Local Elections : Fierce Santa Monica Race Could Return Liberal Control

Times Staff Writer

With the balance of power inside City Hall at stake, campaigns are moving into high gear in a race that could reinstate a liberal majority in Santa Monica government.

Four seats are open on a 7-member City Council, and only two incumbents are running in a field of 13 candidates; competition is fierce. And until last week, the race--in contrast to previous years--had been relatively peaceful.

Santa Monica has long been known for its tradition of factional warfare, fights between well-oiled political machines. The so-called “war between the slates” at election time has meant costly campaigns and often-bitter debates.

No Formal Opposition


But this year, for the first time since 1981, one slate is running without the formal opposition of another full slate, a development that temporarily softened the tone of rhetoric.

The relative calm was shattered last week, however, when the city’s dominant political faction, the liberal Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, was accused of mailing 10,000 to 20,000 illegal absentee ballot applications to area voters.

The applications listed the faction’s headquarters as the return mailing address in violation of state law that requires absentee ballot applications to be sent directly to the county registrar-recorder’s office, according to Tony Miller, chief deputy to California State Secretary of State March Fong Eu.

Thom Poffenberger, campaign manager for Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, denied any wrongdoing, saying the format was cleared with the registrar’s office. He said all cards that arrive in the return mail are immediately transported to the registrar’s office.


However, Steve Logan, section head for absentee ballots at the registrar’s office, said he could not recall giving any format approval to Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights.

The application cards were first questioned by City Council members Christine Reed and William Jennings, who oppose Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights. They charged that having a political committee serve as an intermediary in handling applications creates “a huge temptation for fraud.”

By week’s end, City Atty. Robert M. Myers had forwarded the allegations to the district attorney’s office. Myers said his office would not handle the case because it involved charges between council members.

Reed said the way the application cards were mailed showed “how desperate” Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights is to regain control of City Hall. Poffenberger said the whole matter was purely political and that he doubted any serious legal challenge would materialize.

The incident foreshadowed the political bickering that may arise as Election Day approaches.

Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights is running a well-known, well-financed slate of four candidates, led by incumbent Councilman Dennis Zane.

Even if Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) wins only three of the four seats, the organization will retake a council majority it lost in 1984, after 3 1/2 tumultuous years that began with enactment of one of the nation’s toughest rent control laws and ended in defeat at the hands of the more conservative All Santa Monica Coalition.

During the last two years, the council was split evenly between the two factions, with the seventh seat held by an independent. The independent, Alan Katz, and Mayor James Conn, of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, are not seeking reelection.


Much of the campaign focuses now on whether incumbent Councilman Herb Katz, elected to the council in 1984 as part of the All Santa Monica Coalition slate, can retain his seat. (Herb Katz and Alan Katz are not related.)

The coalition dissolved and is not formally running a slate this year. Many of the same coalition players are in Herb Katz’s court, and his name is frequently linked to two other moderate candidates, William Zev Spiegel and Donna Alvarez; however, Katz maintains he is mounting a solo campaign that is both expensive and politically risky.

For Katz, an architect who served on the Planning Commission for eight years, the challenge is to break the lock that slates often have on votes. Because he is an incumbent, his name is familiar to many Santa Monicans and he is able to raise substantial financial support.

“Herb opted for a dangerous strategy, going head-to-head alone against the four,” said outgoing Councilman Alan Katz.

Costly Effort

“If anyone has a chance to break a slate, he has it,” said Alan Katz, a longtime critic of slate politics. “It doesn’t mean (another nonaligned candidate) can’t, but they face an even more daunting task.”

Herb Katz’s supporters see him as the best chance for spoiling a sweep by the tenants faction and maintaining some balance on the council. But it will be a costly effort.

According to campaign manager Jack McGrath, Katz will budget $130,000 for the campaign--roughly the same amount that Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights says it is budgeting for all four of its candidates. (However, the amount that Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights has actually raised this year is twice what Katz has banked.) “Normally, an incumbent would be reelected without much problem. In Santa Monica, no incumbent is safe against a slate,” said Robert M. Stern, co-director of the California Commission on Campaign Financing, which earlier this year issued a scathing report on Santa Monica’s slate wars.


“The incumbent has an advantage but really has to campaign as if his survival is at stake--and it clearly is at stake when a slate is running against you,” Stern said.

“It’s always competitive in Santa Monica, no matter who you are.”

Supporters of the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights team say they are confident of victory. Their strategy involves using the organizational power of the slate while seeking to portray themselves as distinct personalities.

Pitch to Renters

Through its campaign literature and door-to-door canvassing, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights is reaching out to its natural constituency of renters, who make up nearly 80% of the city’s population. One mailer, for example, warns tenants ominously that recent court decisions have weakened the power of the Rent Control Board, leaving it to City Council to defend rent control.

“The ONLY team we can trust to keep rent control strong,” proclaims the headline of a brochure, above pictures of the four candidates.

But members of the tenants’ faction also claim to be trying to attract votes from those segments of the community that have not traditionally supported SMRR.

