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Santa Monica Mayor Ken Genser

November 18, 1950 – January 9, 2010

Patricia Hoffman, SMRR Chair

Our beloved Mayor and SMRR leader Ken Genser died Saturday afternoon, January 9, after an extended illness. He has been on Council since 1988 and has been a consistent vote for the needs of the residents of Santa Monica. His leadership on renters’ rights and affordable housing has helped keep our City such a wonderful place to live.

His humor, intelligence and strength have allowed him to be an innovative problem solver and made him one our most effective Councilmembers ever.

Ken will be missed every day in so many ways. 

David Finkel 

Dear friends and colleagues: In addition to our working together on many SMRR issues for decades, Ken and I shared two years on the City Council, from 1988-1990. They were Ken’s first two and my last two years [before I left the Council for th bench]. The growth in Ken’s stature and insight was exponential during the 21 years of his service on the Council. In the beginning Ken fought endlessly and sometimes aimlessly for the values he held dear. With experience Ken became a statesman who evaluated the possibilities and diplomatically steered the Council from possibility to realization. It was a delight watching Ken grow and mature. In my opinion, for at least the past decade Ken was the most reliable member of the Council. During my tenure on the SMC Board of Trustees he was the first Council member I turned to for support for the College. Similarly, he was a trusted advocate of the arts in Santa Monica, which my wife Bruria and I are extremely thankful for. I still owe him a lunch, and won’t eat one without thinking about him for a long time.

Kevin McKeown, Santa Monica Councilmember

Our loss, both personally and to the community, is incomprehensible. Ken served on the Council for over a third of the 64 years Santa Monica has HAD a City Council. If you sleep safe in a rent-controlled apartment, or your family enjoys the security of affordable housing, or you earn the dignity of a living wage, Ken touched your life directly. He shared with us all a brilliant intellect, a bulldog’s tenacity, a compassionate spirit and the heart of a mensch. At just over five feet tall, Ken was a giant.

Ken dazzled us all with his dogged ability to think through solutions that would make life better in Santa Monica. He had the vision to make great things happen, and the attention to detail to make them happen great. Time and again, faced with the most complex land use decisions, Ken could thread the needle — when others couldn’t even find a needle in the haystack of municipal zoning codes. Ken knew where everything was.

But there was much more to Ken than the dazzle. He pursued our City’s well-being with superhuman endurance even though, as I came to learn, he sometimes needed an arm to lean on navigating the steps leaving City Hall. Ken lived with multiple infirmities, but endured discomfort, indignities, and pain with a cheerfully stoic “let’s get it done” attitude. Few knew how hard life could be for Ken; the world will remember him for his endless compassion and mischievous twinkle.

Ken was a dutiful, loyal son who took great pleasure in showing up for his mother even after she didn’t always remember quite who he was. He maintained deep lifelong friendships that went back to his college days at Berkeley, and he earned our respect and love not just for his work but for his humanity.

Denny Zane

Ken Genser was an irreplaceable warrior. His community leadership was nurtured initially in the fight to preserve his Ocean Park neighborhood and transformed by the rent control battles into a passion for our entire community. Once moved into action by love for the Santa Monica community, he was indefatigable and relentless.

Ken was exceptionally intelligent, analytic, intense, and passionate, simultaneously cherubic and curmudgeonly. During his early days on the City Council, he and I would have regular late night telephone conversations that would last for hours. We would talk past midnight about city issues and strategies for achieving common objectives. Notably stubborn, Ken was nevertheless ready to change his position when the case was made. Initially, he resisted, even strongly objected to the efforts of community members to press the City Council to make a larger and more predictable financial commitment to our schools. But, later, after he felt the case had been made, he became the schools’ strongest champion on the Council.

His intellect and his commitment to justice made him the councilmember most relied upon by the Renters’ Rights movement to champion affordable housing, by the labor movement to champion a living wage for hotel workers, and by community activists to be willing to stand up to irresponsible development. In fact, in his first term on the City Council, there was only one small commercial development on Wilshire Blvd., at the site of Jerry’s Liquor store, that he voted to support. He determined that the project would actually generate less traffic than the current use. (It was never built.)

