Election Wrap-Up

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Fellow Democrats,

     This is the last message of the year, of my second term, and of the midterm election season. I was hoping to repeat the analysis of the primary election results I published in August for the general election, to compare how our endorsed candidates performed in Culver City compared to other areas, but the final results are not yet available. Although there is not much doubt remaining about most of the contests, except for Measure VY, which is currently behind by three votes (not 3% – three votes), I do not want to compile any statistics until I have definitive numbers. I know I was not the only one who expected to know the winners election night and was frustrated by the hybrid election format. It’s a hard habit to break, but if universal mail-in voting increases participation and safety, it’s worth it.

     Setting VY aside, our endorsed candidates and positions prevailed in every local race except one. Alex Fisch made a strong third place finish, but there were only two City Council seats open. Our own former Vice President Freddy Puza took second, and Dan O’Brien, who is registered No Party Preference and ran with the backing of the Chamber of Commerce, the Police Officers’ Association, and conservative-leaning Councilmembers Vera and Ericksson, took first. On Dec. 12 the Council majority will move dramatically to the right and we will need to fight to defend the progress we have made to protect renters, workers, the environment, and the unhoused and to remedy the city’s history as an exclusionary enclave. Welcome to the resistance.

     I am very proud of the work we did this election season. The Club created more election content than any other local organization. We posted dozens of hours of video candidate forums and interviews, plus dozens of pages of questionnaires. We had open and friendly discussions of the various candidates and measures and chose our endorsements by a direct secret ballot of the entire membership. We also presented almost all our endorsed candidates in our Fiesta La Ballona booth, essentially hosting fifteen meet & greets in a single weekend. No other community group did that many in the entire election cycle.

    Congratulations are due to the Fisch and Puza campaigns for what they were able to accomplish in the face of the most expensive and mendacious campaigns in living memory.

Many of us were shocked when the O’Brien campaign became the first Culver City campaign ever to raise over $100,000, but this was quickly overwhelmed when billionaire Michael Hackman, whose company is the developer and landlord of the Culver Steps and Culver Studios, among other properties, committed $170,000 to launch a Political Action Committee (PAC) to support O’Brien and Denice Rentieria, then increased his investment to over half a million dollars, including major contributions to PACs including NIMBYs Culver City Neighbors United, conspiracy theorists Commonsense Culver City, the Culver City Coalition (a rebrand of the failed recall campaign against Alex Fisch and Daniel Lee), and even the alt-right Protect Culver City. I commend Club member Stephen Jones for his writing on this unprecedented flood of money.

     With this money Alex Fisch was subjected to a strategy developed by Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, known as “swiftboating” after its use against John Kerry. It targets an opponent’s strengths rather than their weaknesses. Some of us remember that Kerry served bravely in Vietnam, then even more bravely became a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War on his return. His 1971 testimony to Congress is one of the great texts of the anti-war movement. When Kerry ran against incumbent President George W. Bush in 2004, Bush’s service record appeared to be a liability, since he seemed to have used family connections to get a safe position in the Texas Air National Guard and to protect his inept and irresponsible behavior while in that position. However, the Bush team neutralized this by going on the offensive. They found veterans who were angry at Kerry’s work exposing US war crimes or were loyal Republicans, then flooded the media with their attacks on Kerry.

     Alex Fisch is a nationally recognized leader in housing policy. His circle includes experts such as Randy Shaw, Shane Phillips, and Chris Elmendorf. His opponents could not assemble their own team of experts, because NIMBYism is an emotional movement rather than an intellectual one. Instead they produced conspiracy theories about “outsiders” using our city for “social experiments” – I have never heard “UC professor” used as an insult before – and simply appealed to inverted snobbery: “That Alex Fisch thinks he’s smarter than you!”

     Fisch was also attacked for referring to plans to forcibly move the unhoused to remote facilities as “shipping them off to concentration camps in Palmdale.” This was somehow characterized as anti-Semitic, and this perverse misreading spread widely. I am proud of Alex for standing his ground. His description of the plans announced by conservatives including Rick Caruso, Donald Trump, and the City of Miami was completely accurate and in the highest tradition of Jewish morality. When we say “never again,” it is not for ourselves alone but for the oppressed of the world. When we relive our ancestors’ enslavement at Passover, the conclusion is not that we must go forth and vigorously smite our foes but that we must identify with all those who suffer.

