MAIN LIBRARY — Santa Monica’s proclivity for political theater was on display Monday evening at the Santa Monica Daily Press’ sixth Squirm Night, a four-hour extravaganza that subjected candidates in three local races to pointed questions from the public, the moderator and each other.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium at the Main Library in Downtown was packed and a line of people waited to get in to see eight of the 15 candidates for City Council square off as well as all six running for three spots on the Board of Education and the duo running for the new 50th Assembly seat.
In many ways, it was the night of the challenger.
For the first time in recent memory, two incumbents on the City Council — Richard Bloom and Bobby Shriver — chose not to run for their old spots, leaving four seats open and only incumbents Gleam Davis and Terry O’Day to fight for their seats.
The wide-open field attracted a number of competitive contenders to the race, who are working to differentiate themselves from one another as each tries to stand for “smart” growth and put forward reasonable ways to tackle the city’s budget, traffic and homelessness issues.
Three incumbents on the Board of Education are facing stiff resistance from a slate of three Malibu residents working to unseat them by promising a change in leadership if voters choose to ditch 12-year board members Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vazquez in their favor.
Finally in the 50th Assembly District, Assemblywoman Betsy Butler is trying to stay in Sacramento by running in a brand new district that overlaps her current 53rd by only 2 percent, while Bloom nips at her heels. Both are fighting to assert their Democratic credentials after a brutal primary in which the two were separated by only 142 votes.
“The ultimate goal is to give you, who will be voting Nov. 6, the information you need when you step in that ballot box,” said Kevin Herrera, editor-in-chief of the Daily Press, opening the night.
The longest — and most controversial — event of the evening was the 90-minute City Council forum in which incumbents tried to deflect accusations of complicity with real estate developers on large projects and newcomers struggled to flesh out vague campaign promises.
The Daily Press chose to invite only nine of the 15 candidates to participate in the forum and, despite calls for a boycott, eight came to battle it out on-stage in front of hundreds of prospective voters.
The one that did not attend, Ted Winterer, was laid up with a medical problem which had prevented him from going to a forum at the Church in Ocean Park the night before.
The questioning started with the incumbents on the defensive.
O’Day and Gleam Davis were asked to discuss their “yes” votes that allowed Saint John’s Health Center to avoid building an expensive parking structure that they’d promised City Hall in a contract a decade before.
Both said it had been proven to them that Saint John’s solution of renting space at the office complex formerly known as the Yahoo! Center was workable and would prevent congestion, never mentioning that the deal was technically illegal when the two organizations began it.
The conversation quickly turned to their record of taking money from developers, particularly those who later came before the City Council to negotiate development agreements for large, lucrative projects.
Part of the value of having a voting record is proving that he had thwarted developers when it matched his values, O’Day said.
“No single check amounts to more than half a percent of my campaign,” O’Day said. “I can’t be bought for that.”
The newcomers were characterized as Johnny-come-latelys, with no record, clear vision or even history of attending meetings.
Herrera noted that challenger John C. Smith, a one-time producer for NBC 4 News, was running on promises to bring the long-discussed “Subway to the Sea” to Santa Monica, drop homelessness by 10 percent a year and encourage job creation, but offered no plan.
Smith described the subway as a regional plan, and said that some of Santa Monica’s policies regarding the homeless might be exacerbating the problem rather than fixing it.
Gleam Davis targeted both Smith and attorney Steve Duron on their attacks on incumbents regarding a development that is proposed for a site that has held a trailer park for decades, pointing out that neither had attended the grueling hearings on the topic.
Smith worked nights at NBC at that time and could not attend — he has since left that job — and Duron said he had two small children to care for at home.
He did not elaborate on how his schedule would change if elected.
One thing every candidate had a position on was the fate of the Santa Monica Airport.
This is a fateful election for the 227-acre space on the eastern end of the city. The four council members elected will comprise a majority of those that will ultimately decide to fight the federal government to close it, or work with them to keep it as is or with reduced operations.
Long-time columnist Frank Gruber, Planning Commissioner Richard McKinnon, former Councilmember Tony Vazquez and Duron advocated for outright closure, with McKinnon referring to the airport as “a relic of an industrial past.”
Gleam Davis, Shari Davis, O’Day and Smith took more measured approaches. Shari Davis acknowledged the airport’s assets, Gleam Davis and O’Day the difficulty in closing it and Smith advocated for a popular referendum on the topic.
As the forum progressed, the candidates that did not get an invitation, the self-proclaimed “Santa Monica 6,” protested, handing out information and engaging with audience members outside the auditorium and attempting to draw silent attention indoors.
Jon Louis Mann, an 11-time council candidate with zero wins in his column, decided to stand in front of the dais with black tape over his mouth and a large sign set with tiny font declaring who he was and why he was not invited to attend.
A conversation found on a public social media site from three days before the event shows that Mann was attempting to disrupt the forum by forcing his own arrest.
