Santa Monica Lookout
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Election Players and Observers Wait on SMRR Steering Committee

Phil Brock For Council 2014

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Michael Feinstein for Santa Monica City Council 2014Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica Convention and Visitors BureauWhen one lives in a city as breathtakingly beautiful and unique as Santa Monica, inevitably that city will be shared with visitors.

By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

August 5, 2014 – While hundreds of people voted on endorsements at the Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) convention on Sunday, fewer than 10 could determine the powerful and influential group’s entire City Council slate for the November election.

Because no candidate was able to capture support from at least 55 percent of the voting members at the convention, the SMRR Steering Committee will meet later this month on backing candidates in the contest for three council seats. Also, two people could be added to the Santa Monica College (SMC) Board of Trustees endorsement list.

The steering committee has 11 members, a knowledgeable source told The Lookout. The number has been higher in previous years. At least four of the members could have conflicts that would prevent them from voting.

Members with known conflicts include Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, who is running for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) board and received SMRR’s backing on Sunday, and Maria Loya, who is a candidate for the SMC board and could earn the group’s support via the steering committee.

Also, steering committee member Genise Schnitman is the wife of incumbent council candidate Kevin McKeown. And SMRR co-founder and steering committee member Denny Zane is the paid consultant for council hopeful Sue Himmelrich’s campaign.

The Lookout has received inconsistent information on what forces a steering committee member to sit out of the voting. While Zane told The Lookout last month that he would only not be able to vote on the council race, another insider said he could not be involved in the decision making for any slate. Also, it is unclear if being married to a candidate means voting is not allowed.

Placement on a SMRR slate via the steering committee is technically different than earning the support through a convention endorsement. A candidate cannot call himself or herself a SMRR endorsee on personal campaign literature, but the person’s name and photo will appear on the organization’s materials, where no distinction is made on how candidates received the support.

The steering committee meeting will take place behind closed doors and the location of the session is expected to be a secret only known by a select few. Voting results of previous steering committee decisions have not been released.

SMRR is under no obligation to name three council candidates to its slate even though that is the number of seats being contested. In 2008, SMRR only backed two candidates in a race for four seats. But in that race, there were two strong non-SMRR endorsees that were unlikely to be defeated. That might not be the case this year, especially if longtime SMRR challenger Bob Holbrook chooses not to run for a seventh term. He has until Friday to decide.

If the steering committee bases its decision on the voting results of the convention, it will decide to back McKeown, former Lookout columnist Frank Gruber and Planning Commissioner Richard McKinnon. They were the top three vote-getters in both rounds of voting.

But convention voting has not necessarily been the model for steering committee decisions. Four years ago, Nimish Patel was among the top vote-getters in at least one round of the convention’s vote for the SMMUSD board slate, but he was unable to gain the steering committee’s support later that month.

The steering committee’s choice could lead to a slate of candidates who are not politically aligned. That would not be unusual. Mayor Pam O’Connor and McKeown, who have been political opponents for at least 10 years, have shared the SMRR slate in every election since 1998.

It appears O’Connor will be seeking re-election for the first time without SMRR’s backing. She earned the group’s support four years ago through the steering committee. This is unlikely to be repeated (although anything is possible) because she failed to gain at least 20 percent support in the first round of voting Sunday, and was ineligible to move on to the second round.

When Jose Escarce earned SMRR’s backing for the SMMUSD race via the steering committee in 2008, political observers called the move unusual and possibly unprecedented. But since then, this has happened for more than one candidate in each election year.

SMMR support, regardless of how it comes, is extremely valuable in Santa Monica. Although it does not guarantee a November victory, it makes winning highly likely. The organization has a large treasure chest to support its candidates and a group of loyal and active campaigners. Also, many residents base their voting decisions on SMRR’s recommendations.

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