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New Leaf : Santa Monica Sheds Radical Image as Factions Learn to Compromise

September 27, 1987|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

Cities have a way of attracting nicknames that stick. Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love. New Orleans is the Big Easy. New York is the Big Apple. And Santa Monica is the People's Republic. Or is it?

Anyone who has spent much time around Santa Monica City Hall recently may have noticed a distinct shift in the political winds. The city that gained a reputation for radicalism nearly a decade ago for its rigid rent control law and its monumental political battles has become a fairly conventional place.

The acrimony that had enveloped Santa Monica like a thick fog is gone. So are the clear lines of demarcation between the city's rival political factions--the liberal Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights and the moderate All Santa Monica Coalition. Members of the two groups rarely stray into controversial territory these days and frequently cross factional lines on major issues.

The city still travels down some progressive paths when it comes to housing and economic development. But most people agree that the wild and woolly days that gave rise to the city's reputation as a left-wing political haven are over.

Avoiding Bitterness

"I guess we have all been on the council long enough to understand what the job is, and we are all dedicated to doing it well," said Mayor James P. Conn. "There's an effort on our part to add humor and avoid bitterness."

Many people credit Conn with helping to break down the old barriers between the two factions. Last week, the mayor split with his two allies from Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights on the City Council and joined the All Santa Monica Coalition in supporting a hotly contested development agreement for Colorado Place.

The action clearly piqued those who opposed the project. But it also showed that members of the two organizations can come together on important issues. Alan Katz, the only independent on the seven-member council, said his colleagues have realized that compromise is more productive than combat.

"I think that there is a sincere desire to work together as one City Council," Katz said. "I'm not saying that we have a lot of lifetime friendships forming here. . . . But there is a collegial attitude."

William H. Jennings is the only council member who has belonged to both groups. He said that the two factions have gradually drawn closer to one another and abandoned the view that they have to be at odds to be effective.

"There's a need to dig back when someone takes a dig at you first," Jennings said. "And the people on the council now just don't do that."

The voters also played a part in changing the council's posture. The two factions came out of last year's election with an equal number of seats for the first time in their histories. Conn, Dennis Zane and David Finkel represent Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights. Jennings, Herb Katz and Christine E. Reed are the coalition's representatives.

The lack of control has forced each group to do more consensus-building. But it has also robbed them of their identity and sense of purpose, many observers say.

In their places have emerged fringe groups that are critical of both camps. To the right are the landlords and conservative businessmen who say the All Santa Monica Coalition has abandoned them in favor of the city's renters.

Nonexistent Coalition?

"There has been some mellowing," said Stan Robbins, a Santa Monica businessman. "The general consensus is that the coalition no longer exists."

To the left are the members of the city's emerging slow-growth movement who say that Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights has dropped the ball on development.

"There is a great deal of dissatisfaction among the SMRR (Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights) membership at their inability to take an active role in the major development issues that are facing the city," said John W. Belsher, the president of Santa Monicans for Reasonable Growth. "What you are getting is an emergence of slow-growth advocates who are outside of SMRR."

Zane, the point man on rent control and other issues for Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, disagreed. The councilman said that the tenant group remains dedicated to its liberal social and political agenda.

Zane noted that Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights engineered a recent council motion opposing the nomination of Robert H. Bork to the U. S. Supreme Court. Zane, Conn and Finkel also were arrested recently while protesting at the Nevada nuclear test site. The group has voted in favor of providing a high level of social services for the homeless who have become so visible in Santa Monica.

Converting the Opposition

The major difference now, Zane said, is that their political foes have accepted their ideas and joined forces on SMRR-initiated projects such as the restoration of the Santa Monica Pier, the revitalization of the Third Street Mall, the development of Santa Monica Airport and the land-use plan.

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