Minister-Mayor Bows Out, Praising Tie That Binds : Conn Sees Link Between Life in Religion, Politics

Times Staff Writer

By the time church was over, James Conn's congregation had planned a vigil against the AIDS initiatives, announced a fund-raising fast for a human rights organization and offered spiritual uplifting to the Hopi Indian tribe.

This was a typical Sunday at the Church in Ocean Park, a progressive, non-traditional United Methodist Church where Conn, the retiring mayor of Santa Monica, presides.

Preside might be a formal word for a church short on formalities.

Simple Surroundings

Worshipers sit in theater chairs facing each other and the minister delivers his message from a stool. Old spirituals are sung a cappella, led by a woman with a gray ponytail in baggy pants who snaps her fingers to the beat. There are no altars, no pews, no organs.

Those in attendance readily join in as the minister speaks, sharing their feelings and impressions. They sip Celestial Seasonings herb tea and break homemade bread at the end of the service.

Finally, the entire congregation holds hands in a wide circle, giving praise, thanks and mutual support.

Conn, dressed in a red pullover, argyle socks and loafers, seems relaxed in the setting. In the 15 years since becoming pastor at the small, 65-year-old church on Hill Street, Conn has rebuilt a dying congregation into a loyal following of about 100 people, with a mailing list five times the size.

The church has also become nerve center for a $1.5-million network of social service agencies offering assistance to battered women, homeless and problem teen-agers.

Conn, who is leaving the City Council after 8 years, sees a natural bond between religious activism and politics. It is a tradition in the Methodist Church that can be traced to the abolition movement of Civil War times and the American Revolution, when being a Methodist quite literally meant being a revolutionary.

In both his roles as mayor of a small city and minister of a church, he has traveled to Central America on a fact-finding mission, and to Nevada to join protests at the nuclear test site, where he has been arrested.

"I've always thought about social issues from an ethical perspective," Conn, 44, said. "The church ought to be a change agent in society. Being an agent of change in the community led me to becoming an elected official."

And in his role as mayor during the last 2 years, Conn regards himself as a mediator, a seeker of consensus, a finder of common ground. His supporters credit him with helping to alleviate much of the factional bitterness and divisive tension that once engulfed the city.

'Build Bridges'

Conn prides himself on using his tenure as mayor--just as he does in his church--to "build bridges" among diverse groups and rival factions in the community.

His critics, however, charge that Conn has betrayed the ideals of the liberal faction that first elected him, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, lost touch with his original power base and sold out to developers.

Conn announced his decision not to run for reelection in June, saying he wanted to dedicate more time to his ministry, his personal life and to his son, Ethan, a 10-year-old who appeared at church recently sporting an earring and skateboard.

Some of his foes say he is dropping out of politics because of the criticism he has received--a claim hotly contested by his supporters.

If he is now attacked from the left, Conn once was the scourge of the right.

When he was elected to the council in 1981 as part of the slate sponsored by Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, Conn was viewed by many leaders of the business community as another of the wild-eyed radicals taking over City Hall.

It was a time when an Old Guard was being replaced by younger, more progressive politicians. Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights gained a majority on the council and immediately slapped a building moratorium on the city. Only 2 years before, the tenants faction had brought strict rent control to the city.

'Establishment Was Skeptical'

"The business community in general was very suspicious about Jim," said Christine Reed, a 14-year veteran of the City Council who opposes Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights but who broke precedent in 1986 by nominating Conn as mayor.

"They only knew him as the minister of a kinda wacky church in Ocean Park. The Establishment was real skeptical."

Conn said polarization was to be expected in those days because of the dramatic shifts in power taking place in the city. People with one set of values, he said, were being replaced by people with different values.

"When I came to Santa Monica, a city councilman told me there may be poor people in Santa Monica, but they'll have to learn they cannot afford to live here," Conn recalled. "I said, 'We'll see about that.' If that is the dominant conscience, then anything to the contrary creates schism and polarization."

A political evolution followed. The mayor that Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights had put into office in 1981, Ruth Goldway, was defeated in a reelection bid, and later, the faction lost its majority.

Conn said that in the years that ensued, he, other members of the council and some of the city's institutions began to change, to mature. Political reality began to force people to work together.

Independent Member

Reed said she saw Conn become an increasingly independent member of the council and to reach out to constituencies that were not traditionally his or his faction's.

Now, as Conn steps down from office, some of the same business leaders and property owners who originally opposed him are willing to praise him.

