As Locals Win Progressive Policies in Culver City, the Right-Wing Backlash Is Funded by Big Developers
The developer behind The Culver Studios is funding Culver City’s right-wing groups to the tune of $225,000.
The last few years have seen a burgeoning progressive movement in Culver City translate electoral wins into enactment of progressive policies. The list includes permanent rent control, permanent tenant protections, a higher minimum wage, new protected bus and bike lanes, the closing of the Inglewood Oil Field, and even an initial study into local reparations.
As we head into the November elections, progressive policies are on the ballot: a higher tax on big businesses and local voting rights for 16- and 17-year-olds. But with two of the three seats held by the progressive majority up for election, it’s possible that all this could be rolled back. A resurgent right-wing backlash is looking to do just that, bankrolled by real estate developers.
Several new local political action committees (PACs) have sprung up to oppose newly passed progressive policies: Culver City Neighbors United, Common Sense Culver City, and Culver City Coalition. But one dominates the conversation: Protect Culver City.
Protect Culver City was founded by landlord and failed Republican congressional candidate Ron Bassilian, who used the organization as a vehicle to oppose the city’s new rent control measures. Knock LA investigated Protect Culver City’s origins and deemed it a “dangerous right-wing element in Culver City.”
Protect Culver City was successful in getting an anti-rent-control measure on the 2020 ballot, and the California Apartment Association, the biggest landlord lobby in the state, put more than $250,000 into the 2020 election in Culver City. The measure failed to pass and Culver City’s permanent rent control ordinance is still in effect. In retrospect, this was a harbinger of real estate’s outsized role in Culver City elections to come, as opposition to progressive change has spread through different groups using a diverse set of tactics: astroturfed “community” groups, clogging city hall with bogus records requests, failed recall campaigns, and sleazebag agitprop.
In 2021 a group of million-dollar homeowners formed Culver City Neighbors United in response to the city’s proposal to allow multiple units on single family lots (rendered moot when the state passed legislation to similar effect). They rally homeowners to council meetings and arm them with talking points, generally in opposition to progressive policies.
A conspiracy-minded blog/PAC called Common Sense Culver City, which popped up in late 2021, makes public records requests and posts them alongside conservative dog whistles like appeals to “common sense.” Following the backlash against Los Angeles Councilmember Mike Bonin and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón, conservative activists in Culver City also mounted a recall attempt.
Early “Call to Recall” art initially targeted all three progressive councilmembers. But, perhaps anticipating the bad optics of trying to recall both of the city’s first two Black councilmembers, Yasmine-Imani McMorrin and Mayor Daniel Lee, organizers behind the failed recall attempt narrowed their targets to Mayor Lee and Councilmember Alex Fisch.
After the failure of the recall attempt (without even turning in any signatures), the same interests reformed as Culver City Coalition. Culver City Coalition’s first major expenditure came in 2022 in the form of a flyer titled “Save the Culver City Police Department,” which asked residents to support the police at a city meeting where CCPD was seeking authorization from the city council to use military equipment including tear gas, MP5 submachine guns, and projectile launchers.
In a progressive place like Culver City, groups like these may be dismissed as fringe and irrelevant. But looking at the list of donors tells a different story.
On September 29, 2022, quarterly campaign finance filings revealed that the single biggest donor to all three PACs (Culver City Neighbors United, Common Sense Culver City, and Culver City Coalition) is The Culver Studios, part of Hackman Capital Partners.
In other words, nearly all the different groups spending money to tell you to vote for Denice Renteria and Dan O’Brien are actually getting their money from the same place: one of the biggest developers in town.
But before we get to the extent of the real estate money funding the right-wing backlash, let’s meet the candidates representing this movement. In addition to endorsing the lawless Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Protect Culver City endorsed Dan O’Brien and Denice Renteria for city council. O’Brien appeared for a meet-and-greet at a Protect Culver City meeting, and the group later praised his commitment to a “hands-on approach to transient camps.” And in his interview with Common Sense Culver City, he touts his experience on the city’s homelessness committee, where he instituted a policy of only offering food and services to unhoused people at the city’s cold-weather shelter if they boarded a bus and left the city during the daytime.
Denice Renteria was slated to appear alongside a Republican US Senate candidate at a Protect Culver City fundraising dinner in June 2022. At a recent candidate forum in September, Renteria advocated for a return to “proactive policing,” a practice that has incorporated racial profiling and has been shown to actually correlate with an increase in the incidence of major crimes. Protect Culver City also calls for the city council to end its “hands off” policy for the city’s unhoused residents.
Two of Protect Culver City’s school board candidates are even more overtly right wing. Marci Baun’s first appearances at the school board were as part of the throngs of anti-vaxxers protesting the school district’s vaccine mandate — she called for “health freedom” and claimed that “natural immunity is … much better than the vaccine.”
Appearing at the Culver City Democratic Club school board candidate forum in August, Howard Adelman railed against “race-baiting, virtue-signaling, bile-spewing ideologues” and claimed that LGBT+ education in elementary school is “indoctrinating” kids. He is also the subject of a restraining order for both assaulting a minor and harassing him with racial slurs.
