In a previous post we looked to campaign mailers to see what they said about City Council candidates. We learned that candidates adopt themes of leadership and integrity but often don’t do much to talk about issue specifics or highlight concrete differences between them. In comfortable Beverly Hills, a disengaged electorate wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at a projected $40 million parking operations deficit, much less scrutinize platforms for positions on water rates, park renovation, and pension obligations. On-the-stump sparks don’t generally define our elections, but what does get attention is an ugly campaign. And this cycle has been a whopper!
Beverly Hills elections are officially non-partisan. That is supposed to keep the focus on issues. But fissures and alliances often break from the issues, of course, and divisions that form according to class or social circle or material self-interest seem nowhere as sharp as they do in a small town. They come to the fore in a municipal election when questions about land use, traffic, taxes come into play. They may be a proxy for political partisanship or highlight the divisions that cut across issues. But in Beverly Hills, the stars seem always to align according to a fundamentally parochial concern: whether you are for, or against, the establishment. Whom you support is most likely to break according to whether you see yourself as an insider and team player or outside the ramparts of Beverly Hills politics.
Insiders Vs. Outsiders
We know the insiders. They are the habitués of the social circuit who find common cause in philanthropy and public service and see their participation in fundraisers and blue-ribbon commissions routinely documented in local newspaper photo spreads. They make the rounds and populate our city commissions and ultimately warm the bench for City Council. They are the consummate Team Beverly Hills players; they are the establishment.
Around them buzz those who benefit from the association with the team. They are the city’s constellation of developers, realtors, investors and contractors who do business with the city or whom may benefit from its policies. Real estate in Beverly Hills is the consummate insider’s ballgame.
Outsiders, by contrast, like to complicate the insiders’ game by talking about nagging issues like the quality-of-life impacts arising from over-development. These anti-establishment folks explicitly contrast profit-making with its socialized costs: the over-sized structures (sometimes white elephants) that today characterize the business triangle. The anti-establishment folks tap our latent frustration with traffic congestion and make political hay of liberalized land use regulations. The often-uncalled foul ball in this oldest insider sport is the ad-hoc variance from height and density limitations, and the outsiders call it out.
But the most egregious sin is to call out the workings of City Hall itself. Highlighting relatively high city staff salaries, as the Courier did for example, or calling out lackluster performance each puts an welcome light on the machinery of local government that normally turns behind a curtain. In a small town (whether Bell or Beverly Hills) there simply aren’t enough eyeballs on City Hall. Few attend to the policy process and many fewer ever attend a city meeting. Commissions routinely report to Council that no stakeholder had attended.
Not surprising, accountability is a concept foreign to the City Hall establishment. We saw time and again over the past few years that the Council minority (Lili Bosse and John Mirisch) questioned city staff about information fed to council or some other aspect of city business, only to have the 3-2 majority decline to press staff for answers. ‘Accountability’ is a theme rhetorically rolled out by the candidates, of course, but to really press it in Council chambers begins to seem like a violation of some omerta.
Establishment vs. Anti-Establishment Out On the Hustings
How do those establishment vs. anti-establishment forces actually play out politically? We can look to the City Council election for answers. But it can confound expectations. In our non-partisan contest, for example, the establishment standard-bearer is Brien, and he’s a democrat. The anti-establishment figure is the republican Mirisch. More confusing is that our largest-circulation home-town paper, the Courier, which could be a voice for the establishment, actually positioned itself as the leading anti-establishment organ.
The spoiler: With our bruising Council race now concluded, the anti-establishment candidate, John Mirisch, is the the top vote-getter. Behind the scenes, cross-currents made sailing this election cycle anything but smooth.
Courier publisher Clif Smith has been using the newspaper as a soapbox to much effect this election, calling Mayor Willie Brien a spineless Metro patsy for not standing up for school board in its battle against tunneling under the high school. And Smith has lambasted Brien for fiscal imprudence over too-high pensions and salaries, mocking the Mayor’s claim to a budget surplus this fiscal year. It has made for a colorful campaign.
Smith’s detractors, on the other hand, say he’s aggrieved because City Council elected not to fund a Rose Bowl parade float. (Smith is a literal outsider – he’s a Pasadena resident.) They say he worked himself into a lather when the city diverted classified ad spending to other media outlets beyond the Courier. And he did tie himself into a knot over the Metro fight. But it seems that the Courier’s chief offense was turning against the Beverly Hills establishment. And for that the knives came out!
