Santa Monicans enthusiastically voted in newcomers to the Santa Monica City Council and Rent Control Board (RCB) this month and in both cases, the challengers outscored incumbents for total votes.
Greg Morena earned a Council seat with almost 20 percent of the vote, second behind one-term incumbent Sue Himmelrich, whom about 24 percent of voters favored. However, he outranked longtime Councilmember Kevin McKeown (who won reelection with about 19 percent of the vote) and pushed incumbent Pam O’Connor out of contention for one of the three open seats.
RCB candidate Naomi Sultan received 26.5 percent of the vote, the highest percentage in her race ahead of one-term incumbent Nicole Phillis, who trailed by just half a percent. Incumbent Steve Duron took third in that race with 22 percent of the vote. Only two incumbents were running for the three open seats.
Councilmember O’Connor’s loss was a rarity in Santa Monica making her only the third incumbent voted out in the Council’s history.
“History underscores the fact that incumbents are very hard to unseat,” said Himmelrich, who supported Measure TL, which will impose term limits on Council members after 2020. “I think (O’Connor) has been dropping in her vote counts in previous elections and this is when she finally dropped off with a strong challenger in (Morena).”
Morena said he is grateful for the support he received from Council incumbents and credits his victory to Santa Monica’s politically engaged electorate. He ran on a platform of public safety, renters’ rights and affordable housing, preserving neighborhood character and improve sustainability.
“It’s an incredible show of how important government is to our community,” said Morena, who was raised in Santa Monica and runs a family restaurant on the Santa Monica Pier. “It gives me hope that you can grow up here, get involved, stay involved and be a part of the change that will keep this city great and make it better.”
Council member Terry O’Day, who was not up for reelection, said he thinks Morena was an unusually strong candidate and noted he received a higher percentage of the vote than the Council’s two longest-serving members, McKeown and O’Connor.
“The story is really about (Morena) and not about (O’Connor’s) loss,” O’Day said. “(O’Connor has done so much for our city … and we owe her a great debt.”
O’Connor served as a Council member for 24 years and many consider her signature achievement to be bringing the Expo Line to Santa Monica.
Himmelrich, who was the most popular Council candidate with voters, said she does not plan to run again in 2022 because she has a set of changes she set out to make within her two terms, including promoting the public use of public land and helping Santa Monicans feel more included in their local government.
“I think I’m an independent voice and I think people respond to that,” Himmelrich said. “I try to do what I think is right, talk and listen to everybody, answer my own phone and try to be responsive to what people tell me.”
Like Morena, a newcomer was popular for the the Rent Control Board election. Sultan won a slight majority of votes ahead of Phillis, and said she is looking forward to working with Phillis and other board members to protect tenants and neighborhoods. She added she thinks she brings a new perspective to the Board as a public interest attorney.
“I represent folks threatened with homelessness,” Sultan said. “I’m on the front lines of the housing affordability crisis.”
Phillis said the election of Sultan, Duron and herself demonstrates Santa Monica’s commitment to housing rights and progressive social justice values. In the wake of Proposition 10’s defeat, she said, the Board will focus on protecting tenants from corporate landlords, land use speculation and tenant harassment. Proposition 10 would have paved the way to expand rent control in California.
The new Council and Board members will begin their four-year terms on Jan. 1, 2019.