Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, the single most influential political organization in town, ousted one of its original activists — and a member of more than 40 years — from the organization’s steering committee Sunday, citing real estate development as the primary issue. Note: An earlier version of this article identified Judy Abdo as a co-founder of SMRR. While she was active with the organization during its inception and during early election campaigns, she did not take on a formal leadership role in SMRR until after its founding.
Judy Abdo, a former SMRR council member, mayor, a long-time advocate for renters, and affordable housing supporter, found herself unseated from the powerful political group’s governing board.
Several of her fellow steering committee members and elected officials actively organized against her, inciting local anti-development activists to turn out in force to the organization’s steering committee election Sunday. They also actively opposed the candidacy of former Rent Control Board member Leslie Lambert, a long-time affordable housing advocate, Landmarks Commissioner, and SMRR supporter. As a result, both fell shy of the 50 percent threshold required to be elected — or reelected — to the steering committee.
The SMRR steering committee has, among other things, the power to choose which candidates the organization, with its strong brand and ample war chest, will support in the city’s local races, including City Council. For some candidates, especially those without the ability to self-finance, SMRR support can mean the difference between winning and losing.
SMRR co-chair and one of the organization’s founders Denny Zane, along with Mayor Kevin McKeown, and SMRR Steering Committee Member Michael Soloff — husband of Councilmember Sue Himmelrich — actively called on local anti-development activists, including Residocracy, to turn out to the meeting to vote down Abdo.
Abdo, a former member of the board at Santa Monica’s primary affordable housing developer, Community Corporation of Santa Monica (CCSM), has long been a supporter of smart growth and mixed-income housing in Santa Monica, especially favoring projects that add much-needed affordable housing to the city.
Last month, Zane began a campaign to turn out anti-development activists to the organization’s November 1 steering committee election.
“Groups that support luxury hotels, market rate housing, and bigger development in Santa Monica are organizing, hoping to elect a pro-development SMRR steering committee,” Zane and co-chair Patricia Hoffman wrote in SMRR’s October membership newsletter, “Renters Write” [page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4].
Anti-development groups have actually been the most active in organizing to stack SMRR’s conventions, as they did last year during the organization’s nomination convention.
“The [Steering] Committee is important so we can mobilize quickly to maintain protections for tenants and protect the character of our City, such as our opposition to Hines,” the letter reads.
Zane led SMRR to oppose the proposed Bergamot Transit Village alongside Residocracy and Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) last year, ultimately scuttling plans for the mixed-use neighborhood that was planned for the former Papermate factory site directly across the street from the future Expo station at 26th Street.
SMRR’s joint victory with Residocracy and SMCLC led to the loss of hundreds of new housing units — including permanent affordable housing — and jobs on the transit-adjacent property, as well as tens of millions of dollars in public benefits that the Council had negotiated from the developer.
As about 270 voting SMRR members filed into Lincoln Auditorium Sunday afternoon, SMRR-backed elected officials handed out flyers touting the “slow growth” candidates running for the steering committee, a list that omitted Abdo’s name along with Lambert’s [PDF].
The so-called “slow growth” slate included all the other incumbent steering committee members, including McKeown’s wife, Genise Schnittman, Planning Commissioner Jennifer Kennedy, and Soloff, who was appointed to the steering committee several months ago after his wife was elected to the City Council. The list also included one candidate put up by the Unite Here Local 11, the regional hospitality workers’ union.
The flyer was endorsed by McKeown, Zane, Kennedy, Soloff, Himmelrich, and Rent Control Boardmember Nicole Phillis, a protege of Himmelrich who formerly worked as a lawyer at the firm Munger Tolles and Olson with Soloff.
Another flyer distributed by SMRR electeds to the membership directly targeted Abdo for supporting Frank Gruber for City Council in 2014.
Some political observers, who asked not to be named because they have relationships to the organization, have noted that Abdo’s ousting indicates that SMRR is taking increasingly extreme positions at the expense of even the slightest internal dissent. For many, that fact was reaffirmed by the opposition to Lambert’s candidacy, as well, despite her track record supporting rent control and low-income housing throughout the region.
Zane, who has also actively opposed SMRR’s support of formerly SMRR-endorsed elected officials like Pam O’Connor, also appears to be taking a more active role in promoting SMRR as a no-growth organization, despite his regional efforts promoting the expansion of L.A. County’s rail network and the necessary transit-adjacent growth necessary to support it.