CITY HALL — For years Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) has controlled a majority of the city’s elected seats. Candidates endorsed by SMRR have, in recent years, almost always gone on to win election.

But 2014 has offered an array of new challenges to the city’s largest political party, which was founded in 1979.

In February, three of the six SMRR-backed council candidates bucked the party’s recommendation to vote down the controversial Hines development project.

A referendum ensued, with SMRR’s backing, and the project’s approval was overturned.

Leading up to its candidate endorsement convention, SMRR received stacks of new membership applications from people who, according to party leaders, didn’t necessarily share the organization’s ideals. There was a sense that new members were jumping on board to influence the endorsement process of the biggest party in town.

Board of Education member Oscar de la Torre told the Daily Press that he’d formed a voting bloc called the Pico Delegation that was calling for, among other things, promises from candidates that they would fire City Manager Rod Gould, with whom de la Torre has an on-going beef. SMRR leaders denounced this practice and urged candidates not to comply. Gould announced his retirement days before the endorsement convention.

Other groups, like Unite Here Local 11, a hospitality workers union, told their members to support incumbent Kevin McKeown and former Planning Commissioner Frank Gruber during the endorsement convention.

McKeown and Gruber were the top two vote-getters at the convention but not one candidate pulled in at least 55 percent of the membership vote – the total necessary to receive an endorsement.

Planning commissioners Richard McKinnon, Sue Himmelrich, and Jennifer Kennedy placed third, fourth, and fifth respectively.

All the council candidates went home empty-handed.

Mayor Pam O’Connor, who was backed by SMRR in her previous campaign but voted in favor of the Hines project, did not make it past the first round of voting.

The question was then posed to SMRR’s Steering Committee – an 11-person board elected annually by the membership. The Steering Committee cannot “endorse” candidates but they can “support” them through independent expenditures on mailers and advertising.

This year at least four of the Steering Committee members are tied, in one way or another, to campaigns. Co-Chair Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein is running for Board of Education. Maria Loya is running for Santa Monica College Board of Trustees. Genise Schnitman is married to McKeown. SMRR co-founder and former Santa Monica Mayor Denny Zane is working as Sue Himmelrich’s campaign manager.

A week after the convention the seven remaining members of the Steering Committee voted to support McKeown (the top vote-getter) and Kennedy (the bottom vote-getter in the second round of voting).

Kennedy has worked, in the past, as SMRR’s paid coordinator and has worked as an active volunteer

At the time of the Steering Committee vote, Roger Thornton, an active member of the committee, was serving as Kennedy’s paid treasurer. He voted in her favor.

In September, the Steering Committee reconvened. Six of the seven voting members of the committee agreed to add Himmelrich to the slate. Thornton had been Himmelrich’s treasurer until early September. He resigned and was replaced by David Gould. Thornton did not recuse himself from the vote to support Himmelrich.

Steering Committee member Judy Abdo, who is supporting Gruber and O’Connor, declined to comment for this story noting that things are too volatile.

Steering Committee members Bruria Finkel and Linda Sullivan were initially on the fence about who to support, Himmelrich said. Calls to Finkel and Sullivan were not returned by press time.

Denny Zane had publicly announced his recusal from the committee but did lobby its members on Himmelrich’s behalf.

A recusal, by Zane’s definition, did not exclude him from speaking with fellow Steering Committee members.

“I’m Sue’s advocate at this point,” he said. “I’m not participating as a Steering Committee member. I don’t get to vote. I’m talking to all voters about Sue.”

Some candidates were angered that this was allowed.

“He, as a Steering Committee member, had to recuse himself from voting – where has anyone ever heard that it’s okay that a member of any board who has to recuse himself is then allowed to go back and lobby the board?” Gruber, the number two convention vote-getter, said in an e-mail. “That’s a conflict that anyone should recognize.”

Himmelrich said this claim misses the point because she is the one who convinced the two ambivalent members.

“I had to tell Denny to back off because there were two votes that I was shy – Bruria and Linda Sullivan – and he pissed them both off so much that I told them not to talk to either one,” she said.

“These are strong women who made up their own mind,” she said. “I met with Bruria several times so she could get to know me better. She felt she didn’t know me. I think Linda felt the same way.”

