Progression to the mean: Santa Monica voters renew their liberal vows

There may be more votes counted next week, but the results of the Santa Monica elections are clear. What is most clear is that the reactionary turn in 2020 is old news, an artifact of the unique events and despair of that year. The city’s liberal majority has reconstituted itself. I say, “reconstituted itself” and not “returned” because there were notable developments in the liberal vote.

For one thing, the election showed that liberals don’t need alliances with no-growthers to win.

There were four candidates running for Santa Monica City Council who represented traditional, jobs-housing-education-environmental liberalism – Caroline Torosis, Jesse Zwick, Natalya Zernitskaya, and Ellis Raskin. Unfortunately, as I wrote in a previous post, they were competing for only three seats. Collectively the four liberals dominated the vote, but the split vote meant that they won only two of the three.

Two candidates, appointed incumbent Lana Negrete and Residocracy founder Armen Melkonians, were the candidates associated with the “Change Slate.” Three Change Slate candidates won in 2020 running against Santa Monica’s traditional liberal consensus, shocking everyone.

I am not, by lumping Negrete together with Melkonians and the Change Slate, expressing any opinion whether and to what extent Negrete herself identifies with the Change Slate or will vote along with them as a council member. Negrete received endorsements in the election from various organizations (such as Community for Excellent Public Schools) and local political notables who have over the years been on the liberal side. Negrete presents herself as an independent; I doubt if anyone knows how she will vote on the dais. (Perhaps it is significant that she doesn’t list no-growth organizational endorsements on her endorsements page.) However, independent expenditure (I/E) groups more than the candidates created the landscape on which the 2022 election took place. Liberal groups supported Torosis, Zwick, Zernitskaya and Raskin. Grievance-based, reactionary, and no-growth groups and I/E campaigns, such as Santa Monicans for Residents Rights (note the deceptive use of “SMRR”), Santa Monicans for Change, and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), as well as the no-growth SMa.r.t. group of columnists and Daily Press columnist Charles Andrews, all endorsed Negrete along with Melkonians. They created a de facto slate of the two of them. That’s how the election was fought—those two versus the four liberals. We all got the mailers.

Let’s look at the votes. In the City Council election, Torosis and Zwick, who were endorsed by all the main liberal organizations (Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), the Santa Monica Democratic Club, Santa Monica Forward, and UNITE Here Local 11) dominated. By the most recent count (all the vote numbers here are from the totals posted on the County website as of Nov. 25), Torosis has received 17,709 votes and Zwick 16,117. Their totals far surpass the third winner, Negrete, who has only 11,627. Not far behind Negrete is Zernitskaya with 10,667. The top six are rounded out by Melkonians with 10,190 votes and Raskin just behind him with 10,181. None of the other six candidates have received much more than 4,000 votes.

Top vote getters in the City Council election as of Nov. 25

Based on vote totals for the ballot measures, it seems that about 37,000 Santa Monicans voted in the municipal election. That means that Torosis and Zwick each received close to 50% of the vote. Historically that is a good showing. In contrast, Negrete received only about 31% of the vote and Melkonians 28%.

NOTE WELL: The next time you hear someone say or read some column or letter to the editor or Facebook post saying that Residocracy or SMCLC or other NIMBYs represent the people of Santa Monica, remember that Melkonians, with probably at least $100,000 of independent expenditure backing, only got 28% of the vote.

Negrete and Melkonians also had the advantage that their supporters could bullet vote for only the two of them or give their third vote to candidates who had no chance of winning. The four liberals split the vote, but the average vote of the four of them was significantly more than the average vote for Negrete and Melkonians: 13,669 versus 11,147. (Remember also that Negrete had some liberal support, particularly from the education community.) If only three liberals had run they would have won all three seats. (I.e., if the votes of any one of the four had been divided among the other three, all of those three would have won election.)

There was the same result in the School Board election. The three establishment liberal candidates, Laurie Lieberman, Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, and Alicia Mignano, all won easily against a grievance slate. Once again, the voters approved an education bond, this time for Santa Monica College.

The main takeaway is the return of the liberals, but what other conclusions can we draw from the vote?

The 2022 vote showed that liberals don’t need NIMBY votes to win elections in Santa Monica. This is contrary to what the leadership of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) has been saying for 40 years. While the positions of the four liberal candidates on housing and development vary somewhat, none of them are what I used to call “Santa Monicans Fearful of Change.” Therefore, it is not surprising that none of the candidates endorsed by SMRR, UNITE Here Local 11, and the Santa Monica Democratic Club (whose endorsements collectively cover all four liberal candidates) also received endorsements from the anti-housing, anti-development element of local politics.

Forgive me a personal note, but I feel vindicated by this. Ever since I have been active in Santa Monica politics, I have been saying two things: that the liberals didn’t need the NIMBYs, and that the NIMBYs had no loyalty to the liberals.

The latter point was easy to prove. As soon as a council member previously supported by the NIMBYs voted for more housing development, the NIMBYs would turn on him or her, something experienced over the years by many council members, including Richard Bloom, Kevin McKeown, Ted Winterer, and most recently Sue Himmelrich.

I couldn’t prove the first point, however, that the liberals didn’t need the NIMBYs, because there were no examples. SMRR always endorsed one or two candidates who also had support from the no growth side. In fact, SMRR’s support for those candidates, which got them elected, was the only reason the no-growth side has had so much power over the decades. SMRR enabled its most virulent haters. Cracks in this façade should have been evident when pro-houser Gleam Davis was the only SMRR endorsed candidate to win reelection in 2020, but it was not until this year’s election that a group of liberals ran against the NIMBY’s active opposition.

The second takeaway from this election is that Santa Monicans love the Democratic Party. Of the four liberals, the two who won, Torosis and Zwick, were the only two endorsed by both SMRR and the Santa Monica Democratic Club. As for Zernitskaya and Raskin, what was the most obvious reason that Zernitskaya did better? Zernitskaya was endorsed by the Democratic Club and not SMRR, and Raskin was endorsed by SMRR and not the Democratic Club. Historically SMRR and the Dem Club have been in sync, with the Club following SMRR’s lead, but this year they diverged, and the Dem Club endorsed Zernitskaya. Turns out that in in Santa Monica in 2022, mirroring the national mood, party loyalty was crucial.

This was borne out also by how every candidate, and/or the I/E campaigns supporting them, wanted to show what good Democrats they were. Resulting in some hilarious mailers, but no need to go into that.

Thanks for reading.

Cleareyed hope vs. the grievance caucus

It has been a while since I have written about Santa Monica politics. After 25 years of obsessing on the subject I don’t have much more to say. Then, once Trump came down the escalator, the Tip O’Neil adage, “all politics are local,” did not carry the same weight as it had before. But probably, to be honest, after the 2020 elections upended everything that I thought I knew about Santa Monica politics, it was laziness: could I muster the time and energy to try to understand our new world order?

I mean, three incumbents endorsed by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) losing? After years when nearly every incumbent, of whatever political stripe, would win? After the election, I wrote about it, but I didn’t say I understood what had happened.

(Although I did write this, this which turns out to have been prescient: “The City is now embarking on a new update to the Housing Element of its General Plan…. 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.” Now of course we know that no one has to sue the City over the Housing Element, since once the new council eviscerated staff’s proposed Housing Element and the state rejected it, developers realized they could ignore it.)

As we fill out our ballots two years later, I am not alone in wondering what is going to happen. Let me recommend two articles in our local press about the council election, and how topsy turvy and unpredictable it is.

The first, by my old editor and publisher Jorge Casuso in the Lookout, “Council Race Realigning Santa Monica’s Political Forces,” describes how campaign financing has been turned on its head. SMRR, once the most formidable force in local politics, has little money to spend on those expansive and persuasive mailers it would send to voters. (Disclosure: I have contributed to SMRR’s campaign fund.)

Meanwhile, Edward Thomas Management Co., the company that owns Casa del Mar and Shutters, which used to support, through independent campaigns and direct contributions, candidates who supported housing development and did not give knee-jerk opposition to other development like hotels (disclosure: candidates including me), is now spending big money to support Lana Negrete and Armen Melkonians. While Negrete’s views on housing and other development are not necessarily clear, Melkonians’ opposition to development is key to his political career. He is, after all, the founder of Residocracy, that bubbling cauldron of grievance.

As the article points out, the Thomas company seems focused on the fact that its long-term nemesis, UNITE Here Local 11, the hotel workers union, is supporting three candidates whom SMRR also endorsed—Caroline Torosis, Ellis Raskin, and Jesse Zwick—and opposing Negrete and Melkonians.