He was one of a kind. Utterly irreplaceable. I will miss him personally and we will all miss his leadership.

Ernie Powell

Ken and I were both tenants together at the Sea Castle back in the crazy days before any of us ever had an sense that we would be inside of government. When I knew him then I knew that he had a keen and perceptive sense of how to fight the good fight on behalf of tenants around keeping housing in Santa Monica affordable. He really got it in terms of how to do what was necessary in building a strong rent control law and also in terms of building the organization that was required to keep people involved.

Personally, he was a friend. We went to our favorite deli in Santa Monica all of the time, Zuckey’s. There was a particularly grumpy person working there when you went up to pay your check. Kenny and I would bet on who could actually make her smile and or laugh because most of the time she just did not want to be very engaging (I suppose that was part of the charm of the place). Ken always won the bet.

He loved the Pier. It is my recollection that he served on one of the early advisory boards created after the storm that damaged the pier in 1982. He was really the people’s advocate – what ever was going to replace the parts of the pier that fell into the ocean would be affordable, fun and accessible. That was what he fought for and that is ultimately what happened.

I will miss him. He was an honest and good man. And, a great personal friend over lots of years.

Judy Abdo

The line between friend and colleague is blurred in Santa Monica. That is why the passing of our friend and colleague, Ken Genser, will be felt by all of us on many levels.

It’s an understatement to say that Ken played a crucial role in Santa Monica’s history. His contributions to our political and civic culture are truly fundamental. I use the present tense, because so much of what he has left behind is institutional: policies and places that will live on, continuing to affect people’s lives in a positive ways. 

He is, in many ways, one of the historical figures in our city. So we can be certain that we will read and re-read his biography for many weeks to come. The details of his life – his family roots in Santa Monica, his childhood, his education at one of California’s finest public universities, his public service, his love for his family, his fierce defense of our city’s core values (values he helped articulate), his myriad accomplishments in housing, preservation, affordable housing, and the environment, and his bravery in the face of growing disability – will be told again and again as we mourn him. Much of what Ken left behind can be experienced in Santa Monica today.

But it’s the overall shape of Ken’s life that will leave a lasting impression on so many of us in the community – allies and adversaries alike. Around here, the personal is truly the political. Ken’s life parallels the evolution of our city in the past thirty years. We watched the transformation of a scrappy, acerbic, and brilliant young man into a mature, loving and effective leader. We saw Ken’s fervor ripen into wisdom. We grew and changed alongside him. And because we have survived him, we are able to witness, with great sadness, how a life well spent is celebrated.

We enjoy continuity in this community. People come here to live with each other, not beside each other. We sustain relationships through thick and thin. That’s the culture of our city. That’s why we feel so diminished when one of our own leaves us. We’ll miss Ken at “all the old familiar places” – on the dais, in the corridors of City Hall, at community meetings, at the SMRR convention, the pier, the deli, ribbon cuttings. We’ll miss catching a glimpse of him at the wheel of his famous drop-top Saab. This man who we’ve grown to love and respect leaves a huge void, but despite his absence, we, and the future citizens of Santa Monica, will know what to do. Because Ken has left behind instructions: fight for those things that are human and humane. The rest of it will follow.

Louise Jaffe

Mayor Ken Genser passed away peacefully in his sleep on Saturday, January 9th. What can I say about Ken? The local press is writing about Ken’s decades of service to Santa Monica and about his strong role in supporting affordable housing, protecting rent control, and restraining overdevelopment. Ken also proved himself to be a strong supporter and key partner for our public schools. He played a key role in bringing about a new constructive partnership between our schools and our city; our lifelong learning community is stronger because of his leadership.

