The voting machines print a voter's touchscreen selections onto a paper ballot.

By Mary Marlow

In the November 2020 election for Santa Monica City Council, a plethora of candidates have registered to compete with incumbent Councilors to represent our city in the trying times ahead. As voters, how do we sift through the various statements, positions, and platforms to decide which candidates deserve our support?

The simplest question is the most obvious: do you like the direction the city is going? While the pandemic has totally upset the political applecart, perennial issues of traffic, affordable housing, development, fiscal management, and the homeless challenge, that affects our parks and open spaces are still bedrock concerns for most residents.

So how do the incumbents fare in relation to these issues? If you are happy with the course of the city, re-elect the people who have brought us here. If not, you have your pick of 17 challengers who registered for the four-year terms to boot one of the four incumbents running out of office.

One of the five seats seems secure – Kristin McCowan, who was appointed to the seat vacated by Greg Morena’s resignation in July, is running unopposed for the remaining two years of that term.

Since incumbents have all the advantages of name recognition, track records, campaign experience, media exposure, and well-oiled funding machines (only two incumbents have been defeated in the last thirty years) in this article we concentrate on determining which contenders have assembled a team that can possibly win.

A glance at history informs: in 2016, when eleven candidates vied for the 118,019 votes cast for City Council Members, all four incumbents won reelection with an average of 18,400 votes apiece, 5000 votes ahead of the fifth-place candidate. Since the 2020 race field is larger by 30% there will be more dilution amongst candidates but a ballpark tally of 12-15,000 votes will be necessary for victory.

Which candidates might crack an incumbent’s advantage? The key factors to examine: organization, money, and name/positions exposure. The combination translates into votes cast, and with the pandemic accelerating mail-in voting that begins in five weeks, there’s not much time.

So – does the candidate have a committee and/or political action committee (PAC) to support them (elections aren’t won alone); are they raising money (the mother’s milk of politics); do they have a website and social media presence (utterly critical when a pandemic precludes the usual rallies, debates, and personal interactions of normal times)?

Basically, is the candidate engaged in a quixotic quest with little to no hope of success (winning) or is this a serious competitive endeavor?

Of the 17 registered competitors, first things first. Two candidates – Dominic Gomez and Andrew Browning – notified the city within the 72-hour deadline to withdraw their candidate statements and dropped out of the race to support a ‘residents slate’ composed of Christine Parra, Phil Brock, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, and Oscar de la Torre. These four have formed individual campaign committees, are raising money, have active websites and social media visibility and pursue every opportunity to virtually campaign for endorsements from city organizations hosting candidate forums. This slate also has a PAC supporting them – Santa Monicans For Change.

Three candidates have run for City Council before – Zoe Montaner in 2014, Jon Mann in 2016, and Nathaniel Jones in 2018. In each of those races, these candidates raised no money; if past is prologue their chances are remote at best. Without campaign funds to introduce themselves and advertise their views across the city, they are dependent on people who already know them. How many of us know 12-15,000 people in our hometown – who will vote for us?

Of the remainder – Merv Andika, Tom Ciszek, John Patrick Jewell, Andrew Kamm, Todd Mentch, Chip Martin, Marcus Owen, and Anne-Marie Slack – none have yet created campaign committees and few have established candidate websites. Charitably, these are ‘a hope and a prayer’ candidates. Each may get several hundred or a few thousand votes and some months of small-town notoriety, but if candidates want to genuinely compete for the opportunity and responsibility to lead Santa Monica, there are no shortcuts to organization, money, and exposure – all of which favor the incumbents and motivated challengers.

For voters who want to affect city policies: pay attention to the 9 viable candidates – the members of incumbent slate or of the residents slate – who are actively seeking your votes and have a realistic chance of winning. In this pandemic year, keep informed and vote early if possible. The people you elect will represent their views. Make sure you share the same priorities and views.

Mary Marlow is a member of the Transparency Project