About that City Council Election: Who Besides the Winning Candidates Won?

I posted Sunday about the City’s newly released survey of residents, which showed that Santa Monicans are not only happy to live here, but also generally credit our city government with doing a good job tackling a long list of important tasks.

The survey results provide a good lens for analyzing last November’s City Council election. Yes, that election, the one in which I was a losing candidate. Naturally, since losing, I have been thinking about what the election might have “meant.”

From a winner/loser perspective, the election was always between candidates who were trying to win the fourth seat on the council, since no one handicapping the election expected the two incumbents, Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis, to lose, and everyone expected Ted Winterer, a popular Planning Commissioner, who had across-the-board support and was running for the third time, also to win.

The fact that most groups making endorsements endorsed these three candidates reflected the expectation that they would win: everyone likes to back winners.

As it happened, Tony Vazquez, who had served on the council in the ’90s, won the fourth seat. In his (well-run) campaign, Vazquez ran almost as if he were an incumbent up for reelection. That was an excellent strategy in a town where, as the survey shows, 92% of the residents love to live here. In Santa Monica, it’s good to be an incumbent — the Tea Party wouldn’t get much traction here.

But winning election in Santa Monica requires getting your name out to the voters in the midst of a national election, which is not easy. It’s not just a matter of sending out mailers, which get tossed in the recycling bin fast. It requires forming coalitions of voting blocs. Vazquez put together a winning coalition, and to understand the dynamic of the election one needs to understand his coalition.

The first element of that coalition was Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), which was by any measure the big winner in November. SMRR has dominated local politics for three decades, but this was the first time SMRR-endorsed candidates won every slot in the elections not only for City Council, but also for the School, Rent, and College Boards. SMRR also passed Measure GA, which changed the method for determining rent increases for rent-controlled apartments. The election proved that among the city’s happy voters, SMRR has the most trusted brand name.

But Vazquez’s victory was not preordained; not since 1981 had SMRR elected candidates to fill all the council seats being voted on in a regularly scheduled election. True, SMRR benefited from the fact that no non-SMRR candidates with name recognition equivalent to that of Herb Katz, Bob Holbrook, or Bobby Shriver were running, but electing all SMRR-endorsed candidates was nonetheless a remarkable (and unexpected) achievement.

While SMRR’s support was crucial, Vazquez could not have achieved his victory without the other elements of his coalition, notably the labor movement and the movement to close Santa Monica Airport.

In Santa Monica, Unite Here, the union that represents hotel workers, is the primary representative for labor. Unite Here endorsed the same four candidates as SMRR; Vazquez, for his part, has strong long-term labor credentials, and this wasn’t a surprise. Working with SMRR the union staffed an extensive door-to-door campaign and Vazquez did well in all the renter-dominated precincts.

It’s worth noting that of the organizations that traditionally endorse candidates in Santa Monica, only SMRR and Unite Here endorsed Vazquez. The police and city employee unions, and the education group Communities for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) did not. Neither did the PAC that local developers and hotels formed (“Santa Monicans United for a Responsible Future”), nor did the PAC that the Huntley Hotel formed to support anti-development candidates (“Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth”). Clearly, looking back over 30 years of elections for council, the SMRR/Labor victory was dramatic.

The third element of Vazquez’s winning coalition was the movement to close Santa Monica Airport, and it was also important. This election marked a turning point for the anti-airport groups, which became more directly involved in the election than they had been previously, reflecting the fact that with the FAA Settlement Agreement expiring in 2015, the airport is becoming a huge issue.

Vazquez was one of four candidates given the highest anti-airport rating by Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic (CASMAT). Shari Davis, the candidate who came in fifth, lost to Vazquez only by about 1100 votes and she outperformed Vazquez on the city’s north side. But Davis was perceived to be the candidate most supportive of maintaining the status quo at the airport, and she lost to Vazquez by 863 votes in Sunset Park and Ocean Park, the neighborhoods that are “in the flight-path.”

So, if SMRR, Unite Here, and the anti-airport movement were the winning interests in the election, what interests were the losers? I’ll consider that question in my next post, but hint: they were two sides of the same coin.

Thanks for reading.

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