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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.