Historic Belmar Park: gratification and chagrin

I attended on Zoom the on-line inauguration of Historic Belmar Park on Sunday with a mix of gratification and chagrin.

The gratification came easy. Back in 2006 I wrote a Lookout column about the African-American Belmar neighborhood that the City destroyed in the 50s to build the Civic Auditorium. A park was then planned to replace the Civic’s parking lot, and I called for naming it “Belmar Park.” (I’m happy with the addition of “Historic.”) I wrote several more columns about Belmar and I gave talks about its history and its destruction at the Santa Monica History Museum and at Annenberg Beach House.

Welcome to Historic Belmar Park

In 2014, when the City named the affordable apartments built on former Rand land on the other side of Main Street the Belmar Apartments, I was told that until the Lookout published my column, no one (or I suspect no one who was white) in City Hall knew about Belmar or what had happened to it.

Thus, when I consider all that I’ve written about Santa Monica since starting my Lookout column 20 years ago, well, at least I have at least one thing to be proud of.

I’m also thrilled with how the City has commemorated Belmar at the new park, with truly excellent interpretive panels informed by the research of Dr. Alison Jefferson, and a terrific work of public art by artist April Banks.

One of the interpretive panels in the new park.

The work by Ms. Banks, entitled “A Resurrection in Four Stanzas,” evokes elements of the typical houses that the City destroyed to build the Civic.

April Banks’ “A Resurrection in Four Stanzas”

If you wonder what those houses might look like today, if the neighborhood had survived and evolved like Ocean Park, there are still many of them south of Pico in my neighborhood of Ocean Park. Here’s a picture of one on Sixth Street.

The kind of house that the City destroyed in Belmar, 60 years later. Note the multi-unit building next door. Over 60 years the single-family neighborhood evolved into the much-loved and now very expensive Ocean Park neighborhood of today. So much for apartments reducing property values.

Everyone who worked on the commemorative aspects of the new park deserves commendation, particularly Dr. Jefferson and Ms. Banks, but also the volunteers from the public, and city staff, who worked on what was called the Belmar History + Art project.

My chagrin is more complicated. It’s triggered by the fenced-in sports field that is ringed by the commemorative elements of the park.

The high fencing at the park. To keep the people out and the balls in.

My involvement with the site goes back almost 30 years. I first became involved in Santa Monica politics in 1993 when I participated in the public process that resulted in the Civic Center Specific Plan. The City had initiated a planning process in 1988 to establish zoning for the roughly 40 acres of the Civic Center. The Civic Center was a forlorn example of 50s era, modernist utopianism. One staff report I read described the area as being a great place for walking; the only problem was that there were no pedestrians because there was no reason to walk there.

The 1993 plan called for concentrating private development west of Main Street and along Ocean Avenue, where the land was mostly owned by the Rand Corporation. The plan also reintroduced the street grid, with an extension of Olympic Boulevard between 4th Street and Ocean Avenue. Relevant to the new Belmar park, the plan called for a park to replace the Civic Auditorium’s parking lot. (The parking was to be replaced by a parking structure behind the courthouse, which was built.) Here’s a rendering of the plan.

The 1993 Civic Center Specific Plan, approved by voters in June 1994.

The plan was challenged in a referendum on the grounds that it allowed too much development and thus would generate too much traffic, but Santa Monica voters overwhelmingly approved it, 60% to 40%, in June 1994. (I was the treasurer of the campaign to approve the plan.)

Plans are plans and not reality, however. As a result of the 1990s economic downturn, Rand and its development partner couldn’t raise the money needed to develop Rand’s 15 acres. In 1999 Rand sold most of its land to the City. This led to revisions of the plan, which ultimately generated the mixed-use developments, including the Belmar Apartments, that have arisen between Main and Ocean, south of the extension of Olympic Boulevard, and the construction of Tongva Park north of Olympic.

The revisions to the plan, however, resulted in much less development than what the 1993 plan envisioned, as the City Council responded to pleas for “more open space.” Between the fact that Rand built less than it had the right to build, and the elimination of 250,000 square feet of housing, development at the Civic Center was reduced by almost half a million square feet. This is one reason why the Civic Center, including Tongva Park, is nearly as forlorn a place as it was in 1993. There were supposed to be a lot more people walking around.

Along the way, in 2005, City Council agreed to amend the plan further to include a sports field in the park replacing the Civic parking lot. In 2009 the School District released a plan for the Samohi campus that included the addition of a third field in the high school’s campus; if the District had been able to move to construction, that would have obviated the need for the field on the Civic Center site. But that didn’t happen.

