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All Politics Are Local Except When They Are Not

By Frank Gruber

October 18, 2010 -- The funny thing about this year’s elections for the Santa Monica City Council -- yes, there are two of them, one for three regular four-year seats and one for the remaining two years of the seats that were occupied by Herb Katz and Ken Genser -- is how much they reflect national politics.

My guiding truth about politics is what Tip O’Neill said; that “all politics are local.” But this year the rhetoric in Santa Monica seems like a podcast from the cable news networks.

How else can you explain that in the city of “what can I do for you” politicians, and “what have you done for me lately” constituents, suddenly “small government” and “cut taxes” are the cries heard from nearly all the candidates challenging the incumbents?

Some quotes from the Lookout’s candidate profiles:

Jean McNeil Wyner says that she is running to give residents power instead of “politicians ready to raise taxes.” She’s running against a City Council whose members are “just trying to get reelected term after term” and who “arrogantly impose new taxes when they fail to live within their income.”

John Mann says that the City Council and city staff are “corrupt and incompetent” and that “voters need to wake up and take the city back. The ONLY way to change the status quo is to throw the bums out.”

Terence Later says that “we need new blood in office and I promise fiscal responsibility.”

Daniel Cody says that he is running “to ensure there is a voice for fiscal efficiency on the Council.”

Robert Kronovet says that he is “running to reduce taxes” and that the “failing to cut spending” by incumbents Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis had made clear their “incompetence and poor judgment.”

Susan Hartley says that “we . . . have our incumbents to thank for our high taxes and plans for more. The residents say less, less, less. Incumbents say more, more, more. Residents feel ignored and left out.”

David Ganezer is running against a council that “has made lousy decisions that show it is more interested in satisfying developers and politically correct special interest groups than the people of Santa Monica.”

To my knowledge, only two of these candidates, Ms. McNeil Wyner and Mr. Kronovet have identified themselves as Republicans, yet they all seem to be channeling Sarah Palin. You wonder where this is coming from, given that the basic mantra that winning candidates over the years have used in Santa Monica has been some variation on promising a chicken in every pot.

Let’s get something straight -- ever since Santa Monicans voted not to be annexed to Los Angeles -- nearly a century ago -- the City has had a “big” local government, one with its own police and fire departments, its own bus line, its own waterworks, its own park system, etc. All to service a regional downtown and an industrial economy. Some “beach town.”

And let’s not forget the “residents” who demand -- and get -- intensive regulation of business and development, from rent control to zoning. Mr. Ganezer says he’s running because he got mad one day when someone from the City told him he couldn’t put an A-frame sign on the sidewalk to advertise his business, but maybe he doesn’t know that we have a lot of code enforcement here because the residents whose votes he wants demand both the codes and the enforcement.

The ire of the challengers is not entirely fueled by the national mood. There is a local hook on which the challengers can hang their Tea Party hats: the City Council put a tax on the ballot. Measure Y, a half-cent sales tax, will raise money to buffer both the City and the School District from California’s budget crisis.

The challengers see this as an opportunity, but I suspect they are swimming upstream.

In election years like this one, when the economy is bad and people are scared, it is difficult to predict outcomes, but look at the history: I cannot recall any tax measure in Santa Monica (bonds, parcel taxes, county measures, etc.) that received less than 60% of the vote, and Measure Y needs only 50% plus one. In 2008 Santa Monica voters approved a half-cent increase in the sales tax (Measure R for transit) with 77 percent of the vote, even though most of the Measure R money will not be spent locally.

Measure Y money will be spent here, for local government services and for the schools, a fact that should make it easier to pass despite the hard times. (I discussed my reasons for supporting Measure Y in parts of two columns in July; if you’re interested, see “Concluding LUCE” and “Thanks for the Memories”.)

Not all the challengers are running on a Tea Party type platform. The challenger with probably the best chance of winning a seat, Ted Winterer, who is running with an endorsement from Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), the City’s dominant political organization for 30 years, supports Measure Y. So does longtime activist Jerry Rubin.

Neither Mr. Winterer nor Mr. Rubin is running “from anger,” and their positions reflect the rational view that Santa Monica is a desirable place to live not only because the marine layer lifts occasionally, but also because it’s been well governed for decades by a combination of SMRR-endorsed council members and mainstream (i.e., usually Democratic) non-SMRR types like Mr. Katz, Robert Holbrook, and most recently Bobby Shriver.

If it’s not government spending the challengers hate, it is the “massive development” approved by a city council that they say has “sold out” our “beach town”, and which causes the number one problem, traffic. Yet traffic is about the same in Santa Monica as it is everywhere else in the region. If you think there’s been too much development in Santa Monica, look around -- to Los Angeles or other small cities in the region such as Burbank or Glendale -- to see what might have happened in Santa Monica if local government had not in fact closely regulated development over the past 30 years.

And development in Santa Monica has not been mindless. Consider the city’s diversified and still vibrant economy. How many towns can open a several hundred million dollar mall in the middle of the worst recession in 80 years? The foreclosure crisis has largely bypassed Santa Monica -- property values are down, but they have hardly collapsed.

Incumbents usually win reelection in Santa Monica, but there could be upsets this year. Mr. Winterer, a Planning Commissioner and former Recreation and Parks Commissioner, is a well-liked candidate with a strong base in the anti-growth community. He could defeat one of the three incumbents who are running (Mr. Holbrook, Kevin McKeown and Pam O’Connor). But even if he did, given his SMRR endorsement it would hardly be a revolution.

The race for the two-year terms is hard to handicap, since all prior experience has been with elections for three or four seats at a time. Both Ms. Davis and Mr. O’Day have been endorsed by SMRR; generally when SMRR endorses candidates for all the open seats, at least one of them loses. It’s hard to know if that math will apply when there are only two seats in play.

Mr. Kronovet surprised everyone when he won a seat on the Rent Control Board two years ago, and he could pull an upset again. A lot will depend on how well Ms. Davis and Mr. O’Day connect with non-SMRR voters.

Stay tuned.

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email 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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