City Councilmen Herb Katz and James Conn have emerged as the clear front-runners in the final stretch of Santa Monica's mayoral derby.
Their path was partially cleared last week when Councilman William H. Jennings stepped aside, saying he will support Katz when the council selects a new mayor on Tuesday.
"Herb will make a fine mayor," Jennings said. "He's uncontroversial."
The mayor's job usually goes to the leader of one of the city's two political factions, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights or the All Santa Monica Coalition. This year, neither group has the votes to appoint a mayor because the rival camps came out of the Nov. 4 election with an equal number of seats.
Jennings would have been handed the two-year mayoral term if the coalition had retained the council majority, and Councilman Dennis Zane would have landed the job if Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights had established control. But neither qualifies as compromise candidates in the eyes of their colleagues.
Katz and Conn are generally seen as open-minded and more congenial.
"The problem is that SMRR (Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights) rejects the idea of me being mayor, and my side rejects the idea of Denny (Zane) being mayor," Jennings said. "The only two people who have not been categorically rejected are Katz and Conn. And I hope that this will be resolved before the meeting."
Zane was out of town and could not be reached for comment, but other council members said they do not expect him to oppose a compromise. The question is whether the two sides can agree on the best leader for the city.
Katz is affiliated with the All Santa Monica Coalition and Conn is a member of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights. Both face reelection in 1988, and the one chosen as mayor would have a leg up on his opposition in the race. However, both factions have conceded that, two years from now, it could be awkward for either of them to oppose a compromise candidate whom the entire council had chosen as mayor in 1986.
These complications could force Councilman Alan Katz, who is not related to Herb Katz and is the council's only independent, to cast the deciding vote for mayor. But he has threatened to withhold his vote in the event of a deadlock, saying he does not want to be used as the rope in a tug of war.
"I think it's very important for the city to have a City Council that reaches a consensus, as opposed to a council that digs into their factionalism and then counts on me to break the tie," Katz said.
"If this were a substantive issue . . . I would express my opinion (but) we are talking about who picks up the gavel to start every meeting."
Representatives of the two factions held an informal City Hall meeting Wednesday to discuss the mayor's job. The coalition delegation consisted of Jennings and outgoing Mayor Christine E. Reed; Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights sent Conn and David Finkel, who was elected to the council last month but will not be seated until Tuesday. The get-together was described as amicable and other meetings are planned, but the two organizations are far from an agreement.
"We're still talking," Reed said. "My understanding is that the question has to be resolved (before the meeting on Tuesday). But it is too early to say what will happen."
"There have been no commitments made by anybody to anything," said Finkel. "But we have agreed that we have to try to make our decision based on the understanding that neither side has political dominance."
Herb Katz and Conn are not saying much of anything. Both have expressed a willingness to take the mayor's job, but neither seems very excited about it.
Conn said he would accept the mayor's post if it reduced political friction in the city, and said he would also try to discuss the choice with Herb Katz before Tuesday's vote. Conn addded that he doubts that Alan Katz could avoid choosing the mayor if the two sides fail to reach an agreement.
"Alan has basically told us that he is willing to sit there and abstain if we can't come to a conclusion," Conn said. "And that's unfortunate, because he is one of seven council members. He's a player. And he's got to play."
Herb Katz also said he favors a compromise. However, he said the issue should be discussed in public so Santa Monica residents can learn where the council members stand on the choice of mayor, even if it leads to an angry standoff between the two organizations.
Alan Katz said he remains hopeful that an agreement will be reached before Tuesday. "We'll see what happens Tuesday night," he said. "But I am serious that the vote will go through several ballots before I break the tie."