The following is an analysis of the race from the SMDP Editorial Board.
The forecast of how this year’s council race will turn out hinges on whether you base your prediction on the city’s established history as a progressive bastion (and, further, if those progressive voters make it to the ballot box) or you focus more on the strength of a lone candidate.
If you vote for Armen Melkonians, it doesn’t matter who else you vote for.
The current council is split, 3-3, with a swing vote on hot-button issues, but Melkonians gives one faction (that of the “Change Slate,” current members Phil Brock, Christine Parra and Oscar de la Torre) a dedicated fourth vote that will form a 4-3 majority on disputed issues.
A majority presence is likely to exert a pull on the remaining council members who would find themselves faced with a choice between ideological purity while losing every disputed vote, 4-3, or a move away from the progressive nexus and attempt to perhaps draw a fourth vote on occasion.
This holds true no matter who else is on the council, but for Melkonians’ voters, there are only two logical choices to fill out the canvass: Lana Negrete and Albin Gielicz.
Negrete is the swing vote on the current council. She has been an increasingly reliable vote for the Change Slate and while she may well move further into their orbit, she isn’t part of the club.
Her inclusion with Melkonians on many endorsements is a recognition that she’s not part of the other voting block, which makes her at least palatable even if she is independent when the mood strikes her.
Further along the spectrum is Albin Gielicz who genuinely resides in the middle. The reason many groups and individuals have left him off their endorsements while backing Negrete/Melkonians is because he has refused to promise to vote a certain way, kowtow to third parties or otherwise make a backroom deal.
He is outside the progressive political bubble, costing him those endorsements, but as the man in the middle, he overlaps with everyone somewhere, which makes him a logical fit for the Melkonians-centered slate.
An unwieldy slate of progressives
An entirely different pattern emerges without Melkonians in the picture, because there are several candidates whose philosophies directly clash with his, but are far more complementary to each other.
Caroline Torosis, Natalya Zernitskaya, Ellis Raskin and Jesse Zwick are all likely to vote the same way on the vast majority of issues. What separates them (voters can only pick three) is what specific issues they will push to a vote and what skills they bring to the table.
However, their political alignment doesn’t mean they’re actually likely to win as a group — far from it. As four candidates drawing from the same voter pool, they are going to be at a disadvantage vying for three seats.
The question is really about the size of the City’s progressive voting base and how many votes it can produce if split four ways. Can it overcome Negrete’s power of incumbency? Melkonians’ anti-establishment support? Gielicz’s centrist pull?
Torosis seems best positioned from the bunch drawing from the largest progressive groups like Unite Here! and SMRR (Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights) but also from broader coalitions like the firefighters union and Chamber of Commerce.
The variations leave us with three possible outcomes based on voter turnout. If the progressive voter pool is large enough, we’re likely to see Torosis and a pair of fellow liberals seated. If the pool is only deep enough for one candidate, Torosis will find herself in a race with Gielicz; they both drew business support to supplement their different bases. Should the progressive well run dry, Negrete, Melkonians and Gielicz will find themselves the beneficiaries.
A contributing factor to that turnout debate is the rampant fear mongering in the race, both over rent control and crime.
Rent control is literally on the ballot this year but only in a way that strengthens protections for tenants. However, it’s easy to motivate rent-control tenants to come out to vote by saying they need to protect rent control and, while SMRR, the traditional renters rights organization, continues to back progressive candidates, its ability to influence election outcomes has declined in recent years.
On the other side, crime is absolutely an issue but Santa Monica is not the crime-ridden hellscape pitched by many on social media. However, it is just as easy to scare people with inflated crime concerns as it is over rents. The social justice movements that have shaped the debate in other communities are largely absent here. Simmering tensions over police oversight in Santa Monica have not captured the attention of the public and it appears residents are more supportive of the SMPD than they are wary.
Voter turnout is paramount
If rent control (or Roe v. Wade or the Sheriff’s race or some other issue) motivates an unusually large number of progressive-minded residents to vote, there’s a chance for a mix of Torosis, Raskin, Zwick or Zernitskaya to succeed. This seems less likely to us.
If that base fails to vote or divides its vote, that opens the door for Negrete and Melkonians who are likely to draw from a different, more unified base. Torosis is still in the mix here due to her broader support and will likely compete with Gielicz for the third spot. This seems like the most likely outcome.
There are other candidates in the race not mentioned here. That’s because for any of them to win would require unprecedented circumstances that defy all historical trends. Democracy is fundamentally a chaotic enterprise, which means you can never count anyone out. Troy Harris has spent considerable effort on his social media campaign and, eventually, someone has to be the first person to capitalize on such an effort to win a seat. We don’t think that will happen this year, but it’s not impossible.
While Harris may be the equivalent of hitting 00 on the roulette table, Samantha Mota, Whitney Scott Bain and Jon Mann are like tossing a coin and having it land on its edge. Neither Mota, Mann nor Bain have any fundraising or substantive campaign infrastructure to turn out votes. They will pick up some votes from direct acquaintances and protest ballots, but we don’t think it will be enough to make a difference in the outcome.
If you’re still looking for help making your decisions this year we encourage you to check out our website and smdp.com/pod to hear interviews with candidates.