Who Rules America?  By G. William Domhoff, University of California at Santa Cruz

My Thoughts on The Leftmost City

Gary A. Patton
Of Counsel, Wittwer & Parkin, LLP
Santa Cruz, CA

July 2009

To Bill Domhoff and Richard Gendron:

Congratulations on this most engaging book! I greatly enjoyed The Leftmost City, and am proud to be listed in the Index. I think that Santa Cruz politics during the period from the mid-1970's through the mid-1990's is of exceptional importance. Your book illuminates some of the lessons taught by this period from the perspective of sociology. I'm sending you these comments to augment what you've written, since my own understanding of Santa Cruz politics during this period comes mainly from the perspective of political theory.

I graduated from Stanford University as a member of the Class of 1965, with a cum laude degree in United States History, and with honors in Social Thought and Institutions. As far as I'm concerned, those who care about "politics" in any larger perspective should be reading Hannah Arendt, and paying attention. I'm particularly partial to On Revolution, The Human Condition, and Between Past and Future. I think Hannah Arendt would have thought our accomplishments in Santa Cruz County worthy of note.

  • This brings me to my first point. The discussion of politics in your book (maybe because of the title you chose) is almost totally focused on "city" politics. In fact, the genuine political revolution that took place in Santa Cruz County during the period from the mid 1970's to the mid-1990's was definitely a countywide phenomenon, although political actors from the City of Santa Cruz definitely played key roles, and the "progressive" accomplishments of Santa Cruz politics are quite correctly associated with the City.
  • I have no quarrel with the "four theories of urban power" you use in Chapter 1 as a way to organize your evaluation of Santa Cruz politics from the mid-1970's to the mid 1990's. Not being a particular student of sociology, I'd never really heard about these four theories until I read The Leftmost City. I was happy to gain an insight into current controversies within the discipline of sociology, as I read the book for your analysis of the meaning of our local politics, and I must say that I end up being convinced that our local politics does largely reflect the accuracy of the "growth coalition" approach to understanding urban power, at least as that approach is compared to the other sociological theories you discuss. In fact, though, as I indicated above, I actually don't think that the "sociological" perspective is the most fruitful for understanding what happened in Santa Cruz County during the period you document.
  • If I had been involved in writing The Leftmost City, I would have paid a lot more attention to the County level of government, and I would have tried to understand Santa Cruz politics from the perspective of political theory, more than from the sociological perspective. At the end of these notes, I'm going to provide a short summary of how I would have presented our politics, from this rather different perspective. Between now and the end of my commentary, I am just going to outline my various marginal notes, jotted down as I engaged with the text of The Leftmost City.
  • On Page 8, you mention that there is often considerable opposition to expansionary projects advanced by local power structures when these project proposals affect neighborhoods. I absolutely agree that "neighborhood" opposition often drives opposition to the projects of the "growth coalition, as residents become activated around the need to protect and preserve a place they care about. It should also be remembered, though, that while the growth coalition always claims that their proposed projects will have economic payoffs for the community at large, many if not most of such proposals are really seeking community subsidies of various kinds. Resistance to these projects is also a kind of "economic resistance" to business elites, in an effort to deny them subsidies that actually undermine the quality of life of current residents. Whether consciously or unconsciously, I think that kind of resistance has played a part in our community struggles to deal with the projects of the "growth coalition."
  • On Page 9, you indicate that members of what you describe as a "use-value" coalition agree that they are brought together by concerns with their quality of life, not profits. Again, I have no basic disagreement. However, I see the political involvement of the kind of coalitions you describe as actually being much more of an effort to realize a deeply sought ability to make what I call "self-government" work. In other words, from a political theory framework, these coalitions are not mainly motivated by either "profits" or by the desire of various individuals to defend their current "quality of life." They are motivated, instead, mostly by a community desire actually to have the community decide, for itself, as a community, what it will make happen, as opposed to letting things simply "happen to" the community.
  • On Pages 9-10, my different perspective is easy to see from my reaction to your statement that "in abstract terms, the growth coalition's pursuit of 'exchange values' (land values and rents) and the neighborhood's attempts to preserve use values are inherently opposed ... this conflict is the main axis around which power struggles unfold at the local level...." The way I see it, the main axis around which power struggles unfold is not the fight between "exchange values" and "use values." The axis of the political fight revolves on the question whether the future of a community will be decided by the community itself, through a democratic process, or by a set of individual actions by those with power, which add up to a particular result. We are both individuals and members of a community, and a democratic "politics," in my view, is the struggle between an effort by those with money and power to do whatever they want (often asking the community to sanction and subsidize their individual projects) and an effort by individuals within the community to appeal to an overall community decision making process that constrains and directs current and future individual actions.
  • The National Conference for Good City Government, mentioned on Page 11, appealed for governmental changes on the basis that our government should be more "democratic," but the outcome, in fact, was to disempower collective, community action, in favor of the bureaucratic administration of the government, which ultimately undermined democratic self-government throughout the United States. Most communities have never recovered their community power. Santa Cruz did.
