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Who’s Smearing Whom?

By Frank Gruber

November 8, 2010 -- With a City Council seat still undecided it is too early to write a column analyzing this year’s council election. The meaning of the election will depend upon who wins the seat.

Mr. Holbrook has history on his side. Not to take anything away from Mr. Winterer or his campaign, but previously Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) has not been able to elect three candidates in the off-year elections when three seats are in play. Mr. Holbrook’s margins of victory have been close before: 92 votes in 1998 when he edged out Richard Bloom or 296 in 2002 when the losing SMRR candidate was Abby Arnold.

Point being, that regardless who wins, the shape of this election follows a longstanding pattern more than any specific politicking. The more things change, the more they may remain the same, but then in Santa Monica nothing seems to change, either.

Last week the 2002 election was on my mind for other reasons. After the vote on Tuesday, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) sent out an e-mail claiming that if Mr. Winterer loses it may be because he was “smeared” in mailers sent out by an organization apparently set up for this election called “Santa Monicans for Quality Government” (SMQG). According to SMCLC’s email:

"What we do know is that we have just witnessed one of the most deceptive campaigns in recent Santa Monica history, paid for by developers and those who work for them, and managed by the campaign consultant for two of the incumbents. This campaign was aimed directly at defeating Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer. Their tactics consisted of a series of misleading mailers and phony voter guides which have been denounced as deceptive by the Santa Monica Democratic Club, the police and firefighters' associations, Community for Excellent Public Schools, and SMCLC.

"While this smear campaign was unsuccessful against well-known, long-time incumbent councilmember Kevin McKeown, depending on the final numbers, it may have been more effective against the lesser known Ted Winterer."

The falsehoods in these two paragraphs are so obvious -- and so characteristic of the SMCLC -- that it's not surprising that victorious candidates Pam O'Connor and Terry O'Day, in statements after the election, both accused the SMCLC of lying about them in hit pieces the SMCLC distributed during the campaign.

Let me say at the start -- there is a place in politics for negative campaigning. Honest attacks on an opponent’s positions are legitimate. In Santa Monica, there are plenty of differences between the candidates that might be subject to negative campaigning. But there is no reason -- no grounds -- to go beyond that and make unfounded attacks on character. This isn’t Bell.

The most obvious falsehood in the SMCLC’s recent email is that the SMQG mailers didn’t smear anyone. Yes, they were deceptive -- it is politics we’re talking about, after all, not tiddlywinks -- but SMQG didn’t attack anyone. A smear is a false accusation. While truth and falsity can be subject to debate, to have a smear, you need to have an attack, and none of the SMQG mailers attacked Mr. McKeown or Mr. Winterer (or, to my knowledge, even mentioned them).

Fact is, the only negative campaigning in this year’s election that I saw came from the SMCLC. The SMCLC attacked Ms. O'Connor and Mr. O’Day repeatedly with accusations that reached the “smear” level, charging, without any evidence, that they have sold their votes to “Big Developers.” I’m sure the SMCLC could have found votes that the two candidates made that the SMCLC disagreed with, or other substantive disagreements to focus on, but evidently the SMCLC can’t avoid the low road.

Developers have made donations to the O’Connor and O’Day campaigns, and they have made independent expenditures to support their candidacies, but there’s no evidence that any vote the two council members have taken reflects anything other than conclusions they came to independently, consistent with their longterm, often-expressed views.

Developers also typically support candidates who do not run on platforms vilifying developers, and no one vilifies developers more than the SMCLC. If you were a developer, wouldn’t you want to contribute money to any candidate who didn’t have the SMCLC’s support? Maybe Mr. McKeown and Mr. Winterer should thank the SMCLC for the existence of the SMQG.

It’s not only developers who feel the SMCLC lash. Since its formation at the time of the initial proposals to redevelop Santa Monica Place, the SMCLC has continually accused council members and city staff of being corrupt. The organization once sued the City to get copies of email messages the SMCLC was sure would show corruption; the City even had to pay the SMCLC’s legal fees, but the SMCLC never released any incriminating emails.

I’d say that given its own practice of smearing candidates the SMCLC’s accusations of smears from the SMQG might be ironic, except that there is no sense that anyone in the leadership of the SMCLC has a sense of irony.

As I said, this all made me remember the 2002 campaign. That was an election characterized by deceptive tactics and real smears. Mr. Holbrook was the victim of a hit piece from the police union, and Ms. Arnold -- like Ms. O’Connor and Mr. O’Day this year -- was hit by attacks from Santa Monica's no-growthers.

In 2002 the SMCLC didn't yet exist, but an anti-development organization calling itself “People Over Politics” distributed an attack against Ms. Arnold just before the election. It seems that whenever Kevin McKeown runs for reelection, his supporters go overboard. Since they usually attack his fellow SMRR-endorsees, and since he prides himself on running a positive campaign, one might think he’d say something about it -- maybe try to calm his people down -- but so far I haven’t heard anything.

Again, there’s nothing wrong about going negative over substantive differences, but unfounded attacks about character or wild allegations about corruption are evidence for the ignorance of those making the attacks more than anything else.

* * *

Two weeks ago I wrote that all the candidates running for the School Board, both incumbents and challengers, were good. Yet there were choices to make, and overall the voters made good ones.

By that I mean no disrespect to Barry Snell, the incumbent who lost. Mr. Snell worked hard and ably as a board member, and he cared deeply for all the students in the District. For the District, however, it feels like a time for change, and I would have been surprised if all of the three incumbents running for reelection had won. I’d advise Mr. Snell -- like a lot of Democrats last week -- not to take his loss personally.

The two new members of the board -- Laurie Lieberman and Nimish Patel -- are likely to shake things up. Oscar de la Torre, who won reelection, is already the board member most open to challenging the District’s administration, and I suspect Ms. Lieberman and Mr. Patel will join him. Ralph Mechur, who also won reelection, is a conscientious board member who will now start only his first full term.

It’s not that the administrators of the District have done anything specifically or egregiously wrong, but they will do a better job the more the Board challenges them.


Workshop notice:
The next workshop for the planning of the new parks at the Civic Center will take place this Saturday, Nov. 13, at 1:00 p.m. at the Santa Monica High School Cafeteria. Lead designer James Corner will present his revised and integrated designs, based on the three conceptual proposals he previously produced for public review. For more information, go to the City’s website for the new parks:

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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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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