The final piece of the Civic Center was the Civic Auditorium. The Civic was a white elephant that drained money each year; not only that, but it was seismically unsound and would require a lot of money to rehab. The City wanted to save the Civic, however, and a lot of people testified about how much they loved the Civic, because of the great rock concerts they had gone to there. When the City still had redevelopment money the City had a plan to rebuild the auditorium in a public-private venture with the Nederlander Organization. That plan fell apart when Gov. Jerry Brown terminated redevelopment. As a result, the City closed the auditorium to the public. (Full disclosure, I opposed the Nederlander/redevelopment plan. And also this if you’re really interested.)

That brings us to what was for me the saddest, most chagrin-producing episode in this long saga, the formation, in 2014, of the Civic Working Group (CWG). I was a member of the CWG, which the City formed with a mandate to figure out how to save the Civic as part of a “mixed use cultural center.” The idea was that the City would leverage some development around the Civic to subsidize the cost of rebuilding it, all with a private sector partner that would take over operations. The CWG’s job was to come up with parameters to send to potential partners.

I never should have joined the CWG, because City Council never gave a clear direction on what it wanted to do about the sports field that had been promised in 2005. It was clear to anyone that a full-sized sports field was inconsistent with the mixed-use cultural center the City said it wanted, but that was never stated clearly up front. The ambiguity was unfair to everyone.

As for the CWG, we worked for 18 months on a plan (or rather, parameters for a future plan) that called for including a publicly accessible park on the site, but our efforts were doomed because when staff presented our work to the City Council, the political weight of the sports field boosters overwhelmed not only the council and City Manager Rick Cole, but also the historic preservation community that had pressed to save the Civic.

The council caved and ultimately came up with $6 million or so to build the field, which is on land worth tens of millions of dollars. The field will operate for the most part as a locked, fenced-off private sports facility. The high school will use it for a couple of hours a day, but only after school hours because there’s no time during the school day for students to cross Fourth Street. The school district had a representative on the CWG, who told us that the district didn’t want the field, and that it still planned to build a third field on the school’s campus. The field will be scheduled, reserved and used primarily by private soccer, lacrosse and rugby leagues. Post-Covid, if the City’s finances improve, it might be possible to have a few hours per week when the facility will be open to the public, but as with all artificial turf fields, all uses must be supervised to preserve the “grass.”

No picnics at this park. No snacks either.

The field the sports people wanted is so big that there wasn’t even room for a jogging track.

Normally I’m a huge booster for sports fields, but this important corner was not the place for a fenced-off park. The site is too important to the neighborhood and its connection to the Civic Center. The blocks coming up from the beach should be a lively stretch of urban geography, open and attractive to all. The street was ruined in the 50s when the Civic Auditorium, with its ugly back turned to the street, replaced Belmar, but reorientating the site back towards the street was possible in the context of a new, mixed-use cultural district.

The back of the Civic, facing the neighborhood, as seen from Pico. A violent act of 50s-era urban vandalism.

My chagrin was multiplied because of what I witnessed as a member of the CWG. I know there are true believers in the sports fields for the sake of sports fields, who worked for the fields back in 2005. I know some of them personally and respect them, even if I disagree with them about this location. It was evident, however, during the CWG planning process that most of the support for the field came from the faction of Santa Monicans that is anti anything new, particularly housing or commercial development. They were able to use the sports fields as leverage against development, and the sports field people were able to use the anti’s to get their field. It was a synergistic relationship.

So, 22 years after Santa Monica voters approved the Civic Center plan 60-40, the opponents of the plan had won.

The final chagrin-producing event came when the sports field had to get final approval at the Coastal Commission. The sports field boosters were worried that the commission might not agree with fencing off public land so close to the beach. They came up with the argument that because the City had used eminent domain to buy the land for public use from the Belmar neighbors in the 50s, and since the sports field was a public use (at least in their view), the commission should approve the field. It was like saying that reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, redlining and everything else that has befallen Black people could be handled by building fields for soccer, lacrosse and rugby.

Imagine how I felt when on the day of the Coastal Commission hearing I got a call from a friend from the preservation community, who was at the hearing, telling me that the sports field boosters were using my articles about Belmar to support their case. Now I know how Bruce Springsteen feels when a right-wing candidate blasts “Born in the USA” at a rally. (By the way, to correct something that the boosters have said since, the CWG made it a key point in our report that whatever would be built, the Belmar neighborhood had to be commemorated.)

The good news was that the Coastal Commission, after hearing from Dr. Jefferson, approved the sports field only on the condition that the City include a commemoration of Belmar. That resulted in the Belmar History + Art project.

The remaining question is what happens to the Civic Auditorium. The sports field has made rehabbing and reopening the Civic as a performance venue impossible because on its own, without subsidy from development of the surrounding land, the Civic, once it’s been rehabbed, is not financially viable. Much like the debacle at 4th and Arizona, the City owns valuable land but is paralyzed because of an inherently contentious public process.