Santa Monica Forward, which two years ago raised a lot of money, much from housing developers, to support pro-housing candidates, has raised much less this year. This probably reflects the fact that the state has largely taken away from local governments authority over housing policy. (Disclosure: I’m also a donor to SMF’s political fund.)

Endorsements are also confused, too, which will probably hurt the progressive candidates, since the opposing side appears focused on only two candidates, Negrete and Melkonians.

Focusing on the traditional liberal endorsing groups, Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) is alone among them in that it has endorsed Negrete (along with Torosis and Natalya Zernitskaya). As mentioned above, SMRR and UNITE Here have endorsed Torosis, Raskin and Zwick, but Zernitskaya has been endorsed by the Santa Monica Democratic Club and Santa Monica Forward instead of Raskin. So the progressive side is split.

Even the police and fire unions, which are usually in sync, are not lined up: they both support Negrete and Melkonians, but the firefighters endorsed Torosis and the police endorsed Albin Gielicz.

It’s crazy. The second article I recommend, in the Daily Press, by the paper’s editors, “City Council race is a toss-up,” tries to make sense of it all. They can’t make firm predictions, of course, except to say that the results will be based to a great extent on whether the city’s “progressive voter base” is big enough to elect two or even three progressives given that four (Torosis, Zwick, Raskin and Zernitskaya) are running for three seats.

The Daily Press article begins with an important insight, namely that the biggest question in the election is whether the voters elect Melkonians. That’s because Melkonians is running explicitly as part of the “Change” slate and would join the three Change councilmembers from 2020 (Phil Brock, Oscar de la Torre, and Christine Parra—the “Grievance Caucus”) to form a majority on the council.

While based on the conduct of the three on the dais you might be worried that Santa Monica’s government would simply fall into a state of utter disarray if there are four Grievance Caucus members running the show (would anyone read a staff report?), my biggest fear is that the four would settle the district elections case before the California Supreme Court renders a decision on whether California’s voting rights law requires Santa Monica to establish district elections for City Council. (This assumes that courts would continue to rule that Oscar de la Torre does not have a conflict even though his wife, Maria Loya, is a plaintiff.)

If the case is settled, that could mean that this year’s would be the last at-large election for City Council in Santa Monica. The consequences? Santa Monica voters would go from having seven votes for councilmembers over four years to having only one vote every four years. While in many cities district elections work to enable historically discriminated against ethnic groups to be able to elect representatives, that would not be the case in Santa Monica. While a minority of the city’s Latino voters, the purported beneficiaries of the case, would live in a district that would have a higher percentage of Latino voters than that of the whole city (but not a majority), most of the city’s Latino voters would live outside the district. They like all other voters in the city, including those in the “Latino district,” would have only one vote for council every four years instead of four in presidential election years and three in gubernatorial election years.

A settlement could also mean that the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case would receive tens of millions of dollars from the City, and that the plaintiffs, who as I said above include Maria Loya, the wife of Oscar de la Torre, would be relieved of their obligations to pay the City’s legal costs.

So, who to vote for? As the Daily Press article states, there are four candidates who are generally considered to have a good chance of winning and who in general fit the profile of “progressive” (or “liberal” as we used to say in my family) when it comes to issues like housing and homelessness, social services and social justice, policing, the rights of workers, and the environment. That isn’t to say that candidates like Negrete, or Albin Gielicz, or Troy Harris are not good people. And it has nothing to do with who is registered as a Democrat.

Those four — Torosis, Raskin, Zwick, and Zernitskaya – all fit within the liberality that has marked government in Santa Monica since the ascent of SMRR more than 40 years ago. It is refreshing to this longtime observer (and sometime participant—yes, you don’t need to remind me, I ran twice for City Council and lost both times) that the progressive community in Santa Monica is not divided this year over hair-splitting arguments about zoning. They are united in trying to save liberal government In Santa Monica. Unfortunately, they are split on which three candidates to support. Not untypical for the Left.

The question is whether in these unhappy days when the politics of grievance loom so large, even in a city as blessed as Santa Monica, there are enough voters who will continue to believe that solutions to problems will not come from fearmongering grievance collectors, but from those with a cleareyed but hopeful vision for the future.

If I knew which three of the four progressive candidates would get the most votes, I’d say vote for those three. I don’t know that. Just be sure to vote for three of the four—Torosis, Raskin, Zernitskaya or Zwick (listed in alphabetical order!).

Thanks for reading.

A happy populace or a city of grievance?