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SMRR Founder’s Involvement in Council Race Removes Him From Endorsement Process

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By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

July 9, 2014 -- When the steering committee of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) meets to talk about the City Council race, and possibly choose candidates to support, the co-founder of the powerful political group will not be involved.

Denny Zane is a member of the 13-person steering committee, but he is also the campaign manager for Planning Commissioner Sue Himmelrich, who recently announced she will seek a council seat in the November election.

“I will not participate in the discussions with the steering committee about council candidates,” said Zane, citing what he said were SMRR regulations, in an interview with The Lookout.

This is significant because the steering committee has the potential to select one or more candidates that SMRR will back in the council race for three seats.

SMRR will make its endorsements at the August 3 convention based on the voting of the members in attendance, which can amount to several hundred people.

To earn an endorsement, a candidate must receive support from at least 55 percent of the members. If fewer than three council candidates meet this threshold, then the steering committee can add additional candidates to the organization’s slate.

The steering committee’s meeting, which usually takes place a week or two after the SMRR convention, can be controversial. The session does not take place in public and there have been allegations that committee members are too closely connected to the people who earn SMRR backing at the meeting.

People who pick up the SMRR support through the steering committee cannot say in their personal campaigns that they are endorsed by the group. But their faces and names will appear in SMRR campaign literature along with those who earned the endorsement at the convention.

Zane told The Lookout he will also not participate in the steering committee’s discussion about the council race that takes place at a meeting right before the convention. Nor will he be involved in SMRR’s campaigning for the council race.

It is debatable whether Zane could still have an influence on the steering committee’s decision about whom to back without being a part of the discussion simply because he is a founding father of SMRR and has been a major player in Santa Monica politics for more than three decades, including serving on the council from 1981 to 1990.

SMRR also makes endorsements in the campaigns for the Rent Control Board as well as the boards of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and Santa Monica College. The same endorsement/steering committee support process is done for those contests.

Zane said he can participate in steering committee discussions about the non-council races because he is not directly involved in any campaigns for those contests.

Receiving the backing of SMRR is almost essential to getting elected in Santa Monica. The organization has a large budget to campaign for its chosen candidates and many residents vote for everybody on the SMRR slate.

The only current local officeholders who were elected without SMRR’s backing are Councilmember Bob Holbrook and school board member Nimish Patel.

There could be other potential conflicts on the steering committee that will need to be solved by members recusing themselves, but it is difficult to know since the steering committee roster is not readily available.

The Lookout obtained a steering committee roster shortly before the 2012 convention with great difficulty. It included Planning Commissioner Jennifer Kennedy, who is expected to run for council this year. Also featured was Genise Schnitman, who is the wife of Councilmember Kevin McKeown. He is expected to run for a fifth term this year.

In addition, the roster included Maria Loya, who is the wife of Board of Education member Oscar de la Torre. He might run for a fourth term on the school board or for council.

SMRR Co-Chair Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein recently announced he will run for school board. He told other media that if he receives the SMRR endorsement, he will take a leave of absence from his SMRR duties. If elected,Tahvildaran-Jesswein will resign from his post with the organization.

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