On a hot but breezy day at John Adams Middle School, members of Santa Monicans for Renter’s Rights (SMRR) met outdoors under a canopy on Sunday to consider endorsements for City Council, School Board, Santa Monica College Board, Rent Control Board, State Assembly, County Supervisor, and a host of local ballot initiatives.

With a sparser than usual crowd for a SMRR Convention, Co-Chair Denny Zane opened ceremonies with remarks reminding attendees of SMRR’s importance in the city. “We have a strong base, among the voters of Santa Monica, who know what we stand for, trust what we stand for; we have always stood strong for Renter’s Rights,” said Zane. His Co-Chair, Michael Soloff, also weighed in, saying, “This organization is not just about who’s going to control this, that, or the other thing. This organization has a platform; this organization has values. At the center of those values is protecting renters so they can stay and live their lives and be a productive part of the city,” he said. Adding, “And, that there be affordable housing so that other people can join us in our community. And we not become an economic gated community.”

I talked to Craig Walter, who these days identifies as Craig Ali, a man I’ve seen at SMRR conventions since my first in 1998, about what he thinks has changed over the years, and what’s going on now. Said Ali, “I think the city has become much more conflicted. I think the influence of money, and I guess you could say, ‘special interests,’ has had a much larger effect on all of us.” When I pressed him on whether SMRR was a wall against such special interest influence, Ali said, “I don’t think it is now as much as when I first joined. I mean, when I first came through here, you couldn’t get a position without a SMRR endorsement,” he said. Ali says the big money has changed that despite SMRR’s efforts. But he still thinks SMRR is in the mainstream, stating, “SMRR’s going the way the nation is going. The alternative to what’s being said is out-and-out fascist.”

First up for SMRR was the candidates for the Board of Education of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. Among those seeking the SMRR endorsement, Malibu resident Stacy Rouse spoke first. She talked about her own children’s enrollment in SMMUSD schools and the value of high-quality education. In a bid to connect the divides that separate Malibu and Santa Monica in their shared district, Rouse said, “Us misunderstanding each other costs us money and costs us good decisions.” She talked up her Master’s Degree in conflict resolution as further proof that she could help bridge the divide.

Alicia Mignano was next, an immigrant parent who was an English-language learner in her schooling years. I asked Mignano, a supporter of SMMUSD schools, teachers, and students, what another slate of candidates was so angry about. She said, “You would have to ask them. I know what I’m interested in seeing in our schools and why I’m running; I have reached out to many people and shared what my platform is, and I would love to have support from anyone who is interested in serving our community.” Mignano talked about her education in Portland, Oregon, and how much it strengthened her commitment to public schools.

“My name is Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, and I am a renter in Santa Monica,” stated the two-term incumbent seeking a third and final term. The former SMRR Co-Chair, who is beloved by the SMRR faithful, spoke of his work closing the achievement and opportunity gap and how “He/She/They can do well and achieve their dreams.” He lauded the benefits of the District promoting project-based and 21st-century learning as a way to not only benefit students but find where their proficiencies lie.

I asked incumbent Laure Lieberman, also seeking re-election, what has changed about education in Santa Monica-Malibu. She said, “The political environment is toxic compared to the first time I ran in 2010. I ran against, I think five other people, maybe more, but we would go to forums, and we got to know each other. It was friendly. We all really cared about the same thing.” She added, “When did that start to change, and what’s changed all that? I personally think it was backlash against Obama, followed by Donald Trump, who took all the filters off everyone. And then, COVID, which has made a lot of people angry and just looking to lash out at somebody.”

The city council candidates were next. Appointed Councilmember Lana Negrete, who was born in the city in 1979 to two immigrant parents, talked about her commitment to new ideas and small business. “First and foremost, I am a long-time renter,” she said. “I live in a rent-controlled unit today. So, without any doubts, I am a supporter of rent control and rent-controlled units. My father is currently aging in the rent-controlled unit I was born and raised in.” Negrete has been active in PTA and runs her family’s small business, the Santa Monica Music Center, which her father founded. “I’m asking you, to open your hearts and your minds to include someone like myself,” she said in her self-advocacy. She stopped short, however, of saying her time on the city council was a stepping stone, committing to serving solely on the council.