Darrel Menthe, the third school board candidate endorsed by Protect Culver City, is the president of the Culver City Downtown Business Association, and he keeps a relatively low profile compared to the other two.
Real estate developers aren’t just funding right-wing Culver City PACs — they’re also giving to the candidates directly and forming their own PACs to get their candidates elected. Hackman Capital Partners (through its affiliate The Culver Studios Owner, LLC) dropped more than $480,000 into a PAC explicitly to support two candidates: Denice Renteria and Dan O’Brien. This is almost half of the funding floating around this city council race, across all candidates and PACs. Even outside his PAC, Michael Hackman, the CEO of Hackman Capital Partners, has nearly maxed out personal donations to Renteria and O’Brien.
And the other Hackman/Culver Studios-funded PACs are in the mix, too: Culver City Coalition promotes campaign events for O’Brien, Renteria, Baun, and Adelman; Common Sense Culver City regularly attacks Councilmember Fisch and candidate Freddy Puza; and Culver City Neighbors United currently has an ad endorsing O’Brien and Renteria.
This isn’t the first time Hackman has drawn political controversy over its donations. In 2019, Hackman founded and funded Culver City Forward, a nonprofit that employed a sitting Culver City councilmember as its CEO.
Hackman is one of the biggest developers of studio and soundstage properties in the world — and they’ve got a substantial footprint in Culver City. Its significant political spending sends a clear message that Hackman wants to stop Culver City’s government from being as progressive as its residents.
Looking at the campaign finance data and matching up donors to industries paints a stark picture: real estate money is a huge factor in this election. Even setting aside PAC money, real estate makes up 18.25% of the total dollars being contributed directly to the city council candidates. This category includes developers, realtors, mortgage brokers, landlords, architects, construction companies, and contractors.
As part of the questionnaire for the Culver City Democratic Club (CCDC) candidate forum, most of the City Council candidates took a pledge not to take developer money. That includes Renteria, who later took $500 from Kent Company (which is part of the Continental Development Group), $2,100 from executives at Redcar Properties, and $1,050 from Michael Hackman, CEO of Hackman Capital Partners.
Overall, real estate makes up 15.71% of dollars contributed to Renteria. In contrast, real estate is 2.31% of dollars contributed to Alex Fisch and 1.89% of dollars contributed to Freddy Puza.
Dan O’Brien, who is not a registered Democrat and so did not participate in the CCDC forum, took no such pledge. Overall, real estate makes up 28.92% of his donations.
But there’s more. It is illegal for an individual or a company to give more than $1,070 to a candidate. But when you look at the data, you start to see that multiple people associated with the same real estate project are maxing out their contributions.
For example, the developer, architect, contractor, and law firm for the 9925 Jefferson Boulevard development together donated a total of $8,280 to Dan O’Brien. The eight different contributions came in on just three days in late August.
In another case, $2,970 came to Dan O’Brien from the developer Hudson Pacific Properties, together with members of its lobbyist firm M Strategic Communications. Hudson Pacific Properties owns the former NFL Network building at 10950 Washington Blvd, which is now vacant and may be redeveloped soon. Hudson Pacific Properties itself is owned in part by the private equity firm Blackstone.
Dan O’Brien, however, did sign a different pledge. He promised not to take more than $200 from the corporate healthcare industry, including its lobbyists. Nevertheless, he took $1,900 from lobbyists at M Strategic Communications, who lobby for the healthcare giant Centene.
And even smaller right-wing causes are giving money to O’Brien and Renteria. Robert Retting of Culver City’s notorious Martin B. Retting gun shop contributed to both campaigns. Unlike in past elections, where more conservative candidates like Albert Vera tried to strike a moderate stance by returning Retting’s donation, O’Brien and Renteria have yet to report returning any contributions.
So why is there such an interest in this five-square-mile town of little more than 40,000 people? It might be that when progressive policies are implemented, they tend to spread.
Take the Inglewood Oil Field. After Culver City made its landmark vote to start closing the oil field, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors took up the issue and approved an ordinance to phase out oil wells, and the city of Los Angeles is on the same path. And now Gavin Newsom has signed a bill to ban new drilling near homes, schools, and hospitals, effectively banning the activity from most developed areas in the state.
Other issues are catching on as well. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is also looking to adopt permanent tenant protections two years after Culver City adopted the same. And the city of Los Angeles has United to House LA on the ballot — a real estate transfer tax that’s slightly less ambitious than the one Culver City passed two years ago.
But looking back to Culver City’s final vote on the oil fields issue in October 2021, only the three progressives voted to close the oil fields. The other two councilmembers — who have endorsed O’Brien and Renteria — abstained or voted against the ordinance. And so the big money coming into our little city has the potential to stop the progressive tide in its tracks.
Whenever the votes are done being counted, we’ll find out if our election is the way these developers see it: no different than a piece of real estate, for sale to the highest bidder.
Disclosure: The author has volunteered for multiple races in the Culver City 2022 elections.