With the November elections nearing, candidate alliances have been drawn and divisions within Santa Monica’s most powerful political group have members questioning party allegiances.
Santa Monicans for Renter’s Rights held their annual convention in August, divvying up candidate endorsements that offer a voter base, community recognition, and financial support.
SMRR has been a force to be recognized each election year, for more than 30 years. The group emerged during the late 1970s when development in the area surged and many low- to- mid-income and elderly tenants lost their homes. While condos replaced apartments, renters joined the successful cause to pass a rent control and just cause evictions ballot measure.
The organization holds a convention to create a platform for election-runners that ensures powerful backing and coveted weight on the ballot come November.
Anyone can join and cast their vote with a mere $25 fee, including supporters or dissenters of specific candidates. This year saw a massive increase of membership, newcomer Nimish Patel caused an upset by almost securing a majority, and past endorsees Pam O’Connor, Oscar de la Torre, and Ralph Mechur got cast to the wayside.
O’Connor, who is a renter, attributed the failed endorsement bids of incumbents to the surge in “one-time voters” – a not uncommon opinion among the divided SMRR membership. She said the situation raises some questions. Some candidates will rally supporters to cast these one-time votes that she said can “weaken the group” in order to win an endorsement.
“There are some people who don’t want any change in Santa Monica, and change is going to come,” O’Connor said.
City Council incumbent Kevin McKeown and challenger Ted Winterer gained endorsements from the influential party for council seats. Winterer’s endorsement marks a tilt towards slow growth supporters versus pro-development O’Connor.
Enter SMRR’s steering committee’s support vote – which is a process shrouded in secrecy to even group members. Under SMRR by-laws, a candidate needs 55 percent of the member vote to secure an endorsement. If the number of candidate endorsements does not match the number of vacant seats SMRR’s steering committee will give support votes to other hopefuls.
After the 240 members voted to whom the full endorsements would be given, grumblings brewed when the 13-member steering committee gave support to incumbents O’Connor for City Council, and Mechur and de la Torre both running for Santa Monica-Malibu Board of Education .The group did not give support to Patel who lost a majority win by just eight votes. He received the same 51 percent vote as O’Connor.
Patel, a business man, said the endorsement bid was a “herculean task.” He said failing to receive a support vote felt like “a punch in the stomach.” But he plans to continue to garner support from community members and leaders to carry on in the school board race.
“The SMRR Steering Committee chose to disregard the more than half of the membership who paid their dues and voted for the candidate they felt would do the best job,” SMRR member Gia Pignanelli said in an email to the Mirror. “Very hypocritical for an organization that has long called itself progressive and democratic.”
Pignanelli points out that the steering committee seats two of the candidate’s wives: Maria Loya, wife of de la Torre, and Genise Schnitman, wife of McKeown. De la Torre also has further pull on the committee with Ana Jara, board member for the Pico Youth and Family Center where he is executive director.
After a surprising letdown for an endorsement bid, the committee offered de la Torre a not-so-surprising support vote. De la Torre could not be reached for comment at time of print.
Additional complaints of the committee cite that nearly half of the committee – six of the 13 members – are homeowners.
Despite these misgivings, it is important to remember that SMRR is a private organization that is free to spend its resources however the committee decides. The members elect the committee to represent their values.
Patel attributed the lack of transparency for the committee as a source of frustration for members and candidates alike.
“The number one question I always get is why is SMRR involved with the School board race in the first place?” Patel said. “You look at the SMRR platform–there isn’t anything I don’t agree with…it’s the political process that they go about is where I feel disenchanted.”