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A New Mayor in Bloom

By Jorge Casuso and Oliver Lukacs

Dec. 24, 2002-- When Richard Bloom was handed the mayor’s gavel last month, there was none of the debate or intrigue that some local political observers anticipated.

Behind the scenes, Bloom had let it be quietly known he wanted to serve two years so he could grow in the mostly ceremonial post. He didn’t lobby fellow council members for the position, instead focusing his efforts on winning the support of his wife and two children.

It was in keeping with the style of the soft-spoken attorney known for his dedication to his family and for a thoughtful, even-handed approach to issues that has won the respect of colleagues from both sides of the political spectrum.

"Richard has very good judgement and real good values," said Ken Genser, a fellow member of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, who has served 14 years on the council. "He does analyze the issues and think them through and comes to a logical conclusion."

"I have absolutely no problem working with Richard," said Councilman Bob Holbrook, a SMRR opponent. "His style is nice. Even if he disagrees he doesn’t show it. On a lot of issues we’ve been able to work together and vote together."

"I didn’t vote for somebody based on how they voted on the issues," said out-going mayor Michael Feinstein, a member of SMRR and a Green Party leader who was often on the opposite side of key votes. "If that was my goal, I would have voted for myself.

"I voted for him," Feinstein said, "because I believe he has the respect of his colleagues necessary to run an effective meeting and the respect of city staff necessary to interact with them as needed to fulfill his mayoral responsibilities."

Compared to Feinstein, whose strong ideology drove his votes and who was known to sport colorful parachute pants and sandals as he roller-bladed to ribbon-cuttings and community meetings, Richard Hershel Bloom marks a dramatic shift in style.

He normally sports a suit and tie and walks, gets a lift or takes public transportation. He is the first mayor in 15 years with a gavel in one hand and children in the other. And he is the first Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights mayor in nearly two decades to live in his own single family home.

"I have to say I am really content in my life," Bloom said. "I have three really great things I spend my life with -- my family, my profession, and my responsibility to the residents of this city. I couldn’t be happier."

Bloom’s positions are sometimes hard to discern before he explains his rationale during council deliberations, often pausing to choose his words carefully.

He went against most of his SMRR colleagues on the council when he voted in favor of fluoridating the city’s water. He also co-sponsored – with SMRR Council member Pam O’Connor – the City’s first major crackdown on the homeless in nearly a decade, a move that upset SMRR’s more liberal wing, including Feinstein and Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown.

But Bloom’s decision to lead the effort to curb free meal programs in the city’s parks and ban sleeping in Downtown doorways didn’t come without plenty of soul searching. Asked if he was "happy" with the outcome of the nationally watched vote, Bloom said: "Happy is the wrong word to use, because there is only sadness associated with that entire issue.

"The direction we took was a better policy course that will ultimately help more homeless people," Bloom said. "But in saying that, it doesn’t diminish the real desperate tragedy that homelessness is for the community and the country."

Bloom’s willingness to weigh both sides of an issue in light of realistic expectations has led him to reevaluate the future of key issues, such as the City’s Living Wage law, which went down in defeat in November. The campaign divided SMRR’s leadership and strained relations between the tenants’ group and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, which helped to elect Bloom.

"There’s a lot of work to be done," said Bloom, who voted for the unprecedented law. "I think the future in some ways looks bleak… It was a real election, and it had real results. There was a decision, and to go back and re-tweak the proposal, nip and tuck it, I don’t think so.

"The good thing is that it has focused attention on local needs," Bloom said. "I think we need to think about it a lot." The earned income tax concept championed by the hotels as an alternative to a City-imposed minimum wage, Bloom added, "deserves discussion."

This urge to accommodate the needs of both sides and find a middle ground is perhaps the reason Bloom "just kind of gravitated" towards family law after graduating in 1978 from Loyola Law School. In his own practice, he brokers negotiations between couples over thorny issues such as divorce and child custody on a daily basis.

"I found I was good at it," Bloom said. "That doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult. Sometimes keeping that balance in the right place is a challenge."

At the age of 49 "and a half" Bloom has tried to strike a balance in his own life for two decades. He has learned to split his time between work; his wife, Robbie, an occupational therapist, and two sons Zach and Emmett, and his involvement in his Sunset Park Neighborhood, where he led one of the two rival neighborhood groups before joining the council in May 1999.