Candidate and former Mayor Michael Feinstein, who had SMRR’s backing during his winning campaigns more than a decade ago but not during the campaign he lost, said not everyone had the same access.

“After the SMRR convention, I called a SMRR Steering Committee member who I’ve known well for years and who I consider to be a friend, to offer my thoughts,” Feinstein said. “Before I could finish my first sentence of hello, I was told that it was inappropriate for any candidate to be talking to any Steering Committee member about this, and that I should hang up at that moment, which I respectfully did. Given what I’ve heard about subsequent lobbying, this gives the impression of different rules for different people, depending upon who they are and who they support, which is not in keeping with the spirit of the SMRR platform as I understand it.”

Himmelrich said she had a similar experience.

“I made on call early on to Linda,” she said. ” … (Steering Committee member) Michael Tarbot told me after that not to call anybody, it was making people uncomfortable. I did not. Then Bruria reached out to me.”

They met at Izzy’s, she said, and ultimately spoke for 8 or 9 hours.

“She sought me out and I was responsive,” Himmelrich said.

Himmelrich said Zane was not the reason that she got the call from Finkel.

“I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that Kevin and Jenn wanted me with them,” Himmelrich said. “Everybody knew that so, you know, they want to have a team.”

SMRR co-Chair Patricia Hoffman, who’s been an advocate of Himmelrich and Kennedy, said that regardless of what candidates were told, they all lobbied anyway.

“There may be some people who heard that message and there may be some people who were told that message but there was no (major) candidate for whom we were not lobbied,” she said.

When asked whether Zane, as a Steering Committee member, had unfair access, Hoffman responded:

“He’s not a member of the committee as it’s currently composed. We’re not the Executive Committee; we meet as the Campaign Committee only.

I would say there are at least a couple hundred people who know all the members of the Campaign Committee well.”

Ultimately, Hoffman claims, everything Zane did was fair.

“He was pushing Sue,” she said, “but since Sue wasn’t an endorsed candidate and is not an elected official, we can talk to her before she became our candidate. It’s a distinction that most people don’t care about. They say, ‘Oh Denny talked to you.’ Yes Denny talked to me. He hasn’t talked to me since except when we see each other at fundraisers and things. He’s called me a couple times and said, ‘Oh, did you get this piece of campaign mail?’ We talked about measures. That’s the only thing we’ve talked about.”

Gruber said that his issues with the process run deeper than Zane’s lobbying.

“Namely the whole idea that a deal could be made to endorse Sue, while disrespecting the will of the membership convention where I was the number two vote getter,” he said. “Why should a seven member Steering Committee, one of whom was Sue’s treasurer, be allowed to disregard so blatantly the will of their members?”

Hoffman has said in the past that the views of Himmelrich, Kennedy, and McKeown most actively align with the SMRR platform.

The Daily Press reached out to McKinnon, the number three vote-getter during the convention, but did not hear back by press time.

Campaigning

The recusals are causing more than just controversy. They’re making the campaign task harder for SMRR.

Kennedy was, according to many, excellent at writing SMRR’s campaign literature but she is running her own race this year.

“She worked so well as an organizer and on our ground campaign and yes we feel the loss of her tremendously from the campaign work that we’re doing,” Hoffman said.

Unite Here Local 11, a hospitality worker’s union, has traditionally bolstered SMRR’s ground game, sending its members door-to-door. But Unite Here’s support of Gruber and McKeown for council means they only share one similar candidate.

With co-Chair Tahvildaran-Jesswein running for Ed Board, Hoffman is alone at the helm.

“Well, it’s been a little harder than usual to try to get our work done,” she said. “I think we’re OK. I think we’ve made our point. We’ve chosen the best candidates and we’re moving on.”

In August, when the only non-SMRR-endorsed councilmember, Bob Holbrook, announced he would not seek reelection, it seemed like a chance for SMRR to capitalize. Now, days before the election, there’s no guarantee that the SMRR candidates will sweep.

“It always feels like that,” Hoffman said. “This election, I think, is tougher than almost all of them. It’s not because the field is larger. We’ve been running around 14 candidates for years. There are quite a few serious candidates this time. I keep getting back to the fact that our candidates are the best candidates to move the city forward in the direction that I believe the people want to go in. Our candidates will prevail if that’s the case.”

dave@www.smdp.com

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *