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Where Money Didn’t Talk

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

All over America, in the months before this millennial election, campaign-spending records fell like grain under the harvester’s scythe. Some big spenders were big winners. The nation’s champ spender, of course, was Democrat Jon Corzine, who, according to the Associated Press, spent more than $60 million to become senator-elect of New Jersey. Well, it was his money. Rick Lazio, on the other hand, spent $33 million to lose to Hillary Rodham Clinton — who spent a mere $26 million — in the state next door.

Locally, winner Adam Schiff ($3.9 million) was outspent by defeated incumbent U.S. Representative James Rogan ($6.2 million) in what was the most-expensive-ever House race. According to the Associated Press, the going average expenditure for a U.S. Senate candidacy is now over $6 a vote. For a House race, it’s nearly $5. Here and there, across America, the per capita price was far higher — Corzine’s plurality, for instance, cost him well over $15 per head.

It’s not easy to identify the top nationwide per-vote spending excess. But locally, it was certainly the Proposition KK initiative campaign in Santa Monica. A tiny clutch of superaffluent businessmen — most of them out-of-towners — spent about $1 million promoting a measure intended to lock out any genuine living-wage ordinance. The Santa Monicans for a Living Wage Coalition’s expenditures accounted for weeks of slick junk-mail-by-the-pound to local residents.

This meant that, in the end, more than $130 was spent for every one of the 7,000 votes cast for the measure that Santa Monicans rejected by 78 percent of the vote (for which, with its campaign total of $250,000, Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE) and its affiliates spent about $13 each). The final “yes” vote tally means that, by election time, KK lost a significant number of the supporters whose signatures put it on the fall ballot.

This suggests that a mighty backlash emerged against the measure as soon as the electorate understood (with the help of a massive door-to-door campaign by labor supporters, who included my personal co-mortgagee, Vivian Rothstein of HERE), what it really intended. For, as the Santa Monica city attorney and manager early noted in their official reports, Prop. KK was a tricky beast indeed. Fifty living-wage measures have passed all over this nation. It would have been the only one to be financed by business — in this case, the two hotel empires that run some of the region’s most expensive beachfront caravanseries. The living wage, of course, is a concept whereby a category of employers — usually those doing business with a governing agency — is legally obliged to pay an hourly base salary above the minimum wage (or a slightly lower base, in the event the wage includes minimal benefits), at a level commensurate with the local cost of living.

Until this year in Santa Monica, any living-wage proposal was anathema to employers. This was certainly shown during the living-wage battle four years ago in Los Angeles, where Mayor Dick Riordan and the business-oriented Central City Association opposed the idea that employers doing business with the city should pay workers — typically — over $10 an hour instead of the minimum. The city contractors survived well enough, though (and Riordan dropped his opposition). Now living-wage opponents argue that it attracts overqualified individuals to entry-level employment, with one opposing study contending that, for $12 an hour, “higher-qualified” candidates with postgraduate degrees might displace low-income workers.

So how come Loew’s and Edward Thomas Cos. — who operate the ultrafancy Shutters, Casa del Mar and Loew’s, three of the costliest hotels in Santa Monica — decided to wage an electoral war, allegedly on behalf of the local proletariat? One key factor was that HERE — along with a local ally, Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART) — proposed a local minimum wage targeting only these firms’ luxury hotels. The hostelries have become some of Southern California’s top resort attractions, while paying among the lowest local wages. (Until recently: During the recent campaign, wages were raised to the $12 range.) And since the hotels lie in Santa Monica’s designated administrative “coastal zone,” this living-wage ordinance would spare other local businesses. So the big hotels, lacking local allies against the proposal, created an “AstroTurf” grassroots impostor, Santa Monicans for a Living Wage. Which in turn fronted for the poison-pill proposal that pretended to offer a living wage while denying such wages to most workers.

Prop. KK’s two unsavory provisions included a “gotcha” aimed at Santa Monica city government: granting a few dozen employees of firms working for the city a semblance “living” wage. But the other condition was to forbid that government from ever passing living-wage legislation for any other private employees in Santa Monica, particularly for the workers at the big beach hotels that HERE and SMART had been discussing with city officials. (The official reaction had been somewhat cool, particularly in the City Attorney’s Office.)

Hence, the hotel owners’ initiative, intended to strangle the proposal in utero. Ultimately, seeing their own proposal’s impending failure, the hotels shifted their support to two anti-living-wage council candidates — Robert Ross and Herb Katz — who received over $300,000 in campaign donations from the hotel-backed Santa Monica Hospitality Coalition.

Katz was elected, but otherwise, the hotels’ major accomplishment was to annihilate their own credibility. “They might as well have burned that cash,” SMART activist Madeline Janis-Aparicio said. “At least it would have given off some light and heat.”

But the coalition’s effort may, in effect, have done just that. Despite Katz’s election to the seat of retiring, pro-labor Councilman Paul Rosenstein, the council retains a progressive majority. Janis-Aparicio says that now is the time to get the original hotel living-wage ordinance passed.

“The defeat of Prop. KK is an overwhelming mandate to move ahead,” she said. “We now know the community is behind us.” Others suggest that the community backing may even help the union finally to attain its long-term goal of organizing the beach hotels. But despite its loss, the hotel coalition hasn’t given up. It’s still trying to play “gotcha” with the City Council — by supporting a measure to term-limit members.

The Worst Man

 

I still recall a 1960s account of a news conference hosted by a newly emergent young consumer activist named Ralph Nader. The solitary crusader was making a name for himself by bashing a hapless General Motors product known as the Corvair. Which probably was, as Nader put it, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” at least at any speed greater than you could legally drive through a school zone.

America was finally emerging from the ’50s era of consensual corporatism, and Nader pioneered this emergence. But even then, he raised some doubt about his own credibility. At that press conference, Nader, having claimed that the Corvair was the unsafest car in America, was asked what the second-most-unsafe car was. That he did not know undermined his argument. How can there be a first-place anything if there’s no second or third place? The news account left the impression that within Nader’s worthy, crusading demeanor, there was a touch of the crap artist, the self-promoter. And so it has always seemed to me.

Fast-forward to last week: Nader is on television, visibly ecstatic that his nearly 3 million votes may have edged the presidency to the Republican Party. This is indeed a powerful, if not necessarily worthy, thing to have done. Nader, of course, also takes credit for creating an environment for the new dawn of a third party, somewhere in the course of four years of Republican right-wing depredations.

But by now, Nader’s para-Stalinoid rhetoric against the corporate state and the two parties he claims equally represent that state sounds as stale as any Gore- or Bush-ism. And like his ideas, Nader is now showing his age, which is greater than either major-party candidate’s.

You couldn’t help wonder, though, whether somewhere deep in that crap-artist demeanor, there might still remain a touch of the old crusader. After this election, though, the question remains: Crusader for what?


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