Gruber: Circumstances, or how SMRR came to endorse Sue Himmelrich and a 100% anti-development slate


Frank Gruber on a Bike
Former Planning Commissioner and City Council candidate Frank Gruber on his bike. (Photo by Gary Kavanagh).

Editor’s note: Below is the second in a series of blog posts by former City Council Candidate and long-time political observer, Frank Gruber, taking a closer look at the November 2014 election. This post and his first, “Back to What I Do Better” were both originally posted on his personal blog, The Healthy City Local.

At the exciting conclusion of my post on Sunday, I asked why Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) in 2014 had, for the first time, endorsed a 100% anti-development slate of candidates for City Council, a slate that included two candidates, Susan Himmelrich and Jennifer Kennedy, who, respectively, came in fourth and fifth when the membership voted at the SMRR convention in August. (Out of 452 votes cast in the first round at the convention, Himmelrich received 138 (31%) and Kennedy 113 (only 25%).)

Based on the chronology, it took some doing.

After no candidate received the membership’s endorsement at the convention, the SMRR Steering Committee had the power (under SMRR’s secret bylaws—we all have to take this on faith) to grant endorsements. The eleven-member Steering Committee was reduced to seven voting members because of conflicts of interest (only Patricia Hoffman, Roger Thornton, Bruria Finkel, Sonya Sultan, Michael Tarbet, Linda Sullivan, and Judy Abdo could vote). Because endorsements required a two-thirds approval, that meant that five of these seven had to agree on any candidates to endorse.

Meeting soon after the membership convention, the committee could agree to endorse only two candidates: incumbent Kevin McKeown, who had come in first at the membership convention (201 votes, 44.5%), and longtime SMRR favorite and former Rent Board member Kennedy. That left an open slot. While four members wanted to endorse Himmelrich, three members—Abdo, Finkel and Sullivan—were for keeping a seat open.

The holdouts came under considerable pressure to vote for Himmelrich. It took more than a month, but about six weeks before the election Finkel and Sullivan voted for Himmelrich (Abdo stood firm), and Voila! SMRR had endorsed its first 100% anti-development slate.

Did the reduced-size Steering Committee mean to mark a fundamental change in SMRR’s historical “big tent?” Everything the committee did was secret, but my analysis is no. The vote more likely reflected specific circumstances.

The first circumstance falls in the “follow the money” category. One necessary if not sufficient cause for Himmelrich, who had never been active in SMRR before two years ago, to get the endorsement was that she had hired SMRR co-founder and Steering Committee member Dennis Zane, the most influential leader in SMRR’s history, as her campaign consultant, and longtime SMRR treasurer Roger Thornton as her campaign treasurer. These hires gave Himmelrich instant credibility as a candidate within SMRR.

After the convention—according to Zane’s own comments to the press, and from other accounts—Zane lobbied the Steering Committee members on Himmelrich’s behalf, even though he had “recused” himself from the Steering Committee’s votes. Thornton didn’t even bother to recuse himself—must be something in those mysterious bylaws about how being a candidate’s paid treasurer doesn’t disqualify you when it comes to a vote to endorse the candidate.

Zane and Thornton, as members of SMRR, were entitled to support whomever, but they were also members of the Steering Committee. Under California law the committee is the organization’s governing body and that means that members of the committee have fiduciary duties to SMRR. It was a breach of Zane’s and Thornton’s fiduciary duties to gain financially from their positions of trust—in the real world that’s called self-dealing.

But as I said, having Zane and Thornton on the payroll was necessary but not sufficient. Zane didn’t deliver for Himmelrich at the membership convention and for a long time Abdo, Finkel and Sullivan held out. Himmelrich told the Daily Press that Zane pissed off Finkel and Sullivan so much that Himmelrich had to take over. I can believe that. Himmelrich told the paper that she spent eight or nine hours with Finkel to get her vote.

Rhetorical question: is this how to run a railroad? You have a membership convention that votes one way, you have a board vote another way, and then because one candidate spends nine hours with one board member you go yet another way?

But . . . I doubt it was the nine hours of bonding that made the difference, although maybe they were important for Finkel to feel good about her decision. The available facts point to more “circumstances.”

It didn’t garner as much attention, but when the Steering Committee endorsed Himmelrich it made another decision that was even more inexplicable based on internal SMRR dynamics, namely the decision to endorse Andrew Walzer for reelection to the Santa Monica College (SMC) Board of Trustees. To endorse Himmelrich, the committee had to ignore the fact that Richard McKinnon (170 votes, 38%) and I (188 votes, 42%) had received more votes than Himmelrich at the convention, but McKinnon and I had never been SMRR insiders and were, frankly, disposable. But to endorse Walzer, who had received minuscule support at the convention, the committee had to throw College Board candidate Maria Loya under the bus—even though Loya was herself a member of the Steering Committee, had almost received the membership’s endorsement at the convention, and had run with SMRR’s endorsement for City Council ten years ago! Over the years Loya had brought hundreds of dues-paying members into SMRR—dues that would now help Walzer defeat her.

The context was that SMC supporters wanted the Steering Committee to endorse Walzer to help him defeat two candidates (one being Loya) supported by the College’s faculty union. But how did the committee come to endorse Walzer over old SMRR hand Loya?

Steering Committee member Linda Sullivan, who changed her vote, works at the College. Bruria Finkel is married to David Finkel, a former SMC board member who had served with Walzer, and who is a strong supporter of the College. Zane, through his firm Urban Dimensions, has been a longtime paid “government relations” consultant to SMC.

These don’t seem like coincidences. It looks to me like the College folks were desperate to defeat the union candidates, and to get Steering Committee votes for Walzer they had to give votes for Himmelrich. (It’s been humbling to realize that some people felt it was more important to keep Andrew Walzer on the College board than to get me on the City Council, but so it goes.)

Next: SMRR and “founders syndrome.”

Thanks for reading.

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