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?