Planning Commissioner and environmental attorney Ellis Raskin was brief in his remarks, declaring himself a fighter for renters and the working class. “I’m here because we’ve never had greater income inequality in Santa Monica,” said Raskin. “I’m out there fighting on the front lines for renter’s rights; I’m out there fighting on the front lines for worker’s rights,” he added. He had SMRR Co-Chair Zane add to his limited time, and Zane praised Raskin for getting the city’s Housing Element into legal compliance with the state after several setbacks.

“My name is Caroline Torosis, I’m currently serving all of you in my second term on the Santa Monica Rent Control Board,” announced council candidate Torosis. She surprised most by stating she was the first in her family to vote in a United States election. Her day job is as Senior Policy Deputy to County Supervisor, and current Chair, Holly Mitchell. Torosis spoke of her commitment to economic and tourism recovery, and how the city needs to cut red tape and add public safety enhancements to ensure an economic comeback. She definitely had a lot of support among the crowd.

Policy Advisor Jesse Zwick also vied for support, stating, “Today, landlord interests again threaten to make Santa Monica unaffordable and unrecognizable. And we must nominate new leaders who are willing and able to take up that fight.” Zwick talked about his political origins being sparked by a desire to fight homelessness, when he began volunteering for a local organization helping connect constituents with services and housing. He added, “There is a fundamental divide in our city right now, between those that want it to be an affordable, vibrant metropolis, and those who seek to turn it into a country club.”

Candidate Natalya Zernitskaya, a former President of the League of Women Voters of Santa Monica, spoke of her immigrant roots as a child of Belarus who arrived in the United States at six years old. She and her family had very little, but she worked her way through school and now works in finance because of the programs afforded her. Zernistkaya is committed to affordable housing development and opportunities for diverse Santa Monicans to thrive.

Then SMRR introduced candidates for Rent Control Board and Santa Monica College Board of Trustees. They were endorsed by acclimation. The endorsed include on the Rent Control Board side, incumbent appointee Erika Lesley, recent vacancy appointee Kurt Gonska, and attorney Danny Ivanov. With only these candidates vying for seats, they are all sure to be elected.

The SMRR faithful also endorsed by acclimation four candidates for the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees. They are, returning incumbents Nancy Greenstein, Shy Roy, and Barry Snell. Adding his name to the slate is long-time professor and political representative Tom Peters.

One impressive political force present for the endorsement activities was the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, Unite Here Local 11. I asked spokesperson Danielle Wilson why relationships on the city council of a modest-sized city like Santa Monica were so important to the union. She said, “Hotel workers are the backbone of most city’s economies,” she said. Adding, “Santa Monica is a city that’s figured out over the last 30 years that if you center the needs of the workers in your city, and ensure that they’re able to live in your city and access the best public schools, you’re able to protect your diversity. You’re able to have a sustainable economy. It’s a place where the decisions that impact people’s lives – what gets built around them, whether they’re able to stay in the city and send their kids to schools – where those issues have become prioritized.”

SMRR members still had to contend votes for School Board and City Council, however. In the end, incumbents Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein and Laurie Lieberman were endorsed for SMMUSD Board, joined by Alicia Mignano. Stacy Rouse was given an additional ballot but did not qualify for endorsement.

On the City Council side, Caroline Torosis and Ellis Raskin each received 55 percent or better on the first ballot to be endorsed. After two additional ballots between Natalya Zernitskaya and Jesse Zwick, only Zwick secured the SMRR endorsement for the third council slot. Appointed incumbent Lana Negrete failed to capture enough SMRR enthusiasm for endorsement.

Also on hand were 3rd Supervisorial District candidate Lindsey Horvath, a West Hollywood Councilmember and former mayor, and 51st Assembly District Candidate Rick Zbur. Both gave remarks supportive of renters and affordable housing, and both were endorsed in their races.

The SMRR membership also provided endorsements of local Measure GS, a real-estate transfer tax that would raise millions of dollars for affordable housing and homeless services development. It opposed a competing transfer tax measure which seems lost in the woods by taxing much less for much less revenue for who knows what. And voted to support a local Santa Monica College Bond measure that would in part secure far more affordable housing for SMC students.

Disclosure: The author of this article served on the Santa Monica Rent Control Board from 2010-2018, and was endorsed by SMRR in both 2010 and 2014. 

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