  • I first note the use of "socialist-feminist" as a Santa Cruz political category on Page 12. The purported category makes periodic reappearances throughout The Leftmost City, and someone not familiar with Santa Cruz political history might actually think that there was such a "group," called the "socialist-feminists," who had a specific political program, and who operated on the basis of a common political agenda or philosophy. I don't think that's true. I think that this label was affixed pretty much only to Mike Rotkin and Bruce Van Allen, who adopted it and promoted it as a self-description (and an effective one for them, politically, at the time they used it). Maybe there were some other people who also called themselves "socialist-feminists," and I've just forgotten. I am pretty clear, however, that there was never really a "socialist-feminist" movement in Santa Cruz, and this apparent "category" was just a sobriquet used positively by those who chose to assume it (Rotkin and Van Allen, specifically) and pejoratively, as by the Santa Cruz Sentinel. There was no such actual socialist-feminist "group." The statement on Page 19 that attributes a leading role to "the socialist-feminists, who played a leading role in creating the [progressive] coalition," gives a misleading impression of what was going on. A progressive coalition did form, but not resulting from the efforts of an organized group called the "socialist-feminists."
  • I really enjoyed the history of Santa Cruz outlined in Chapter 2. I don't really have any personal knowledge of the history, but thought you did a great job in conveying the kind of community that Santa Cruz was/is, based on the economic and other changes you document.
  • I similarly enjoyed Chapter 3, documenting the City's more recent history, and a history I do know something about from personal experience. The discussion of Lighthouse Field on Pages 72-75 adroitly summarizes what was a long struggle, and hits the important points. However (and maybe it's because I personally wrote it), I want to emphasize the importance of the June 1974 "Save Lighthouse Field" initiative. This was the first initiative measure to pass on the City ballot since the City Charter of 1948, and its strong passage over the opposition of virtually all the "powers that be" within the community, from business to labor, provided a dramatic demonstration to the ordinary citizens and residents of the City that the tools of democratic self-government really could be used to get them something they wanted. Had that initiative failed, I think that the later grassroots actions you document might well have never happened, but the Lighthouse Field victory proved that getting involved in community-based politics paid off. Thus, people were willing -- indeed eager -- to try it again, in other contexts. You do say this on Page 75, and I think it really bears repeating. Santa Cruz was lucky because our early and high profile efforts at community-based self-government succeeded. Had they not succeeded, we might well have had a very different political history, and consequently a very different community.
  • Beginning on Page 78, The Leftmost City discusses key political events at the County level. As noted earlier, I wish the book had explored these events more extensively. It may be because of my personal involvement as a County Supervisor that I am so sensitive to what I think of as a failure to pay more attention to where the "real" battles occurred. Throughout California (and Santa Cruz County was no exception) the big conflict in terms of "interests" has tended to be between those seeking to maximize "development," and those seeking to slow it down, or stop it, or manage it, to protect and preserve both environmental and neighborhood values. The "real" fight on these issues took place at the County level, not at the City level, since most of the development potential in Santa Cruz County was in the unincorporated area. The City of Santa Cruz was, and remains, very close to "built out," without much possibility for dramatic new growth (except on the UCSC campus). Once the community defeated the proposed North Coast expansions that would have given us a development on Wilder Ranch, developers turned their attention to the County. The battles leading up to the 1978 enactment of Measure J, and subsequent political struggles, was really where the fight was at, during most of the later 1970's and the 1980's.
  • On Page 80, you mention the fight to fund new social services at the city and county level. From my perspective, this was key. In June 1975, my first budget session on the Board of Supervisors, the progressive Board members voted 3-2 to move $1.2 million dollars from largely capital expenditure items into community based "revenue sharing" programs, over the strong opposition of the County Administrative Officer. This, like the victory at Lighthouse Field, and the "Operation Wilder" defeat of the proposed development on the County's North Coast, convinced community activists that their political activity would "pay off," and was an essential driver in the politics documented in The Leftmost City.
  • On Page 81, the "socialist-feminists" and NAM are mentioned. Maybe NAM promoted itself as "socialist-feminist" (and though I participated in a number of NAM meetings and activities I just don't remember how NAM characterized itself); still, I continue to maintain that there really was no "socialist-feminist" group per se. There were political progressives (NAM was definitely part of this progressive movement) who sought to use the democratic powers inherent in community-level government to promote an alternative vision of the kind of community we wanted to create. Some of those persons called themselves "socialist feminists." Both Mike Rotkin and Bruce Van Allen, for instance, adopted this as a self-description when they initially ran for City Council, and it helped mobilize and identify them to the progressives they needed to support them. But there simply wasn't a socialist feminist "group" in Santa Cruz politics, as such. At least that's my view.
  • I really enjoyed Chapters 5 and 6 (though I do wish that the County's politics had been featured, as well as City politics).
  • In Chapter 7 of The Leftmost City you match the history of the progressive politics of Santa Cruz against the "theories of urban power" you outline at the start of the book, in Chapter 1. As I like both history and theory, I much enjoyed this final chapter discussion of the "fault lines of power." This is probably the place, however, for me to state my own way of looking at the political history of Santa Cruz County over the past thirty years or so, since I think that the importance of what happened in Santa Cruz goes far beyond how events here have either validated or not, the sociological theories you explore.

