By Daniel Larios
August 4, 2014 -- For the first time in nearly four decades, the city's most powerful political organization, Santa Monicans for Renter's Rights (SMRR), failed to endorse a City Council candidate at its convention Sunday.
Council member Kevin McKeown, former Lookout columnist Frank Gruber and Planning Commissioner Richard McKinnon were the top vote getters in the race for three open City Council seats. But none managed to gain the 249 votes, 55 percent, needed to win an endorsement.
The organization's Steering Committee must now decide whether it will back a slate in a close-door session scheduled for next weekend, as it has done in the past two elections.
"It's gratifying to have been the top vote getter, of course," McKeown said after the votes were counted, "but disappointing that the room couldn't come to a consensus on a full slate of candidates.”
“This has been a particularly difficult convention,” SMRR Co-Chair Patricia Hoffman told the Lookout. "We didn't come to the City Council endorsements because there were so many factions that they seemed to have cancelled each other out."
More than 450 members packed the John Adams Middle School cafeteria to pick a slate for a group that has seen more than three-quarters of its candidates win seats over the past decade.
Four candidates -- Mayor Pam O'Connor, former mayor Mike Feinstein, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Phil Brock and physical therapist Ken Robin -- were eliminated after they failed to win the necessary 90 votes, or 20 percent, to go into the second round..
"I appreciate the support I received today," Feinstein told the Lookout. "I look forward to campaigning to the rest of the 90,000 residents of the community."
Slow growth advocates -- who mounted a campaign to deny O’Connor the group’s backing -- split their votes among McKeown (201 votes), McKinnon (170 votes) and Planning Commissioners Sue Himmelrich (138 votes) and Jennifer Kennedy (113 votes).
McKeown had backed Himmelrich and Kennedy, while the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City backed McKeown, Himmelrich and McKinnon. The city’s other slow-growth group, Residocracy, did not make an endorsement before the election.
In addition to slow growth advocates, there were at least two factions represented at the convention, and they too split the votes. The Pico delegation voted for Himmelrich and McKinnon, while the local Hotel Workers and Restaurant Workers Union supported Gruber and McKeown.
"I think we're close and I think it's an interesting afternoon," McKinnon told the Lookout. “We've obviously had a huge turnout here, and it’s obvious who has the support. It would be good to get the endorsement, and if we don't get the endorsement, it's still a wide open field."
"It will go down to the people who are the best organized, better prepared and who has the best policies, and I think that's me," he added.
The second round of voting produced similar results, with no candidate receiving 55 percent of the vote of the 196 votes needed after some of the crowd had left.
The ranking of candidates was the same as in the first round, with McKeown (175 votes), Gruber (166 votes) and McKinnon (155 votes) taking the top three spots.
As chair of the convention, Hoffman made the decision to forgo a third ballot, much the frustration of many in the crowd. A motion was made to overturn the chair's decision, but could not pass without a two-thirds vote, garnering only 53 percent.
"I voted to go to a third round because I believe in the democratic process," said Himmelrich.
Some candidates were not as optimistic about a third round of ballots.
"I don't think the votes would have changed much if it had gotten to a third round," said Kennedy.
The decision to support a slate of candidates will now go on to the organization's 12-person steering committee. The steering committee can add candidates to the SMMR slate if fewer people receive an endorsement than the number of seats being contested in the election.
A candidate winning SMRR support in this way cannot campaign as the group’s endorsee, but the person’s name and photo still appear on the group’s campaign literature.
"I'm very pleased with the level of support I received at SMRR today," Gruber told the Lookout.
"I look forward to seeing what the steering committee do and whatever happens, my campaign will be based on the great values of SMRR and the tradition of progressive leadership that we have in Santa Monica for 30 years."
Political observers agree that the decision not to endorse could level the playing field, since 77 percent of the City Council endorsees were elected in the last 10 years.
In another surprise move that was later dwarfed by the decision not to endorse, physical therapist and city council candidate Ken Robin withdrew from the race to support Phil Brock's campaign.
"I am looking for someone to protect my values," said Robin. "I've known Phil Brock all my life. I support him and withdraw from the race and will work hard for Phil Brock."
During the same meeting, SMRR also endorsed Todd Flora, Nicole Phillis and Steve Duron as a slate for the City's Rent Control Board by an overwhelming majority.
State Senator Ted Lieu also won SMRR's backing to replace Congressman Henry Waxman in the House of Representative by a unanimous vote.