Back to what I do better

Now where was I? Oh yeah, back in July I wrote my last post on this blog, a manifesto on why I was running for Santa Monica City Council, and then something happened called a campaign. I spent four months expressing myself as a politician not as a pundit.

My political self terminated, abruptly, November 4, when I lost, and since then I’ve been taking it easy. (One could say I’ve been licking my wounds and I wouldn’t argue the point.) Anyway, there’s life after politics. I hope I’m better at punditry.

As always Santa Monica provides a lot to write about, and I’ll start with the election. The most important vote was the landslide victory of LC and defeat of D, which removes the most significant local impediments to closing the airport and building a big park there.

But enough happy talk. I can’t help but write about the election for City Council even if, as a candidate who lost, I’m unlikely to be objective about it. But my observer self is fascinated by the election, especially since the results were so different from those of two years ago—at least when viewed through the lens of the development politics that have pushed all other issues to the side.

How different? In 2012 there were four winning candidates (Ted Winterer, Terry O’Day, Gleam Davis and Tony Vazquez). If you take them and add the runner-up (Shari Davis), only one of the top five candidates (Winterer) ran with the support of the anti-development side of Santa Monica politics. In 2014 there were three winning candidates (Kevin McKeown, Susan Himmelrich and Pam O’Connor). If you take them and add the runner-up (Phil Brock) only one of the four top candidates (O’Connor) ran without the support of the anti-development side. (I came in fifth.)

In 2012 only one of four winners ran with anti-development support; in 2014 two of three winners did. That’s a big change, and the anti-development folks are claiming victory. I don’t argue the fact that they won, but has there been a seismic shift in the electorate—as they claim?

There are two explanations going around for the success of the anti-development candidates, one from each side. I don’t buy either.

The opponents of the anti-development side argue that the electorate in 2014 was more conservative and anti-development than usual because turnout was much lower. True, 47,945 Santa Monicans voted in 2012 and only 28,333 in 2014, but I don’t see how a larger turnout would have changed the results, except perhaps at the margins.

The anti-development side argues that in the aftermath of the controversy over the Hines project and the formation of Residocracy the electorate has become more focused on (and angry about) development, and better organized to vote for anti-development candidates. There is no question that development seems to be the only issue that anyone talks about these days, in part because the Hines project was the first large development that the City Council had approved in a long time, but I’m skeptical that this indicates anything meaningful about a long-term trend. There has been plenty of anti-development agitation going back 30 years and the success of anti-development candidates has always ebbed and flowed.

So what do I believe happened between 2012 and 2014?

I’m of the “the more things change, the more they remain the same” school, and I suspect that the results in 2012 and 2014 reflected two constants of Santa Monica politics, namely the power of incumbency and the power of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR).

The victory in 2014 of then-Mayor O’Connor illustrated the power of incumbency, as she won notwithstanding vicious and well-financed attacks against her. (The other incumbent, McKeown, won easily.) Incumbency was also significant in 2012 when incumbents O’Day and Davis, and former council member Vazquez, all won easily.

As for the power of SMRR, nothing illustrated it more than the victory of newcomer Himmelrich in 2014. Himmelrich defied conventional wisdom and showed that a first-time candidate could win—with the SMRR endorsement. But beyond Himmelrich’s victory, there was also the fact that Jennifer Kennedy, who ran little of a campaign other than by way of her SMRR endorsement, and who had no other significant organizational endorsements, finished a strong sixth.

The SMRR brand is by far the strongest in Santa Monica, but it’s especially important for anyone running as an anti-development candidate. Since SMRR ran its first candidates 35 years ago no candidate running as an anti-development candidate has won election to the Santa Monica City Council without SMRR’s endorsement. (Funny how anti-development organizations and activists rail against SMRR’s control over local politics when they wouldn’t have any power but for that control—but that’s another story.)

The most reasonable explanation for the 2014 results is the most obvious one. “Follow the SMRR endorsements.” In all previous elections going back more than 30 years SMRR has endorsed candidates from both its anti-development and progressive, housing-and-services factions. In 2014, the anti-development victory, winning two out of three seats, happened because for the first time SMRR endorsed only anti-development candidates.

It wasn’t easy for SMRR to get there. Readers will recall that the original SMRR slate left an open slot, which the SMRR Steering Committee filled in a special meeting less than six weeks before the election with its endorsement of Himmelrich.

