By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In their drive to forestall a living wage, Santa Monica‘s hotels -- initially, Shutters and Casa Del Mar, which are under the same management -- began by hiring the lobbying and law firm of Nielsen, Merksamer, long a powerhouse in state Republican politics. Steve Merksamer was chief of staff to Governor George Deukmejian, who entrusted him with his pet project: unseating California Supreme Court justices Rose Bird, Joe Grodin and Cruz Reynoso in the 1986 election. Nielsen, Merksamer’s clients include Philip Morris, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers Association. The firm of Latham & Watkins, which had worked unsuccessfully to defeat L.A.‘s living-wage ordinance, has also played a role. Last month, L&W attorneys showed up at a Santa Monica City Council meeting to argue that council members could not legally discuss KK during the meeting. This was a novel and creative argument, but since Assembly members and state senators routinely discuss proposed state initiatives on the floor of the Legislature, the council ignored it.
After looking at their polling, the hotels determined that the only way to beat the living wage in Santa Monica was to pretend that they supported it. They hired San Francisco consultant Mark Mosher, who came fresh from his victory in forestalling San Francisco (where living expenses have gone through the roof) from raising its living wage to $11 per hour. Mosher, in turn, hired a petition-gathering operation, which, KK opponents claim, paid its workers up to $20 per signature to qualify the measure for the November ballot. KK’s opponents nearly succeeded in disqualifying the measure when hundreds of voters called the city clerk demanding their signatures be removed, after they‘d learned the proposition’s real substance.
For the election proper, though, the hotels needed a real specialist in misdirection -- in J. Edgar Hoover‘s happy phrase, a master of deceit. Fortunately, the Dolphin Group was just down the road, in Westwood.
The Dolphin Group had worked with Nielsen, Merksamer on the Dump Bird campaign, but that was just one of its greatest hits. It labored on Gerald Ford’s presidential and Ronald Reagan‘s and Deukmejian’s gubernatorial campaigns. More notably, it was the Dolphins who produced the notorious Willie Horton ads, exploiting racial fears that helped sink the 1988 presidential bid of Michael Dukakis. Over the past few years, the Group coordinated the establishment of an employer-dominated farm-worker union to combat the United Farm Workers‘ campaign to organize strawberry workers. (The Dolphin Group did not return the Weekly’s phone calls seeking comment on its campaigns.)
Most important, in 1994 the Group ran the unsuccessful campaign for Proposition 188 -- an initiative, funded entirely by the nation‘s five major tobacco companies, that sought to pre-empt state and local restrictions on smoking in public with far weaker language. The Dolphins marketed 188 to the public, however, as a strict anti-smoking ordinance.
Proposition 188 went down to defeat when the opposition campaign informed voters that it was funded by such anti-smoking activists as Philip Morris, and KK opponents hope that a similar fate awaits the hotels’ initiative. Their own mailings will surely make clear the hotels‘ support for KK, but, as longtime Santa Monica activist Vivian Rothstein pointed out during an anti-KK precinct walk last Saturday, the campaign has a real challenge before it. ”The hotels’ message,“ she said, ”is totally aimed at our base.“
Just how tricky the task is that KK‘s opponents’ face was made clear during Saturday‘s walk through the city’s Sunset Park neighborhood. Explaining that A is really Not A, in the few seconds that canvassers have to establish contact with voters at their door, is no simple matter. That‘s why hotel workers make up the bulk of the walkers. Rothstein was accompanied on her rounds by a hotel housekeeper, who repeatedly shouted through screen doors, ”I’m a hotel worker, and this doesn‘t help us at all!“
Important as the battle for KK is for the future of the living wage -- and for our ability to combat poverty-wage work -- it may be almost as important as a test of the Big Lie in American political campaigns. Misrepresentation is a staple of our politics, of course, for which the late Lee Atwater and a small number of consultants have up to now set the standard -- but the boys of the Dolphin Group have just raised the bar to Goebbels-esque heights. Next to them, Atwater is George Washington bestride the cherry tree.