To my mind, "politics" is how we act together, in communities, to create the world we want. That's what politics is all about. Politics, thus, is "generative" and not "derivative." The economic or social realities of any particular community (and the "theories" which delimit and describe those economic and social realities) cannot, in my view, ever really capture the truth of politics, since while such economic and social realities are, by definition, "real," the practice of politics is always "utopian" in its ambitions. Politics always holds out the promise that we can make a better world, together, and can accomplish, together, what we collectively want. The recent Obama campaign is a great example of how politics practiced correctly presents itself as an opportunity for community "change," and as the instrument of informed and active community "hope."

Mostly, communities do not actually practice "politics" as I define it above. Events unfold, and those with money and power do what they want, more or less. The community never mobilizes itself as a community to debate and discuss alternative futures, and then to decide and implement a community conclusion.

But in Santa Cruz County, during the period from the mid-1970's to the mid-1990's, the community actually did practice politics in just this way. That is why our local political history is so important.

Hannah Arendt describes, in On Revolution, how genuine and real political change is initiated. Small groups form, and then simply decide, without any grant of power from anyone but themselves, that they will take responsibility for achieving what they believe and feel "must be done." Without, at first, understanding that they are doing so, such a small group sets out to create "new order in the world." This is, in fact, a "revolutionary" activity, and the impulse for democratic self-government begins, always, in a small group, and is carried forward to the larger community, where it either succeeds or fails.

Having been involved in the genesis and success of the Save Lighthouse Field Association, which did create a "new order" in Santa Cruz politics, I know that the group did this by simply "deciding" that they would ask the community to use its latent but available powers of self government to "save" a feature of the City (the last open space on the coast within the City of Santa Cruz) that all the "official" representatives of the community were ready to turn into a convention center and shopping center and condominium development, but that the majority of the community wanted left just the way it was.

The "victory" of those who wanted to "Save Lighthouse Field" established a "model" for what active, community-based self-government could achieve. Other groups, and other efforts, built on the recognition that self-government actually could achieve "utopian" ambitions, and these other groups had other successes. For example, community-based efforts to provide needed social services (and to use our public monies to do that) energized those who were not as personally tuned in to the "environmental" and "neighborhood protection" issues that achieved our first political success, but these efforts, too, validated the power and possibility of democratic self-government.

For me, the point to be drawn from the history of the era studied in The Leftmost City is that "government" in Santa Cruz County is now largely seen as a way for the community to do what it wants, and to chart its own future. This is a concept of government that doesn't exist most other places, and that didn't exist in Santa Cruz County before the mid-1970's. This is the concept of government that makes Santa Cruz County "progressive."

Measure J, the county growth management measure adopted by a countywide vote in June 1978, is perhaps the prototypical example of this kind of progressive, democratic self government. At the very same election that Santa Cruz County voters helped enact Proposition 13, and in an election in which two progressive members of the Board of Supervisors were recalled, County voters enacted a set of policies that has fundamentally changed the development of the County, vastly lowering the value of thousands of acres of agricultural land, which were reserved for agricultural use alone, and inaugurating in this county the kind of "smart growth" principles that weren't even called that till almost twenty years later.

How that was done, at the political level, using initiatives and referenda and other techniques of community based politics to help the community understand that its own democratically adopted decisions can in fact determine the future of the community, is a history well worth studying, and a story well worth telling.

Thanks again for The Leftmost City, which helps both celebrate and study this important story.

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