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The Year Election Money Didn’t Win

By Mary Marlow

For the past ten years the Transparency Project has researched and reported on the increasing amount of PAC money spent on Santa Monica City Council elections.

It took increasing amounts of contributions or a candidate's personal money to win. The more money spent; the better the chances of getting elected. The same with endorsements from SMRR, unions, political parties and prominent elected officials.

Until 2020, when voters upended the system ("Santa Monica Voters Usher In New Era," November 6, 2020).

The biggest players in local elections -- Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) and Santa Monica Forward -- backed none of the winning challengers: Phil Brock, Oscar de la Torre and Christine Parra

Only the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, a local resident organization, endorsed the tradition-breaking slate that defeated three of the four well-funded and broadly endorsed incumbents.

Overall, the total winners’ spending was less than half of the losing incumbents -- $227,553 vs. $510,165, according to campaign finance disclosure statements filed by November 6. The numbers will be updated on the final statements due at the end of January.

Brock, the top finisher in the council race, won with only $24,120 spent. Compare that with the $84,462 spent on second-place finisher Gleam Davis, the only incumbent who held on to their seat.

Parra, who heads emergency services in Culver City, finished third with $47,712 spent on her behalf, most of it by the Santa Monica Firefighters PAC.

School Board member de la Torre, finished with $38,667 in expenditures, most of which he raised in his candidate committee.

By comparison, the Santa Monica Forward PAC, funded by business and development interests, spent more $200,000 betting on five incumbents they thought would agree with their priorities of continuing commercial and residential development.

They even spent over $22,000 on newly appointed incumbent Kristin McCowan, who ran unopposed.

A new resident funded PAC, Santa Monicans for Change, spent only $18,213 on the four council challengers.

The Responsible Leadership for a Better Community PAC, spent an unknown amount on a single mailer touting the challengers. The PAC was last active in Santa Monica in the 2014 council election spending and advocating for the incumbents.

What happened? How did three challengers win against well-funded and heavily endorsed candidates Anna Maria Jara, Terry O’Day and Ted Winterer?

Most important, residents took notice of what City Council members did, not just what they said.

The pandemic forced budget cuts that mostly affected residential services -– less frequent street cleaning, library branch closures and shorter hours, less enforcement of building codes, fewer community recreation classes and shortened children's playground hours.

Residents and businesses faced new levels of fear and felt less safe. Based on NeighborhoodScout analytics, as of 2019, Santa Monica is only safer than 2 percent of all U.S. cities on a per population basis for both violent and property crimes.

On May 31, looters overran Main Street, 4th Street and the Promenade while our police tear gassed mostly peaceful protesters. Our city council told us that they were not involved nor accountable.

Residents demanded an investigation of the debacle. Six months later, there is still no report on the failure of the police to protect the city.

On July 27, the Council voted to lease public land at 4th & Arizona to a commercial developer. Residents, who paid for the land, spent hours vainly speaking against the private use of public land for development. In the end, they were forced to sue the City to compel it to follow state law.

In August, 21 Santa Monica residents qualified as city council candidates, a record number of challengers that showed widespread dissatisfaction with current city leaders.

Meanwhile, the incumbents ran their usual campaigns dependent on high profile endorsements and money from the usual special interest groups.

The message of the election is clear: When voters decide to make a change, change happens.

Mary Marlow heads the Santa Monica Transparency Project

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