Winning and losing in Santa Monica
I was forcibly removed from Santa Monica by my parents. I was 10. Santa Monica was perfect.
When I came back some years later to live, I had survived the fall of Aspen and was sad, angry, and wary. The beach was still perfect. The town was in motion. “The most radical city in America.” “Left City.” “People’s Republic of Santa Monica.”
Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy was based here. Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights’ rent control ordinance had just been approved by voters. SMRR was conceived as a renters’ union; but 70 percent of the voters were renters, and SMRR leaders were politically ambitious, and so the union became a political organization.
In 1982, SMRR won a majority of seats on the Council, lost it in ’84, Won it back in 1988, and kept it. 22 Years … and counting. A generation.
Early on, the SMRRs were described as “middle class radicals,” but rent control was their first and only “radical” act.
In 1992, an alleged secret SMRR phone poll indicated that the author of the rent control ordinance, City Attorney Bob Myers was “a political liability, and his SMRR cohorts on the Council promptly fired him for disobeying them. In fact, he had refused to draft a harsh homeless measure on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. Then, as now, the SMRR leaders’ hubris was astounding;.
When he retired from the Council to become a full time, all-purpose consultant, SMRR boss of bosses Denny Zane said, “In 10 years, we have made this a wonderful city.”
No. Four generations of residents made it an iconic beach town, and now SMRR was reducing it to one more “regional commercial hub.”
The beach is the primary fact of Santa Monica, the shaping element. But the SMRRs billed it as a “visitor serving facility,” and boosted shopping and dining and bigtime tourism. To that end, Zane and his colleagues created the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. With a $1 million annual budget, which has since tripled, welcomed “luxury” hotels, and developed the luxe office district. The Hub of the “hub” is the Third Street Promenade, a mosh pit for the affluent.
City Hall got rich. SMRR got increasingly powerful. Local businesses got the boot to make way for the haute schlock chain stores that grease all the Westside “hubs.” And residents got gridlock, a fractured townscape and an autocratic City Council. In all, the SMRRs have overseen the construction of over 9 million square feet of new commercial development, with another 2 million square feet poised to go. The revised land use and 6irculation elements (LUCE) put no limits on commercial growth for the next two decades. And two years ago, SMRR leaders spent nearly $800,000 of developers’ money to defeat a residents’ measure that would have limited commercial growth.
It was a kind of treason – elected representatives betraying their constituents. For a generation, SMRR waved the slow growth banner while presiding over the biggest building boom in our history.
According to the City, our daily transient population is now 300,000, making this beach town more densely populated than Manhattan.
But if we didn’t like what the SMRR Council was doing, why did we keep voting for them?
They have “name recognition,” a fat campaign budget and a simplistic slogan: if it’s good, SMRR did it: if it’s bad, it didn’t. SMRR personifies that ancient political maxim “the devil you know…“
It’s been the only game in town for a generation, but there’s trouble in SMRRland. Some members were offended by SMRR’s front-loading the 2008 school board election, and recently a group of SMRRs issued a critique of LUCE that is at odds with the SMRR leaders’ views on growth.
SMRR holds all the seats but two on the Council, SMC, SMMUSD and Rent Control boards.
In SMRR’s 22 years at the helm, City staff has outgrown City Hall, and the City budget topped half-a-billion dollars last year and this year. The SMRR Council has reduced residents’ participation in the review of proposed projects, while assigning more authority to staff. Some of SMRR’s best and brightest members have been as appalled as non-SMRRs by their leaders’ hubris and pro-growth policies.
Now is the moment for all unhappy residents to assemble a slate of smart, savvy, independent Activists to run for the open seats on the Council, five of which are now held by SMRRs. Such a slate could finally break SMRR’s grip on City Hall.
But, as it turns out, rather than going issue to issue with the SMRRs, some leading activists are joining SMRR in order to win SMRR’s endorsement of Ted Winterer.
This is wishful thinking of the most pathetic sort. First, it accepts SMRR’s claim that it’s the only game in town. Second, although we like Winterer and we endorsed him in 2008, we need more than one new Council member now. Third, given SMRR leaders poisonous assaults on the limited growth measure that Winterer co-authored in 2008, their 2010 endorsement may backfire.
Fourth, in 2008, a large number of parents of children with special needs joined SMRR in hopes of electing some effective school board members. What they got was a front-loaded school board election and preservation of the status quo.
Here and now, Santa Monica is at a crucial verge. We can reelect the SMRR incumbents, affirm the status quo and watch as their developer pals deconstruct this glorious beach town. Or we can draft five good people to form an independent slate and revive the of, by and for the people principle.