The only solution is for the City to turn over the Civic and the remaining land, including the land on top of the two water retention projects the City is building there, to affordable housing developers to build a mix of low and moderate income affordable housing. The housing could preserve and reuse the Civic’s façade and lobby, which are the most important architectural elements. New construction could be oriented towards and help rejuvenate Pico. Housing could also be built on Main Street, along with a publicly accessible small park, with a playground.

But this will probably have to wait until the last Baby Boomer who saw a concert at the Civic has died.

Thanks for reading.

Nostalgia is not history

There are more than a division’s worth of soldiers in Washington to assure a safe, if no longer 100% peaceful, transition of power to Joe Biden. In that context, it is hard to live by Tip O’Neill’s adage and my usual mantra, “all politics is local.” The name of this blog, however, includes “local,” and local politics don’t stop because of what happens in the wider world. I’m reminded of Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001. The then City Manager, the formidable Susan McCarthy, kept City Hall open, declaring that to shut down the operations of government would be to hand a victory to the terrorists. I remember because I attended a zoning hearing that morning in City Hall to testify for a neighbor who needed a variance.

If Susan McCarthy could keep City Hall operating after 9/11, I’m not going to let a bunch of lunatic putschists in Washington prevent me from writing about why it’s okay to tear down the History Building at Santa Monica High School.

The entrance to the History Building at Samohi.

You may not be aware of the Samohi History Building controversy, because it has played out more in social media and by means of on-line petitions than in the press (although you can read about it here). What’s happening is that the School District is more than five years into the planning of the “Samohi Campus Plan” (SCP), a 25-year project to remake the Santa Monica High School campus, which itself is the product of many years of agonizing about what to do with the high school campus. Construction has begun; however, the SCP is a project with nine phases of construction, and the District is now only about to start Phase 3.

Phase 3 will require the demolition of the History Building, which is one of a cluster of four school buildings constructed or reconstructed as New Deal, WPA projects after the Long Beach Earthquake destroyed the original campus that dated back to 1913. Under the SCP, three of the buildings (History, Business, Art) will ultimately be demolished; a fourth, the English building, will be adapted and reused for administrative offices.

Current layout of the Samohi campus. The New Deal Cluster consists of the English, History, Business and Art Buildings.

Although the plans to demolish the History Building (and the other buildings) have been public knowledge, and well-publicized, since 2016, it is only now that preservationists, organized by the Santa Monica Conservancy, are demanding that the District “pause” the SCP to evaluate adaptive reuse possibilities. This request for a pause, however, is disingenuous, since preserving the three New Deal buildings, all of which had their historic integrity compromised by later renovations, would gut the SCP. The fundamental principle of the SCP is to realign the academic buildings around open space, to better connect the campus. This would be impossible if the New Deal buildings are retained. Saving them would require creating an entirely new plan, and I have to assume the preservationists know this. Here’s the landscaping plan for the new campus.

The yellow buildings will be constructed. (Note that one existing building, the Innovation Building in the northeast corner, is in fact new, having been constructed in 2105.) (This map is from the EIR; I’ve been informed that since the EIR changes have been made, but that they do not change the functioning materially.)

Ironically, the new plan, in its use of connecting open space, harks back to the original plan of the high school, when the academic buildings were concentrated around open space. Here’s a photo of the campus from 1925:

It was not easy for me to decide to oppose the Conservancy on the fate of the New Deal buildings. The Conservancy is one of my favorite organizations in town. I’ve long been a member. I was pleased to work with preservationists in the effort, probably futile now, to save the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. And speaking of favorite things, one of mine is the New Deal.

But the New Deal was not about buildings as buildings, it was about a vision of the future, a future structured by public investment in buildings, etc., that served the public. Sometimes the history of a place is more important than the preservation of artifacts. The real history of the Santa Monica High School campus—as opposed to the nostalgia—is a history of continual reinvestment, renewal, and rethinking. The buildings themselves (and without regard to intervening modifications) are not the history; they merely reflect the history.

Santa Monica voters passed a major bond issue in 1911 to build a new and bigger campus for the high school on Prospect Hill. The campus opened in 1913. As mentioned, the campus was destroyed by the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, and reconstructed with WPA funds. Then after World War II, to accommodate the Baby Boom generation, more bonds were passed, the campus was doubled in size (with land taken by eminent domain from African American and other historical “minorities,” but that’s another story), and most of the current campus was built. (That’s when the WPA buildings were remodeled. Fortunately no one is protesting the coming demolition of the 1960-era buildings.)

The Santa Monica community has always supported its schools with bonds. That’s the history: Santa Monicans want the best educations for their children and they’re willing to pay.

