Dennis Zane was elected to the Santa Monica City Council in April 1981, re-elected in 1984 and 1988, and served as mayor from November 1988 to November 1990. This is the third in the Mirror’s series on former mayors.
In 1981, Santa Monica politics experienced a shake-up when the traditionally quiet, small-town City Council acquired four new members representing a pro-renter party. One of these new members was Dennis Zane.
“I think Santa Monica, up until the Rent Control Movement, had a very conservative local government,” says Zane. “It was largely built on the premise that the renters, by and large, didn’t vote. The homeowner community, and a conservative pro-development, pro-landlord majority was on the City Council.”
But renters did vote, and the Santa Monica for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) candidates rode in on a wave of “renter power.” For the next few years, Dennis Zane typified, for many, the image of the SMRR Council members being strongly associated with renter’s rights and liberal views.
Zane had been teaching math and American History at several alternative schools when he became involved with the rent control movement in Santa Monica. He worked on the campaign that led to the passing of the Rent Control law in 1979 and helped to found the SMRR party. He had entered an urban planning graduate program at UCLA but after being elected, he found that in terms of time, he would have to choose between his studies and local politics, and the latter won out.
“In ’81 we began the period of the [SMRR] majority,” Zane notes. “We’ve had a majority for 18 out of 25 years. We lost the majority from ’84 to ’88 and that’s when the big hotels and developments were approved, over our objections. Partly on account of that, we regained the majority in ’88, and that’s when I became mayor.”
Of the projects approved during the ‘80s he says: “[There were] several very large office projects and maybe three or four hotel proposals. Office projects like the Water Garden and the Arboretum were over a million square feet each. The EIR showed that they were big traffic generators, [but] that was not very good in terms of local jobs or local revenue.” Hotel projects, on the other hand, created jobs for the local population.
While other Council members, including his SMRR colleagues, often voted for office projects, Zane voted his conscience rather than always siding with the SMRR viewpoint. “I voted against the office projects because they had big traffic and little benefit. I voted for some of the hotels but against others.” He recalls that he was initially the one Councilmember to vote against the hotel proposed for the 415 PCH site (which was then the private Sand and Sea Club). On a second vote, other Council members joined him. Eventually, public opposition grew and when the project was proposed as a ballot initiative (Proposition S) in 1989, it was voted down.
During the 1980’s, Zane also led an effort to revitalize the old Third Street outdoor mall, resulting in the creation of the Third Street Promenade. As mayor in 1989, he got to cut the ribbon at the Promenade’s dedication. He considers the Promenade to be one of the significant contributions from his term of office, despite what some see as the area’s degeneration into a collection of big chain stores.
Attorney Chris Harding was one of Zane’s, and SMRR’s, frequent opponents on City issues. But Harding recalls that when he was appointed to the Chamber of Commerce in June 1990, and was available to serve on the City’s Commission for revising the City charter, he talked to Zane. “I was available to serve…but I did not want to be in a partisan role. I wanted to be appointed by the Mayor in a non-political way. So he did it. I’m sure he received some flak for that, but he showed some courage by being willing to do that.”
Former School Board member and mayoral candidate Patricia Hoffman says of Zane, “He [was] highly effective as mayor. He really understands both strategy and tactics in achieving his aims. Denny’s been around for so long and has worked on so many things that even people who oppose him politically have some positive things to say.”
Abby Arnold, another former SMRR candidate for City Council, says, “Denny was a real policy wonk. He built a strong connection between Santa Monica and progressive cities throughout California…He was passionate about finding what we now call ‘best practices’ and adapting them for Santa Monica.”
Dennis Zane has kept busy since his stint as mayor. After leaving office, he became Director of the Coalition for Clean Air, and “built up a lot of understanding and political relationships around the region.” He later was retained by the city of El Segundo and worked for almost eight years on their campaign to stop expansion of the Los Angeles World Airport, eventually influencing Los Angeles Mayors Hahn and Villaraigosa to adopt a “truly regional policy” on airport expansion. Most recently, Zane worked as a consultant for Julia Brownley’s campaign for State Assembly and worked toward the implementation of Fran Pavley’s greenhouse gas reduction program. He continues to serve as co-chair of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights.
And, if Denny Zane were mayor today?
“I would be working to sustain and even expand the City’s commitment to the schools, addressing the pressures of the rental housing market and completing the light rail line to Santa Monica.”