Why did SMRR go 100% anti-development in 2014? I’ll get into that question in my next post.

Thanks for reading. It’s good to be back. Happy New Year.

Popularity Contest; and the Winner is . . .

For more than 30 years Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) has been the dominant political organization in Santa Monica. I’d argue that now it’s more popular than ever.

Why do I say this at a time when residents are supposed to be so angry? Start with the last election, when SMRR candidates ran the table and for the first time won every race for City Council, the School Board, the College Board and the Rent Board. SMRR has by far the most powerful brand in Santa Monica politics. The power of that brand is based on performance: residents know that Santa Monica, notwithstanding the issues we have, is among the best-governed cities in the region, one that provides excellent services.

When it comes to the development issue, which these days generates the most headlines, Santa Monica, among the cities in the region that have historically been employment centers, is the one that has best managed development. Notably, when nearly every other Southern California city subsidizes development, Santa Monica requires that developers subsidize city services and capital investments. This has been the case ever since SMRR took charge in 1981 — when, in the words of William Fulton, Santa Monica was the first Southern California city to “confront the growth machine.” Since the ’60s population has boomed in Southern California, but for 50 years Santa Monica’s population has hardly budged.

As population has turned over in Santa Monica, and as the battles of 30 years ago over rent control faded into history, many have predicted that SMRR’s popularity would wane, but that hasn’t happened. Newcomers have high opinions of SMRR precisely because they have come from elsewhere and know in comparison just how well Santa Monica is governed (and they know that traffic is just as bad outside of Santa Monica as in it).

What I’m saying is contrary to the narrative that we read about in the local papers and online, but I don’t know any place where politics is about happy people expressing gratitude for their happiness — nor should it be. Everyone and every government makes mistakes, and that goes for Santa Monica, too. But according to a decade of consistent scientific polling, the real people who live here — not necessarily the people who purport to speak for them — are happy with their city and with local government. Even the critics appearing before the City Council or the Planning Commission typically preference their criticisms with “I love it here, but . . .”

In this context it was a shocker to read a column last week in the Daily Press written by longtime local activist Tricia Crane for a column-writing collective called “Our Town” that consists of Crane and fellow anti-development activists Ellen Brennan, Zina Josephs and Armen Melkonians. In the column, entitled “Taking from the poor, giving to the rich,” the Our Towners lit into “the people who run Santa Monica” who did “not care what residents want.”

According to Our Town, Santa Monica’s vaunted public development review process, one of SMRR’s achievements, was “a method used to keep people distracted from the hidden agenda of a group of politicos and developers who are working together to overbuild Santa Monica in a way that profits them while destroying the quality of life for residents.”

The immediate instigation for the column was the Rent Board’s decision to grant developer Marc Luzzatto a removal permit to allow him to proceed with his development on the site of the Village Trailer Park (VTP). According to the Our Town column, the failure of SMRR leadership to get the board members to ignore the advice of their attorneys (who advised that it was unlikely the board would prevail against Luzzatto in a lawsuit) and deny the permit was evidence for “just how far from its original values SMRR has wandered as it uses its political clout to forward the interests of the wealthy while leaving the neediest of Santa Monica further and further behind.”

Ouch.

And it’s not just the Our Town writers; the mantra of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) is, “Take back our city!” Take it back from whom?

A couple of things. For one, do you believe that the anti-development opposition to the VTP project (which will consist nearly entirely of workforce and affordable housing) is based on the plight of the trailer park tenants? (Who, by the way, could have been evicted seven years ago under state law if the City and Luzzatto had not reached a deal to keep them there.) I’m not doubting that Santa Monica’s anti-development activists feel bad, as we all do, for people losing their homes, but I suspect that if there had been a tannery there instead, and Luzzatto wanted to replace that with 400 apartments, the Our Town writers and SMCLC would have protested and argued that Santa Monica needs to preserve its tanneries.

While declaring that they are not against “all development,” the anti-development side conveniently finds “special” arguments to use against any specific development (for example, while condos are too big and luxurious and serve the rich, workforce apartments are too small and austere and the tenants can’t afford them), but the real problem is that they never tell us what development they would support. Development needs to be regulated, but anyone who argues that there shouldn’t be, or won’t be, any development can’t be taken seriously.

