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SMMR Endorses 3 Council Incumbents, Leaves 1 Open Seat; Tenants Group Also Backs 2 Latinos for School Board

By Jorge Casuso

As expected, the city's powerful tenants' group endorsed three incumbents in the November race for four open City Council seats during its annual convention Sunday afternoon.

While Mayor Ken Genser and Councilmen Michael Feinstein and Richard Bloom were shoo-ins for the influential Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights endorsement, the choice of candidates for three open seats on the School Board was a nail-biter.

Two Latinos - Maria Leon-Vasquez, a longtime education activist with a law degree and experience in mediation, and Jose Escarce, a physician and economist at RAND who has served on several district committees, - will join Malibu resident Michael Jordan on the SMRR slate.

Escarce defeated Gleam Davis by 9 votes in a runoff after the two candidates deadlocked on the first ballot.

The race for SMRR's council slate held no drama, with the only question - whether SMRR would endorse three or four candidates -- answered long before the convention at Olympic High School began.

"We left that decision up to the membership," said Nancy Greenstein, co-chair of SMRR, which holds five of the seven council seats. "It wasn't even a discussion."

Concerns expressed during the 1998 council race that Pam O'Connor was the only woman on the council were not at issue this time around, Greenstein said.

"Two years ago people felt strongly about having a woman," Greenstein said. "But with three good incumbents, we're pleased to put them forth."

Of the 20 candidates who have pulled papers with the City Clerk to run for council, only three are women, and one has since announced that she will not run.

Besides the incumbents, the only candidate to seek a SMRR endorsement for council was Ed Muzika, a community activist and former council candidate. Muzika fell far short of the 59 votes necessary to garner the fourth endorsement.

But if the council endorsements were nothing more than a coronation, the race for the school board slate was up for grabs from the start. Of the major candidates, only Vazquez - who is married to former SMRR councilman Tony Vazquez - has deep roots with the tenants group that has run city government for most of the past two decades.

That is a good sign for SMRR, which has long shaped the school board, and which has been lobbied in recent months to keep politics out of the race after the district faced a series of major shortfalls.

"It was nice that it was a real discussion of who's best for education," Greenstein said. "I think everybody was very, very thoughtful."

School Board member Margaret Quinones, who, along with incumbents Annette Shamey and Pat Nichelson, was endorsed in the race for three open seats on the College Board, said it was significant that SMRR chose two Latinos to represent a district whose student body is one-third Latino.

"I think you've really got some bright talented people," said Quinones, who is the only Latino member of the school board. "I think it's a good reflection of making sure these voices are heard. I think it's a good thing for our kids. It's a reflection of our strong values as a community."

Vazquez, who has two children in district schools (a freshman at Santa Monica High School a first grader at Will Rogers) boasts a long history of involvement in the schools. She has been a member of the Bilingual Advisory Committee, the PTA and the School Congress at Will Rogers.

"I want to make sure that we have equity among all children," Vazquez told The Lookout when she announced her bid in June. "I've seen how the school district can work for your child, and I want to make sure every single child has that positive experience."

Escarce has three children, a preschooler and a third and seventh grader who attend district schools. He is a member of the Fine Arts District Advisory Committee and participated in the district's Ad Hoc Parcel Tax Committee, as well as the committee that interviewed candidates for a new principal at Santa Monica High School.

Escarce also is on the steering committee of the Community for Excellent Public Schools, a broad-based group of civic leaders.

"The new board must create a culture of mutual respect, thoughtful consideration and an open exchange of ideas and information," Escarce said in a statement released last week.

Jordan is a media law teacher at Pepperdine University.

In the race for two open Rent Control Board seats, SMRR endorsed incumbent M. Douglas Willis, who works in the finance department at UCLA, and Jeff Sklar, an attorney and long-time rent control tenant.

A majority of the 117 SMRR members who took part in the convention also voted not to back a statewide ballot initiative for school vouchers or a local living wage measure bankrolled by the city's large hotels.

SMRR members, however, voted overwhelmingly to support a local bond measure that would raise the amount of the city's annual parcel tax from $73 to $98. The difference between the two amounts would be $330,000 a year. The tax's 10-year extension requires a two-thirds majority vote in the November election.

SMRR's membership also voted to endorse a statewide measure that would lower to 55 percent the votes necessary to pass a school bond.

The group, however, did not vote on whether to endorse a citizen sponsored-initiative intended to weed out corruption in City Hall, a measure opposed by the City Council. Nor did it vote on a measure the council placed on the ballot that will allow the City to exempt civil fines from a $500 limit imposed in 1907, when a dollar was worth 20 times more than it is today.

Greenstein said that the group's steering committee likely would decide what position SMRR will take on those measures.

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