As a City Council member, Ken was accessible, intelligent, and articulate. He was responsive to public concerns and public opinion and he did his homework thoroughly. He was deliberative and thoughtful and honest and respectful. He was a person and a politician of great integrity. And he has been one of the most influential City Councilmembers in recent history. Ken’s life has been Santa Monica and Santa Monica reflects his values and his intellect. He leaves a lasting legacy and record of service and professionalism; he too will be deeply missed.

Sheila Kuehl

Thank you for sharing all of these thoughts. I had only watched Ken from afar (and on television) when I began my service in the state assembly and am so glad I had the opportunity to see him up close. His vision and passion and sly humor and basic common sense made him a fierce public servant, a planner, a fighter and a pleasure to know. His courage made him a real model for all of us and I’m so glad he was there, even for as short a time as we had him.

Geraldine Moyle

I’m an OP resident for 36 years ~ OPCO activist, OPEN participant, SMRR member, CCSM Board Co-Chair, SM Planning Commissioner, & through almost all of this time, friend of Kenny.

It’s been comforting in the midst of grief to read so many eulogies that speak to Ken’s essential self, both here & at the LookOut: very different people, same man. That’s some kind of integrity, enviable & defining. It’s one thing not to speak ill of the dead, another matter to speak in such a unified voice about who Ken was & how we all will remember him. Irrepressible in life (good & bad!); irreplaceable in death.

Back in September, Patricia asked me to write a few words about Ken. I wrote the paragraph that follows ~ & shared it with him. So, in ways I couldn’t have anticipated at the time, I was blessed: I wrote this, Kenny got to read it, & he thanked me. I’m so glad he knew how fond I was of him, in tribute; I’m so sad we have to live in a world without him. As others have said, though, we can honor him best by making that world reflect him still.

If there’s one defining image of Kenny that epitomizes the man over the full 20+ years that I’ve known him, it is to imagine him as a Jewish Puck, with mischief on his mind & a practical joke up his sleeve. I remember him from back when he was transparently shy & even self-effacing ~ *not* attributes a member of the SM public might automatically associate with our mayor. But I’ve never underestimated his wicked sense of humor, his impish love of fun, or his ability to deadpan the most outrageous piffle. All of that sometimes makes it easy to overlook Kenny’s sterling qualities, but not for long. Ken is never without his walking stick, & uses it in ways that still both intrigue & amuse me. Its presence is a reminder that my friend deals with some level of pain every waking moment ~ not that one would ever know it from the indefatigable resourcefulness he applies to remaining engaged, involved, & active in all the many things that call upon his attention & his intelligence. The body may be weakened by a chronic condition, but the mind is blade sharp, quick as silver ~ always ready to grasp the essentials of any problematic issue & toss out one solution . . . no, two . . . no, why not three? And he will do that, not just with public policy, but with any friend’s personal problems or dilemmas. Kenny has the helping gene ~ it’s hard-wired, he’s got it bad. In serving on the council, lo these many years, Ken has become the reliable institutional memory on the dais ~ he know where all the bodies are buried ~ hell, he may even have interred one or two himself. But although he is connected by experience to the past, he is never more energized than by planning for the future & thinking ahead ~ it’s the vision thing, too. Santa Monica’s motto is “A happy people in a happy city.” Thanks to this home-grown Puck, happiness for all who know him & for those he has so faithfully served is a guaranteed part of the package. I’m not there tonight, but I salute you, Ken!

Beth Leder-Pack

As many of you are aware, Ken Genser was honored September 12, 2009 with the Church in Ocean Park’s “Communitas Award”, which honors outstanding individuals who embody and elevate the spirit of community. Ken was certainly most deserving. After Communitas, Ken told me that he was extremely touched to have received this award because of what it represents. He also told me that he loved the evening, being surrounded by friends and community. He also especially loved the “gift in song” given to him by Caroline Nelms who sang “Make Our Garden Grow” from Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, Candide. He was very emotional when he said it, something which took me by surprise. 