For two, what about the bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you angle? The anti-development faction in Santa Monica has never elected anyone to City Council without an endorsement from SMRR, and even those they have elected have at least been in favor of building housing. The anti-development forces who use SMRR every two years to pursue their agenda reject the members of SMRR, and the SMRR council members, who support regulated economic development and investment in Santa Monica. SMRR’s strength, however, and the ability to achieve its goals, depends on respecting a range of views within.

SMRR prides itself on being a “big tent” organization, and that strategy has worked well. You have to wonder what are the limits to that strategy. “Big tent” can easily become “battered political organization syndrome,” where disproportionate efforts are spent trying to accommodate a faction that plainly doesn’t like SMRR and won’t be happy until it has the whole tent.

Thanks for reading.

When Hotels Collide

I suppose I should be flattered that the owners of the Miramar Hotel felt that including a seven-year-old quote from me about the Annenberg Beach House might help them in their battle royale with the Huntley Hotel, but I’ll decline the honor.

It’s not that I don’t find it ironic that Latham & Watkins, known as the toughest real estate development law firm in Southern California, has been retained to scuttle a real estate development (I even joked about this in a blog post last month), but I wish the Miramar had left my name off what is one of the most unpleasant and misbegotten political mailers in Santa Monica history.

No thanks, but I’d rather not be associated with a piece that makes the owner of the Huntley look like the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist. And surely it’s counter-productive for one developer to accuse another of greed.

But I can understand if the Miramar people are feeling a bit frustrated, because the Huntley’s consultant, Sue Burnside, has been turning Miramar opponents out in droves to public meetings, the latest being the City Council meeting Tuesday night. That was on the motion by three councilmembers to table action on any project proposing a tall building until after the adoption of the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP).

Speaking of irony, this proposed measure, which was promoted as a means of calming the waters, caused another two or three hours of storm-tossed seas.

I was torn by the proposal. I agree with the three councilmembers proposing it (Kevin McKeown, Ted Winterer and Tony Vazquez) that in an ideal world it would be better to make intellectually pure decisions about issues like height before anybody proposed a project, but we don’t live in an ideal world, and in the real world, until and unless someone proposes a tall project, we probably wouldn’t even think about the issue.

Moreover, as someone who hasn’t made up his mind about whether we should relax our 30-year-old limitations on heights, I like the idea of seeing the proposed projects first, because they provide context for the decision-making. Ted Winterer had a good point that the process could create its own momentum towards approval, but I’d risk that for the chance to see what people have in mind.

In any case, no decisions will be made until council adopts the DSP.

Politically, the crux of the issue was summarized in Kevin McKeown’s comment, after agreeing to support Gleam Davis’ motion to poll residents on their views about height, that, “I will be supporting this motion, although I think it would have been better, faster, easier and cheaper to just listen to our constituents.”

What McKeown might have said, to be more accurate, was that the council should have listened to his constituents, because the proposal highlighted the fact that the councilmembers, even the six who owe their political success to their having been endorsed by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), do not share all the same constituencies.

Look at the election last November. The two leading candidates, Ted Winterer and Terry O’Day, each polled about the same number of votes (17,604 for Winterer and 17,042 for O’Day); although SMRR (and other organizations) endorsed them both and to a great extent their support overlapped, anyone who knows anything about politics here knows that Winterer probably received five or six thousand anti-development votes and O’Day probably received about the same number from voters opposed to anti-development policies.

If you look at the 2012 election at the margin between victory and defeat, which was all about who won the contested fourth seat, the issue of constituencies is even more complicated. Tony Vazquez won the seat and he ran outside of the development/anti-development issue. He wasn’t supported by the developers’ pop-up organization, Santa Monicans United for a Responsible Future, and the anti-development forces didn’t support him either – he wasn’t on the slate of Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City and he didn’t receive financial support from the Huntley through their pop-up organization, Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth. Indeed, the anti-development faction so suspected him of being in favor of development that they prevented him from receiving an endorsement from the SMRR membership or the Santa Monica Democratic Club, two of his natural constituencies.

Instead, Vazquez won because he was known for having been a councilmember in the ’90s and he had endorsements from SMRR, the County Democratic Party, and, crucially, Unite-HERE, the hotel workers’ union, which walked precincts for him. While land-use politics garner most of the attention and generate most of the heat in Santa Monica, they’ve rarely been decisive with the voters.