In the ’90s, when it was apparent that the facilities built generations before were wearing out, voters began passing bond issues to rebuild. Most of the bond money has gone to rehabilitating existing schools, and that’s largely been a good thing for the elementary schools, but the question of what to do with the high school was always there. It was recognized that much of the physical plant was impractical for current modes of instruction, and the campus was hard to get around, especially for students between classes. (My son went there, and he’s my source.) The buildings and grounds were in generally poor condition. For a time, there was talk of using the City’s redevelopment funds to help with some of the rebuilding, but that plan fell apart.

The School District decided some years ago to go bold, and that boldness resulted in the SCP. Most of the existing buildings will be torn down, and a spectacular new campus will take their place. Bravo. Look, I don’t pretend to know anything about the best way to teach adolescents in the 21st century, but if you study the SCP (you can read about it in the Environmental Impact Report), you have to be impressed with how much thought the District has put into the plan.

The purpose of the School District is to educate, not to preserve buildings if they no longer serve that purpose. Frankly, it’s outrageous for the Conservancy, especially since it’s been four years after the plans to demolish the buildings were publicized, to now tell the School Board to throw out its plans for the high school.

Thanks for reading. And all the best to Joe and Kamala! Let’s help them save our country.

To save democracy: 1. Prosecute. 2. Reorient the economy.

“It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.” From Section 1 of the National Labor Relations Act.

In my last post I wrote that the first necessary step after last week’s failed insurrection is to prosecute the perpe-traitors, relentlessly. Arrests are taking place across the country. Prosecutors should find plenty incriminating and illuminating information when they have warrants to search the perps’ phones and computers.

Included in this first step is the immediate impeachment of Trump. That bit of justice is moving forward; I won’t add much to the discussion. Impeachment or even conviction would not preclude criminal prosecution. If the Department of Justice files criminal charges against Trump, prosecutors should be able to obtain warrants to search his cell phone, too. I wonder what they would find in that search.

The second necessary course of action will be longer-term. It must begin now, however. That step is a reorientation of the American economy to benefit working people. Judging by the appointments Joe Biden is making, and what he’s been saying since the election, this will be the primary focus, beyond fixing Covid-19, of the Biden administration. This is not only a matter of justice, but also will be crucial for the Democrats to win the 2022 mid-term elections, the next “most important election” in our lives.

The cretins who stormed the Capitol are the latest iteration of a long history of renegade, often racist, violence in our culture. These malevolent forces have always been present, notwithstanding our “shining city on a hill” self-image. I suspect that the great-grandparents, or even the grandparents, of many of those who stormed the Capitol instigated or joined lynch mobs—and bought the postcards afterwards.

Yet the impact these atavistic forces have waxes and wanes with the amount of oxygen they receive from the broader culture. Today what fuels them comes not only from an amoral president who feasted off their adoration, but also from what has fueled him: the grievances of people who have been left behind by a globalized economy organized for half a century on neoliberal principles that favor capital over labor.

There will always be demagogues who feed on grievances, using them, twisting them, for their own purposes, without any regard for the well-being of the aggrieved. The aggrieved are means to their ends of having power for the sake of power. John Maynard Keynes and others recognized that economic ruin led to totalitarianism. They argued that liberal government had to have the substantive purpose, beyond its own liberal structure, of ensuring that the people were secure in their economic lives.

During the Depression and after World War II, these economists and others (“New Dealers” here in America) were able to shape the economic rules to create a system that was capitalistic, but that had as its primary purpose the raising of the standard of living of, and the creation of a social structure that protected, working people, while also protecting middle-class investors by regulating the world of finance.

Regulated capitalism, joined with public investment in capital projects and social services, was wildly successful in the industrialized democracies and in many other countries around the world. However, although capitalists made money, the controls on capital and the costs of the social benefits rankled the worlds of finance.

When Republicans took control of the economy, with the elections of Nixon in 1968 and Reagan in 1980, they began to dismantle the post-War system, decontrolling movements of goods and capital while weakening the power of labor. Since then, the economic lives of working people have been in decline in both absolute and relative terms. Whole regions of the industrial world, and great cities, were left to fend for themselves. What had been good union jobs in factories became, at best for those who could find them, poorly-paid service jobs, which have now devolved into “gigs.”

While Trump’s base centers itself in the white working class in the “Rust Belt,” and extends into small towns and rural areas also left behind, the damage wasn’t limited to those areas. Here in Los Angeles, for instance, African-American and Latinx workers and communities were hit hard when factories shut down. Cities in the Northeast and Midwest with large African-American populations were devastated.

Fixing the economy, post-neoliberalism, in no way should be considered catering to the Trump base. In fact, Democrats, after the November election, are acutely aware that Trump made inroads in certain Latinx, Black, and immigrant communities using economic fears. Democrats must address the concerns of all victims of neoliberal capitalism, no matter where they live or now they vote.