I moved to Santa Monica in 1989. Ken was already on the City Council. I have not lived in Santa Monica without Ken at the helm of the City. I trusted him implicitly on many of the issues that are near and dear to my heart, such as affordable housing and the living wage. I have to admit that I am a bit afraid now not to have his leadership. 

John Tipre

After a combined SMRR fundraiser and dinner honoring Shiela Kuehl, my wife, Evie Lansberry, and I headed for our car alongside Ken Genser. We stopped and talked, standing up for a good half hour exchanging stories about the city, his student years in Berkeley, athletics, human curiosities, and what not. Ken, physically uncomfortable, finally leaned himself against a building in some pain (which we had not adequately appreciated) not wishing to interrupt the “rhythm” of conversation we’d established. I’d only spoken to him a couple of times but always found his wit keen, his interests broad, and his warmth encouraging and welcoming. Evie and I felt about him that Ken used his life wisely.

Vivian Rothstein

What I remember most about Ken is his fearless commitment to fairness and equality for the least powerful. Time and again he was asked to vote on controversial issues related to the funding of services to homeless people and living wages for our city’s hotel and service workers. I saw him vote with confidence in his basic beliefs and not afraid of opposition on these issues. He made no promises except to vote with his heart. And that put him at the service of those who need the protection of government the most.

Larry George

Ken Genser was a remarkable leader who never ceased to surprise me. I recall one Council meeting some years back when the upgrading of Virginia Park was being debated. Part of an early plan included boxing instruction in the proposed new community center there. Kevin McKeown spoke for many of us concerned about the appropriateness of teaching such a violent sport in a city facility. Ken surprised all of us by supporting the boxing program, pointing out that he had been trained to box as a boy and that it had contributed to his own self-confidence and helped him cope with his physical ailments. That startling revelation made me understand something profound about Ken, and I still picture him as a physically challenged guy with a cordial, endearing manner and kind disposition that only tempered a pugilist’s fighting spirit. He was always willing to stand up to the many bullies and creeps and fat cats who thought that the Council would be what it is in too many other cities: a polite, “business-friendly” venue they could count on to rubber stamp their development plans and keep the negative consequences of their schemes hidden behind the dais. Instead, for decades, Ken made sure that the Council remained an arena where advocates of workers’ rights, the environment, the homeless, and the progressive community culture that makes this city the kind of place we all want to live in had not just a voice, but someone willing to put on the gloves and get in the ring for us when push came to shove. Ken was an exemplary human being, and a model of what a political life dedicated to justice can accomplish. He was a sweetheart and a Mensch — with a great  left hook. 

Ken Genser? Presente!

Kurt Petersen, UNITE HERE

Ken Genser was a warrior for working people. When powerful hotel owners threatened his career, he never wavered in his support of workers. When some thought the living wage was not realistic, he stood his ground. And, when developers said they could not afford to pay workers a living wage, he humbly but forcefully disagreed. 

Ken’s commitment to justice was profound and sometimes unconventional. I recall many years ago, early in our struggle to win the union and living wage for hotel workers, when we found out that a key witness in a legal case against the Miramar Sheraton, who was dodging us, was reportedly staying with a tenant in Ken’s mom’s apartment building. As I stood next to him in his mom’s living room, Ken patiently explained to his skeptical mom that it was necessary that she allow these strangers – another organizer and me – access to the parking garage and hallways to find this witness. She relented; we found the witness; and we won the case. Later, when I asked about whether our intrusion caused any trouble, Ken remarked with a smirk that a few tenants complained but that it was worth it. Ken liked troublemakers, because he was one of the best troublemakers. 

The labor movement will miss Ken dearly. Thousands of hotel workers live a better life because of his courage and effort. And, we were blessed and inspired to be his friend. 

Si Se Puede! 

Sonya Sultan 

I loved Ken because of his intelligence, his hard work, his warmth, his compassion, his caring, and his sense of humor in the face of health struggles that would have left most people bitter or self involved.