     Other than Stephen Jones’ excellent essay, which was published on Knock-LA and reprinted in this newsletter, the only coverage of Hackman’s attempt to buy the election for O’Brien and Renteria was in two of Judith Martin Straw’s “Just a Thought” editorials in the Culver City Crossroads. However, she did not mention his name or the candidates’. Her column offers meditations presented in metaphors and anecdotes, not journalism. Straw laid out some of the facts in her endorsement message, but she chose to continue her pre-COVID practice of not releasing her endorsements until Election Day, to preserve her publication’s objectivity. Unfortunately, Election Day is not Nov. 8. Voting begins a month earlier, when vote-by-mail ballots arrive. More importantly, confining discussion of Hackman’s money to op-eds and letters denied it the journalistic attention it deserved.

     On the other hand, I commend Straw and the Crossroads for being the only platform to call out School Board candidate Marci Baun’s anti-vaccination position and for describing a letter in defense of Fisch’s use of the term “concentration camp” written by Club member Art Nomura, who was born in the Manzanar concentration camp, as “the most important Letter to the Editor CulverCity Crossroads has ever published.” The Crossroads has also been the only local publication to cover the election results responsibly. The News and Observer both had “Dewey Defeats Truman” moments reporting the initial results, with Denice Renteria second to O’Brien for Council, as if they were definitive. She has since slipped to fourth, despite Hackman’s money, as more votes have been counted.   

     The Culver City News’ pre-election coverage consisted almost entirely of “interviews” with candidates comprised of their unedited responses to a series of emailed questions. This is, for what it’s worth, how the News “interviewed” me last spring. While I suspect that the pay for an article in the News may not cover a pizza and a beer at most Culver City establishments, I ask their writers to do better out of pride in their work and their calling, and for the good of the community. Fact-checking and follow-up questions make the difference between an article and a press release.

     Other than their candidate email interviews, the News ran one election article before Nov. 8. It was on the cooked-up controversy about the Freddy Puza campaign participating in a volunteer fair at the high school. Pre-COVID, all campaigns were invited to attend this annual event so that interested students could meet their graduation public service requirement by working on a campaign. No invitations were made this year but the Puza campaign, led by long-time residents familiar with the fair, asked the School District and were welcomed. Few students visited their table because, unlike the other organizations, they did not bring snacks or swag, so they chose to leave after 15 minutes. Opponents immediately accused them of campaigning on campus, which is preposterous. How many eligible voters are there at the high school? More alarming is that police and military participated in this volunteer fair. Many of us have worked for decades to keep these organizations off campus.

     No one reported on the candidate forums, although the Crossroads shared links and Judith Martin Straw cited a couple of them in her endorsements. This meant that only those who made it deep into our City Council forum heard Khin Khin Gyi propose breaking every City employee union’s contract by switching from the CalPERS defined benefit retirement program to a defined contribution 401k, and only those in the stone house for the Lindberg Park Neighborhood Association’s forum heard Dan O’Brien suggest the MoveCC project could be converted to a locals-only EZ-Pass system so that residents could drive at full speed through downtown while outsiders sat in traffic. 

     The lack of attention to these outrageous proposals demonstrates how essential the press is to creating the shared reality where democracy can happen. Without reporting, every conversation is “they said/they said.” Again, I am sure that these platforms pay their writers only slightly more than I am getting for this message, but there is too much at stake to not take this work seriously.

     Every election is a stress test for our institutions and some have failed us. We need to prepare for next time. A stronger press and campaign finance reform will be a good start. I welcome the Mar Vista Voice, and hope that LAist and LA Taco will take a greater interest in Culver City. I also encourage you to review our January presentation on Democracy Vouchers.

     This Club has met the moment. We did more than any other institution to present candidates to the public, including every Democrat running, not just those we endorsed. We have been untainted by the scandals affecting several of our peer organizations and, along with the Onward Culver City PAC and the Fisch and Puza campaigns, we defeated one of Hackman’s candidates and made a strong stand against a second, despite being grotesquely outspent. When the final documents are filed, I expect each vote O’Brien or Renteria got will have cost over $50 in campaign and PAC spending. 

     One sign of our power is that the November 3 issue of the Culver City News contained a full page ad from the Culver City Coalition and a half page ad from Protect Culver City, both targeting the Club. This was the last issue to drop before Election Day, a final chance to sway voters, and these groups chose to buy space with Michael Hackman’s money not to promote their endorsed candidates or criticize the others but to try to damage our reputation. They knew that people would be looking at our card as they filled out their ballots and wanted to create some doubt. This was not pleasant to see, but it shows how important we are.

     Every one of your voices and votes contributes to our credibility and power. I hope you will renew your memberships for 2023. If you did not take advantage of our mid-year $45 deal and are not a Life Member, then your membership expires at the end of the year. Thank you for your participation and for reading.

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