SMRR: the more things don’t change, the more they remain the same

As a member of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) I attended last Sunday’s annual membership meeting during which 11 members of SMRR’s Steering Committee were elected. Since the meeting I have been puzzling over the question whether anything important happened.

On the nothing important happened side of the argument, the composition of the Steering Committee barely changed. If you look at the Steering Committee now and the committee that was elected two years ago, eight of the members are the same: Patricia Hoffman, Denny Zane, Sonya Sultan, Bruria Finkel, Linda Sullivan, Michael Tarbet, Roger Thornton, and Genise Schnitman.

The primary changes since then have been minor. Newcomer to Santa Monica politics Michael Soloff, husband of City Councilmember Sue Himmelrich, was originally added to fill a space vacated by Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein after he was elected to the School Board in 2014. At the meeting on Sunday, Soloff was elected to a full term. Jennifer Kennedy, longtime SMRR staffer, was also elected, in effect replacing SMRR co-founder Judy Abdo, who was voted off. The other change Sunday was that Jackie Martin, a member of UNITE Here Local 11, was elected to the Steering Committee, replacing Pico Neighborhood activist Maria Loya as the committee’s one non-Anglo.

Not much change. However you look at it, the same core group of 60s and 70s lefties (Hoffman, Zane, Sultan, Finkel, Sullivan, Tarbet and Thornton) are still going to run SMRR. Time flies, though, and now for these aging radicals “60s” and “70s” mean something additional. SMRR is a gerontocracy and seems to have no mechanisms to bring in new or younger leadership, other than to reward sycophancy.

(In contrast, the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China, the most powerful decision-making body in China, has a mandatory retirement age of 68. Because it’s hard to be elected to the Standing Committee before one turns 50, this acts as a de facto term limit. The Chinese do this because they’ve had bad experiences when power is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals over long periods of time.)

Though the changes to the Steering Committee were minor, at the meeting it didn’t feel like nothing happened. Just the opposite. A lot of this had to do with the build-up: the venerable leadership of SMRR went crazy at the idea that Abdo, who had incautiously invoked the SMRR brand when she campaigned for Pam O’Connor and me in the 2014 election, might be reelected to the Steering Committee, or that Leslie Lambert, a former Rent Board member and affordable housing activist from way back, might be elected.

The leadership spent SMRR money to whip up turnout. (A paid canvasser even came to my door.) Co-Chairs Patricia Hoffman and Denny Zane used the SMRR newsletter to warn SMRR members that “groups that support luxury hotels, market rate housing and bigger development in Santa Monica [were] organizing, hoping to elect a pro-development SMRR Steering Committee. We need SMRR members to turn out and turn back this challenge.” At Sunday’s meeting, a flyer from Zane and other members of SMRR leadership told members to vote for a “Slow Growth & Renters’ Rights” slate that included all the candidates except Abdo and Lambert.

It was never explained how Abdo and Lambert could constitute a pro-development Steering Committee.

It was also odd that in their piece in the newsletter Hoffman and Zane blamed shadowy pro-development groups for causing the failure of the membership at SMRR’s 2014 convention to endorse any City Council candidates. This and previous failures of the members to endorse were the result of bullet-voting, which is a genuine problem for SMRR.

But at the 2014 convention, there was no group organized by developers telling people to bullet vote. Perhaps Hoffman and Zane were referring to UNITE Here, the hotel workers union, which does support the building of hotels, but the union’s 50 or so members at the convention voted for both Kevin McKeown and me. Since McKeown and I received more votes than the other candidates, and since we represent opposite sides of the development issue, it’s hard to say that the union’s votes prevented anyone from getting the endorsement.

In fact, as anyone knows who has been going to SMRR conventions in recent years, the groups that have tried most to manipulate the endorsement process through bullet voting are the anti-development groups, particularly the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC). At the 2012 convention, SMCLC bullet votes first got Ted Winterer the endorsement. Then SMCLC voters switched to Gleam Davis; Davis got the endorsement and then no one else did, since SMCLC didn’t want SMRR to endorse Terry O’Day, Tony Vazquez, Shari Davis or me.

As for the 2014 convention, afterwards I was told, by Patricia Hoffman and others (to explain to me why McKeown deserved the SMRR endorsement but I didn’t), that the reason Kevin McKeown didn’t get the 55% needed for the endorsement was because SMCLC members had had a strange strategy to bullet vote for Richard McKinnon.

But to get back to Sunday, the meeting also seemed like something momentous happened because it was just plain sad that Judy Abdo’s old comrades cut her loose from the organization she helped found so many years ago when she was a community activist working in Ocean Park. And the exclusion of Lambert seemed like a brutal rejection of the old progressive wing of SMRR that supported reasonable development to support social services.

So maybe the meeting was important.

Or was it?

While the votes were being counted Sunday, Mayor Kevin McKeown gave a speech recounting what had happened in the city over the past year. Aside from a gratuitous hit or two at old foes, it was a good speech. McKeown fairly summarized what had happened over the past year and what the issues were and are.

Along the way McKeown pointed out that the council had recently approved two housing projects, mixing market rate and deed-restricted affordable apartments. McKeown made the case very well that both kinds of housing were needed in Santa Monica. For one thing, if our children graduating from Samohi come back with college educations, and want to live here, they’re going to need housing and they’re not going to qualify for affordable housing.

