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I Was a Hired Gun for the Hotel Barons . . .

”Ted“ explains the deal: $2.50 per signature on the wage petition, $2 for new Republican registrations, etc. For starters, I’ll watch him in action, and he‘ll also share some trade secrets.

First tip: Don’t begin by asking voters to sign the living-wage petition. Lead instead with the less controversial petition, which asks people to support having a mayor elected by voters rather than by council members. Then, segue into the living wage.

I have stepped feet first into Santa Monica‘s protracted civic debate over the living wage -- specifically, over whether some 2,000 workers in beachside hotels and upscale eateries should be guaranteed wages that would allow them to survive on one full-time job rather than two. In my work for the Weekly, I often view things from the perspective of the working poor. Today, I’ve come to see how it looks from the other side of the political spectrum. I might even make a few bucks too -- as a signature-gatherer for merchants hoping to overturn the living wage by getting a voter referendum on the ballot. Beachside hotels and the local chamber of commerce mounted this campaign after the City Council voted 5-2 last month to make large employers in the city‘s ultraprofitable tourist zone pay at least $10.50 an hour with benefits or $12.25 without.

There is no need to mislead, advises Ted, my mentor. Just emphasize that the city’s living wage discriminates (against a those outside the beach zone) and would cost the city big time to defend in court.

Ted knows all the tricks, like making the cause a personal appeal for aid: ”Can you just help us get this on the ballot?“ Or if the voter has doubts, stress democracy: ”Let the people decide.“ Also, make your first contact as people enter the store. They‘re more likely to stop when coming out, but now you can greet them like friends. And even if they don’t stop, call out, ”God bless you.“ Ted picked that up in a pro-life petition campaign, ”Not that I‘m so anti-abortion,“ he explains.

After two hours, my tutelage is complete and I load up with voter-registration forms, petitions, clipboards, info sheets and backup rubber bands.

I have my lines down, but no sooner do I unfold my card table in front of a Wilshire Boulevard drugstore than the manager advises me I’m on private property. I retreat 50 feet into the parking lot -- and suffer a 75 percent drop in traffic from passersby. But a clerk on a smoke break signs on, once I explain that the wage hike wouldn‘t put anything in his pocket. After a slow 40 minutes (tourists, non-citizens, moms with no free hands), I move on.

Eureka! A busy Vons with only one entrance and ample space for my table. I’m soon joined by fellow traveler ”Nora.“ Business is brisk enough for us both, until the dreaded ”blockers“ appear, a teenage Latina and an older, sweatsuit-clad blond from the pro-living-wage forces. The blond has apparently taken a few pointers from the Raiders and thrusts herself between the petitioners and their human targets; suddenly grass-roots democracy is very nearly a contact sport. The shoppers are plainly rattled by the crosstalk and rising voices. Time to retreat.

After a second day on the streets, I take stock. For some prospects, no encouragement is needed. Middle-age Norman, in a paint-splattered shirt, could hardly be held back: ”Next thing is to get rid of all the radicals on City Council.“ Norman, no surprise, runs an apartment building. Then there was the woman with a fanny pack, who snapped, ”I haven‘t had a raise in over two years.“

But living-wage detractors aren’t all propertied. A grocery bag-boy explains ominously to a younger colleague that ”Everything will get more expensive: gas, food, rent. You know how it is -- things at this Ralphs cost more than at Ralphs on Crenshaw.“ Unfortunately, this freelance economist lives outside high-cost Santa Monica, so he couldn‘t sign the petition. And ”Larry,“ snaggle-toothed and sunburned, lists his address as a service center for the homeless. How did he feel about a living wage? ”I couldn’t support that -- my mom would kill me. She owns a hotel.“ Okay, heredity one, social justice zero. ”Larry“ also registered as a Republican (because Bush backs the death penalty), which means a bonus $2 for me.