Others came bearing green shirts to pass out to supporters of the Santa Monica 6. As O’Day put it, they “put the ‘civil’ in civil disobedience.”
Board of Education
Many may have learned to play nice at school, but that sentiment was missing from the Board of Education debate which pitted three challengers from Malibu against three incumbents.
The school district, which gets the majority of its students from Santa Monica, does not have a single Malibu representative on the seven-member board, something that has become a flash-point in recent debates over new fundraising policies and measures to bring money to the schools.
Craig Foster, Seth Jacobson and Karen Farrer comprise the “reform slate,” which squarely challenged incumbents Ben Allen, Vazquez and Escarce on their record of fiscal prudence and efforts to close the achievement gap between white and Asian students and their African-American and Latino counterparts.
Foster accused the three of allowing a bloated bureaucracy, pointing to the districts of Oak Park and Conejo Valley as examples of places that have fewer administrators than the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
He estimated that the district could save $5 to $7 million if SMMUSD modeled itself after those two districts.
“There are really hardworking, caring people on the school board that are just off of what needs to be done, and as a result, things are going very much worse than they would be going than if we were doing the right stuff,” Foster said.
Escarce would have none of it.
Although the reform candidates mention that Oak Park has lower administrative costs, they do not tell about how the 4,000-student district spends less money per student on instruction, or that there are more students per teacher in that district than SMMUSD, he said.
“So if you’re going to use any part of the story, let’s not cherry pick,” Escarce said. “Let’s tell the whole story about two very different districts with which there cannot be any comparison.”
Leon-Vazquez tried to take the challengers head on, accusing them of only running because they were unhappy with a policy approved in November 2011 that changes the way parents give money to schools.
Rather than allowing parent groups to supply staff members with generous donations — up to $2,100 additional revenue per child in the case of Point Dume Marine Science School — as of July 2014 they will only be able to supply “stuff” like supplies, computers and field trips.
Farrer called the suggestion “insulting,” and Jacobson countered that the board should not have passed the policy with no idea of how to implement it and at the same time alienate the big-givers in the north.
In the end, voters heard incumbents promise to work hard to continue efforts to meet the needs of all students, and challengers offer a very different path to ostensibly the same goal.
50th Assembly District
Unlike the local races, which began to take shape in July, Richard Bloom and Betsy Butler have been on the campaign trail since last year paving the way for what they each hope will be a victory in November.
Both survived a bloody primary, separated from each other by only 142 votes and from their opponents Brad Torgan and Torie Osborn by less than two percentage points.
Now, thanks to the brand new open primary system, each of the two Democrats must find a way to separate themselves from their liberal opponent while rising above mishaps from the primary campaign, something they each strived to accomplish Monday night.
Herrera forced Butler to address what many consider to be a major campaign gaffe from the first half of 2012 in which she sent baby bottles to homes throughout the district to reinforce a bill she sponsored to remove dangerous chemicals from sippy cups.
Critics viewed the move as a betrayal of her environmental values, particularly since many of the bottles went to homes without children, and of her union ties because they came from Mexico.
In her response, Butler countered that the only companies that make BPA-free bottles today are in Mexico, and that she intended to send them only to families with children.
“If they got to the wrong people, that was inadvertent,” Butler said.
Bloom got grilled on a seeming lack of local support, as many of the most liberal bastions in the city endorsed his opponents in the primary and Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights chose not to endorse either candidate.
Bloom responded that he was fighting for the 50 percent of the vote he and Betsy did not get in the primary.
“Those are the people who are going to decide this election, not the clubs, not SMRR. Those endorsements can be meaningful, but my pitch is to the people of the communities that make up this great assembly district,” Bloom said.
Bloom and Butler see eye-to-eye on many local issues, including the establishment of a pilot dog beach in the city and the inclusion of green building standards into state codes, but differed when it came to dollars and how they should be spent.
A key example was high speed rail, an expensive project that would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco, but has been plagued by problems and cost overruns.
Butler came out strongly in favor, calling the project visionary. Bloom hedged, saying cost was important and, given the financial position of the state, the line would deserve another look.
The two closed out, Bloom with a plea to send him to Sacramento so he could begin fixing problems there and Butler with a pitch to allow her to continue her work helping the elderly and other needy populations.
The forum wrapped at 9:50 p.m., almost four hours after it began. Many people came for their specific races, popping in and out, freeing up chairs for the line of people who waited outside for a chance to get in to watch candidates speak.
John Medlin, a 16-year resident of Santa Monica, was present for the whole thing.
He’d hoped to get a question in regarding why Santa Monicans should spend so much money supporting Santa Monica College when a minority of students there are from the city, but the forum ran out of time.
Still, he was fascinated to learn about the divisions between the Malibu and Santa Monica sides of the local school district, and was pleased to get a chance to hear Butler for the first time.
Although he acknowledged that local officials had plenty on their plate after the November election, Medlin remained philosophical about Santa Monica and its problems.
Compared to other areas plagued by street crime and budget deficits, Santa Monica has it pretty good, he said.