When Jack Rubens moved to Santa Monica three years ago he was fairly typical of the city's new breed of residents--young, upwardly mobile and only mildly interested in the power struggle involving the political factions known as the All Santa Monica Coalition and Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights.
It took a long campaign against plans to build a car dealership in his neighborhood to persuade a politically awakened Rubens to align himself with an organization that would fight for his interests.
The 27-year-old attorney said he chose Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights because the liberal tenant activist organization was more attuned to the needs of residents. He attended the group's first convention in Santa Monica this week and was told that tenant activists, who suffered a string of setbacks in recent years, intend to regain control of City Hall in 1986.
"They're taking steps to get involved in a variety of issues in Santa Monica and I think that's great," said Rubens, a tenant. "I think this is the group that stands for reasonable growth in Santa Monica."
The politicization of people like Jack Rubens is good news for the tenant movement, which first stormed to power on the heels of a pro-rent-control campaign six years ago. With an ambitious membership and fund-raising drive under way, new members like Rubens are considered vital to the organization's future. Councilman Dennis Zane of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights said the convention showed that people want to get involved.
"I thought the meeting reflected that we're stronger as a body than we've ever been," Zane said. "We're certainly stronger than when we passed the rent control law. The leadership has developed and matured and the community has become more involved. . . . There are a lot of new faces."
Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights has been around since 1978, when senior citizens and young activists affiliated with several political groups came together to oppose rising rents and unchecked development. It successfully campaigned for one of the nation's toughest rent control laws in 1979 and shocked the city's old guard by taking control of the City Council in 1981.
Its political clout started to sour in 1983 when the newly formed All Santa Monica Coalition defeated the tenant group's leader, then-Mayor Ruth Yannatta Goldway. Tenant activists now hold two of the seven council seats, half of what they had just a year ago. One seat was lost last November, when council member Dolores Press failed to qualify for the ballot. Another was lost in August, when Councilman Ken Edwards died of cancer complications.
The five majority seats belong to the All Santa Monica Coalition, a politically moderate organization that officially backs rent control, even though much of its support comes from apartment owners. Under the city's staggered election system, four of the coalition representatives face reelection next year.
Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights is hoping to win at least two of the four seats. It became a general membership organization in April, and Zane said the group has recruited about 1,800 members so far.
At Sunday's convention, the organization's leaders told about 300 supporters that the coming year is critical to the group's survival. Former council member Press called the meeting a "history-making event." Councilman James Conn said the membership response has been "phenomenal" and said the organization is just begging to gear up.
"The future of the city is at stake," Conn told the spirited group. "I hope we'll be able to work together at making the future ours."
Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) predicted that the organization will grow stronger. Hayden, whose Campaign for Economic Democracy helps fund tenant activities, said rent control remains a "cornerstone" issue.
Noting that the Legislature will reconsider a bill aimed at weakening rent control next year, Hayden said Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights must emphasize its longstanding commitment to affordable housing. At the same time, Hayden said it should not be pigeonholed as a one-issue organization.
"The struggle is not only for who has how many seats on the City Council," he said. "The struggle is for who has a vision for Santa Monica."
The keynote address was given by San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt, a gay activist and rent control supporter. Britt told the group that it has to bring "the spirit of the tenant movement" to the political arena. He likened the organization to an extended family of activists.
"The greatest challenge you face is to work on your family . . . to work on your relationship internally," Britt said, "so that when the system becomes yours, it becomes better."
The convention, which lasted more than four hours, featured several other speakers, including former Mayor Goldway, who delivered a fund-raising plea as convention members sat quietly on folding chairs.