To achieve that, they must allay fears among homeowners and business people who distrust liberal politics or dread a return to the turbulent years of building moratoriums and divisiveness at City Hall. They must project an image of flexibility and competence to counter what critics say is the faction’s tendency to follow a rigid party line.

In addition to mailings, the SMRR candidates may walk door to door in areas where their opposition is expected to be greatest: the sections of town dominated by homeowners instead of renters.

“The strategy of the other side (is) to make slates look like monsters . . . like an evil thing,” campaign manager Poffenberger said. “We want to show (homeowners) that we don’t have fangs and tails.”

Some of those fears are being stirred by groups like Action, a landlord-advocacy organization vehemently opposed to strict rent control.

Strong Warnings

In a fund-raising letter sent to property owners, Action’s political action committee warns of a takeover by “radicals,” telling its audience to “kiss your property rights goodby” if Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights gains a council majority.

But candidates like Zane, a math teacher who founded the tenant faction, reject such labels. The slate presented by Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights this season generally represents a less hard-line movement within the organization.

“That gives us the ability to appeal to the homeowner community more easily, and makes it harder (for opponents) to try to isolate us as so-called radicals,” Zane said.

Zane is expected to emphasize moves he has made during his 7-year tenure on the council to downzone the city and prohibit huge office-and-retail complexes. He is expected to contrast those positions with votes that Herb Katz has cast in favor of some development projects; Katz’s opponents feel he may be vulnerable on the slow-growth issue.

Katz, however, has defended his approval of what he calls “good development"--projects that afford benefits to the city, such as millions of dollars in traffic-mitigation fees or fees to build parks.

27-Page Booklet

Part of Katz’s effort to stand out in a crowded field has come in his door-to-door distribution of a 27-page booklet outlining his positions on numerous issues. It is his chief piece of campaign literature and a definite departure from the usual flyer.

About 45,000 copies were printed at a cost of $18,000. Katz admits the tactic is chancy because many voters may be discouraged from reading such an extensive brochure, but he indicated initial response was good.

Similarly, two of the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights candidates will step outside their slate and join to mail out separate campaign literature.

The two, longtime neighborhood activists Judy Abdo and Paul Rosenstein, are often considered to be less confrontational than some members of the organization, with ample background in negotiating with rival factions to find solutions to some of the city’s thornier problems.

Abdo has entered into a job-sharing arrangement to reduce the hours she works as aide to West Hollywood Mayor Helen Albert, so that she can spend more time in Santa Monica.

The fourth Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights candidate is co-chairman Ken Genser, who is hoping to make oil pipelines a campaign issue. On Tuesday, he will ask the City Council to pass a law banning pipelines in the city; Occidental Petroleum is considering several routes for pipelines to its proposed Palisades oil-drilling site, some of which pass through Santa Monica.

Pounding the Pavement

For the less well-known candidates, running without benefit of big bucks or party machinery, strategy involves getting out in the neighborhoods, walking door to door and getting name recognition.

Some may try to capitalize on what is perceived as a dissatisfaction with the dominance that slates have traditionally maintained. That displeasure, they hope, opens the way for independents.

There has been speculation that some of these candidates would form an ad-hoc coalition. This has not happened yet, but several endorsements have repeatedly grouped two or three non-slate candidates.

A local newspaper, The Outlook, for example, endorsed Herb Katz along with William Zev Spiegel and Donna Alvarez, leaving a fourth spot open in what was widely seen as a slap at Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights.

Both Alvarez and Spiegel said they were walking the precincts regularly, and each had prepared at least one set of brochures to mail to registered voters. Alvarez said that in a couple of fund raisers and “get-acquainted parties” she has garnered about $11,000; Spiegel put his money-raising at about $10,000 so far.

Alvarez said that opposing better-financed candidates is “pretty frightening” but added that offering an alternative to a slate was part of her motivation for running.

“People think it’s time for a little bit of change,” she said. “They feel like we ought to be talking to each other a little better.”

Alvarez said she and Spiegel have shared some campaign volunteers but there has been no formal uniting of candidacies.

Positive Tone

Spiegel praised the campaign for a generally high-road tenor thus far.

“The general spirit among the people I’ve met and campaigned with and against and parallel to, is that we all like to get out good points about ourselves,” he said. “People are talking about what they can do, not what others can’t do.”

Most of the other six candidates are running low-key campaigns. All say they are walking door to door to meet voters and trying to attend as many community forums as possible.

Richard Orton, a production manager, said he has earned about $500 that he hopes to use in what he says is a campaign against the Establishment; David Ganezer, an attorney, appeared at a press conference with other officials to denounce alleged racism in the police department.

Other candidates include Wayne Black, an attorney; Sharon Griffin, a teacher; Ron Rocco, a real estate broker, and Thomas Rouston, a hotel manager.

With only one slate formally in the running, and with a large turnout expected because of the presidential race and ballot initiatives, personal recognition may mean more in Santa Monica this election than ever before.

“I hate to sound like George Bush, but values are important this time,” Alan Katz said. “Voters are sophisticated and cynical enough to say ‘what is this person like?’ People are looking for more than just campaign rhetoric; they’re looking at what kind of person the candidate is.”