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Why Are Santa Monica's Elections So Noncompetitive This Year? Political Observers Weigh In


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October 1, 2018 -- Ask political observers why the upcoming Santa Monica elections are so noncompetitive and you will get a slew of answers.

Some will point to a lull in the development wars, others to what they see as an all-powerful local political machine or a voting rights lawsuit that could change the way Council members are elected.

Still others point to the high-stakes drama in the nation's capitol that could be distracting voters from local issues.

But for whatever reason, the November 6 race for three open council seats -- as well as the four local measures on the ballot -- have generated the least interest in decades.

"There isn't a real outcry about development, and so people are less motivated to run," said former Mayor Denny Zane.

"We have elections, and the thing is a done deal," said Tricia Crane, a local slow-growth activist and vocal critic of City Hall. "People have just given up."

"One has to wonder," said Council member Kevin McKeown, who is running for a sixth four-year term, "if local Santa Monica issues have simply been upstaged by the high drama in Washington."

Whatever the reason, the seven candidates in the race for council make up the thinnest field in at least 30 years ("Santa Monica City Council Ballot Thinnest in Decades," August 20, 2018).

And of the four local measures on the ballot -- including a record $485 million School Bond -- only Measure TL, which would limit council member terms, drew an opposing ballot argument ("Record Bond Measure for Santa Monica Schools Draws No Opposing Ballot Arguments," September 12, 2018 and "Ballot Arguments Underscore Key Differences Over Term Limits For Santa Monica Council," August 8, 2018).

The main reason there has been such little interest in this year's local races, Zane and McKeown said, is that fears of development -- which for more than a decade have driven Santa Monica voters to the polls -- have been largely put to rest.

The City Council, they note, approved a zoning code and a Downtown Community Plan last year that reduced density across the city and set a maximum height limit on three Downtown sites that was lower than opponents feared.

"I think the council has responded to concerns about development in a thoughtful and reasonable way," said Zane, who is co-chair of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR), the ciity's most powerful political organization.

While McKeown believes "we are entering an era of relative development peace," he says that doesn't explain why the Council race isn't the only one "that is preternaturally quiet."

"Development issues are key only to the Council race," McKeown said, adding that "the school, college and rent board contests are similarly somnolent."

The lack of interest, says slow-growth leader Armen Melkonians, is because voters feel disenfranchised and potential candidates have given up.

"People are a little frustrated maybe that their voices haven't been listened to in the past," said Melkonians, who leads Residocracy, the city's largest slow-growth group. "People are being disenfranchised."

Melkonians, who considered running for Council this year after finishing fifth in the 2016 race for four council seats, speculates that, like him, other potential candidates are awaiting a decision in a voting rights lawsuit against the City.

The Superior Court judge's ruling, expected by the end of the month, could result in replacing the current at-large elections system with districts, although the losing party is expected to appeal ("Santa Monica Voting Rights Trial Ends," September 11, 2018).

"I think there's a lot at stake" in this election, Melkonians said, "but the solution isn't clear right now. I think we need a systemic change."

Mary Marlow, who chairs Santa Monica Transparency, a local political watchdog group, agrees.

She was one of three slow-growth activists -- along with Melkonians and local Realtor Kate Bransfield -- who decided not to run after pulling nominating papers this year ("Third Slow Growth Activist Drops Potential Council Bid," August 13, 2018).

"People are waiting to see what happens on districts," Marlow said. "Do you want to go through this twice? I think there's just so much uncertainty it's coloring the races."

But Marlow also believes challengers are discouraged by the steep odds they face.

"I think term limits brought up what a tough slog it is to go against incumbents," said Marlow, who is a sponsor of Measure TL on the November ballot the would limit Council members to three terms,

Only two incumbents have lost re-election bids since 1994, and two of the current Council members were appointed to fill vacancies created when longtime Council members died in office ("Santa Monica Voters to Decide Term Limits for Council in November," July 5, 2018).

Melkonians believes next month's Council race is rendered less significant because a fourth seat on the dais could become vacant when the votes are counted on November 6 ("Vazquez Council Seat to Likely Open After November Election," August 14, 2018).

Councilmember Tony Vazquez, who is expected to win the race for State Board of Equalization in Los Angeles County's predominantly Democratic District, has said he would step down if he wins.

"They'll use the results as justification not to have another election," Melkonians said. "The candidate that loses will still get in."

That, Melkonians believes, explains why the Police and Firefighters associations and the Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) have endorsed all three incumbents, as well as challenger Greg Morena in the Council race ("Education Group Endorses Four Council Candidates for Three Seats," September 19, 2018).

A visible gauge of voter apathy is that political forums that in the past were well attended have generated little interest this year.

SMRR's convention in July drew the smallest field of hopefuls in the group's 40-year history and turnout was likely the lowest in at least a decade ("SMRR Endorses McKeown, Himmelrich, Morena for City Council," July 30, 2018).

The same was true when Northeast Neighbors held its candidates forum for challengers on September 11, Crane said.

"About fifty people showed up," Crane said. "We expected more."

Crane attributes the growing apathy to the belief that one all-encompassing politcal machine has taken over local politics.

She points to the recent endorsement of McKeown, who has traditionally run as a slow-growth candidate, by Santa Monica Forward, a pro-growth group funded largely by developers ("Santa Monica Forward Endorses Two Incumbents, Challenger," September 17, 2018).

"It's a machine," Crane said. "It's all one machine. They lock arms and decide which of their buddies are going to get checks to put them into the slot.

"We have elections and the whole thing is a done deal."

Residocracy -- which normally holds a candidates forum followed by endorsements made by the membership -- does not plan to do so this year, Melkonians said.

"I will probably put out a personal endorsement for council," he said. "But I'm still thinking about it.”


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