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The "T" Party  

By Frank Gruber

August 9, 2010 -- It wasn't a surprise to me that the Steering Committee of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) voted to endorse Pam O'Connor, Oscar de la Torre and Ralph Mechur last week after the three SMRR loyalists didn't receive endorsements at SMRR's convention a week ago Sunday. See Story: SMRR_Endorses Three_Incumbents, August 7, 2010

That was because after the convention a member of the Steering Committee told me that the leaders of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) and the new SMRR members they had signed up to make sure that Ted Winterer received the endorsement he narrowly missed getting two years ago, had a mistaken impression about SMRR.

The SMCLC'ers did not take into account, this longtime SMRR activist said, when they said that the committee had no right to endorse candidates the convention had failed to endorse, that SMRR was a political organization with an agenda, not a neighborhood group they could come in and take over.

I found this dose of realpolitik to be refreshing.

Nor should the SMCLC be surprised -- their leadership knows about politics, too. It's a group that's all about power. At least that's how I have always seen it.

Two years ago when the SMCLC was trying to pass its "Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic" (RIFT), I wrote a column about the SMCLC and its leaders under the title, "It's About Power", June 30, 2008. My thesis was that RIFT wouldn't reduce the amount of development much even if it passed, and that the real point of RIFT and all the other attacks the SMCLC had made on city government was that the leaders of the organization wanted to attack the power structure in Santa Monica.

I wrote then that "[t]he proponents [of RIFT] don't have [power], they don't like not having it, they resent the people who do have it, and they know they can't win it in council elections. Simply put, SMCLC wants to put Santa Monica's political class in its place."

At the SMRR convention the SMCLC'ers managed to do some serious place-putting-into. The new members SMCLC brought in to support the candidacy of Mr. Winterer (co-author of RIFT) caused SMRR to withhold an endorsement from Ms. O'Connor, a four-time SMRR endorsee who, although not universally loved within SMRR (more that later), had in her political career hewed closely to the core values of SMRR.

The new members did this despite pleas from both Mr. Winterer and SMCLC's other favorite, Council Member Kevin McKeown, for delegates at the convention to support all the candidates seeking endorsements. A SMRR member who sat in on the counting of votes told me that in the initial round, Mr. Winterer received approximately 30 "bullet" votes listing only him.

This antipathy of SMCLC towards Ms. O'Connor is not new. When she last ran for the City Council, in 2006, SMCLC mailed out a hit piece accusing Ms. O'Connor of corruption. See story: O'Connor_Targeted_by_Coalition October 30, 2006

Yet SMCLC's tactics did not arise in a vacuum. What happened at the convention was preceded by a lot of history, and SMRR left itself open to be manipulated.

There is a long tradition for candidates seeking SMRR endorsements to sign up friends as new members and have them come to the convention. Back in 1988 in what may have been the first instance of this, Judy Abdo enlisted a contingent from a gay and lesbian group, the Santa Monica Bay Lesbian and Gay Alliance, to support her.

In the '90s, Michael Feinstein brought in members of the Green Party. Eight years ago, Oscar de la Torre brought in Pico Neighborhood residents to support his bid for the school board.

There is also a long tradition of SMRR reaching out to the neighborhood associations, which have been dominated by homeowners and which are the home of the no-growth movement in the city. This goes back to the '80s when SMRR welcomed elements of Friends of Sunset Park.

What's different this year, and what had SMRR leadership upset about what happened at the convention, is that the new members brought in by the SMCLC to support Mr. Winterer did not seem to share the values of SMRR.

Whenever SMRR has joined forces with the no-growth constituency in local politics, SMRR has made sure that the candidates SMRR endorsed who came from the no-growth movement -- from Ken Genser to Mr. Winterer -- always shared the "progressive" values of SMRR.

But although the SMRR activists seem happy enough with Mr. Winterer, they don't trust his SMCLC supporters. The moment at the convention that crystallized their fears came when the members were asked to support by voice vote the half-cent sales tax that will be on the ballot in November, and the SMCLC members opposed it.

To get back to realpolitik, this may be a moment when the scales fall from peoples' eyes.

SMRR has been the vehicle that the anti-development element in Santa Monica has used to magnify its power. To do this, no-growthers who have a fundamentally antagonistic relationship to City Hall have had to adopt left-wing rhetoric: they're not what they seem to be -- comfortable middle-class NIMBYs out to protect their own interests -- but rather cadres engaged in a veritable class war against "greedy developers" -- even developers building apartments where renters, SMRR's historic constituency, might find places to live.

Or if they're fighting Santa Monica College, another institution -- and one that builds -- strongly supported by most of SMRR's membership (and most Santa Monicans), it's not because they don't like students in their neighborhood, but because the college is a "bad neighbor."

The no-growthers, like extremists of both the left and the right, always have to have a villain. It's only a coincidence, but when RIFT reached the ballot, it became Measure T. Which made the SMRR convention a T party.

Having said all that, the SMRR leadership and Ms. O'Connor cannot blame only the SMCLC. While the number of bullet votes for Mr. Winterer was high (it seems that despite the pleas of Mr. Winterer and Mr. McKeown for unity, those pleas were more effective with O'Connor voters), there were not enough SMCLC members at the convention to deny an endorsement to Terry O'Day, who had been the co-chair of the campaign against Measure T.

I talked to a number of delegates at the convention who thought that Ms. O'Connor might have received the required 55 percent of the votes if she had done a little more "retail" campaigning and glad-handing at the convention. For whatever reason, she held back. SMRR has never been monolithic, there have always been factions and personalities, and over the years there are SMRR members who have found themselves not on the best terms with Ms. O'Connor.

As I wrote last week, a political organization needs to stand by its incumbents. Something that the SMRR Steering Committee demonstrated.

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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