I bring this up because it might lower the frustration and anger level if people acknowledge that just because they are willing to come late at night to a City Council meeting to protest, that doesn’t mean that the councilmembers, who know who elected them, will necessarily consider them as representing anyone other than themselves.

Call it once again the difference between the real world and someone’s ideal.

Thanks for reading.

Aside from Me and 10 Other Candidates, who Lost that City Council Election?

In my previous post, I wrote about what interests in Santa Monica politics “won” when Tony Vazquez won the fourth seat on the Santa Monica City Council in last November’s election. If, as I maintained, the winners were Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), labor (as represented by Unite Here), and those who want to close Santa Monica Airport, who lost?

It may be logically impossible, but the losers were both developers and the anti-development faction.

Although I didn’t enjoy losing the election, to me it was at least positive for the city that Tony Vazquez won, because he was not a hero or villain for either the developers or the anti-development faction. Neither Santa Monicans United for a Responsible Future (SMURF), the developer’s PAC, nor the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), the city’s leading anti-development group, endorsed Vazquez. Nor did Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth (SMRG), the anti-development PAC put together by the Huntley Hotel.

In fact, the election showed that development is not the deciding issue in Santa Monica that so many people seem to think is. The candidate who finished in fifth place, 1,100 votes behind Vazquez and almost 3,000 votes ahead of Richard McKinnon in sixth place, was Shari Davis. Although SMURF had endorsed her, her political base was in the education community and she had little history one way or another in Santa Monica land use politics.

Or consider that the two leading candidates, Ted Winterer and Terry O’Day, each received about the same number of votes (17,714 for Winterer and 17,122 for O’Day); both candidates had SMRR’s endorsement, but on the growth/anti-growth equation, they were portrayed as polar opposites, Winterer being seen as anti-development and O’Day as being pro-development. (I’m making no judgment here about the reality of their respective and comparative views on development, only on the perception.)

Now that we have the results of the new Residents Survey, none of this should be surprising. Santa Monicans have a broad understanding of the issues and appreciate how local government works. It shouldn’t be a shock that they elected two incumbents, one former council member, and one planning commissioner.

But “losing” the election meant different things for the developers and for those who oppose development.

The developers lost not because they failed to elect Shari Davis, who, as I said before had not participated much in development politics, but because their heavy-handed involvement in the election cost them in terms of credibility and trust. By spending nearly half a million dollars, much more than any candidates or other groups spent, they offended many voters and enraged the anti-development faction. Their campaign has made it harder now for Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis to vote in favor of any development, particularly any projects proposed by developers who contributed to the SMURF campaign, because the anti-development side will accuse them of being influenced by the campaign support.

On the other hand, the anti-development faction lost any claim that they represent the majority of residents, because the election showed how few voters cast their votes based upon an anti-development platform.

The anti-development faction, in the form of the SMCLC and SMRG, supported only two candidates in the election, Winterer and Planning Commissioner Richard McKinnon. McKinnon, by virtue of the support he received from SMRG, was the first non-SMRR candidate in Santa Monica history with anti-development support who received significant financial backing. He finished with 8,039 votes.

One educated guess I’ve heard is that in this election the endorsements from SMRR and Unite Here counted for about 10,000 votes. While Winterer and O’Day have support from different factions within SMRR who may have voted for one and not for the other (some SMRR voters are strongly anti-development, and some are what in Santa Monica passes for pro-development), it’s reasonable to estimate that they each picked up about 7,000 votes on their own.

Both Winterer and McKinnon have appeal beyond the anti-development faction, but from the numbers it’s reasonable to say that 7,000 is probably a good estimate of the number of voters (including SMRR voters who voted for Winterer and not for O’Day) who cast their vote primarily on the anti-development issue.

The total number of voters this year in Santa Monica was 47,945. Do the math – we’re talking 15 to 20 percent of voters. While no candidate this year came close to receiving the votes of a majority (because many voters don’t bother to vote in the local election, and because many who do vote don’t cast votes for all four seats), it’s clear that no one can win election to the council who runs exclusively or even primarily on an anti-development platform.

That being said, 7,000 votes is nothing to sneeze at, and in 2008 the anti-commercial development RIFT initiative received 18,410 votes, about 36% of the votes cast. That number is consistent with the finding in the Residents Survey that 43% of Santa Monicans consider the amount of development to be a serious issue. (Although I have to ask, who would say the amount of development isn’t a serious issue? Not me.)

