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Divided SMRR Endorses Arnold, McKeown, O'Connor for Council; Picks Slate for School, College and Rent Boards

By Jorge Casuso

August 4 -- Riding a wave of union support and bolstered by a well-orchestrated organizing blitz, Abby Arnold on Sunday joined incumbent Council members Kevin McKeown and Pam O'Connor on the slate of the powerful Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights.

Arnold -- whose endorsement split the organization -- topped the list of hopefuls who won the nod at the convention, receiving 131 votes, followed by McKeown with 128 and O'Connor with 125 votes. Josefina Aranda fell short of winning a majority of the 230 votes cast (and forcing a second ballot) when she received 104 votes, while Matteo Dinolfo garnered 22.

Helping spur the biggest turnout in a decade, Arnold forged a coalition of new members she helped sign up and union advocates within SMRR's old guard, who cast 49 "bullet" votes, backing no other candidate for the three open seats on the council.

"It's a very, very important endorsement and I'm very honored to be the renter' rights candidate for City Council," said Arnold, who earlier told the crowd, "I'm running because I care so much about social and economic justice. I want to keep our community healthy, strong and diverse."

Councilman Kevin McKeown, who received widespread support and no bullet votes, said that he looked forward to running a "clean positive campaign like the last time."

O'Connor, who received 16 bullet votes, said she looked forward to serving a third term.

"I'm pleased the organization has continued to support me with this nomination," O'Connor said. "I want to continue programs I'm involved with, help with new ones and continue in my regional role" as a member of the MTA board.

Arnold's endorsement split the SMRR membership, and it was clear before the candidates made their presentations that a showdown between members of SMRR's old guard over her candidacy was inevitable.

Standing behind Arnold on the stage, former councilman Tony Vazquez, the only Latino elected to the council, said Arnold would champion social justice issues, while Vivian Rothstein, a leader of the labor contingent, said it was important to "put another strong woman on the City Council."

SMRR co-chair and founding member Dennis Zane called Arnold a progressive who has staunchly supported renters' rights. "I have lived and breathed renters' rights for 25 years," former mayor Zane told the crowd. "I have no doubt that Abby Arnold is a steadfast supporter of renters' rights."

Zane's comments were meant to counter a last-minute flyer -- signed by Mayor Michael Feinstein and Council members Ken Genser and Richard Bloom -- questioning Arnold's commitment to SMRR's ideals.

"If this convention turns its back on our history and endorses candidates who do not share our core commitment, our reputation -- and our purpose -- will be threatened," the flyer said. "We believe that Abby Arnold is inappropriate to carry the SMRR banner in this election. Over the years, she has opposed SMRR's efforts to preserve housing and protect tenants. In fact, she has been hostile to SMRR itself."

After the vote, both Feinstein and Genser had harsh words for the union-backed effort to endorse Arnold, saying that it showed a "disrespect" for SMRR and constituted "a hostile takeover."

"The labor movement has shown a great disrespect for this organization coming here with a full slate that included candidates that did not share our core values," Genser, a former mayor, said. "They didn't come to build an organization, but to tap this organization's resources, and I think that shows great disrespect to the 20 years of work the group has done for the benefit of this community."

Feinstein, a staunch backer of Aranda, who like the mayor is a Green Party member, said: "This was a divisive, hostile takeover and it was clear that Abby lost among the SMRR grassroots and only managed to steal the nomination by having 40 percent of the votes being bullet votes.

"I think that the fact that the SMRR rank-and-file don't support her will show up in November," Feinstein said. "There's no enthusiasm among many of the folks that do the heavy lifting for this organization. The hostile takeover bought the mailings, but it didn't buy the support of the rank and file."

Arnold supporters countered that the bulk of the bullet voting for their candidate was a response to the neon-blue-colored flyer, which also was signed by Planning Commissioners Jay Johnson and Julie Lopez Dad and Rent Board member Jeff Sklar.

"The rank and file, the people who know Abby for many, many years supported her and saw the sincerity and the values," said Rent Board member Bruria Finkel, who has known Arnold for 25 years. "To say the rank-and-file won't support her because she doesn't carry the values is totally wrong.

"They (Arnold's opponents) caused a lot of strife in the organization," Finkel said. "She won it fair and square."

Former Mayor Judy Abdo lauded Arnold's organizing skills and noted that she and former Mayor Paul Rosenstein launched a similar effort in 1988.

"This is not the first time it has happened, and it's not the last time," Abdo said. "This is just good organizing. There was a lot of politics here, and always remember, the personal is always political."

SMRR officials said that between 100 and 150 voting members were added to the organization's ranks before the deadline to sign up new members a month ago. Many of the new members were allied with Arnold, others with Aranda, who received eight bullet votes.

Arnold last month said that she encouraged renters she ran across to join, as well as "some friends in security (gated) buildings who've never been canvassed by SMRR

"I'm sure various people are doing that," she said, adding that, "I would not ask anyone to try to join something they don't agree with. I would really object to people trying to undermine an organization."

Arnold's organizing efforts may have carried over to other races. Oscar de la Torre, who was seen huddling with Arnold outside the hall, won a surprise endorsement for School Board with 135 votes. Incumbent board president Julia Brownley topped the list with 142 votes, followed by Emily Bloomfield with 138 and Ana Maria Jara with 119.

Incumbent Brenda Gottfried failed to win the group's endorsement for one of four open seats.

In the race for College Board of Trustees, the candidacy of SMRR co-chair Nancy Greenstein and the steering committee recommendation to endorse only two candidates for four open seats led Ryan Flegal and Patrick McGuire to drop out.

"It's sort of time for me to step outside 'cause I think the College Board needs me," Greenstein told the crowd. "It's a good school. It can be great. I hope I'm the right person at the right time."

Greenstein was the easy winner with 112 votes, followed by incumbent Dorothy Ehrhart-Morrison with 98. Incumbent Nancy Cattell failed to win the endorsement, as did Joe Weichman, a USC student who made a bid for a seat in 2000.

Although Weichman fell short of the 50 percent needed, he did garner the 20 percent necessary to open up a vote for a second ballot. But the move was rendered moot because Greenstein, suspecting that all the necessary votes had been cast and noticing that the crowd was eager to leave, had already adjourned the meeting.

An unsuspecting Zane called for a vote to see if there was a quorum, but the vote, which failed, was voided by Greenstein's action.

In the race for three seats on the Rent Board, the group endorsed all three candidates seeking the nod -- incumbents Alan Toy and Betty Mueller and newcomer Jennifer Kennedy.

In other votes, the SMRR members endorsed the Living Wage law approved by the City Council last year that is the subject of a ballot referendum, as well as a $300 parcel tax that would generate $9.6 million a year over 12 years for the cash-strapped school district.

SMRR members opposed VERITAS, a ballot initiative that would, among other things, carve out election districts, elect a mayor at large with veto powers and set term limits. The members also opposed a ballot measure that sets up a program for renters to purchase their units.
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