President-Elect Biden understands this. While job number one will be to stop the pandemic, I expect his administration will meanwhile be the most favorable to labor since the Kennedy and Johnson administrations more than half a century ago.

Last Thursday, in a talk the President-Elect gave introducing his economic team, including his nominee for Labor Secretary, he said something that I don’t recall ever hearing a politician say. Namely, Biden reminded us that federal labor law does not merely provide that workers may form unions, but that the policy of the United States is to encourage collective bargaining. (See the language above from the National Labor Relations Act.)

In his talk, President-Elect Biden spoke about how he intended to work (with the new Secretary of Labor, and with a shout-out to Bernie Sanders) on an “agenda of increasing worker power.” Unfortunately, he won’t get to appoint his own General Counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (a crucial post) until November, or reestablish a Democratic majority on the NLRB until 2022. In the meantime, though, he will immediately push for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 and we can expect other measures to help workers. (Now that the Democrats control the Senate’s agenda.)

These measures will only be a start on reorienting the economy to benefit working people. But they will be a sign.

Thanks for reading. And stay safe.

Prosecute the Perpe-traitors

I watched more C-SPAN into the wee hours Thursday than I’d watched ever before. My main purpose was to be “there” when Congress certified the election of Joe Biden, but along the way I was fascinated by the rhetoric.

The senators and representatives often quoted from Abraham Lincoln. I, for one, can never get enough Lincoln, but I was infuriated when Republicans trying to subvert the election twisted sacred words for their dark purposes. I didn’t hear anyone repeat, however, the words of Lincoln that came to my mind when watching the vandalism of the Capitol. Those words are these, from the Second Inaugural Address:

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Lincoln was reminding the nation that the Civil War was the price they, both North and South, were paying for centuries of slavery.

The storming of the Capitol, the breaching of the portals of liberty, democracy, and law, was the price we all paid for a society and a culture and a politics that allowed, and that perhaps made inevitable, a criminal charlatan, a wannabe dictator, to become president. I have my views as to how our society, culture and politics became what they are, and who is to blame and in what degree, but that’s beside the point. As Lincoln also said in the Second Inaugural, “let us judge not that we be not judged.”

The issue is what to do. I see two necessary courses of action, one of which I’ll write about now, one I’ll write about in my next blog in a day or two.

The first necessary step is prosecuting the perpe-traitors, all of them who can be identified, to, and let’s mean it for once, the full extent of the law. That won’t be enough, however. We must continue to use the law to suppress political violence, which in this country has nearly always come from the Right. I am hopeful this will happen.

On Thursday, the day after the attack on our government, President-Elect Biden introduced Merrick Garland to be the next Attorney General. In his remarks, Biden reminded us of a historical fact that he and Garland had just been discussing, namely that the Department of Justice (DOJ) was only established in 1870, specifically because the federal government now needed prosecutors to protect the federal rights enshrined in the three post-Civil War constitutional amendments. This effort tragically ceased with the Compromise of 1877 and Supreme Court decisions that handed the fruits of the North’s victory in the war over to the South.

The Civil Rights Act of 1957 is not as well remembered as the stronger legislation of the ’60s, but it did create the Civil Rights Division in the DOJ. This was a return to the DOJ’s original purpose, and federal prosecutions were crucial in marginalizing and to great extent crushing the KKK and similar white terror groups, as well as protecting voting and civil rights. This effort faltered in recent years with more conservative Republican administrations and with their Federalist Society judges coming to dominate the courts. (The Supreme Court’s decision to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act was particularly damaging.) This path, of course, reached the nadir with Trump, who has positively encouraged right-wing vigilantes and militias.

While he is best known for his doomed nomination to the Supreme Court, as a federal prosecutor Merrick Garland supervised the prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombers (remember, another attack on a federal building). We can be hopeful that he understands the crucial role the DOJ will play. As is often said these days, “elections have consequences.” Attacking elections must have consequences as well.

In the meantime, until Jan. 20, the FBI has vowed to track down and prosecute every criminal who invaded the Capitol on Wednesday. They need to do so, and to start at the top.

I hated the Trumpian cheer “lock her up,” and so I never liked the idea of prosecuting Trump once he was out of office. That was then, this is now. With this attack on democracy, I’ve changed my mind. When you look not only at Trump’s speech on Wednesday to the mob, but also at all the tweets he sent in December telling his followers to come to Washington on the very day that Congress would be certifying the election, the evidence indicates that he intended to incite the riot that took place for the purpose of disrupting the transfer of power.

A riot that resulted in the death of a police officer. Accessory to murder?

Prosecute the perpe-traitors.

Thanks for reading. Stay safe, and take care.