Anti-development residents comprise an important voting bloc in Santa Monica. But the agenda for the majority of Santa Monica residents is much broader than any one issue. Can we keep things in perspective?

Thanks for reading.

About that City Council Election: Who Besides the Winning Candidates Won?

I posted Sunday about the City’s newly released survey of residents, which showed that Santa Monicans are not only happy to live here, but also generally credit our city government with doing a good job tackling a long list of important tasks.

The survey results provide a good lens for analyzing last November’s City Council election. Yes, that election, the one in which I was a losing candidate. Naturally, since losing, I have been thinking about what the election might have “meant.”

From a winner/loser perspective, the election was always between candidates who were trying to win the fourth seat on the council, since no one handicapping the election expected the two incumbents, Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis, to lose, and everyone expected Ted Winterer, a popular Planning Commissioner, who had across-the-board support and was running for the third time, also to win.

The fact that most groups making endorsements endorsed these three candidates reflected the expectation that they would win: everyone likes to back winners.

As it happened, Tony Vazquez, who had served on the council in the ’90s, won the fourth seat. In his (well-run) campaign, Vazquez ran almost as if he were an incumbent up for reelection. That was an excellent strategy in a town where, as the survey shows, 92% of the residents love to live here. In Santa Monica, it’s good to be an incumbent — the Tea Party wouldn’t get much traction here.

But winning election in Santa Monica requires getting your name out to the voters in the midst of a national election, which is not easy. It’s not just a matter of sending out mailers, which get tossed in the recycling bin fast. It requires forming coalitions of voting blocs. Vazquez put together a winning coalition, and to understand the dynamic of the election one needs to understand his coalition.

The first element of that coalition was Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), which was by any measure the big winner in November. SMRR has dominated local politics for three decades, but this was the first time SMRR-endorsed candidates won every slot in the elections not only for City Council, but also for the School, Rent, and College Boards. SMRR also passed Measure GA, which changed the method for determining rent increases for rent-controlled apartments. The election proved that among the city’s happy voters, SMRR has the most trusted brand name.

But Vazquez’s victory was not preordained; not since 1981 had SMRR elected candidates to fill all the council seats being voted on in a regularly scheduled election. True, SMRR benefited from the fact that no non-SMRR candidates with name recognition equivalent to that of Herb Katz, Bob Holbrook, or Bobby Shriver were running, but electing all SMRR-endorsed candidates was nonetheless a remarkable (and unexpected) achievement.

While SMRR’s support was crucial, Vazquez could not have achieved his victory without the other elements of his coalition, notably the labor movement and the movement to close Santa Monica Airport.

In Santa Monica, Unite Here, the union that represents hotel workers, is the primary representative for labor. Unite Here endorsed the same four candidates as SMRR; Vazquez, for his part, has strong long-term labor credentials, and this wasn’t a surprise. Working with SMRR the union staffed an extensive door-to-door campaign and Vazquez did well in all the renter-dominated precincts.

It’s worth noting that of the organizations that traditionally endorse candidates in Santa Monica, only SMRR and Unite Here endorsed Vazquez. The police and city employee unions, and the education group Communities for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) did not. Neither did the PAC that local developers and hotels formed (“Santa Monicans United for a Responsible Future”), nor did the PAC that the Huntley Hotel formed to support anti-development candidates (“Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth”). Clearly, looking back over 30 years of elections for council, the SMRR/Labor victory was dramatic.

The third element of Vazquez’s winning coalition was the movement to close Santa Monica Airport, and it was also important. This election marked a turning point for the anti-airport groups, which became more directly involved in the election than they had been previously, reflecting the fact that with the FAA Settlement Agreement expiring in 2015, the airport is becoming a huge issue.

Vazquez was one of four candidates given the highest anti-airport rating by Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic (CASMAT). Shari Davis, the candidate who came in fifth, lost to Vazquez only by about 1100 votes and she outperformed Vazquez on the city’s north side. But Davis was perceived to be the candidate most supportive of maintaining the status quo at the airport, and she lost to Vazquez by 863 votes in Sunset Park and Ocean Park, the neighborhoods that are “in the flight-path.”

So, if SMRR, Unite Here, and the anti-airport movement were the winning interests in the election, what interests were the losers? I’ll consider that question in my next post, but hint: they were two sides of the same coin.

Thanks for reading.