It appears that the personalities of the two candidates for Municipal Court judge in Santa Monica will play the largest role in the outcome of the November election, rather than local issues such as rent control and homelessness.
The race has settled into a typical, low-key judicial race after a brief flurry of activity in late August, when Santa Monica Community College Trustee James M. Bambrick accused Santa Monica City Councilman David B. Finkel of being the "handpicked" candidate of controversial Santa Monica City Atty. Robert M. Myers.
"I think it will come down to how people perceive us," said Bambrick, 50, a civil litigator.
"There is more name identity now that the field has narrowed to two candidates," said Finkel, 58, a labor and civil lawyer.
In the June primary election, Bambrick pulled a slight upset by being the top vote-getter, capturing 5,590 votes, or 30.2% of the total vote. Finkel, who was considered the front-runner because of his high name recognition, followed with 5,077 votes, or 27.4%. Both attributed their success to their longtime community activity.
West Los Angeles Court Commissioner Norman Perry Tarle was third and tenant attorney Sonya Bekoff Molho finished fourth. Neither Tarle nor Molho have publicly endorsed either candidate and are not expected to do so.
Finkel and Bambrick were forced into a runoff because neither received more than 50% of the vote in the primary. They are attempting to succeed retiring Judge Joseph P. Chandler, who is stepping down after 20 years on the bench. Municipal Court judges serve six-year terms at an annual salary of $86,157, and deal with misdemeanor criminal matters with maximum penalties of a year or less in jail, and civil matters involving less than $25,000.
During the primary campaign, all the candidates were reluctant to say anything, negative or positive, about their opponents.
But after the primary election Bambrick sent out a mailer in which he described Finkel as "handpicked and strongly backed by City Atty. Robert Myers to be his candidate."
Bambrick insists that Myers told him that he wanted Finkel for the job because Finkel was older and needed a job. Myers and Finkel vehemently deny the allegation.
Finkel has refused to get into an argument over the matter, and at a debate between the two candidates sponsored by the Santa Monica Bar Assn. last month, he even joked about it.
"Everyone knows I'm the city attorney's lieutenant," Finkel responded sarcastically in response to a question.
Myers is the target of a ballot measure because of his long ties to the city's tough rent control law and reluctance to prosecute some misdemeanor crimes committed by a growing homeless population.
Both candidates seem to agree that there is a need to clear up a backlog of cases at the courthouse, and both promise to be fair in determining punishment.
Because of his long ties to Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the powerful tenants political group whose members make up a majority on the City Council, Finkel has had to reiterate his intent to be evenhanded in landlord-tenant disputes.
Bambrick has tried to separate himself from Finkel by portraying himself as a more experienced trial lawyer who is not obligated to any person of organization.
"I am a trial lawyer," Bambrick said in a recent interview. "I don't write contracts, I don't do probate. I have more background in criminal law. David has a very defined image as someone who is very allied with a particular philosophy or group. I've always felt that I was independent."
Finkel has chosen to simply state his qualifications.
"It is not my nature and not my desire to tell people how I am better than someone else, but rather simply to tell people what is good about me and let the people decide who they want to vote for," he said.
Finkel said his 30 years as a lawyer is more than enough experience to serve on the bench, and he does not shy away from his association with SMRR or social causes.
"I am a civil liberties lawyer, and I am proud of it," he said in an interview. "I have this thing about the Constitution. I don't believe that is a detriment."
An unusually long city ballot has forced two separate ballots to be issued in Santa Monica. The Municipal Court judge race is on the county ballot along with statewide and county issues, while nine city ballot measures, three City Council seats and four Rent Control Board seats are on the city ballot.
CANDIDATES FOR THE BENCH David B. Finkel has lived in Santa Monica since 1963. He is 58, married and the father of four children, ages 24 to 32. He was appointed to the city's Rent Control Board in 1981, and elected to a full four-year term in 1983. In 1986 he was elected to the City Council, and serves as mayor pro tem. He has been an attorney for 30 years, mostly as a labor and civil litigator in private practice.
James M. Bambrick has lived in Santa Monica since the age of 2 and graduated from St. Monica's High School. He is 50, married and the father of four children, ages 14 to 24. He is in his third term as a trustee of Santa Monica College, and served as a member of Board of Education of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District from 1979 to 1983. He is managing partner of the firm Richardson & Bambrick.