School board candidates battle Santa Monica politics for Malibu representation

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With more than five times more voters than Malibu, Santa Monica largely controls elections of officials to the shared Malibu/Santa Monica school boards. The campaign trail for Malibu candidates leads straight through the heart of Santa Monica’s complex political machinery.

By Susan Reines/Special to The Malibu Times

In the last two Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education elections, only one candidate who was not endorsed by the tenants’ group Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights prevailed, and that was a year when one of the SMRR-endorsed candidates failed to qualify for the ballot.

Malibu candidates are eligible for SMRR endorsements, which frequently exert significant influence over elections because of the votes of thousands of Santa Monica tenants. It is not unheard of for SMRR to back a Malibu candidate; Mike Jordan, the current Malibu representative on the Board of Education, received one in 2003.

But this year, a long-underrepresented neighborhood in Santa Monica has risen up and taken the reigns of the political process-and between the new players and the old Santa Monica favorites, there was not enough room for Malibu’s only Board of Education candidate at this year’s SMRR convention.

Education activist Kathy Wisnicki, who is the sole hope for Malibu representation on the board because Jordan is not running for re-election, will have to overcome the odds and find a way to win without SMRR.

After a close vote and a run-off, endorsements went to incumbents Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vazquez, and challenger Ana M. Jara, who collected more votes than anyone.

Jara is an activist from the Pico Neighborhood, Santa Monica’s poorest and most diverse district, which has been long under-represented in local governance, but is of late bubbling with potential political players.

Jara had won SMRR’s endorsement in an aborted 2002 run. She edged out three other candidates to win the prestige, campaign workers and money that comes with a SMRR endorsement, but then failed to gather 100 acceptable voter signatures and did not qualify for the ballot.

One of the candidates Jara edged out for the 2002 endorsement was Shane McLoud, who was able to capitalize on Jara’s disqualification and become the only board member in the past two elections to win a seat without the help of SMRR.

McLoud said he stepped up his campaign in general after failing to win SMRR’s endorsement, sending extra mailings and spending more time going door-to-door.

He said Wisnicki “already has a lot of credibility in the Santa Monica community,” because she has made the effort, like he did, to attend board meetings and sit on district committees.

Wisnicki said she thought she had “a lot of support from the [SMRR] leadership” at the convention, even though the voters’ final decision did not tip in her favor. SMRR Co-Chair Denny Zane publicly supported Wisnicki, standing with her during her convention speech.

Zane said, “It was a year when there were a lot of new dynamics occurring” and Jara “was the beneficiary of a lot of new activism in the Pico Neighborhood.”

“Activism” in Santa Monica has often taken the form of persuading a group of residents to join SMRR, because less than 100 people can sway a SMRR endorsement, which then virtually guarantees an election victory.

A Santa Monica official who spoke on condition of anonymity said at least one Pico Neighborhood resident this year had admitted to galvanizing a group of 60 to 80 Santa Monicans to join SMRR just before the 90-day pre-convention deadline.

Zane said he estimated about a quarter of the approximately 240 voters at this year’s SMRR convention had registered right before the 90-day deadline. But he said SMRR sees a similar bump in membership each year before it votes on endorsements.

Malibu residents are allowed to join SMRR, but only a few have, likely because Malibu members get nothing but a biannual endorsement vote.

The Santa Monica College Board of Trustees currently has no Malibu members, but resident Tonja McCoy has submitted papers to get on the ballot. McCoy did not compete for SMRR’s endorsement, though.

Wisnicki has captured other endorsements, from the teacher’s union and college faculty, among others. She will also be competing for the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce’s upcoming first-ever Board of Education endorsements. The chamber’s endorsements for Santa Monica City Council have served as a counterweight to SMRR’s endorsements, but SMRR’s endorsements are undisputedly the most powerful.

While Wisnicki and McCoy battle the tide in Santa Monica, a group of Malibu parents has begun a campaign to break from SMMUSD and form a Malibu district, hoping to eradicate the entire issue of Malibu under-representation on the shared Board of Education.

The group, the Malibu Unified School Team, had stated that it supports the Malibu candidates running in this election. If they don’t win, though, the complete lack of Malibu representation could boost support for MUST’s already popular movement.