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November Election Spending Broke Local Record

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By Jorge Casuso

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include additional campaign finance disclosure statements and a breakdown of spending in the record-breaking 2016 election.

February 1, 2023 -- Local campaigns for City Council and ballot measures spent some $2.7 million in the November election, making it the most expensive in Santa Monica history.

The campaigns spent an average of about $40 per registered voter and $68 for every ballot cast in the November 8 election, according to an analysis of campaign spending by The Lookout.

The previous spending record was set in 2016, when some $2.6 million was spent on a series of ballot measures and the race for four Council seats.

Most Money Was Spent on Ballot Measures

More than $1 million of the record spending in 2022 was used to sway Santa Monica's 67,392 registered voters -- of whom 39,542 cast ballots -- in the hotly contested battle to hike the City's transfer tax.

Opponents of the rival tax measures spent $503,000 in a failed bid to defeat Measure GS, sponsored by former Mayor Sue Himmelrich, and Measure GT sponsored by Councilmember Phil Brock, which was trounced.

Of the total spent, $275,000 came from the California Business Roundtable, which sued the City last month in an effort to void the tax, while the California Association of Realtors contributed $120,000, according to campaign finance statements filed wiith the City Clerk.

Almost all of the $405,490 spent to support Measure GS came from Himmelrich, who spent $50,000, and from her husband Michael Soloff, who spent a record $337,500 for an individual. Most of the money was spent to qualify the measure.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation pitched in $20,000, according to campaign finance disclosure statements through the period ending December 31.

The campaign for Measure DT and against GS spent a total of $171,364, most of it from three donors -- Ocean Avenue LLC ($49,999), Edward Thomas Companies ($49,999) and Related California ($20,000).

Edward Thomas -- which owns Casa del Mar and Shutters hotels -- also spent $33,725 on the successful campaign to elect Councilmember Lana Negrete and the same amount on the failed campaign to elect Armen Melkonians, who finished fifth.

The successful campaign to support Measure SMC, the Santa Monica College bond, spent a total of $470,469, which included reaching some 10,000 registered voters in Malibu.

While the successful campaign to pass Measure HMP -- which imposes a 10 percent business tax on every licensed cannabis business -- spent $55,066.

Local Groups Focused on Candidate Campaigns

Local political organizations focused almost all of their money on the race for three open Council seats.

Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) -- the predominant political force in the city for four decades -- spent a total of $114,539 to back Caroline Torosis and Jesse Zwick, the two top vote getters, and Ellis Raskin, who finished sixth.

Unite HERE Local 11, the hotel workers union, spent $121,742, of which $38,769 was used to support the same slate. The other two-thirds was used to oppose Negrete ($71,650) and Melkonians ($11,323).

A more recent player in local elections -- Santa Monicans for Change -- spent $75,346 backing Negrete and Melkonians.

Meanwhile, the newly formed Santa Monicans for Resident Rights spent $58,526 backing Melkonians.

The Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) spent $54,095 backing a slate of candidates that included Negrete, Torosis and Natalya Zernitskaya, as well as Measure SMC and School and College Board candidates.

Two other key players -- the Santa Monica Democratic Club and Santa Monica Forward -- spent $30,357 and $20,946 respectively backing Torosis, Zwick and Zernitskaya, who finished fourth.

The groups' backing of Zernitskaya, instead of Raskin, resulted in splitting the liberal establishment's vote, paving the way for Negrete's reelection.

Unions representing City workers were also major players, although they held on to most of their cash.

The Santa Monica Police Officers Association spent $84,854 backing Negrete, Melkonians and Albin Gielicz, and ended with a cash balance of $41,497.

The firefighters union -- which broke with police by backing Torosis instead of Gielicz -- spent $58,505, leaving a balance of $86,538.

While the Coalition for City Employees spent only $2,438, leaving a balance of $31,300.

Two other local groups -- Save Our Santa Monica and Safe Santa Monica -- spent $16,199 and $2,460 respectively. Save Our Santa Monica's spending total included a $12,000 donation to Santa Monicans for Change.

The campaigns for individual candidates spent a total of about $275,000. Torosis' campaign spent $80,245, followed by Zwick's, which spent $55,359, according to the latest statements.

Negrete's campaign had spent $61,619, Zernitskaya's campaign spent $42,244, Raskin's spent $22,685, Troy Harris' spent $18,46 and Gielicz's campaign spent $15,825.

The campaign for Melkonians had spent $15,336 in the latest filing, which covered the period though October 21.

Spending Similar to Previous 2016 Record

As with the November race, the spending in 2016 was largely driven by a controversial ballot measure, a college bond and the City Council race.

In that election, opponents of Measure LV spent $1.2 million to defeat the slow-growth initiative limiting the size of new developments ("More Than $1.2 Million Spent to Defeat Santa Monica’s LUVE Measure," February 6, 2017).

The election also saw proponents of a successful Santa Monica College (SMC) bond measure spend $523,000, while two groups that backed a successful half cent sales tax for schools and affordable housing spent $269,000.

Another $367,000 was spent by PACs and $212,000 by Council candidates ("Davis Tops Santa Monica Council Campaign Spending," February 6, 2017).

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include additional campaign finance disclosure statements and a breakdown of spending in the 2016 election.

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