Gruber: Better Late Than Never

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The following post first appeared at The Healthy City Local.

I have been attending the endorsement conventions of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) for decades. I joined the organization nearly 40 years ago. Even after I had resigned from SMRR when I was writing my column for the Lookout, I attended the conventions as a journalist. I rejoined SMRR when I quit the column to run for City Council. For all those years, until two years ago, it was frustrating. Starting in the late 80s the organization, which purportedly represented the interests of apartment renters, would include among its endorsements candidates who represented the anti-housing, anti-development, often anti-everything elements of Santa Monica politics. A purportedly progressive, renter-oriented organization promoted a homeowners’ association agenda and contributed to our chronic housing shortage.

Arguably, SMRR created the no-growth movement in Santa Monica politics. Certainly SMRR enabled it. Until 2020 no one supported by the anti-development faction in Santa Monica won election to the City Council without SMRR’s endorsement: Ken Genser, Kelly Olsen, Kevin McKeown, Richard Bloom, Mike Feinstein, Ted Winterer, Sue Himmelrich, all elected with SMRR support. Feinstein was defeated when he ran without SMRR’s endorsement 2004.

SMRR leadership contended it had to support candidates who represented anti-development groups like the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) to enable SMRR’s more progressive candidates to win. There was no evidence for this. Progressive candidates Paul Rosenstein (1996), Pam O’Connor (2014), and Terry O’Day (2016), won election without the SMRR endorsement. Candidates who were more conservative but not categorically opposed to development, such as Bob Holbrook, Herb Katz, and Bobby Shriver, also regularly won. But again, no anti-development candidate won without the SMRR endorsement until the election of 2020. Not only that, but all anti-development initiatives no-growthers put on the ballot, starting with the 1994 challenge to the Civic Center Specific Plan, lost, and a rare pro-affordable housing measure won when it was on the ballot. The anti’s never created an effective political organization. Instead they relied on SMRR. (Yet they always claimed at public meetings that they alone represented “the people.”)

That brings us to 2020, that fraught year of the pandemic and the disturbances after the murder of George Floyd. In that election the “Change Slate” ran on a platform of restoring order to Santa Monica. Development was not the main issue for the Change Slate, but SMCLC and other anti’s endorsed the four Change Slate candidates. That SMCLC abandoned SMRR should not have been a surprise, as the anti’s had previously turned on council members whom they had initially supported but who had voted for any development: examples are Richard Bloom, Ted Winterer and even Kevin McKeown, the anti’s long-time hero. In the election, three of the Change Slate candidates (but not the most anti-growth candidate they ran) won and incumbents previously endorsed by SMRR lost. (You can read my detailed analysis of the 2020 election here.)

No need to go into it here in detail, but the Change Slate council members, including Oscar de la Torre whose entire political career was enabled by SMRR, have shown not only that they don’t care anything about the progressive elements of the SMRR agenda, but also that they don’t take governing seriously. Aside their habitual unpreparedness that results among other things in meetings that go into the wee hours, the best example of their lack of seriousness was how they ignored the need to get a certified Housing Element and thus enabled Builders’ Remedy projects.

The Change Slate council members don’t even pretend to reflect Santa Monica’s overall liberalism. Recently at a council meeting Council Member Christine Parra referred to Gleam Davis, Zwick and Torosis as the council’s “liberal minority.” By implication Parra must consider herself part of a conservative majority.

Losing to the Change Slate in 2020 may turn out to have been the best thing that could have happened to SMRR and, by extension, to liberal politics in Santa Monica. That and the inevitability of generational change. Because finally the leadership of SMRR realized that they got nothing from their decades of support of the no-growthers—nothing but ingratitude, that is. When the 2022 election came around, SMRR endorsed three true progressives, all young: Caroline Torosis, Jesse Zwick and Ellis Raskin. They all would have won, but for the fact that a fourth terrific young progressive, Natalya Zernitskaya, also ran and she and Raskin split the vote for the third seat that year.

At the SMRR convention on Saturday, everything came together. The SMRR leadership, still dominated by Baby Boomers, finally recognized the generational change happening in the city’s politics. By necessity, they also recognized the organizing abilities of the new generation. Starting last year the progressive and mostly young organizers, who have their own organization, Santa Monica Forward, put together a slate of four candidates for the four seats being voted on this year: Dan Hall, Barry Snell, and now running together, Raskin and Zernitskaya.

The four candidates worked hard to come into the SMRR convention with important endorsements for the whole slate, including an extraordinary endorsement from eight former mayors who themselves had often disagreed with each other over development and other issues.

There was a fifth candidate, Rent Board Chair Ericka Lesley, whom SMRR Co-Chair Denny Zane had at one point promoted. Ahead of the convention, however, Zane and the rest of SMRR leadership had backed off in the face of the inevitable. The SMRR Steering Committee endorsed all five candidates but recommended that the top four vote-getters get the endorsements and the fifth wait until 2026. That was a de facto endorsement of the slate. When the votes were counted, all four members of the slate received at least 100 of the 117 votes cast. As SMRR Co-Chair Patricia said, as quoted in the Lookout, “It may have been the easiest convention ever.”

At this point it is not known who of the Change Slate council members will run for reelection. But based on the 2022 election results, the Hall/Snell/Raskin/Zernitskaya slate have a good chance of taking three or even all four of the seats. The liberals only need to win two seats to regain a majority.

Thanks for reading.

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