SMRR squeezing out competition

Political machines that control local elections may seem more appropriate for urban settings such as New York, Chicago and Boston. But a dominating force has operated in the palm tree-lined haven of Santa Monica for more than three decades. Known as Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, SMRR has endorsed candidates for the City Council since its inception, with its seal of approval almost always giving a candidate a guaranteed win at the polls.

This year is no different.

Santa Monica residents will elect five new council members this coming Tuesday, two of which will serve for one 2-year term and three who will serve 4-year terms. And, although there are fifteen candidates to choose from on the ballot, only five of the fifteen are endorsed by SMRR.

Running against the SMRR machine is a daunting task for any challenger. Daniel Cody, one such candidate, calls SMRR, "the ones who are the king makers, putting their people on every board in the city."

There is no competing political organization in Santa Monica with the presence and resources of SMRR.

SMRR "seized control of the city, ruling it for most of the past quarter century," which enabled SMRR organizer Dennis Zane to maintain his seat on the City Council from 1981-1992, according to Jorge Casuso, a local journalist who has covered city politics for more than two decades. In 1994, SMRR's Pam O'Connor took over Zane's seat on City Council, and has held it ever since.

O'Connor appeared to be in danger of losing her SMRR endorsement this past August when she did not get the required votes for an endorsement from the membership. But, according to Robert Kronovet, SMRR co-chair Patricia Hoffman allowed the leadership's steering committee to endorse O'Connor anyway. According to Santa Monica College Professor Martin Goldstein, this is "partially corrupt."

Goldstein says, "They've been doing this a long time. They vote on who they want and come out with all of them at the convention."

SMRR was originally started as a political group to lobby for renter rights. But resources for renters are hard to find at the group's web site ( Cody said he "searched the site and couldn't even find out who SMRR's officers are." The site reads like those for major political parties, opening with the interest group's "Candidates" and "Ballot Measures." A hotline featuring a pre-recorded message is the only contact available to renters, and the recording recommends SMRR's candidates and ballot measures.

Ted Winterer is a current SMRR candidate for city council who failed to receive an endorsement in 2008. The late Ken Genser, former city council member and one of SMRR's original leaders, assisted Winterer in obtaining his position as planning commissioner for the city after his 2008 loss. Winterer said SMRR members on city boards report back to the organization.

According to Kevin McKeown, a 12-year SMRR council member and current SMRR candidate, Santa Monica has a big renter eviction problem that SMRR, through measure RR, will address. However, candidate Robert Kronovet, calls SMRR "bullies," and says, "SMRR uses demagoguery. There's no landlord-tenant eviction problem in Santa Monica."

Patricia Hoffman, Co-founder and Co-chair of SMRR, and City Manager Rod Gould were both asked for their comments. Gould was unavailable for comment at time of print, and Hoffman has yet to issue a resonse.

Renters make up more than 70 percent of Santa Monica residents, and "SMRR continues to be effective because they can go knock on everybody's doors and say ‘If you don't vote for our candidates, you'll get kicked out'," says Cody.

"Rent control is part of the municipal code and part of the city charter. These rights are in your lease, and there are city, county, and state protections well in place," said Cody.

Gleam Davis is a SMRR endorsed incumbent who Goldstein says, "had run, didn't get elected, [but] is very much Pro-Renters Rights." So, after Davis lost, she was appointed to the city council replacing Herb Katz, who according to Kronovet, spent his 17 years on council "fighting off SMRR."

If Measure Y passes, the city council will have an additional $6 million dollars to spend each year. Cody, who says that he has read every single page of the city's $600 million budget, believes that if the current council really needs a one percent increase in the budget in order to maintain rescue and education services, the city has a problem with leadership, not revenue – a feeling mirrored by Kronovet.

"In 1990, we had 1,363 city employees, now we have 2,200 with zero percent population growth. And, the city employees have received a 6 percent salary increase over the last two years during the recession," said Kronovet.

Ganeazer says that SMRR "creates issues to distract attention away from what's truly important to residents."

Robert Holbrook, the only non-SMRR backed incumbent, says that "this city is fortunate to have one of the best managers, and that's why he deserves the salary he receives. Other people need to focus on the fact that we're policy makers, not mini-managers of the city. These people, you can guess who they are, demand reports be delivered and other things that make as much work for our city staff as the entire council."