Last year when I needed a care facility for my elderly mother, Ken recommended the home where his mother resides. Once I moved my mother there, I enjoying seeing Ken almost every time I visited. I would see him walking slowly up the path aided by his cane, or sitting next to his mom in the dining area, encouraging her to eat and offering hugs and emotional support despite the fact that, as he explained, she knew he was someone important in her life but not precisely who he was. Ken spent time with his mom almost every day, regardless of his ailments, his busy schedule and his multiple responsibilities. In this as in many respects, Ken was a role model for others– a complete human being– a true mensch.

Ken helped to create and sustain the Santa Monica I love and for this I am grateful. Even in the few instances when I didn’t agree with Ken, I admired and respected him. As my son said when he heard the sad news, Ken will be missed but definitely not forgotten. I will personally miss Ken for a long, long time.

Kate Palmer

When I heard the news that Ken had passed away, I was very sad. No, sad isn’t quite right. I had that same feeling of loss I felt when I heard Ted Kennedy had passed away. It was familial. It was beyond personal. It was the sense that our guardian angel had left us to fend for ourselves. Without our dogged champion, who would protect us? I’m certain Ken would guffaw at such a notion, but one cannot help how one feels.

Ken was the rarest of the rare — an honest politician. Not just that, of course. He was something very special. He had an integrity and a conscience not usually found in the corridors of power. Besides that, he was kind, funny, gracious, caring, and principled.

One of the last times I saw Ken was at the City Attorney’s Landlord/Tenant event on October 21st . Ken was sitting at the table next to mine and when we were instructed to get up and roam around the room (during a “get to know you” game), I made a beeline for the now vacant seat next to Ken. We were chatting about this and that when I expressed frustration about the disruptive person at my table. (I think we all know who I’m talking about. Think any City Council meeting.) I was so annoyed; I wanted this person removed from the meeting. As always, Ken took the high road and reminded me to be compassionate. Thinking beyond oneself pretty much describes all my encounters with Ken over these many years.

Ken was one in a million…and there is no replacing him. We were so fortunate to know him and even more fortunate be the recipients of his vision and tenacity. I only hope that saying is true. Y’know, the one about nature abhorring a vacuum.

Ken, we miss you! We love you!

Barbara Effros

We all miss Ken. He was a true “mensch”. The Yiddish translation: “a man of integrity and honor.”

When you’d see Ken – he would greet, put the cane to one side, and hug you as of you were one of his top 10 friends ~ even when you knew, you were lucky ~ if you somewhere in his top 100 or more.

I met Ken during early the Community Housing Corp days. We had neighborhood mtgs. He could talk to tenants, property owners, and developers about benefits and contributions our Ocean Park neighborhoods would make, by building low-income affordable housing. Ken with all his conviction & knowledge. He was a straight arrow -not high on the charisma – just an honest guy approach.

Ken personified Santa Monica – from when we were all younger, idealistic, passionate, and hopeful about changing the world. A couple decades passed, he learned how to be a true, open, and fair elected politician. We learned we don’t always get what we want – but our friendships and enjoying time together is what matters most.

Last year at the SM Parkinson’s Walkathon – Ken was the keynote speaker. Ken asked me what he should say. I laughed – “You’re asking me what to say? You have more experience, strength and hope than anyone I know living with a disability. Share with us your secret, what keeps you smiling and jovial?” I can’t recall exactly what he said – but all I have to do his think of him – and he gives me courage.

At times, Ken had fragile health with its ups and downs. He rarely let you know it. Eight to ten years ago I met up with Ken at Cedars Sinai on days he would get dialysis. He was a model for me in dealing with disabilities. Ken waited patiently as a potential kidney recipient. He didn’t talk about “if” he would receive a donor kidney only that he was waiting. I think the only reason he shared that with me was I’d gone down the same road with my Dad.

I started writing this as soon as I got Michael’s first email about Ken passing. Thank you to those of you who were there with Ken during the last couple of months. May his family and all his countless friends find comfort in his memory.

In peace.