The asteroid that hit Santa Monica

During the election, I wrote two blogs, one about the national election and one about the election for Santa Monica City Council. In neither did I make predictions, but for the national election I expressed my “gut” belief that the election would be an earth-shattering, “realignment” election, based on which Democrats would set the agenda for the next 30 or 40 years. I had faith that it would be like an asteroid hitting earth. So much for faith, but at least Joe Biden won. (When all the votes have been counted, I’ll write more about the national election.)

I didn’t predict any results in Santa Monica, or even express any gut beliefs, but that was because I didn’t think I needed to. In my blog, reflecting on the dire circumstances in the city, I lamented the lack of a “principled opposition.” Nonetheless I wrote that I would vote for all of the incumbents, with enthusiasm. When I say I didn’t need to make predictions, that was because so few incumbents had lost reelection bids over the past 40 years, not since Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) had become the dominant political force in the city. I expected the incumbents would win reelection, too.

Instead, the asteroid hit Santa Monica. Leaving aside Kristin McGowan, who was running unopposed in a special election, three of the four incumbents facing challengers—Terry O’Day, Ted Winterer, and Ana Maria Jara—lost. Only one, Gleam Davis, survived the impact of the extraterrestrial rock.

As a longtime observer of and sometimes participant in Santa Monica politics, I’ve been trying to figure out what happened.

Context is, of course everything. This election reminded me of the elections of 2002 and 1994, which, like this one, took place in fraught times—after riots and terrorist attacks, during economic slowdowns and/or housing and stock market busts. In 2002 no incumbents lost reelection, but just as unusual in Santa Monica, an education parcel tax failed. In 1994 incumbent Tony Vazquez lost, and was replaced with Ruth Ebner. Ebner is pretty much forgotten, but she is to this day my best example of unprincipled (and unbridled) opposition. I wasn’t involved in Santa Monica politics in 1983, but an “older-timer” told me this election reminded him of that of 1983, the first time SMRR lost a majority.

The context today is miserable. The virus is dispiriting, that’s a given, but no one blames the City Council for that, and the City’s response to the disease of Covid has been good. Instead, what defines the political context are the boarded-up storefronts downtown, drastically reduced city services in response to the virus’ hit on the City’s revenues, and the ongoing crisis of homelessness. The shadows cast by the terrible events of May 31 are as long as the shadows that hit the beach these days around 5:00 as the sun sinks directly across the bay.

Fourth Street this week.

I’ve been reviewing the campaign literature and ballot statements of the four challengers—winners Phil Brock, Christine Parra and Oscar de la Torre, and the fourth who didn’t win, Mario Fonda-Bonardi. The four ran as a slate. Their messaging was consistent and seized the moment. Typical phrases that they used incorporated words like “residents’ rights,” “fiscal accountability,” “public safety,” “reducing homelessness,” “zero tolerance for crime,” “stop overdevelopment,” “preserve the character of our community,” “reduce taxes,” “special interests,” and naturally, “it’s time for change.” To prove that they’re in Santa Monica, “protect renters” and “increase affordable housing,” are there, too.

Needless to say, they were fighting for the “soul of Santa Monica.”

Challengers previously have run on similar platforms, but incumbents have been able to win not only because of endorsements and the campaign financing that goes with them, but also because voters, even if they weren’t actively following local politics, recognized that they had it good living in Santa Monica, with its high level of services and progressive values. They assumed that there was competence behind those services. They didn’t realize that those services were greatly paid for with revenues generated by tourists, who disappeared with Covid, and that the competence was in the hands of managers who were rarely challenged by anyone, since they reported to a City Manager, not to elected officials or voters.

The budget and the services went down the toilet with Covid, and the aura of competence first dimmed when the City Manager was fired (or quit, I really don’t know) in the middle of the financial crisis, and then went dark entirely on May 31.

My theory is that local voters, swelled with interest in politics this year because of the national election, and alarmed at the local crises, paid more attention than usual to the local election, but not enough to become deeply informed. They read the ballot statements and accepted at face-value the claims of the challengers to be reformers who would deal with the city’s crises.

In fact, the challengers proposed bromides, not solutions.

Take homelessness, the shame and tragedy of our society. The challengers, three of whom will now be council members, campaigned that they could drastically reduce homelessness in the city, which they said was worse here than elsewhere. The situation in Santa Monica is terrible, of course, as elsewhere in the region, but have 40 years of conscientious efforts by the City to do something about made it worse? Have the challengers been over the border, to Venice, or West L.A., and seen the tent cities in L.A.? We don’t have those in Santa Monica because we have a proactive, services-oriented, housing-first approach to homelessness that incorporates services with policing.

The incumbents for the most part campaigned with cool rationality—too cool, probably. It wasn’t time for business as usual. In retrospect, their campaigns didn’t take into account the emotions of the moment.

Inevitably, since in normal times most political controversies in Santa Monica involve development, the question arises whether the victories of the challengers reflect a no-growth mandate. While the challengers tend to be from the slow growth side, if in different degrees, development was not the big issue they ran on. The challenger most identified with no-growth, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, lost. The incumbent who survived, Gleam Davis, is a favorite target of those opposed to development.

Still, from what I can tell, the anti-development groups provided a lot of the energy behind the challengers’ campaigns. That cannot be discounted. The City is now embarking on a new update to the Housing Element of its General Plan, an update that is required every five years. The City has legal obligations to plan for a level of housing development beyond what I imagine the new council members and certainly their no-growth backers would willingly agree to. I wonder how this will play out. In the 90s the City was sued over its Housing Element, which was found legally deficient.

A political asteroid hit Santa Monica. But was this a realignment election? Is the SMRR era over? SMRR has always rebounded from defeats in the past, but how could it be that thousands of renters must have defected from SMRR this year? Will the debris kicked up by the asteroid’s impact darken our skies for years?

No answers here. Just congratulations to the winners. (Good luck.)

Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “The asteroid that hit Santa Monica

  1. Just a thought re SMRR. Hasn’t the SM electorate changed as a result of the decline in the number of renters under the pre-1999 rent control law, vacancy decontrol? In my building of 6 units, only 2 are pre-1999. The length of tenancy in 3 of the 4 (my landlord lives in one of the units) is about 2 years.

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