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Just when you thought the political circus in Santa Monica couldn't get any wackier, along comes a delicious twist that has the city buzzing.

As I laid out Wednesday, the town was already trying to make sense of why the City Council in the notoriously progressive community is trying to wipe an anti-corruption law off the books with its ill-conceived Measure W on the November ballot.

Now along comes a flap over a television attack ad against incumbent Kevin McKeown, the one Santa Monica councilman who opposed Measure W.

In the ad, a bearded artist and longtime resident named Tim McAlevey speaks generally about Santa Monica's homeless and public safety issues while shots of the homeless are flashed across the screen, along with a sign that says:

"Kevin McKeown"

"Bad for Santa Monica"

Just one problem.

McAlevey tells me he's going to vote for McKeown.

"I mean, I have to admit that I might be a little bit of an airhead," McAlevey says. "A friend of mine is a video editor guy, and he called me and asked if I wanted to make a couple hundred bucks ranting and raving about the homeless situation in Santa Monica.

"That's what I thought I was doing. I have to admit, I did sign a release. But at some point I wondered why I was mentioning a candidate's name."

I asked McAlevey what he meant.

"They said, 'Will you please mention that Kevin McKeown has been a member of City Council for 10 years,' and I did."

In the ad, McAlevey comes off like a guy who would have you believe McKeown is Public Enemy No. 1 in Santa Monica.

"Kevin McKeown has been with the City Council for 10 years," McAlevey says in the ad. "Visibly I can tell you that the homeless population has at least tripled."

A voice-over then intones:

"Santa Monica cannot afford four more years of Councilman Kevin McKeown."

There's no doubt that Santa Monica has one of the most visible homeless populations in California, but McKeown was a bit startled to see an ad laying the blame at his feet.

"They know it's a wedge issue, because a lot of people in Santa Monica get really worked up about it," he says.

But who exactly is "they"?

That's where the story gets even more interesting.

"They" is the Edward Thomas group, owner of Casa del Mar and Shutters on the Beach, two of the glitziest hotels in Southern California. The outfit has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the current campaign and is supporting Mayor Bob Holbrook and Planning Commissioner Terry O'Day in the City Council election.

Edward Thomas Cos. is getting some consulting on the campaign by the legendary Dolphin Group, a Westwood-based outfit. Why legendary? In 1994, The Times reported on a Dolphin executive's role in producing the infamous Willie Horton video, which was widely condemned as a racially tinged attack on presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.

Seth Jacobson, a spokesman for the Edward Thomas group, told me Dolphin was not involved in the production of the attack on McKeown.

But why is the hotel company, which last tangled with McKeown over the living wage issue for hotel workers, so determined to run him out of office?

"They run two hotels which are extremely impacted by crime and the homeless issue, and they believe very sincerely that Mr. McKeown has voted the wrong way on a variety of issues that impact their business," Jacobson said.

McKeown says he hasn't voted alone too often and wonders if there's another reason the big-bucks hotels are trying to get him out of the way:

"The city owns property adjacent to Casa del Mar. It's intended for affordable housing, and they do not want it on that site."

This story's got legs, doesn't it?

I naively thought Santa Monica was still a people's republic run by '60s burnouts — not by a cabal of political consultants, hotel tycoons and their frontmen. But former City Councilman Kelly Olsen tells me this stuff ain't new.

"So much for the progressive city? I've been saying that for years," Olson said. "Just like in a lot of communities, there's an old boys' network."

The controversial ad, I should note, has been pulled, but other anti-McKeown ads by the swanky hotel company will continue to air, according to Jacobson. He said shelving the McAlevey ad is not an admission that the councilman was misrepresented.

What is it then?

First Jacobson told me it was done because McAlevey "requested it be pulled" and because Edward Thomas is "sensitive" to his concerns.

Then he took it back in an e-mail, saying the ad was pulled "to avoid controversy" and return the focus to McKeown's record.

What really happened, Jacobson told me, is that McAlevey freely trashed McKeown and then took it back because he was bullied by the councilman.

"So we believe that this is a clear case of a local politician using intimidation and heavy-handed techniques to influence a citizen…."

I guess they would know it when they see it.

October 27, 2006

Steve Lopez

The curious history of a Santa Monica attack ad