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Not Quite Florida in 2000, but It's Over
By Frank Gruber

December 6, 2010 -- Santa Monica’s ultra close election for the third seat on the City Council ended last week with Ted Winterer’s decision not to ask for a recount, leaving Robert Holbrook the winner of a sixth consecutive term by 56 votes. Mr. Holbrook’s victory meant that all five incumbents on the ballot, including two in the special two-year race, were reelected.

It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for Ted Winterer. He’s well-spoken and good-spirited, and I doubt there is one person involved in politics in the city who wouldn’t rather have him on the dais rather than at least one of the three incumbents he lost to. Mr. Winterer’s problem is that the voters can’t agree on whom they would like him to replace.

From the shifting coalitions that flow within the Santa Monica electorate, each incumbent draws enough strength to maintain his or her seat, in a context of overall satisfaction with city government. No matter what the particularities of a given election are, the patterns remain the same.

In the off-Presidential year elections, when three seats are open, the pattern is that two candidates endorsed by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights will win the first two seats, but that Mr. Holbrook will get about 12,000 votes and hold off, usually by only a few votes, the strongest non-incumbent, who is usually the third SMRR candidate. Here are the total votes Robert Holbrook received in the past four elections, along with the total of the fourth-place finisher:

Holbrook: 12,775
Winterer: 12,719

Holbrook: 13,041
Terry O’Day 11,756

Holbrook: 11,164
Abby Arnold: 10,868

Holbrook: 11,895
Richard Bloom: 11,803

Another story of this election is the staying power of City Council Member Pam O’Connor, who won her fifth consecutive term. Her vote totals vary even less than Mr. Holbrook’s; here they are for the past four elections, going backwards in time: 2010: 14,535; 2006: 13,315; 2002: 13,396; and 1998: 15,068.

Before the election many people I talked to thought that Ms. O’Connor was the most likely candidate to lose to Mr. Winterer. Ms. O’Connor, but not Mr. Holbrook, was the targets of attacks from the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), which supported Mr. Winterer. A good question is whether Mr. Holbrook would have lost his 56-vote margin to Mr. Winterer if the SMCLC had attacked him instead of Ms. O’Connor.

The SMCLC might argue that Mr. Holbrook got his 56-vote margin because of mailers that “Santa Monicans for Quality Government” sent out that supported him, but that’s a hard case to make given how consistent the results have been over the years. Things balance out.

Not everything is static: Kevin McKeown has shown that it is possible to create and expand a personal base in Santa Monica politics; his totals over the last four elections have steadily increased: 1998: 12,169; 2002: 13,200; 2006: 14,000; 2010: 16,337. In a lesson that all politicians might pay attention to, Mr. McKeown has done this by taking care of his base, or rather his two bases: he is popular nearly across the board in SMRR and he has another base among the overlapping but not congruent set of anti-development voters.

So, yes, the election validated the status quo, but, to use a national politics word, do the winners have a “mandate”? I would argue that the answer is no on an individual basis, but yes collectively.

Individually, none of the winning candidates received votes from a majority of voters. I have not seen published yet the number of Santa Monica voters who voted, but it was at least 32,744, the number who voted on Measure Y, the sales tax increase. That means that even Mr. McKeown’s 16,337 votes, the highest total of any city council candidate this year, was not quite a majority. And that’s before you factor in that typically 20 percent of voters don’t bother voting on the local contests at the end of the ballot.

But if none of the incumbents get a majority, then how come they all win? The reason is that the election is “at large”; voters have three votes and they don’t have to use them all. They can “bullet vote”, which lowers the percentages individual candidates will receive.

If, however, you aggregate all of the votes for the incumbents, and compare that number to the aggregate of votes for non-incumbents, you see a different picture. This year, for instance, the votes for the three victorious incumbents totaled 43,647. The votes for the seven challengers totaled 31,388. The total was 75,035, which means that in the aggregate the incumbents won 58.2 percent of the votes cast.

One thing that we should be forever happy about is that Santa Monica politicians have to run in major elections -- either presidential or gubernatorial. Most local governments, including big cities like Los Angeles, have their elections in off-years or as part of spring primaries when turnout is low, which benefits incumbents and empowers anyone with money.

A great example of this is the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, probably the most powerful elected body in Southern California. The Board has its elections in the June primary. To give you an idea of how the numbers work, our supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky, won his seat with 70.49 percent of the vote in June 2006. That looks like a landslide. The problem is, however, that there were 842,068 registered voters in the district and Mr. Yaroslavsky only received 130,486 votes. Turnout was about 17 percent. This year, as is typical with incumbent supervisors, he ran unopposed.

Mr. Yaroslavsky is a good supervisor but I hope he isn’t under any illusion that he was elected to office in a functioning democracy.

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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