To district or not to district

The three Santa Monica City Council incumbents who were defeated in the recent election opposed district elections for the council and supported the City’s defense against the lawsuit to bring district elections to Santa Monica. According to an article in the Lookout, their replacements, who include Oscar de la Torre, one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit, support district elections. That raises the question whether there might now be four votes on the council to abandon the defense against the lawsuit and agree to a settlement that would include district elections.

To give a brief procedural history, the plaintiffs, who brought their suit under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) in early 2018, won in trial court, and the judge ordered district elections that included a Pico Neighborhood district (see map). The City appealed, and the decision was overturned. The plaintiffs have now appealed to the California Supreme Court and briefs are scheduled to be filed in December.

The Pico district ordered by the trial judge.

I hope the City Council does not settle, as I don’t believe district elections would increase the political power of Latinx residents and other historical minorities in Santa Monica.

As I wrote in 2018 not long after the litigation had begun, “usually I’m in favor of district voting, so long as there isn’t gerrymandering, not only because it can diversify who is elected, but also because it’s easier for candidates to run in smaller districts.” But what I wrote then to explain why I didn’t believe districts would be a good idea in Santa Monica still holds:

“Why [not]? Because those same council members who get elected over and over are so paranoid about not being reelected, that they try to please anyone who votes, and that includes, for all of them, residents of the Pico Neighborhood. In that sense, the neighborhood is well represented. And, if you include the school board and the college board along with the council, we have a good record of electing minorities. As a result, I don’t see the logic for the lawsuit, although if districting comes, it would make it less expensive and easier for new candidates to run, which would be a good thing in and of itself.”

Moreover, since I wrote that, in the course of the litigation, it has become apparent that because of the demographics and housing patterns of Santa Monica districting here won’t, or can’t, solve the problems that the CVRA was enacted to solve. It has also become apparent, ironically, that the current system does not prevent members of historic minorities from winning election. Not only did De la Torre win election, but Christine Parra, who is Latina, did also. Meanwhile, Kristin McCowan, who is African-American, won in the election (albeit one that was uncontested) for the balance of former Council Member Greg Morena’s term. (McCowan had been appointed this summer to replace Morena).

Using districts to remedy voting discrimination against minority populations works in jurisdictions where residential segregation is extreme and where the majority population has used at-large elections, or other means, to dilute minority voting power. Santa Monica does have a history of residential segregation. As a result of that history, few African-American and Latinx residents live north of Santa Monica Boulevard (and to a lesser extent south of Pico Boulevard). However, reflecting the relatively low percentage of historic minority residents in Santa Monica (about 16% of Santa Monica residents are Latinx, 10% Asian, and 5% Black), a lot of Anglos also live south of Santa Monica Boulevard, including in the Pico Neighborhood.

As a result, in the course of the litigation it proved impossible to create a district map by which a majority of Latinx residents could be grouped in one or more districts that were even substantially Latinx. The best district the plaintiffs came up with would be about 30% Latinx, but a majority of the city’s Latinx residents would still live outside the district.

There was a lot of discussion in the Court of Appeal ruling about whether a non-majority Latinx district could be a suitable remedy under the CVRA for discrimination against minority voters, and the plaintiffs have appealed on the grounds that it should not be necessary under the CVRA to have a majority-minority district. To me, however, that discussion skips the primary question; namely, what happens to the voting power of the majority of Latinx residents not included in the “Latinx district”?

The plaintiff’s remedy, districts, would put a lot, but not a majority, of Latinx residents in a district where they theoretically would have more power and representation in one election every four years. Meanwhile a majority of Latinx residents (along with all other voters in the city) would lose the right every two years to vote for four or three council members. How would that increase Latinx voting power? A minority of Latinx voters would trade the right to vote for all council members for a somewhat better chance of electing a Latinx candidate in one district, but the majority of Latinx voters would lose the right to vote for all council members while getting nothing in return.

Meanwhile, five or six council members would be elected from districts with very few or nearly no Latinx or African-American voters. What would that do to the political power of historic minorities in Santa Monica? On a national level it has been recognized for some time that the creation in the South of districts that enabled the election of African-Americans, while necessary given the historic realities of Jim Crow and the post-Reconstruction denial of the right to vote, has also led to gerrymandering (“packing and cracking”) that has isolated Black political power and enabled right-wing dominance.

There are arguments in favor of districts that are unconnected to the voting rights of historic minorities. I have friends who believe that they would be better represented by having a representative from their own neighborhoods. They believe district representatives would be more accessible and responsive. As I wrote in 2018, it’s easier to run for office in a small district. Certainly, at some point jurisdictions get so big that the only viable structure is to have representatives from districts.

But there are downsides. Think of the City of Los Angeles, where each council member rules his or her fiefdom (each of which has nearly three times the population of Santa Monica), and any action at the City Council level, including every major development, requires horse trading among the council members. It’s been almost impossible to have citywide planning.

