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NEWS ANALYSIS -- A Perfect Storm Swept Incumbents Out of Office
By Jorge Casuso
November 23, 2020 -- There were warning signs long before the November 3 Council elections that voters were ready for a change.
But it took a perfect storm of events to upend the status quo that had held a grip on local politics for nearly three decades.
Once the votes were counted, Gleam Davis remained the only incumbent standing, after Terry O'Day, Ted Winterer and Ana Jara failed to hold on to their seats.
Instead, three members of the challenging slate Santa Monicans for Change were swept into office by a voter revolt that ousted as many incumbents in one race as had been defeated in the past 26 years ("Santa Monica Voters Usher in New Era," November 6, 2020).
Following are some of the key stories that help explain why that happened:
Three days after the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Santa Monica on March 16, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Californians to stay at home, effectively shutting down the economy.
The lockdown would lead to massive revenue losses that in less than two months had forced major cutbacks in City programs and services ("City Council Slashes Up to 247 Full-time Jobs; Cuts Will Be Felt at All Levels," May 6, 2020).
The cuts -- which affected everything from bus service and street sweeping to access to parks and libraries -- exposed a deep financial hole that had been looming since before the coronavirus pandemic struck ("Headlines Show How Santa Monica Overspent Its Way Into a Gaping Fiscal Hole Before Coronavirus Hit," April 30, 2020 and "Coronavirus Shutdown Forced Inevitable Cuts, Fiscal Expert Says," May 13, 2020).
The riots that erupted in Santa Monica on May 31 and were beamed live across the nation dealt another sudden blow to the morale of a City still reeling from the shutdown ("EXTRA! -- Santa Monica Demonstration Turns Violent, Looters Ransack Stores," June 1, 2020).
The resident backlash against police --- and City government in general -- was swift and forceful, with an online petition to remove Police Chief Cynthia Renaud garnering nearly 56,000 signatures in one week ("Petition Circulates to Recall Santa Monica Police Chief After Rampant Looting," June 1, 2020).
But after promising to get to the bottom of what went wrong, the Council sent the wrong signal, and alienated residents, when it dragged its feet ("Councilmembers Push for Police Probe Requested in June," August 21, 2020).
The police response to the riots only enhanced the sense that Santa Monica had become an increasingly dangerous place despite a statistical drop in reports of serious crime.
That perception -- which was likely fueled by social media but had a basis in reality -- was reflected in a poll conducted shortly before the election ("Poll Shows Lack of Support for Council Incumbents, But Most Voters Undecided," October 2, 2020).
Council incumbents tended to dismiss, downplay or explain away the findings, while the challengers echoed the sentiment that crime was up ("Is Crime Really Down? Council Incumbents Weigh In" and "Challengers Weigh In," October 21, 2020).
Development was also a major factor in the incumbents' defeat, as opposition coalesced around 'The Plaza" project on City owned land and the Council's swift embrace of state-mandated housing quotas.
Despite grasssroots opposition to the Plaza ("Neighborhood, Slow-Growth Groups Band to Defeat 'The Plaza' Project," February 19, 2020), Council incumbents voted to continue negotiations ("Santa Monica Council Votes to Continue Negotiations on 'The Plaza' Project Downtown," July 29, 2020).
The Council also eagerly accepted a state mandate to build nearly 9,000 new housing units, igniting opposition from residents fearful of the impact on a city whose population has remained steady for decades ("Santa Monica Takes Initial Step to Dramatically Boost Housing Production," December 13, 2019).
Despite the Council's contention that meeting the mandates was inevitable, other cities fought to oppose their quotas ("Santa Monica Scrambles to Meet Housing Targets Other Cities Are Opposing," March 9, 2020).
The Council incumbents could have likely weathered one of the events that led to their defeat but, combined, they formed a force that was difficult to suppress.
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