The youngest in a first-generation immigrant Jewish family, Bloom grew up with three siblings in the rural foothills near Pasadena. Almost immediately after his move to Santa Monica in 1981 -- a place he visited for coffee and walks on the beach with his wife -- Bloom became involved in local politics.

"I was always interested in what was going on in Santa Monica and was attracted to the progressive politics here," Bloom said.

In 1989, he joined the ranks of the newly formed Friends of Sunset Park to fight the development of a mini-mall on the corner of Pico and Cloverfield boulevards. During Bloom’s first year as mayor, that parcel of land will be used to expand Virginia Park, a "really cool" culmination to a "beautiful series of events."

Bloom also worked with the City for nearly a decade to hammer out a plan to slow traffic cutting through his predominantly single-family neighborhood. The traffic calming measures won him supporters as well as political foes, who dubbed him "speed bump Bloom" during the 2000 council race.

In 1995, when the "Southside rapist" was on the loose, Bloom organized a community meeting that brought out several hundred residents to meet with Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. and John Jalili, who was then the city manager.

"It was after the third or fourth rape, and people were really concerned," Bloom said. "People knew that stuff was going on, but there was misinformation and this was too important to stand by."

"It really improved communication between the community and the police department," recalled Councilman Genser, a friend of Bloom who urged him to get involved in City politics. "He said something needs to be done, and he did it."

Bloom first ran for a City Council seat in 1996 as a relative unknown who failed to win the SMRR endorsement and "got (my) butt kicked by half of the field," finishing eighth among 13 candidates. He ran again two years later, this time as part of the SMRR slate, and lost by only 100 votes, before finally defeating Susan Cloke in a special election in 1999 for the seat vacated by Asha Greenberg.

Bloom successfully ran for reelection the following year and by 2002 had become such a staple of the electoral circuit that supporters were surprised he wasn’t running a fourth time, with some calling to offer him money for an unecessary campaign, "which was pretty funny."

During his three and a half years on the council, Bloom has earned a reputation as a nice guy with a sense of humor, a self-defacing modesty and a homespun style that hearkens back to a more innocent time.

He once rode a scooter down Main Street at a Constitution Day parade and called opponents of henna artists on the Promenade "fuddy duddies" during council deliberations. One of his first comments as mayor was, "What do you think, Pop? Pretty cool, eh?"

"He’s got a playful side and a nice sense of humor," said O’Connor, who sat on the dais next to Bloom for two years, sharing snacks and comments. "I’m very supportive of him."

"He’s really just a wonderful guy with a wonderful family," Genser said. "He’s a real mensch," he added, using the Yiddish term for an all-around decent person.

But Bloom can also play hardball, and he can be blunt. He put his name on a last-minute flyer circulated at the August SMRR convention, urging members not to vote for Abby Arnold, who eventually won the endorsement, but lost the election.

And in one of his first press comments as mayor, Bloom warned that the Chamber of Commerce’s decision to endorse and finance council candidates was a "misstep" that would be "divisive." He called the effort to use big special interest money to knock off council members "just sickening" and predicted that "it ain't gonna happen."

One of Bloom’s goals as mayor is to cut down the length of council meetings. If his first full meeting wielding the gavel is any indication, Bloom seems to be off on the right foot, moving swiftly through an admittedly short agenda and wrapping up before 9 p.m.

The short meeting prompted Feinstein and Bloom to joke that under the new mayor a motion would have to be made to continue the meeting past 8 p.m., instead of the necessary action taken at 11.

It also won kudos from Councilman Herb Katz, who did not support Bloom’s election as mayor, abstaining from the otherwise unanimous vote. "I though he ran a very good meeting," said Katz. "I think he ran a fair meeting. I think we’re going to work together."

Another of Bloom’s goals is to involve the city’s youth in the political process. He plans to have outstanding students from local schools, instead of a council member, lead the pledge of allegiance at council meetings.

"I want them to have a broader understanding of the City Council and what we do," Bloom said. "I hope that ultimately it’s going to turn people on in some small way by having kids see their peers up there."

O’Connor believes Bloom’s role as a father with school age kids will bring a perspective the council has lacked.

"He brings a knowledge and experience of dealing with young folks on a daily basis," O’Connor said. "He’s a family-oriented kind of guy with a real interest in education. We share that interest, but we don’t have as direct a knowledge."

When asked if he regretted the outcome of any particular action taken by the council during his three and a half years on the dais, Bloom paused and said, "let me ponder that.

"I’m quite certain there is, but I don’t tend to look back," Bloom said. "I look forward."

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