Los Angeles Stories

It's local election time in Santa Monica, and Andrew Gumbel finds his pleasant little beach town has turned into a hotbed of heavy lobbying and political dirty tricks

Santa Monica, the beach town where I live at the western end of Los Angeles, can seem such a nice, civilised, liberal-minded place. But not at election time.

Part of it, no doubt, is that we all feel overwhelmed. Campaigners phone up, call at the door, and flood the mailbox with leaflets. Lawn signs clutter the view in both directions down my street. In all, we voters are being asked to decide contests for eight statewide offices, plus races for Congress, the state assembly and state senate. We must consider the district school board and the city council.

Then there are the ballot initiatives: mini-referendums originally conceived as a way of circumventing special interests in the state legislature which have now become a political battleground all of their own. Santa Monicans will vote on seven state-wide initiatives, two at county level and seven more within the city. The booklet listing all these initiatives, complete with arguments for and against – is thick enough to cure the most inveterate insomniac.

But there is more to the sour atmosphere than the sheer volume of political noise; the fact is, the election is so intensely local and personal, it has brought out extremes of behaviour in the campaigners. Perhaps most contentious is an initiative to increase the minimum wage for menial workers at the swanky beachfront hotels from $6.25 (£4) an hour to $10.50. The so-called "living- wage" campaign has national repercussions: the big hotel chains fear that what starts in Santa Monica could spread. The only reason the issue is on the ballot, in fact, is that the hotels successfully lobbied the courts to bounce an ordinance passed by Santa Monica's council back to the voters.

The hotels have sunk an estimated $2m into their campaign – an amazing sum for a town of 80,000. Much of the effort has been flagrantly dishonest. Teenagers saying they are students from the local public high school have been knocking on doors explaining why the living wage is bad for their job prospects; strangely, nobody at the high school seems to know these pupils.

One leaflet after another explains why the living wage will wreck the lives of pensioners, take money from public schools, and discriminate against other low-wage workers. Most of these claims are nonsense, but scare the ill-informed. Organisations with fine-sounding names have been conjured up for the sole purpose of opposing the living wage; they are known as AstroTurf organisations (think fake grass roots).

And it's getting nastier. Pro-living-wage signs have been vanishing off people's front lawns. One politically active friend of mine tells me he has seen people taking photographs and scribbling notes outside his house late at night, presumably in an effort to unnerve him. And I thought I lived in a tolerant, happy-go-lucky little town.

A different encapsulation of the absurdity of US politics and influence-peddling was on display at my local library the other day. Sharon Davis, wife of California's governor, Gray Davis, was giving away copies of a children's book she had penned – pretending to promote literacy while in fact not-so-subtly soliciting votes for her husband, who faces re-election on Tuesday. Next to her was Vanna White (left), hostess of TV's Wheel of Fortune and a blonde so famously dumb that a whole line of dumb-blonde jokes has been coined about her. She was ostensibly promoting literacy, too – a dizzying concept in itself – but was in fact giving away T-shirts promoting Verizon, the local phone company. Verizon, naturally, is a big contributor to Gray Davis's campaign. It was all as clear as ABC, but literacy didn't have a lot to do with it.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral