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Santa Monica Strategy : Coalition Won When It Went to the Renters

November 09, 1986|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

On election morning, as American flags were being unfurled in front of polling places throughout Santa Monica, a small army of people in "Support Renters' Rights" T-shirts were dispatched to several dozen precincts.

The troops manned their posts throughout the day. And by nightfall they had delivered their message to thousands of apartment dwellers participating in the City Council elections: A solid vote for Mayor Christine E. Reed and Councilmen David G. Epstein and William H. Jennings was a solid vote for rent control.

In the aftermath of a very tight race in which All Santa Monica Coalition loyalists Reed and Jennings apparently retained their council seats, campaign manager Colleen Harmon said the ambitious renter outreach was probably the biggest plus factor. "We had a deliberate strategy to

Stinging Blow

The final voting results have not been confirmed, but if voting trends show that the coalition won because of the support of tenants it could be a stinging blow to Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the liberal political organization that once dominated City Hall on the basis of a solid foundation of renter support. The tenant activists, who created the city's rigid rent control law, said they tried to convince voters that their opponents were running a deceitful campaign. But in an election in which the front-runners were separated by just a few hundred votes, the argument apparently did not carry enough weight. And Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights spent the final days of the campaign on the defensive.

"The tenant vote didn't come through in the way we wanted it to," said Thom Poffenberger, the group's campaign manager. "Our opponents stole our slogan and our name. And that may have had an impact on . . . tenant votes."

The coalition was aided by a big financial edge. Harmon said that the group spent about $300,000, with much of the money going for mailings. Poffenberger said that tenant activists put about $120,000 into the campaign. The coalition may have also benefitted from a low voter turnout. Roughly 5,000 more people showed up at the polls for the 1984 council race, according to watchers who followed both campaigns.

1 Successful Activist

Rent Control Board Commissioner David Finkel was the only successful tenant activist candidate in the council election. If the race is not altered by absentee ballots, the City Council will be evenly divided, with three members from Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and three from the All Santa Monica Coalition. Councilman Alan Katz, an independent, holds the seventh council seat.

Fewer than 1,200 votes separated the six candidates in the election. Reed was the front-runner with 15,904, followed by Jennings, Finkel, Dolores Press, Epstein, and Julie Lopez Dad.

Councilman Katz ran in a separate race for a special two-year term. He handily defeated neighborhood activist Zora Margolis, 19,624 to 4,632. As the council's only independent, Katz will be able to determine the direction of city politics for the next two years if the election results are confirmed.

"It won't change the way I approach issues, but I'm sure it will focus more attention on what I do," Katz said. "I don't think the differences between the two factions are as great as they think. But we'll see how it unfolds."

The campaigns of both the All Santa Monica Coalition and Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights were conducted largely by mail. Candidates and supporters from both groups canvassed extensively, and in the final weeks before the election, the two organizations flooded Santa Monica voters with campaign literature.

Money From Developers

In one mailer, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights lambasted Reed, Jennings and Epstein for accepting thousands of dollars from "greedy" developers. The tenant slate subsequently publicized the fact that landlords had also contributed to the coalition.

The coalition hammered home its pro-rent-control theme. In one mailer with an official-looking "City of Santa Monica" letterhead, Reed, Jennings and Epstein stated that they were the "team you can trust to protect and defend your renter's rights." The tenant slate countered with a mailer that gave Reed, Jennings and Epstein a failing grade for their work on rent control.

But the coalition continued to cling to the rent control banner. Reed, Jennings and Epstein also portrayed themselves as the team for Democrats in the nonpartisan election. One controversial coalition mailer stated that Reed, Jennings and Epstein were on the same "team" as Sen. Alan Cranston, Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica). Hayden, who was working against the council incumbents, was infuriated by the mailer. And the four officials signed a letter charging that Reed, Jennings and Epstein had "falsely implied" that their reelection bid was endorsed.

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