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Why They Fight?

By Frank Gruber

October 27, 2010 -- I’ve been writing about how Tea Party-style rhetoric seems to have influenced this year’s Santa Monica City Council election, but Santa Monica doesn’t need national precedents when it comes to third-party campaign activities. While spending by 501(c)(4) organizations and other non-candidate groups has been big news this year nationally, independent expenditures have a long tradition here.

When you have independent expenditures, which legally cannot be coordinated with the candidates’ own campaigns, you’re going to have controversies. Such as those that arose last week when the Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), a 501(c)(4) organization, attacked Terry O’Day and Pam O’Connor (see story 10-21-2010 Police Union Calls Campaign Mailer with its Logo Disingenuous), and when a new and secretive organization, “Santa Monicans for Quality Government” (SMQG), sent out mailers that looked like they came from the police and firefighter unions, but which only listed four of the five incumbents (namely, all of them but Kevin McKeown) the two unions had endorsed (see story: 10-21-2010 Police Union Calls Campaign Mailer with its Logo Disingenuous), SMQG has not disclosed the sources of its funding (although at least some of the money for the mailers came from candidates Pam O’Connor and Gleam Davis, who paid to be included), but if the past is predictive SMQG is likely getting money from hotels or developers, because in the past they have opposed Mr. McKeown.

So far this year I haven’t seen any direct attacks on Mr. McKeown, and maybe we won’t, because it was clear in 2006 that the attacks were ineffective or counter-productive. Mr. McKeown finished in first place with 14,000 votes. Despite the SMCLC’s attacks on Ms. O’Connor, she came in second, with only about 700 fewer votes than Mr. McKeown.

Which may only mean that the efforts of the most powerful independent expenditure group of all, Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), which endorsed both Mr. McKeown and Ms. O’Connor, can trump attacks from groups the voters don’t know much about.

Mentioning SMRR brings me to something else, namely that since the raucous battles over rent control in the ’80s died down, the most vitriolic attacks in Santa Monica politics typically pit the supporters of some subset of SMRR-endorsed candidates against the supporters of another. The issue is always the same -- development -- yet the differences over development are so small, there must be more to it.

Regular readers of this column know that I have a dim view of the SMCLC and its cartoonishly unfounded attacks, and of the hotels and their clumsy and ineffective independent campaigns against (or for) candidates. But what really gets me is how both sides get so worked up over nothing.

Outside of Santa Monica it would be absurd to call politicians like Ms. O’Connor and Mr. O’Day “pro-development.” Yes, they have a realistic view about development in a society that values property rights and depends on economic growth, and in a city that needs housing and tax revenues, which means that they clash with the SMCLC crowd, but that hardly makes them pro-business, free-market types. They are what progressives are in this country: regulators.

By the same token, outside of Santa Monica, it would be a stretch to think of Mr. McKeown and Ted Winterer, the SMRR candidates the SMCLC supports, as “NIMBYs,” if only because of their support for affordable housing. But the two of them are hardly against development.

Consider the development agreements the SMCLC attacks Ms. O’Connor and Mr. O’Day about: Mr. McKeown and Mr. Winterer (on the Planning Commission) may quibble and push for some downsizing, but I can’t think of one development agreement they have ultimately voted against.

And support for these agreements has not always been unanimous. For example, Mr. McKeown voted in favor of the Village development at the Civic Center, which did not get the votes of Bobby Shriver or Bob Holbrook.

In April 2008, when the “Lionsgate” project at 2834 Colorado had its first “float up,” Mr. McKeown not only voted to proceed to negotiations for a development agreement, but made the motion to do so; the late Ken Genser cast the lone no vote against entering into negotiations. The reason I know about the Lionsgate vote (I didn’t write about it then) is that Mr. Genser made a point of telling me about it a few months later, during the campaign against the SMCLC’s RIFT initiative (also known as Measure T). He was bothered that the SMCLC and Mr. McKeown were portraying him as a tool of developers because he opposed RIFT, yet on Lionsgate he had just recently opposed a commercial development Mr. McKeown had supported.

The SMCLC supports Mr. McKeown and Mr. Winterer because they supported Meas. T, and because they throw the no-growthers rhetorical meat in the form of support for unworkable moratoriums on development. But the two of them aren’t going to jeopardize the economy of the city by opposing reasonable development.

These development battles are silly -- why can’t similar energies be focused on ending gang violence in Santa Monica?

Or put it this way: despite all the wailing from the no-growthers, Santa Monica has controlled development as effectively as any city in California. Despite all the fears of the business community and developers, Santa Monica has been a good place to do business.

This fight is more about emotion than logic. The no-growthers at SMCLC believe they know best and that they represent the people’s will notwithstanding that they tend to lose elections. Ms. O’Connor riles them because she’s blunt-spoken (after all, she is from Chicago) and isn’t afraid to tell them that she see things differently than they do, and that they don’t represent all the “residents” they say they do.

The SMCLC doesn’t like Mr. O’Day because his environmental credentials and achievements are more substantial than any they have, and with those credentials it drives them crazy that he co-chaired the campaign against Meas. T.

There are emotions on the other side, too. The developers could live with Mr. McKeown but he likes to call them greedy (which of course plays to his no-growth constituency). Developers and business people don’t think they are greedier than the homeowners who claim a development is going to hurt their property values or customers who want a good deal, and they don’t like it when Mr. McKeown takes a morally superior attitude toward them even if he ultimately does vote yes on their projects.

And then there are the personal antipathies among the SMRR council members, which are either a product of the disputes over development, or an instigator of them.

Mr. McKeown alluded to his problems with the other council members when he mentioned in his candidate’s statement for the Lookout (2010-ELECTION) that they have yet to elect him mayor.

After the election in 2006, I wrote that the council members should elect Mr. McKeown mayor (see column, “He Don’t Get No Respect”). I still believe that if he’s reelected that he deserves to be mayor. But it’s worth considering why his colleagues haven’t given him that honor.

I’m guessing -- this is not something that I have polled the council members about -- that what annoys them is the same thing that annoys the developers, namely, that Mr. McKeown takes a morally superior attitude to them, too. When they disagree with him over a development issue -- like Meas. T, for instance -- he doesn’t give them credit for having a different opinion about what would be good for the city, but instead says that it must be because they’re taking campaign donations from developers.

This is not a way to make friends.

Another thing that Mr. McKeown does that I suspect annoys his colleagues is that he jumps in to make motions at the very beginning of council debates. While this may not seem like a big deal, under the rules governing the council’s meetings whoever makes a motion controls the debate so long as that motion is on the floor, because he or she has control over “friendly” amendments.

A few weeks ago, during the council’s deliberations over the deal with Agensys, Mr. McKeown took this a step farther. As usual, he moved the staff recommendation even before discussion began. Once discussion was under way, the mayor, Bobby Shriver, as is customary took his turn to speak last. He was in the middle of a well-considered statement outlining the several reasons he was going to oppose the deal, when Mr. McKeown interrupted to ask him if he could express his comments in the form of amendments to Mr. McKeown’s motion. I have no idea whether this annoyed Mr. Shriver, but sure would have annoyed me. The interruption completely disrupted his argument, which he was fully entitled to make. Basically Mr. McKeown was saying, “shut up.”

Mr. McKeown deserves credit for the attention that he gives to civic affairs, attending nearly every meeting of importance. Many residents consider him their most accessible city councilmember, and for this reason and because voters react positively to moral certitude, he’ll probably lead in the votes next week.

But if his constituents wonder why Mr. McKeown is not always effective in forging winning majorities, they might consider how he relates to the other council members.

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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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