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Himmelrich Elected Mayor as 'Change Slate' Takes Power

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By Jorge Casuso

December 9, 2020 -- Councilmember Sue Himmelrich was elected mayor of Santa Monica for two years on Tuesday in a clear display of power by the newly seated council.

Himmelrich, a slow-growth advocate, was elected in a 5-2 vote after outgoing Mayor Kevin McKeown's motions to elect Councilmember Gleam Davis to replace him repeatedly failed.

Newly installed Santa Monica City Council
Newly installed Santa Monica City Council (Courtesy City of Santa Monica)

McKeown -- who stressed the importance of "continuity and leadership and experience" -- tried splitting the term between Davis and Himmelrich several times, but the later repeatedly declined.

Himmelrich, who has served on the Council for six years, said she was flattered but added that "I will only serve as mayor if I can serve for two years."

"I do believe that the six years I served on the Council qualify me for two years," Himmelrich said the third time McKeown tried to split the term.

Her persistence paid off, as four rounds of voting failed to yield the necessary four votes.

In the final round only McKeown and Davis -- who have served a combined 33 years on the Council -- voted for Davis, the only incumbent in the race for four full-term seats to survive the November 3 voter revolt.

"I have never sought a leadership position on this council until this moment because I think we're at a critical moment for Santa Monica," Himmelrich said.

The moment is critical, the new mayor said, "both because of the pandemic that we are all suffering in and because of the divided nature of our community."

The showdown between McKeown and Himmelrich comes two year's after Himmelrich finished nearly 4,600 votes ahead of McKeown, who had finished first in every race since 2006.

McKeown's third-place finish was widely viewed as a rejection by slow-growth advocates after he opposed a failed ballot measure to curb development and received the backing of a pro-growth PAC ("NEWS ANALYSIS -- Development Remains Major Issue in Tuesday's Santa Monica Election," November 7, 2018).

Development returned to the forefront during the November 3 election that saw three slow-growth challengers -- Phil Brock, Oscar de la Torre and Christine Parra -- sweep three incumbents out of office in the race for full-term seats.

And it promises to be a hot-button issue, with several of the newly elected Council members expressing their staunch opposition to large projects.

"We have palm trees that are the highrises of the City," said Brock, who finished first in the Counciil race. "They must be the only highrises that are built here in the future."

Said de la Torre, "We need to stop the irresponsible development that is destroying the character of our city."

The Councilmembers also called for a spirit of collaboration.

"I want to be collaborative," said de la Torre. "I want to work in the spirit of goodwill, of peace, unity and social justice."

Said Brock, "For those of you on this dais who did not support me I offer my hand in cooperation to work together for this city that we love."

"If we can put differences aside, we can all work together," said McCowan, who was elected in an uncontested race for a two-year seat after being appointed to replace Greg Morena in July.

McCowan was elected Tuesday to serve for two years as mayor pro tem.

The swearing in of the newly elected Councilmembers marks a historic moment in Santa Monica politics ("Santa Monica Voters Usher in New Era," November 6, 2020).

It is the first time in 40 years that a slate of candidates has won without the backing of the city's powerful tenants' group or developers who spend large sums usually to back the status quo.

The election also marks the first time so many native Santa Monicans were swept into office together since at least the 1970s.

In addition, it is the first time three minority candidates were elected, all of them from the Pico Neighborhood, the city's poorest and most diverse area and the subject of an ongoing voting rights lawsuit.

But the new Council will face what is likely the biggest challenge in Santa Monica's 145-year history, as noted in a sobering acceptance speech by Himmelrich, who said she had recently lost her 90-year-old father and a 21-year-old nephew who took his life.

"The days are getting shorter, and we are all on lockdown," the new mayor said. "Look around you. Reach out to your family, to your friends to your neighbors, to anyone you know who might have no one just to say hello, to be there for them.

"This is going to be a very, very hard winter," Himmelrich concluded. "Take care of yourselves and those around you. This is about all of us."

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