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Revolution by the Bay 

Coalition bids to revive activism in Santa Monica

Wednesday, Oct 21 1998
The state Legislature's move to dismantle local rent control and the rapid advance of high-end development have combined in recent years to erode Santa Monica's reputation as a "People's Republic" governed by idealists with a social agenda.

But this election season has witnessed the rise of a new leftist coalition that could again earn the city the emnity of real estate entrepreneurs and the allegiance of a broad spectrum of progressive activists.

Over the past year, the group that long dominated politics in the city, Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, has joined forces with the Green Party and Local 814 of the Hotel Workers and Restaurant Workers to form a new political front that could assume a majority on the City Council.

The coalescing of Local 814 and the Greens with SMRR to endorse a slate for the three open seats on the seven-member council comes at a critical juncture for the city. The renters' organization, formed in the late 1970s on the single issue of rent control, is graying, balding and fighting a middle-aged gut. But now SMRR has now redefined itself and broadened its appeal, taking on new issues and bringing in new blood. "There is youth and there is diversity," said Dennis Zane, a co-chairman of SMRR and former mayor of Santa Monica.

At the same time, the quickening pace of development means that decisions the City Council makes over the next two years will shape the future of Santa Monica for years to come. And so, a city once defined primarily by tenant-landlord strife is being defined in a new way, with tenants, wage workers and homeowners joining together to fight real estate speculation and its impact on quality-of-life.

Challenging SMRR on the city ballot is another new political organization - the Civic Forum - that presents itself as a moderate, rational and civilized alternative to the activist alliance group. One of the Forum's founders is Paul Rosenstein, a former SMRR member who became disillusioned by what he considers scare tactics used by the political organization to entice tenant's allegiances. "There's a certain kind of sectarianism and dogmatism that is unhealthy for our community," he said.

Rosenstein argues that the Forum's position on affordable housing (he says he wants to preserve as much as possible) and development (some, he says, but not more than the city can handle) are similar to those of SMRR. But Rosenstein scoffs at the idea that Santa Monica's future is as dire as the activist alliance believes. "I think a lot of it is demagoguery and fear-mongering and trying to frighten tenants into voting for SMRR," Rosenstein said.

While the Forum has attracted as members a range of community activists and supporters, one name stands out among the rest: Chris Harding, who is considered by many to be the most influential development attorney in Santa Monica. And two of the three candidates endorsed by the Civic Forum in earlier elections - including Santa Monica mayor Robert Holbrook - were backed by a more overtly right-leaning organization that predated the Forum.

SMRR members worry that if the council majority ends up going to members of the Forum, the council will allow excessive commercial development that replaces affordable rental housing with expensive condominiums - fostering a "Beverly Hills by the Sea" known more for high-priced housing and high-class hotels than high-end social programs.

The melding of labor, Greens and SMRR in this election is more a matter of coincidence than strategy. Some in SMRR call it fate. For years, SMRR had a loose connection to Local 814, but the groups moved closer recently as the union stepped up its activism and fought to keep its stronghold at the Miramar Sheraton Hotel, where hotel management was trying to bust the union. That battle, still ongoing, spawned a new community group called Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism, or SMART, consisting of activists, religious leaders and elected officials - many belonging to SMRR, many belonging to the new Civic Forum.

Arguing that much of Santa Monica's booming economy is based on a tourism industry carried on the backs of low-paid workers, SMART has been pressuring the Miramar, at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, to remain unionized. The group has also been working with Local 814 to organize workers at the other hotels in the city and has asked the City Council to pass a living-wage ordinance, which the council is expected to vote on next year. "We're for affordable housing in Santa Monica, we're for a diverse community in Santa Monica and we're for our members having a place to live in Santa Monica," said Kurt Peterson, one of the lead organizers of Local 814. "The more high-priced condos there are, the more our workers can't afford to live here."

While SMRR has turned its attention to how the lack of affordable housing affects wage workers, the organization has also become increasingly concerned about development. That interest made Michael Feinstein, then a well-known slow-growth community activist and co-founder of the Green Party of California, an attractive candidate for SMRR to endorse in the 1996 election.

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