Until recently, I was ambivalent about becoming active within Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, the city’s leading political party. On the one hand, it’s highly unlikely that I, as one of 4,000 members, would be able to have much of an impact on the vision and direction of the organization from the inside. On the other hand, there is no other option if I, as a Santa Monican, want to have a say in how my city is governed because SMRR is the only political game in town, controlling the City Council, Rent Control Board, school district and Santa Monica College.
But the arrival of the 2010 Census (the “$14 billion form” as my friend Nina Sinclaire calls it) got me thinking about this situation a little differently. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 50,000 out of the roughly 55,000 adults over the age of 34 living in Santa Monica either stayed in our homes last year or didn’t move very far away. So out of the 50,000 adults in this town who could be called “permanent locals,” only 8 percent of us are SMRR members. And if 8 percent of the permanent local adults in Santa Monica can decide what’s best for the other 92 percent, then that same math should apply within SMRR.
Even though Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights has been around for decades and has become the establishment in local politics, it’s important to remember the organization’s insurgent history. It was founded in the 1978 during the Los Angeles real estate boom to protect the interests of Santa Monicans who rent their homes (around 70 percent of us) from developers who saw the potential in the 90-plus percent occupancy rate of the city’s 40,000-plus rental units. SMRR’s Web site states that those developers were held off with some of the strongest rent control laws in the country and a 1981 moratorium on commercial development followed by another in 1989. The site also demonstrates a striking shortage of black or brown faces within SMRR’s elected leadership and, as best I can tell, hasn’t been updated in quite some time.
SMRR has come to dominate city politics, but it’s coming to a critical junction in this November’s elections when its City Council majority could be threatened if the organization doesn’t come up with a clear, coherent vision for Santa Monica’s future. I appreciate what rent control does for those of us lucky enough to live in below-market-rate apartments and I like Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights’ formerly-tough stance against development. But about a quarter of our city’s population is between 14 and 25 years old, so they don’t care about past accomplishments and they (and their parents) have the right to wonder what SMRR has done for them lately.
Personally, I think it’s about time to light the candle of openness and democracy as opposed to continuing to curse SMRR’s darkness. We have a situation where a political party whose total membership equals about 8 percent of our city’s population has a seriously exaggerated influence on the vision, direction, and budget of Santa Monica. Since that’s the case, then a caucus within that party whose membership is — let’s say 15 percent — should be able to exert at least some influence on the vision, direction, and budget of SMRR.
So I’m looking for 600 Santa Monicans to join with me to create the New Energy Caucus within Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights. We’ll put our heads together and come up with a platform or a signature issue around which to organize and campaign, then all 600 of us will join SMRR together at the same time and challenge the organization to tell us why our interests can’t or won’t be addressed. And if a caucus that represents 15 percent of its membership doesn’t move SMRR to action, then we’ll try 20 percent, then 25 percent, then 30 percent until we win. That’s how progressives fight and that’s how progress is made.
I’m no longer ambivalent about getting involved with this organization because I realized that the problem with changing Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights isn’t that I, alone, wouldn’t be able to do it; it’s that I shouldn’t try to do it alone.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal who wants you to join him and his favorite reader, Marilyn Brennan, in the New Energy Caucus by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at email@example.com.