Stay the course, Santa Monica, but …

We California voters are receiving our ballots in the mail this week. When I fill mine out, which will be soon, I’m going to mark it in favor of the five incumbents running for Santa Monica City Council: Gleam Davis, Ana Maria Jara, Terry O’Day and Ted Winterer, running for the four-year term, and Kristin McCowan running (unopposed) for the two years remaining in what was Greg Morena’s first term.

Three of these candidates, Davis, O’Day and Winterer, are long-time incumbents and I know them well. They are thoughtful and conscientious and work hard as members of the City Council in good times and bad. They deserve our support as the City faces challenges unprecedented in living memory.

Dealing with the three specifically:

Once upon a time I included Ted Winterer into the “Santa Monicans Fearful of Change” category, which he protested, and while Winterer can still be a bit nervous about zoning for more apartments, overall he’s a politician with real grace who listens to all sides of an argument and does his best to craft progressive solutions.

It shouldn’t be news to my readers that of all the council members, the views of Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis are most closely aligned with mine, particularly when it comes to housing development, supporting unions, environmental issues, and closing Santa Monica Airport.

The other incumbent running for a full, four-year term, Ana Maria Jara, has been in office for nearly two years. Since I’ve been less active in Santa Monica politics lately, I don’t know her personally as well as the other three. However, I have paid attention to her votes and what she brings to the council and the City. She is just what the City needs more of: a City Council member who is not defined primarily by her views about development. Jara comes out of the social and economic justice world, and her worldview is different from the “First World problems” orientation of so much of politics here.

I know Kristin McCowan only from what I’ve read about her, what I’ve seen her do on the (virtual) dais since her appointment, and what longtime Santa Monicans have told me about her and her family’s involvement in Santa Monica over the years. What I’ve seen, however, and learned about her, is inspiring and I hope she will become a beacon for the next generation of leadership.

You might think that with this excellent group of incumbents to vote for I would be happy about the state of politics in Santa Monica, but I’m not. The political status quo in our city is perilous. As happy as I am voting for the incumbents, because they’re good, it’s not healthy to have politics without a credible opposition, and a credible opposition is something Santa Monica lacks.

Back in May, with Juan Matute, I wrote two blogs about how obscure the finances of the City were. No one seemed to know how much money the City had available to it to help ride out the Covid-19 storm. Then at the end of May the civil disturbances after the murder of George Floyd broke out, with the twin fiascos of how police dealt with protestors (which also involved the City’s misuse of curfews that criminalized peaceful protests and caused more problems), and the looting that took place downtown.

Real life in the form of admittedly extreme events—the pandemic and the nation’s overdue response to systemic racism—exposed the reality that the City Council needs to supervise staff more closely. Santa Monica has a City Manager form of government, which means that the executive branch of our local government does not answer to the public in elections. The City Manager runs nearly everything and hires everyone except the City Attorney, yet the City Manager is not a mayor who answers to the people. The City Council must be not only a legislative body, but also the “electorate” that oversees the executive.

I believe that the incumbents running for reelection understand this, but what we lack in Santa Monica is an opposition that credibly questions how the City Council fulfills its role. This doesn’t mean that if there were such an opposition, I would not still in this case vote for the incumbents, but at least the important issues would be raised and there might be real alternatives.

Instead in Santa Monica the opposition has taken the form of the kind of nihilism that plagues so much of American politics today. I know three of the main candidates running against the incumbents well, and none of them would bring to City Council either policies or an approach that would serve Santa Monica constructively. Whatever their politics are outside of Santa Monica, their rhetoric within the city sounds like the Tea Party.

Mario Fonda-Bonardi, as a Planning Commissioner and columnist, has put forward a constant stream of phony progressive mumbo-jumbo designed to hide adamant opposition to building a city for the next generation. He is par excellence a Santa Monican Fearful of Change.

Phil Brock has a long history in Santa Monica public affairs, but it’s a long history of saying anything to please whomever he is speaking to, and then invariably catering to the squeakiest wheel.

I formerly was a strong supporter of Oscar de la Torre (even once drafting for him a long defense, to give to the City Council, of his management of the Pico Youth and Family Center), but he lost me somewhere between his careerism at the Center, his embrace of anti-housing policies, and then his joining with fee-seeking lawyers to bring the district elections lawsuit. Given the demographics of Santa Monica, district elections might benefit de la Torre personally, but they would diminish the clout of Hispanic voters rather than increase it.

I don’t know Christine Parra, and she seems to be a well-respected civil servant in Culver City, but there’s nothing in her campaign that goes beyond the usual “let’s keep them out” slogans.

It didn’t use to be this way in Santa Monica. Back in the 90s when I became actively involved in local politics, there was content in the political conflict we had, and real choices. Then as now Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) was the dominate political force, and overall that was good for Santa Monica, but the platforms of the opposition politicians were more than various combinations of “Raise the Drawbridge!” and “Throw the Bums Out.” Whether you voted for them or not, council members like Bob Holbrook, the late Herb Katz, Bobby Shriver, and Paul Rosenstein cared about the city and its future in a changing world and brought constructive ideas to the discourse. There was pluralism within SMRR as well: “development skeptics” who received the SMRR endorsement, council members I often disagreed with such as the late Ken Genser and Michael Feinstein, had nuanced views, cared about social justice, and often surprised everyone (including themselves!) with their votes.

To reiterate: please join me and vote for all five incumbents. Happily. They’re good people. But here’s hoping for a rebirth of a principled opposition.

Thanks for reading.

1 thought on “Stay the course, Santa Monica, but …

  1. Thank you!  A solid case, you’ve made here.  JIM

    Rev. Jim Conn230 Pacific St #108Santa Monica, CA 90405310/392-5056 Associations: CLUE – A Founding Member:  www.cluejustice.org  Climate Action Santa Monica -Advisory Board Asset Based Community Development:  www.abcdinstitute.org/ United Methodist Minister -Retired:  www.calpacUMC.org Former Council Member and Mayor ofSanta Monica  

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