The West Hollywood Democratic Club then waged a scorched-earth campaign to vilify Smith…and not incidentally to promote Brien. The political machine which once called Brien a member (see the archived screenshot, right) launched a hot-and-heavy mail and walking man campaign that questioned Smith’s motives (the paper’s bottom line, they said) and impugned his credibility as a publisher. For good measure, Smith was tagged as a “downtown Los Angeles lawyer” who must have wheedled the paper from its “ailing, elderly” former owner. The piece claimed that Smith wants to de-fund police and fire to “second rate” status, saying, “He doesn’t care about public safety response because he doesn’t live here!” The campaign played on his outsider status but their ire was clearly piqued because the Courier didn’t play for the team.
But then the West Hollywood Democratic Club took the gloves with oblique Holocaust references that put the Courier in kind with Nazis:
First he came for Barry Brucker, a life-ling resident who loves Beverly Hills and who has always been committed to our City with all his heart. And we said nothing. Then he brutally came for Willie Brien, another man whose life has been dedicated to us…. And we said… Never Again!
For his part, at the height of election season, Smith’s Courier put a callout box on the front page underneath its endorsement of every other credible candidate urging no vote for Brien:
Certainly this contest put to the test the old precept that a journalist should never be the at the center of the story. And Smith’s Courier cover stories do often seem agenda-driven. Indeed the whole contretemps recalled the old joke that attacks are sharpest when the stakes are low. But by spending so heavily to undermine the booster of Brien’s opponent (Mirisch) the West Hollywood Democratic Club materially raised those stakes.
During the January-February reporting period, for example, candidates spent on average about $20,000 (according to Form 460s) to get the message out. The Club alone spent $15,000 to reach Beverly Hills voters during that time with 85% of that dedicated solely to Brien. He was already the best-funded candidate in the race by far, and the Club spent more to promote his candidacy – more even than Rosenstein’s campaign spent to promote him.
Worse for everybody, the Club’s campaign succeeded in shifting the discussion from candidates and issues to media agendas and political axes. Where was discussion about road congestion and safety or good government and transparency? Lost in the kerfuffle. Only Mirisch tipped his hat to cyclists by calling for “traffic neutral development” (pioneered by Santa Monica’s new General Plan) advocating on behalf of “increasing the bikeability and walkability of our neighborhoods.”
We’ve Seen This Before
This municipal election is a replay of four years ago when a scorched-earth battle erupted between the City Hall establishment and upstarts who called out City Hall for cronyism and insider networking and called for more ‘open’ government. Then, too, real estate development took center state. The late election handicapper Rudy Cole, writing in the Weekly, lamented a contest “loaded with hyperbole and private wars in emails, newspaper editorials and public forums.” That contest memorably punctuated by a drunken-call smear campaign against first-time Council candidate Mirisch.
Mirisch lamented such “dirty tricks” in a speech to supporters this election night. And yes he did speak from the victor’s soapbox. With an unofficial count in, this is how the contest played out:
- John A. Mirisch: 2575 votes (25%)
- William Warren Brien: 2373 votes (23%)
- Nancy Krasne: 2311 votes (22%)
- Brian Rosenstein: 2291 votes (22%)
- (Candidates Katherine Cohan and Michael Talei pulled up the rear with 454 and 299 votes respectively.)
Pending the final vote tally this Friday, the election looks like an anti-establishment rout. Or at least the numbers suggest that the establishment is losing that famous Beverly Hills gloss. Candidate Willie Brien pulled in 15% fewer votes than he did in 2009; leading anti-establishment candidate John Mirisch polled 13% more; and well-connected favored son Brian Rosenstein couldn’t eek out Nancy Krasne.
For her part, Krasne ran on an anti-establishment platform featuring an implicit rebuke of special interests (“I am not beholden to anyone but you, the residents of our city”) which comports well with the Mirisch promise, “My only special interest is you.”
It seems like the West Hollywood Democratic Club is the big loser in this race. Considering Brien’s well-funded campaign treasury, plus the spending by the West Hollywood Democratic Club, more than $32 was spent to gain each Brien vote. That’s nearly three times that spent per vote by first-place candidate Mirisch. The Club has yet to acknowledge the loss on their website.
Next we will look at the campaign contribution and spending reports to see how the candidates align with contributors. That should give some concrete indication of how the establishment stars aligned in the Beverly Hills 2013 municipal election.