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Renters Group’s Endorsements Give Newcomers Edge Over Incumbents in School Board, College Trustee Races

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

August 3 -- Mirroring results of voting for City Council endorsements, newcomers beat out incumbents Sunday seeking the backing of the tenants’ group Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) in campaigning for seats on the Santa Monica College and School boards.

In a stunning upset, college trustee Margaret Quinones -- a former darling of the renters’ group -- lost out on her bid to be part of the SMRR slate in her run for re-election.

The convention was marked by “bullet voting” -- in which SMRR members, some of whom had joined the organization only months ago -- cast ballots only for their favorites and ignored other candidates running for multiple spots on the slate.

Newcomers Doug Willis, Susan Aminoff and Rob Rader won SMRR's endorsements for the three open seats on the College Board, with Rader snagging the third endorsement in a run-off with Quinones.

SMRR's decision to back the challengers follows a tumultuous period of budget shortfalls in which the Board of Trustees has backed the college administration and cut programs and faculty -- some say without real need.

"I know you all haven't agreed with what I've done at times," Quinones said before the vote, "but there's only one thing I carry in my soul and my heart and that's called being a trustee."

But opinion tipped in favor of the newcomers, whose clean slates may have distanced them from the budget controversies.

"We have to have independent thinkers on the board, not people who will roll over," said David Finkel, a former board prospect, in a plug for Aminoff. The SMRR members responded with rousing applause.

Rader said he would use the problem-solving skills he has developed as chair of the Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Organization and a member of the Bayside District Corporation Board to "help heal what has been going on at the college.”

"The college has been riven by strife,” Rader said. “I'm committed to shared governance, and I'm also committed to civic participation."

Willis, who sits on the Rent Control Board, stressed his commitment to SMRR's progressive values and to Santa Monica as a whole.

"I have been totally committed to this community for 25 years," Willis said, citing his 18-year SMRR membership and 16-year involvement with affordable housing provider Community Corporation of Santa Monica.

In the school board contest, Kathy Wisnicki -- Malibu's only hope for representation on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education -- was edged out in a heavily contested race between four challengers vying for three spots on the tenant slate.

SMRR's endorsements usually transfer into thousands of Santa Monica votes, so the decision to pass over the long-time Malibu education activist reduces the chances that Malibu -- whose students make up about 20 percent of the district -- will have any representation on the board. The only current Malibu board member, Mike Jordan, is not running for re-election.

Wisnicki’s race had shown early strength when, along with incumbents Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vazquez, she garnered a series of endorsements from teachers and other groups over the past few weeks.

But it was Santa Monican Ana Jara -- a Pico Neighborhood activist -- who, running on a platform of "inclusion, accountability and fiscal responsibility, received more SMRR votes than any other board candidate Sunday.

Leon-Vazquez and Escarce won the other two SMRR endorsements -- and the money and campaign workers that go with them -- with Escarce slipping past Wisnicki in a run-off.

Wisnicki -- who was championed by SMRR co-chair Denny Zane -- said she was disappointed that no Malibu candidate was supported by the renters' group.

"SMRR already had three active members running for three positions, and I feel that I had a lot of support from within the leadership of the organization, but the membership at large made their decision,” Wisnicki said.

Escarce, the current chair of the Board of Education, has emphasized closing the achievement gap while raising achievement for all students. Although he has garnered endorsements, Escarce could face opposition from some voters because of his support for Superintendent John Deasy, who has been the target of mounting criticism for his policies.

Leon-Vazquez has sat on the board since 2000 and has served as both vice president and president.

Jim Jaffe, a retired SMMUSD teacher who has challenged Deasy and the board on financial matters, and Santa Monica Airport Commissioner Jean Gebman are also running for the Board of Education but did not compete for SMRR's endorsement.

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