They cheered. They booed. They argued. And when it was over, Santa Monica's principal political organization emerged from a 5-hour convention with four candidates for what promises to be a hotly contested City Council election this fall.
In a ritual that in many ways signals the opening of the local campaign season, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights placed its chosen four on a growing list of people interested in filling four available seats on the 7-member council.
Confident of a victory that would allow them to retake the majority on the council, members of the liberal Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights managed to subordinate internal differences and find what Mayor James Conn called a "common ground, a common vision."
The key issues, predictably, were slow growth and rent control; some candidates urged tougher positions on both.
And though the rhetoric waxed leftist, the vote, in the end, seemed to be a vote for pragmatism. Moderate candidates outpolled those often seen as representative of a more radical faction of the organization.
The selection of candidates "shows SMRR is evolving into a more open organization, one willing to build bridges," said Councilman Alan Katz, an independent who is not running for reelection.
More than 350 people crowded into the auditorium at the McKinley School on Santa Monica Boulevard for Sunday's convention.
Vote for Four
On a first ballot, with 351 votes cast, incumbent Dennis Zane came in first with 285 votes, followed by longtime community activists Judy Abdo with 225 votes and Paul Rosenstein with 223. Participants could vote for up to four people.
Three other candidates were forced into a runoff on a second ballot. Ken Genser, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights co-chairman, finally emerged victorious over Rent Control Board Chairwoman Susan Packer Davis and Laurel Roennau, an urban planner who sponsored a slow-growth initiative this year that was eventually disqualified.
Some observers suggested that the candidates who won were familiar faces with long track records involving many of the city's issues, candidates who were perceived as being flexible and capable of working with opposition forces.
"The question was whether to turn hard left on development, or soft left on development," Zane said later. "The convention clearly showed that (members) are behind slow-growth measures and want to take a hard stand, but with a less divisive rhetoric. What was endorsed was the style of the people running."
Commit to Tough Positions
But Zane also praised the aspiring candidates who lost, saying they had "enunciated the issues" and had forced the organization as a whole to commit itself to tougher positions on development and other matters.
Zane is being promoted by Santa Monica for Renters' Rights as the next mayor of Santa Monica.
In opening remarks, Conn urged the organization to overcome differences and find common ground that would enable the group to lead the city in a "new direction."
Otherwise, Conn said, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights would become mired in the same "lefter-than-thou politics" that he said undermined other progressive causes, such as the civil rights movement.
Conn, whose recent votes in favor of several large development projects have drawn sharp criticism from many organization members, is not running for reelection.
In addition to Zane, the only incumbent running this year is Herb Katz of the more moderate All Santa Monica Coalition. That leaves two seats wide open, a fact that has apparently inspired an unusually high number of people to show interest in the race; by mid-day Wednesday, 19 people had taken out papers.
Technically, the All Santa Monica Coalition was disbanded, and Herb Katz said that, so far, he is running on his own. He acknowledged, however, that he is seeking the support of many of the same people involved in past coalition campaigns.
At the Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights convention, all of the aspiring candidates focused on development as an area where strict controls are urgently needed.
"To the developers who've had a field day, we should say, 'The party's over, no more back-room deals and deals over lunch,' " Davis told cheering members of the convention. She and Roennau linked their ultimately unsuccessful campaigns and filled the auditorium with yellow balloons with their names on them.
Both Abdo and Rosenstein appeared to have had exceptionally good organization and helped sign up scores of new members before the convention.
"People who were focused on a single issue didn't make it," Abdo said in explaining the voting results. "The SMRR membership is interested in more than just development, more than just rent control. They are interested in a whole progressive agenda, (in making) a city for all kinds of people."
One issue that seemed to divide the convention almost evenly was whether to run three or four candidates.