Photo by Clara Harter

For the past ten years the Transparency Project has researched and reported on the increasing amount of PAC money spent on Santa Monica City Council elections. It took increasing amounts of contributions or candidate personal money to win. The more money spent; the better your chances of getting elected. The same with endorsements from SMRR, unions, political parties and prominent elected officials.

In the 2020 election, only Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City endorsed challengers Brock, de la Torre and Parra, who defeated three of the four well-funded and broadly endorsed incumbents.

Phil Brock, native son and popular local reporter about town, used his name recognition and hometown knowledge to get the most votes. Christine Parra, head of emergency services in Culver City, won with the support of the Santa Monica Firefighters. Oscar de la Torre, a school board member, won with support of parents and former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver.

Santa Monica city council election results in 2020 are record breaking. In the last 40 years only four incumbents have lost a reelection. In 2020 three incumbents lost; Anna Maria Jara, a council appointee in 2019, Terry O’Day, a council appointee in 2009, and Ted Winterer, an elected incumbent in 2012.

Three incumbent losses are a public rejection of councils’ response to homelessness, rising residential crime, and overspending. This spring, deep cuts to resident services in the city budget, highlighted years of spending by council on vanity projects such as the new expensive city hall annex in addition to a highly paid, bloated city staff. Council approval of a controversial large hotel expansion along with a commercial project on public land added to resident anger and distrust of leadership. Residents spent hours voicing their objections to projects with scant community benefits and huge profits for private developers.

Overall, the total winners’ spending was less than half of the losing incumbents, $227,553 vs. $510,165. Phil Brock, the top finisher in the council race, won with only $24,120 spent. Compare that with the $84,462 spent on Gleam Davis, an incumbent, who came in second. Christine Parra, in third place, won with $47,712 mostly from the Santa Monica Firefighters PAC. The fourth winning candidate, Oscar de la Torre, finished with $38,667 in expenditures, most of which he raised in his candidate committee.

The Santa Monica Forward PAC, funded by business and development interests, spent over $200,000, two thirds of the PAC total, betting on five incumbents they thought would agree with their priorities of continuing commercial and residential development. They even spent over $22,000 on the newly appointed incumbent, Kristin McCowan, who ran unopposed.

A new resident funded PAC, Santa Monicans for Change, spent only $18,213 on the four council challengers. In a switch, Responsible Leadership for a Better Community PAC, spent an unknown amount on a single mailer touting the challengers. The PAC was last active in Santa Monica in the 2014 council election spending on incumbents.

What happened? How did three challengers win against well-funded and heavily endorsed candidates Anna Maria Jara, Terry O’Day and Ted Winterer?

Most important, residents took notice of what city council members did, not just what they said.

The pandemic forced budget cuts that mostly affected residential services – less frequent street cleaning, library branch closures and hours, less enforcement of building codes, less community recreation classes and shortened children’s playground hours.

Residents and businesses faced new levels of fear as property crime increased. Based on NeighborhoodScout analytics, as of 2019, Santa Monica is only safer than 2% of all US cities on a per population basis for both violent and property crimes.

In August, twenty- one Santa Monica residents, the most ever, qualified as city council candidates. A record number of challengers shows widespread dissatisfaction with current city leaders. Within the highly fragmented opposition field, a slate of four city council candidates, Phil Brock, Oscar de la Torre, Mario Fonda-Bonardi and Christine Parra joined forces to challenge the incumbents.. Mostly, they responded to residents calls for attention to public safety, resident services and a voice in civic decisions.

The incumbents ran their usual campaigns dependent on high profile endorsements and money from Santa Monica for Renters Rights (SMRR), Santa Monica Forward, city employee, and hospitality workers unions PACs. However, the pandemic limited the previously effective neighborhood canvassing by SMRR and the hospitality workers union. Video conferences leveled the playing field by limiting in person fund raising campaign events. Social media discussions offset the influence of expensive mailers sent by well-funded PACs.

The message of the election is clear: when residents vote for change – city leadership changes.