Most bustle by with a mumbled ”no time“ or ”not today,“ or just a baleful glance. Half of the remainder are nonvoters; about a quarter volunteer that hotel workers deserve more. On that enlightened group it‘s silly to waste a sales pitch.

From my street corner, things don’t look so good for the hard-pressed hotels. The next day, a fellow petitioner laments: ”Some people were kind of hostile. I‘ve been doing this stuff eight years, and this is the hardest. You know of any other jobs?“

I could offer only the number of a telemarketer.

Next afternoon, I canvass adjacent blocks. Lots of ineligibles: house sitters, maids, nannies. I do some math: $7 for me in an hour and a half. I’m sure not making any living wage.

I change course for the Pico Corridor -- what passes for Santa Monica‘s ghettobarrio, sandwiched between Pico Boulevard and Interstate 10. Contacts-per-hour shoot up, so do signings. Almost all support the living wage, but a substantial numbera think it should cover their area too. ”I like a living wage, but I also like equity,“ says a kindly looking mother.

There is a striking irony in the ploys used by the anti-living-wage troops: They frequently capitalize on people’s support of the living wage to suggest that it is bad because it doesn‘t cover everyone. I recall Ted dismissing the living wage as a discriminatory measure ”for one side of Fifth Street.“ He tells people: ”I’m all for the workers getting more money -- the hotel owners can afford it -- but the minimum wage should be for everbody, right?“

Such tactics are taken to ridiculous extremes by some. During my rounds, I meet an assistant district attorney and a student with a pierced tongue, who had already signed. They both believe they‘ve endorsed a pro-living-wage petition. There is no ”pro“ petition.

Time to turn in my paltry batch of two-dozen-odd signatures in Marina del Rey at the Jolly Roger hotel, an apt headquarters for our scruffy crew of pirates, mercenaries and carpetbaggers. Some out-of-town petition packers are bedding down here. And some of them grouse that what they earn per signature is a fraction of what the hotels are paying per signature. National Petition Management of Roseville had billed for about $30,000 by the end of July. My $95 check for almost 20 hours of work is cut by a firm called JSM that lists an Anaheim address.

The next day I learn that living-wage advocates are filing a complaint with the city clerk alleging misrepresentation and deceptive tactics. A stack of declarations an inch thick recounts various alleged misstatements by petitioners: Signing will bring living wages to the whole city; signing will improve wages; the current ordinance mandates 15 paid days off annually, etc. Alleged sources of misstatements are also listed. One of them had been arrested the day before on an outstanding warrant when police were called to a fracas between signature-gatherers and blockers. I am relieved to find no description of myself. I still feel like taking a spiritual shower.

To be fair, there are true believers on the side of big business, including the editors of The Wall Street Journal, who railed against Santa Monica as a city with ”a soft spot for the latest ’progressive‘ fad.“ Attorney Tom Larmore, board member of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, walks almost nightly in his north-of-Montana neighborhood; he and his family have garnered about 200 signatures, he estimates. Past chamber president Karen Bauer has found 50-some supporters at the farmers’ market or door-to-door. Petitioners need to collect 5,700 valid signatures by August 23.

The final week of the campaign promises to be feverish, but less confrontational. Disengaging from the supermarket lots, to which police were called numerous times last week, petitioners have largely shifted to residential neighborhoods. Living-wage backers, meanwhile, launched a campaign to have signers remove their names. Revocation forms are only effective if filed by Thursday. If anyone reading this happens to be among the few who signed my petition, feel free to revoke by all means. For instructions from the living-wage coalition on how to do this properly, I‘m told that the number is (310) 614-4114.

I never learned much about my former ”teammates.“ Living-wage advocates have a cause in which they believe, but we paid petition toters are as much competitors as allies: At one point, I asked a cardiganed grandma, also gathering signatures, if this was a good time of day for sign-ups. ”If you’ve been around, you‘d know how good it was,“ she responded. ”When I’m gathering signatures, I‘m not a socialist.“


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