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Politicians are drawn to power; once elected, most want to stay in office as long as they choose. This is especially true in Santa Monica, where Council members enjoy the safety of incumbency. Dislodging them is historically rare, which is a major reason why voters overwhelmingly passed term limits in 2018.

This year there’s something highly unusual going on with the five incumbents. Only one of the four incumbents running for a 4-year term on the city council identified themselves as a councilmember in the ballot designations submitted to the City Clerk. In prior years, take 2016 for example, all sitting councilmembers designated themselves as such. We can’t remember an election cycle in recent memory in which any sitting Councilmember didn’t highlight their elected position.

This year, according to the City clerk’s website, all incumbents save one, chose to designate themselves as executives, or administrative assistants or don’t list any occupation at all. Have their consultants advised them that the mood in Santa Monica is that the current council has failed to listen to residents, failed to safeguard our city, and allowed our city to become too much of an extension of West L.A.?

And here’s the other highly unusual thing: For the first time in memory, there is an organized slate of four incumbent challengers. The four challengers bring a diverse range of experience from emergency management to social and land-use activism and all have been heavily engaged in our community. In addition, a resident Political Action Committee (PAC) called Santa Monicans For Change, has formed to support them. The four challengers are taking on the incumbents, accusing them of fiscal mismanagement, dereliction of public safety (the May 31st looting riots), tolerating rampant homelessness, and advocating development that emphasizes buildings over public spaces.

If, like many voters, you are uncertain who is the best person – an incumbent or a challenger – one important factor is who is endorsing them and is that endorsement based on positions and values of the organization that are consistent with who the candidate says they are (and do you share those values)?

Another important factor is how much special interest money is flowing into the race to support those running. Is it developers and those who work for them who give the most money through a PAC or independent expenditure committees with an eye towards future project approvals? Or is it people you know in the community, that you’ve heard speak at City Council, been a part of a neighborhood association, opposed massive projects like Hines at the former Papermate project, who are supporting them?

To figure it out, we need to look at the campaign disclosure statements filed by the candidates themselves and the various PACs supporting them. If the money’s coming from outside Santa Monica that’s a sign, too, of the interests of the person donating money.

Endorsements and contributions boost a candidate’s election chances. Public safety unions (fire and police), SMRR, Unite Here 11 (the hotel workers union), Santa Monica Forward (mostly developers and their allies), Chamber of Commerce (business and development interests), SMRR (renters’ rights and affordable housing), and the City Employees Unions all put money behind candidates – with a caveat; namely, incumbents are considered safer bets.

In most cases, these powerful endorsers support the known vs. the unknown. Why risk supporting a newcomer who has not served in office and therefore doesn’t have a track record when you know the position and predilections of the incumbents?

Incumbents use this to their advantage. Protecting the interests of the people who spend money on electing you is the most fundamental trade an elected politician makes at all levels of government.

This election cycle is hugely important, nationally and locally. It’s up to all of us to safeguard our democracy, become informed, and vote.

Mary Marlow is Chair of the Transparency Project