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Half a Dozen Hotels Give More Than $400,000 for Wage Initiative; Opponents Raise $110,000

By Jorge Casuso

Santa Monica's living wage war - the hardest fought local political battle since voters approved rent control more than two decades ago - already is the most expensive in recent memory, with a handful of luxury hotels contributing more than $400,000 to put an initiative on the November ballot.

Sponsors of the nation's first business-backed living wage measure raised $436,114 and spent $434,267 to qualify the charter amendment, according to a campaign finance disclosure statement obtained by The Lookout.

The initiative, which covers businesses with city contracts or subsidies, would erase an unprecedented living wage ordinance being studied by the City Council that targets hotels and restaurants.

The Edward Thomas Management Co., which runs Casa del Mar and Shutters on the Beach hotels, contributed $168,828 and the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, which is the target of an organizing drive by the local Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, gave $125,000. The Radisson Huntley Hotel and Sunstone Hotel Investors Inc. contributed $50,000 each, according to the disclosure statement. C.W. Hotel Limited Partnership gave $43,665.

Opponents, who contend that the measure is a "Trojan Horse" intended to cover few workers, have raised $111,905 and spent $121,258 trying to keep the initiative off the ballot, according to a disclosure statement obtained by The Lookout.

Of the total, $64,770 came from the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), the umbrella organization that includes Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism, the group behind the living wage proposal being studied by the council. Other liberal groups that contributed include the Solidago Foundation, which gave $15,000, and the Norman Family Foundation, which gave $11,000.

The sponsors - who go by the name Santa Monicans for a Living Wage - quickly depleted their war chest during a contentious signature gathering campaign. Progressive Campaigns, which circulated the qualifying petitions, was paid $190,031. San Francisco political consultants Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst & Partners, who helped run Mayor Willie Brown's reelection campaign, received $130,000.

The contributions to both camps bankrolled a bitter and fiercely fought campaign that garnered 15,532 signatures in two and a half months, nearly double the 8,067 necessary to qualify a charter amendment on the November ballot. Of these, the County Registrar deemed 9,815 of the signatures valid.

A signature revocation effort by opponents made a dent in the final tally but was not enough to keep the initiative off the ballot. Of the 1,005 requests to have signatures rescinded, 549 were valid, according to the City Clerk.

In some ways, the hotel-backed ballot initiative is similar to the county's living wage law and follows the pattern of 32 other local laws across the nation. If approved, the measure would require employers who receive at least $25,000 in City contracts for services to pay their workers a living wage of at least $8.32 an hour with health benefits, or $9.46 without.

But unlike other living age initiatives, Santa Monica's is the first to include a "poison pill" that would erase any living wage measure the council might pass, now or in the future.

Contentions by opponents that the measure will cover about 200 workers citywide were bolstered by a short report released by the City Manager last month.

On Tuesday night, Santa Monica's pro-union City Council will have no choice but to place the business-backed measure on the November ballot, but not after council members roundly denounced the initiative last week.

The council, which is expected to approve its own living wage ordinance before the November election, has until August 11 to place a rival measure on the ballot. The proposed ordinance being studied by the council would make Santa Monica the nation's first city to require businesses with no city contracts or subsidies to pay their workers a living wage.

The ordinance crafted by SMART would require that businesses with more than 50 employees in the city's lucrative Coastal Zone pay their workers at least $10.69 an hour. Supporters estimate the measure would cover about 3,000 workers.

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