If a jurisdiction has districts, the public needs an elected strong executive so that someone represents everyone, as a whole. Perhaps Santa Monica is big enough for an elected mayor, and as I wrote recently, there is an accountability problem with the city manager system, but that’s a major political issue all by itself. (I want to mention in fairness to De la Torre that he himself has recognized this issue and the need for an elected mayor if we go to districts.)

I hope that before the new council members vote to settle the lawsuit, they reflect on whether they were elected to take away the right of all Santa Monicans, including a majority of Latinx residents, to vote for all seven seats on the City Council.

Thanks for reading.

The asteroid that hit Santa Monica

During the election, I wrote two blogs, one about the national election and one about the election for Santa Monica City Council. In neither did I make predictions, but for the national election I expressed my “gut” belief that the election would be an earth-shattering, “realignment” election, based on which Democrats would set the agenda for the next 30 or 40 years. I had faith that it would be like an asteroid hitting earth. So much for faith, but at least Joe Biden won. (When all the votes have been counted, I’ll write more about the national election.)

I didn’t predict any results in Santa Monica, or even express any gut beliefs, but that was because I didn’t think I needed to. In my blog, reflecting on the dire circumstances in the city, I lamented the lack of a “principled opposition.” Nonetheless I wrote that I would vote for all of the incumbents, with enthusiasm. When I say I didn’t need to make predictions, that was because so few incumbents had lost reelection bids over the past 40 years, not since Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) had become the dominant political force in the city. I expected the incumbents would win reelection, too.

Instead, the asteroid hit Santa Monica. Leaving aside Kristin McGowan, who was running unopposed in a special election, three of the four incumbents facing challengers—Terry O’Day, Ted Winterer, and Ana Maria Jara—lost. Only one, Gleam Davis, survived the impact of the extraterrestrial rock.

As a longtime observer of and sometimes participant in Santa Monica politics, I’ve been trying to figure out what happened.

Context is, of course everything. This election reminded me of the elections of 2002 and 1994, which, like this one, took place in fraught times—after riots and terrorist attacks, during economic slowdowns and/or housing and stock market busts. In 2002 no incumbents lost reelection, but just as unusual in Santa Monica, an education parcel tax failed. In 1994 incumbent Tony Vazquez lost, and was replaced with Ruth Ebner. Ebner is pretty much forgotten, but she is to this day my best example of unprincipled (and unbridled) opposition. I wasn’t involved in Santa Monica politics in 1983, but an “older-timer” told me this election reminded him of that of 1983, the first time SMRR lost a majority.

The context today is miserable. The virus is dispiriting, that’s a given, but no one blames the City Council for that, and the City’s response to the disease of Covid has been good. Instead, what defines the political context are the boarded-up storefronts downtown, drastically reduced city services in response to the virus’ hit on the City’s revenues, and the ongoing crisis of homelessness. The shadows cast by the terrible events of May 31 are as long as the shadows that hit the beach these days around 5:00 as the sun sinks directly across the bay.

Fourth Street this week.

I’ve been reviewing the campaign literature and ballot statements of the four challengers—winners Phil Brock, Christine Parra and Oscar de la Torre, and the fourth who didn’t win, Mario Fonda-Bonardi. The four ran as a slate. Their messaging was consistent and seized the moment. Typical phrases that they used incorporated words like “residents’ rights,” “fiscal accountability,” “public safety,” “reducing homelessness,” “zero tolerance for crime,” “stop overdevelopment,” “preserve the character of our community,” “reduce taxes,” “special interests,” and naturally, “it’s time for change.” To prove that they’re in Santa Monica, “protect renters” and “increase affordable housing,” are there, too.

Needless to say, they were fighting for the “soul of Santa Monica.”

Challengers previously have run on similar platforms, but incumbents have been able to win not only because of endorsements and the campaign financing that goes with them, but also because voters, even if they weren’t actively following local politics, recognized that they had it good living in Santa Monica, with its high level of services and progressive values. They assumed that there was competence behind those services. They didn’t realize that those services were greatly paid for with revenues generated by tourists, who disappeared with Covid, and that the competence was in the hands of managers who were rarely challenged by anyone, since they reported to a City Manager, not to elected officials or voters.

The budget and the services went down the toilet with Covid, and the aura of competence first dimmed when the City Manager was fired (or quit, I really don’t know) in the middle of the financial crisis, and then went dark entirely on May 31.

My theory is that local voters, swelled with interest in politics this year because of the national election, and alarmed at the local crises, paid more attention than usual to the local election, but not enough to become deeply informed. They read the ballot statements and accepted at face-value the claims of the challengers to be reformers who would deal with the city’s crises.

In fact, the challengers proposed bromides, not solutions.

