Passed over for 16 years, Kevin McKeown finally becomes mayor of Santa Monica on the strength of a new slow growth majority

By Gary Walker

Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.


It may have taken him 16 years, but city council slow growth stalwart Kevin McKeown is finally mayor of Santa Monica — a personal milestone that also signals a shift in the city’s broader political climate.

Despite winning more votes than any other candidate in the city’s last three at-large elections, McKeown saw his council colleagues pass him over time and time again in the biennial mayoral rotation, either in favor of junior members or to give prior mayors second terms.

But with the support of a new slow growth majority on the council after the Nov. 4 election of former planning commissioner Sue Himmelrich and the retirement of Bob Holbrook, McKeown won the gavel last Tuesday in a unanimous vote. Under a compromise plan offered by Himmelrich that positions council veteran and McKeown ally Tony Vasquez to become Santa Monica’s first Latino mayor next year, McKeown agreed to serve half the normal two-year mayoral term.

McKeown, 66, sees his ascent to mayor as partially the result of voter dissatisfaction with what was perceived as a largely pro-development council — especially in the wake of its 4-3 approval in February of the 765,000-square-foot Hines apartment-office-retail complex, later rescinded by the council after residents collected enough signatures for a ballot referendum to block the project.

But he hesitates to frame it completely in those terms.

“People want to make it an on/off switch — it’s either everything or nothing — but that’s not the way that it works in Santa Monica. I think we now have a council majority that will carefully choose projects,” McKeown said.

“A certain amount of momentum grew with time. People acknowledged that there had never been a city council member who has served as long as I have without getting to be mayor, and that became more and more evident,” he continued. “It’s true that over the years I have not been willing to go along to get along and have often disagreed with my colleagues on certain issues and found myself in the minority. I just didn’t have the votes until this year.”

Himmelrich said McKeown earned trust by standing against what many describe as deep-pocket interests looking to turn Santa Monica into a developer’s paradise.

“Kevin has progressive values that don’t falter regardless of the situation. I believe that there are a lot of special-interest pressures on our city that he has been at the forefront of resisting those pressures,” she said.

McKeown has won all of his five council campaigns without accepting campaign contributions from corporations or developers.

Community activist Mary Marlow — whose Santa Monica Transparency Group targeted Councilwoman Pam O’Connor’s reelection bid by filing a complaint that accused her of taking illegal campaign contributions from developers whose projects she supported — believes McKeown, Himmelrich, Vasquez and Councilman Ted Winterer will usher in a new era of political accountability.

McKeown becoming mayor “was a long-awaited day for Santa Monica with the installation of a new resident-friendly council majority, each of whom has committed to not taking developer money in their campaigns, which has had such a corrosive influence on our government and planning decisions,” said Marlow, whose group shares members with the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City.

Along with great accountability, McKeown has also pledged to work toward creating more affordable housing.

“Having lost redevelopment agency funds, we must find a way to create more affordable housing. We spent 38% of our redevelopment budget on affordable housing. The usual metric is 20%. We need to find some local seed money — and that may be through a bond, a local tax or another revenue source — but I am committed to continuing this city’s history of providing affordable housing,” he said.

A large part of McKeown’s commitment to creating lower-cost housing comes from personal experience. Growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s in Connecticut and later New York City, McKeown was raised in an impoverished single-parent household.

“I’ve lived that life. I know what it’s like to go to school with holes in the soles of your shoes.
I know the struggles that working families go through. We have a wonderful school district and
I know how that can make a difference in a person’s life because it did for me,”
said McKeown, who attended Yale University on scholarship. “It was
only through the intervention of a high school guidance counselor who insisted that I take the SATs that allowed me to
go to Yale.”

The Apple computer consultant for the Santa Monica – Malibu Unified School District, McKeown named his server after that guidance counselor: Elizabeth Clifford.

The Argonaut: What changed the political climate in Santa Monica?

McKeown:  There’s no question that the pendulum has swung back to the more thoughtful slow growth point of view. The trigger for all of this was the Hines project. If the Hines project had not been promoted by the developer and embraced by the majority of the council, things might have gone on as they were. But I think that awakened enough members of the community to the fact that growth was starting to create traffic and other impacts without giving us the benefit of what we need in affordable housing. People rose up, circulated a petition and got the council to change its vote.

This was the most uncomfortable election that I’ve participated in. The acrimony was such that I was actually accused of being too pro-growth, which
is a first, because people took absolutist positions. But we now have four members on the council who did not accept contributions from developers, and this shows that
you can win elections in Santa Monica without developer money.

You’ll soon be choosing a new city manager to replace Rod Gould, who was brought in during the fiscal crisis of the Great Recession. What are looking for in the next city manager?

What I’m committed to is engaging each member of the community to the extent that we can put a job description in writing, and I’m talking with the city attorney about how to do that. We need someone who can help us bring the community back together and who is not seen as always pro-business … someone who fits the city’s needs now and for future years.

Considering the defeat of an aviation industry-supported ballot measure to stop the city from suing the Federal Aviation Administration for control over Santa Monica Airport next year, what happens now?

There’s no question that the FAA is not going to let the airport go without a fight, and we‘re prepared for that. Based on this election, I’m far more comfortable taking the steps that we have to take in order to keep it [under city control]. The FAA claims because they made some adjustment to the last grant that we received in 1995 that we’re obligated to them until 2023 [instead of 2015]. We completely disagree. We think it’s a specious argument and we plan to fight it, hopefully
in federal court. We feel we have a very good case.

Will it help having Ted Lieu in Congress now?

Oh yes. Ted has been a friend and an ally on the airport issue and he really gets the issue. I’m open to the airport not shutting down and reverting to a general aviation airport again. But Santa Monica Airport can’t continue as a jetport, though it gives me pause to go against Han Solo [actor Harrison Ford, who keeps jets at the airport and helped fund the aviation-industry ballot measure].

What do you think about the Expo Line light rail coming to Santa Monica?

The Westside is 50 years behind in mass transportation. But we can’t get people out of their cars until there’s an alternative. Until we match the convenience of driving, it’s very hard to get people to change their habits. We do have a lot of younger residents who are very open to other transportation alternatives, like biking and light rail. I’ve seen more bikes on the streets in last year than I’ve ever seen in this city. In order to work well, mass transit has to be frequent, it has to be dependable, and it has to be convenient.

Are you optimistic about the transit-oriented redevelopment of the Bergamot Station Arts Center?

Accommodating the ongoing success of Bergamot as an arts center while modifying it to become a major transit stop offers significant opportunities along with significant challenges. The council’s recent decision to expand the Bergamot Station Arts Center Advisory Committee gives me confidence that diverse points of view will be represented in the process and we can move forward successfully balancing the various interests.