Santa Cruz, CA

Santa Cruz


[ Text supplied by Pierre Clavel, adapted from Activists in City Hall: The Progressive Response to the Reagan Era in Boston and Chicago (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), pp. 31-32, with permission; the main source being Richard Gendron and G. William Domhoff, The Leftmost City: Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2009). See also Domhoff’s website, including a section on Santa Cruz: But see also a recent update noted below.]


Progressive majorities first occurred in this small (58,000) California city in 1981, the same year that SMRR first had control in Santa Monica and Sanders won in Burlington. As in these places, there had been earlier developments. Richard Gendron and G. William Domhoff in The Leftmost City (2009) provide a detailed account of the rise of a progressive coalition in Santa Cruz and its domination of local politics through 2009.  In Santa Cruz the most important development seemed to be the establishment of the University of California, Santa Cruz. It matriculated its first class in 1965, and in 1969 established a Community Studies Department. It was a liberal arts college, open to new ideas, including that of getting students engaged in community work. The Community Studies program had put over one thousand students to work on community projects in the city by 1990. The over five thousand students in the college became a voting bloc. Neighborhood organizations also developed and ran candidates, often led by UC Santa Cruz faculty and staff members or their spouses, so that progressives had a minority foothold on the city council through the 1970s.

There was resistance to some of the progressives’ most important goals, but the progressive breakthrough came in 1981 when campus-based activists found common cause with neighborhood concerns. The campus-based chapter of the New American Movement supported Michael Rotkin, an instructor in the Community Studies Department, and Bruce Van Allen, who had been a leader in the Downtown Neighbors Association and a rent control advocate. They won endorsement at a forum organized by the Westside Neighbors in 1979, and soon a number of other groups—previously unwilling to get into politics—added endorsements, and an informal “progressive coalition” emerged. This led to further gains, securing a 4-3 majority when the Downtown Neighbors Association candidates Mardi Wornholdt and John Laird won election in 1981.

With the new majority, the progressives moved ahead boldly through the 1980s. They doubled social spending in 1981 by postponing infrastructure spending for a year, creating a revolving fund. Over the decade, spending went from $150,000 to $1,500,000 annually. They created new revenue streams from amusement and room taxes, and fees on phone and cable TV hookups. They instituted affirmative action hiring and installed a new city manager, one result being the replacement of one-third of the city’s police force. Activists had also entered politics on the Santa Cruz County Board, and won a 3-2 majority in 1974. The leading figure was Gary Patten, who held office until retiring in 1993. During this period he was a key figure coordinating city and county policy initiatives, working with his aide and fellow activist, Andy Schiffrin, who was trained as a city planner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then worked for the Boston Model Cities program as a planner and director of housing development before moving to Santa Cruz. Control of the five-member county board swung back and forth until 1981, when progressives regained the majority and held it at least into the 1990s.

The shift to majority control after 1981 was not easy sledding for the Santa Cruz progressives. There was resistance and a need to shift priorities. Gendron and Domhoff sum it up in the phrase “progressive success but socialist decline.’’  The progressives pulled back from steps that might have seemed to go too far, or that would likely result in defeat. They would not touch homelessness. They never succeeded with rent control, which had been the central cause for some in their number. The electoral formula seemed to be: service the neighborhoods, and support at least some issues that were important on campus.

The progressive coalition that held power through the 1980s was put to the test by the 1989 earthquake, which destroyed the center of the city’s downtown. Business leaders saw this as a chance to regain control of the city, since they would naturally be in a key position during any rebuild­ing process. But remarkably, progressive forces maintained electoral control by buying into a downtown agenda, while simultaneously listening to the neighborhoods by reducing the potential boundaries of the reconstruction area. Progressives were still in control in 2009.

Gendron and Domhoff, The Leftmost City is an exhaustive treatment, but its narrative breaks off prior to its publication in 2009. An update with much additional material is in Domhoff’s website, an updated section in his Who Rules America? – a discussion of a classic text now in its seventh edition:  *


Domhoff and Gendron add this note – e-mail communication to Pierre Clavel, May 28, 2014:

As far as Santa Cruz, after key progressive leaders retired from the city council between 2008 and 2012, the progressive coalition went into decline due to a lack of burning issues and new ideas to energize it. Long-time activists had accomplished their local goals. In addition, there was no new generation of activists to replace past leaders now that the threats that developers once posed to neighborhoods (due to their expansionary plans for the downtown and tourism) were now safely in the past. The two or three remaining progressives on the city council tried to coexist in an increasingly uneasy relationship with three conservatives and one centrist that were elected in 2006, 2008, and 2012 based on the allegation that crime was increasing in the city and threatening neighborhoods, a fact that the progressive coalition supposedly was not addressing. Then a series of shootings and killings in 2012 and 2013, including the murder of two police officers by a violent offender that had only recently moved to Santa Cruz, was used to reinforce the idea of a “crime wave,” even though violent crimes were down by 40% over the previous decade. A group called Take Back Santa Cruz, founded in 2011 by backers of a successful rightist candidate for the city council, came to the fore and urged a series of changes that blame most crime on the homeless. Take Back Santa Cruz and related groups featured confrontations with the homeless, the elimination of needle exchanges for those addicted to drugs, and suggestions to incarcerate or ban from the city those that repeatedly violate laws concerning loitering and panhandling. They thereby created a classic Crime Scare that may or may not take Santa Cruz politics further to the right in the years to come.



Register or log in

(Useful for commenting on posts, or managing updates.)