McKeown also pointed out that the City finally had a new zoning law. The new law has standards for what developers can build without entering into development agreements, which are now out of favor. McKeown didn’t make the obvious point, but developers are going to fit their proposals into these standards, to avoid development agreements, and these projects, like the two apartment buildings McKeown spoke about, will be built.

This will, of course, infuriate the folks who believe they elected councilmembers like McKeown, Himmelrich and Ted Winterer (in part by getting them SMRR endorsements) for the purpose of stopping development. If the SMRR leadership believes these folks will be satisfied with the election of a “Slow Growth & Renters’ Rights” slate to the Steering Committee, they are mistaken. You already see this with the Residocracy LUVE initiative.

So, in the end, nothing happened.

Thanks for reading.

Following some money

The headline in the Lookout for the article about the final financial reports for the 2014 City Council election was “Himmelrich Spent $160,000 of Her Own Money to Win Santa Monica Council Seat,” but even though $160,000 was a record for self-financing a City Council campaign here, I was less interested in how much money Susan Himmelrich spent to win election and more interested in how she spent some of it.

What the article did not report was that Himmelrich paid nearly $30,000 to Dennis Zane and to PZ Associates, an entity that Zane formed. Here’s the breakdown: Himmelrich paid Zane $15,000 for political consulting, plus $4,475 for office expenses, including one flat $3,000 payment. She paid PZ $9,255 partly for consulting services and partly in a category called “campaign paraphernalia/misc.” (PZ is known for running door-to-door campaigns.)

These payments are not out of line for these kinds of services. Why am I focusing on them? For one reason: the payments were breaches of Zane’s fiduciary duty to Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR). As a member of the SMRR Steering Committee, Zane was guilty of self-dealing, by taking money from a candidate seeking the SMRR endorsement. Self-dealing cannot be made good by disclosure or recusal (not that Zane in fact recused himself).

The SMRR endorsement is crucial to getting elected, especially for anti-development candidates, as no candidate for City Council running on an anti-development platform has ever been elected without the SMRR endorsement. As a follow up to my post in January where I wrote about how Himmelrich finally got the endorsement from the Steering Committee (in a deal where Himmelrich got the committee votes she needed in return for her supporters voting to endorse Andrew Walzer for College Board), I can report that I received a message from Walzer the next day defending the “trade off in voting for [him] and Sue.” Apparently, according to Walzer, it was “complicated,” which naturally made me feel better about it. But in case you had doubts, it did happen.

I’m not the only one still taking a look back at the election, although not everyone has the same motivations. The Santa Monica Democratic Club (SMDC) had a panel discussion last week about it. I didn’t go, but according to the Lookout, the gist of the meeting was that the election of the anti-development Himmelrich had, in the words of SMRR Co-Chair Patricia Hoffman, “‘flipped the balance of power on the City Council.’”

Apparently, though, the struggle continues. Hoffman went on to say that “‘[w]e have a lot more work to do . . . . If we can work together and spend the next few years selecting candidates, that, I think, can make our City Council even better.’”

“Even better.” Given that all seven city council members were elected at least initially with the SMRR endorsement, I guess Hoffman is saying that the old SMRR, the one that based its progressive politics on issues beyond blocking development, is history. And I expect that if the Steering Committee, given its demographics, continues to make the endorsements, the old SMRR will be history.

That’s right, let’s throw out all those bums we supported before who care about housing for all, including the middle-class, and good union jobs and city and social services and childcare and public transportation, etc. You know the ones who understand that Santa Monica is not an island. They’re not sufficiently deferential to our new friends in the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City and Residocracy.

* * *

Given the record-breaking $160,000 Himmelrich spent on her campaign, one might wonder why her husband, Housing Commissioner Michael Soloff, had to make campaign contributions, each of $10,000, to SMRR and the SMDC. Why didn’t Himmelrich make the contributions herself? The reason is based on campaign finance law: SMRR and SMDC were running independent campaigns on Himmelrich’s behalf, and because there is a contribution limit for City Council races, the campaigns could not coordinate with Himmelrich. Otherwise, contributions an individual or company might make to SMRR and the SMDC could be counted against the contributor’s limit. Giving money to an independent campaign is a form of coordination, and so Himmelrich couldn’t write the checks. Both she and Soloff are attorneys, and so one expects that they did legal research (but separately, not coordinated!) to satisfy themselves that it’s not coordination if the money comes from a spouse. But let’s face it—even if it’s legal, it’s a dodge. I wonder if the Santa Monica Transparency Project will investigate?

There’s another aspect to this. The old SMRR prided itself on a policy of rarely accepting individual contributions that were more than the limit for council races, which is now $325. The new SMRR not only accepted Soloff’s $10,000, but also $10,000 from the Huntley Hotel, the primary bankroller of anti-development campaigns in the city. Back in July, before the SMRR convention where she’d be seeking the SMRR endorsement, Himmelrich herself gave $1,000. There is no law limiting the amount of contributions to SMRR, and the limit was voluntary, but the limit was once a point of pride. So much for that.

* * *

One footnote: the Lookout piece I quote from above about campaign expenditures got the numbers for my campaign wrong. The article said that I contributed $20,000 and my total campaign expenditure was $75,000, but those numbers are incomplete. The reason the reporter was mistaken is that my campaign accountant had us wrap up our finances in 2015, and the final numbers are in a statement for the period Jan. 1-5 that we filed a few weeks ago. The complete numbers are that I contributed $36,920.90 to my campaign and the total expenditure was $96,128.90. I understand the Lookout will be running a correction, but I wanted the record to be correct.

Thanks for reading.