"We both found out we weren't as bad as we had been told we were," said Robert Sullivan, a landlord activist and member of the board of directors of the Apartment Assn.-Greater Los Angeles.

"There wasn't always a lot of agreement, especially on property-rights issues, but by and large he has been a gentleman about it and tried to be fair."

And last spring, the Chamber of Commerce, which 8 years ago could barely tolerate members of Santa Monica's political left, invited Conn to speak at a luncheon.

"Jim really became more ready to dialogue as he realized that responsibility for the city overrides single issues," said Norma Gonzalez, past president of the Chamber.

Mutual Respect

"I see Jim as having grown in the job and broadened his view of the business community, realizing that not all business people are out trying to make a buck at the expense of the community. . . . We ended up respecting each other more."

But as acceptance from those groups has grown, Conn has found himself increasingly accused in some quarters of forgetting his natural constituency.

He was even booed at this year's convention of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, where he urged the group to avoid "lefter-than-thou" politics.

He asked the convention to run three instead of four candidates in this year's City Council race as a way to make the election less divisive and allow incumbent Herb Katz to go unchallenged. The proposal lost narrowly but drew sharp criticism from some segments of the faction.

"Jim talks about consensus a lot, but for me, consensus where Jim is concerned is a code word for compromise," said Geraldine Moyle, a slow-growth activist in the Ocean Park community and member of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights.

Criticism on Slow-Growth

"Jim has voted against the interests of his constituents and found new constituents: the old coalition that used to run Santa Monica before SMRR."

Slow-growth proponents and the hard-liners within Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights lambaste Conn for voting in favor of several large office complexes, including Colorado Place and Water Garden.

His votes placed him on the side of the traditional opponents of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, a politically moderate group that used to be called the All Santa Monica Coalition. Fellow SMRR Councilmen Dennis Zane and David Finkel voted against the projects.

"I thought we would have to worry about the opposition; little did I know that he (Conn) would be one of our worst foes," Kelly Olson said. He is a member of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights who worked on a slow-growth initiative this year that was ultimately disqualified.

Conn's opponents say they are uneasy at the huge amount of money that developers have contributed to Conn's Ocean Park church. They say those donations have influenced his vote on development projects.

Conn denies the charge. Money, he says, buys access but not a vote.

About one-third of the budget for the social services that the church operates as part of the Ocean Park Community Center is raised in the private sector, with the rest coming from government agencies.

High Profile

Undeniably, the high profile of mayor has helped Conn in his fund-raising efforts. Today, for example, dozens of business people, architects and community activists will attend a fund-raiser for Conn's newest project, Architects for Shelter, a program to support homeless shelters.

Conn says his approach toward development is a balanced one. The city has been legally bound to allow some projects to go ahead, he maintains; developers in those cases have been required to compensate the city with money for public parks or low-income housing.

He is also quick to point out that in comparison to West Los Angeles or other nearby communities, the growth of Santa Monica has progressed at a much more controlled rate.

Councilman Alan Katz, the lone independent on the council, praised Conn for what he called political courage, taking stands that have cost him some support.

"Jim had to make a decision a couple of years ago on whether he was going to run in a popularity contest or run a City Council," Katz, who has sided with Conn on numerous issues, said. "To the city's benefit, he chose to do the latter. If he wanted to be popular, he could have been less responsible than he was."

2 Open Seats

Katz, like Conn, did not seek reelection in last Tuesday's election, leaving two open seats that were won by members of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, Judy Abdo, who also works at the Church in Ocean Park, and Ken Genser, co-chairman of the faction.

Zane, who is a member of SMRR, and Herb Katz, who is not, were reelected. Zane will probably succeed Conn as mayor.

For the last 2 years, with Connas mayor, the council was divided evenly between the two rival factions, with independent Alan Katz holding the seventh vote.

With the election, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights regains the majority for the first time in 4 years. Three seats will continue to be occupied by more moderate opponents.

Whether there is a return to the divisive days of old remains to be seen but appears unlikely.

"With the 2-year respite that a balanced council gave the city, there is a willingness on both sides of the factional divide to work for the betterment of the city," Alan Katz said.

"Jim gets a lot of credit for building a reservoir of trust between the factions and with the community. The new council can draw on that reservoir or destroy the trust very quickly."

Conn is philosophical about it.

"There's a time for polarization, and there's a time for healing and bridge-building. I've been pleased to be on both sides."

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