. McKeown are not pals; Ms. O'Connor has repeatedly refrained from voting for Mr. McKeown to become mayor. The feelings extend to their supporters, at least to a degree that dismays the leadership of SMRR who would like a more united organization.

Looking at the School Board election, now that Kelly Pye has decided not to run for reelection (see story of July 16, 2010, School District Election Taking Shape,) the SMRR endorsement contest looks less complicated than it appeared it would be when it looked like four incumbents, all of whom had received SMRR's endorsement, would run for reelection. It's unlikely that SMRR will not endorse the three incumbents seeking reelection (Mr. de la Torre, Barry Snell and Ralph Mechur). That leaves one open seat with two able candidates -- Ms. Lieberman and Nimish Patel -- seeking an endorsement. (Malibu resident and longtime Samohi teacher Patrick Cady will apparently not seek the SMRR endorsement.)

My guess is that Ms. Lieberman has the edge over Mr. Patel for the endorsement for two reasons. One, she's been involved in school politics longer and therefore knows more people active in local politics. Two, she's holding campaign events with SMRR stalwarts like Ms. Davis and Santa Monica College Board Member (and former SMRR co-chair) Nancy Greenstein.

Stay tuned. Election season is only beginning.

Workshop Notice:
The City of Santa Monica is inviting the public to a Community Workshop on Saturday, July 24 from 1 - 4 p.m., as part of the planning process for the new park and public plaza that will be built between Ocean Avenue and City Hall. The designer the City hired, James Corner, will give a presentation promptly at 1:15 p.m. The workshop will be held on the project site, directly across from City Hall. The workshop will be the first in a series that will give the public an opportunity to meet the project team, become familiar with the site, and engage in a number of activities that will yield input to help shape the parks. Children are welcome.
For details, go to:

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on

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