Take homelessness, the shame and tragedy of our society. The challengers, three of whom will now be council members, campaigned that they could drastically reduce homelessness in the city, which they said was worse here than elsewhere. The situation in Santa Monica is terrible, of course, as elsewhere in the region, but have 40 years of conscientious efforts by the City to do something about made it worse? Have the challengers been over the border, to Venice, or West L.A., and seen the tent cities in L.A.? We don’t have those in Santa Monica because we have a proactive, services-oriented, housing-first approach to homelessness that incorporates services with policing.

The incumbents for the most part campaigned with cool rationality—too cool, probably. It wasn’t time for business as usual. In retrospect, their campaigns didn’t take into account the emotions of the moment.

Inevitably, since in normal times most political controversies in Santa Monica involve development, the question arises whether the victories of the challengers reflect a no-growth mandate. While the challengers tend to be from the slow growth side, if in different degrees, development was not the big issue they ran on. The challenger most identified with no-growth, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, lost. The incumbent who survived, Gleam Davis, is a favorite target of those opposed to development.

Still, from what I can tell, the anti-development groups provided a lot of the energy behind the challengers’ campaigns. That cannot be discounted. The City is now embarking on a new update to the Housing Element of its General Plan, an update that is required every five years. The City has legal obligations to plan for a level of housing development beyond what I imagine the new council members and certainly their no-growth backers would willingly agree to. I wonder how this will play out. In the 90s the City was sued over its Housing Element, which was found legally deficient.

A political asteroid hit Santa Monica. But was this a realignment election? Is the SMRR era over? SMRR has always rebounded from defeats in the past, but how could it be that thousands of renters must have defected from SMRR this year? Will the debris kicked up by the asteroid’s impact darken our skies for years?

No answers here. Just congratulations to the winners. (Good luck.)

Thanks for reading.

Howard Dean, Prophet

Taking place in a year when extreme political polarization collided with catastrophic reality, the election next week has the potential to be the political equivalent of an asteroid hitting earth.

Either way. Both sides are claiming that if their candidate loses, the election will have been stolen, either through fraudulent ballots or suppressed voters. Both sides predict the country will fail if the other candidate wins – by subversion of our democracy leading to authoritarianism if Trump wins or by socialism if Biden wins.

Trump’s strategy has been to focus on getting more of his base to vote. Since there are a lot of disaffected, non-college educated white voters who didn’t vote in 2016, it’s a plausible strategy. Plausible enough to keep me awake at night.

But I hope that the polls showing Joe Biden with a big lead, and Democrats challenging Republicans everywhere, are correct, and that they take into account that any increased voting from the Trump base will be more than matched by increased votes for Democratic candidates. That is what happened in 2018.

Again, that is what I hope. I don’t know enough about polling to make predictions.

I believe, however, that next Tuesday will be a great day in our country’s history. I believe that not only will Joe Biden win in a landslide, with more than 55 percent of the popular vote and at least 350 electoral votes, but also that Democrats will flip seven or eight Senate seats and add 15 more Democrats to the House. Next Tuesday will be like the election of 1932, and remake politics for a generation or longer.

On what do I base this belief?

On a trying-to-be-rational level, I base my belief not only on the 2018 elections, but also on the many special elections Democrats have won in red districts since 2018. Democrats are fired up. I expect that as in 2018, in 2020 there will be more new Democratic voters than new Republican voters.

In fact, however, my belief that Nov. 3 will go down in history as a Democratic realignment election like 1932 is based on something more than rationality, something that’s more from the “gut.” On faith, I suppose. Faith that Americans get serious when threatened by a profound crisis (in this case, crises). Faith that it has been at those historical moments—“inflection points” is the trendy term—that Americans radically realign their politics to center them again around liberal values.

The concept of a “realigning election” is a simplification, but even if elections don’t realign anything themselves, it is true that voters do realign. Realignment can take place over time or quickly. The Depression led to the New Deal era, which saw a profound realignment that resulted in the “New Deal coalition.” The switch of many white voters from Democrats to Republicans, which took place in stages, starting in the South, after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the social changes of the ’60s, was a realignment. Sooner or later realignments express themselves in elections. Of the nine presidential elections starting with 1932, Democrats won seven; of the ten starting in 1968 the Republicans won seven.

Realignments don’t occur in a vacuum. They reflect reactions to new realities.

With respect to the 2020 election, one reality was the election of Trump in 2016. There’s no question that Trump’s own personal characteristics are a reality that creates cognitive dissonance; just ask the Lincoln Project. No question that from the start, with the Women’s March in January 2017, the resistance grew.

Another new reality is the pandemic. There’s nothing like an “Act of God” to make people realize that they can have all the personal responsibility in the world and yet they still need a functioning government. Covid-19 is a nationwide Hurricane Katrina.

A third 2020 reality was the common revulsion against racism that followed the murder of George Floyd.

These specific, 2020 realities accelerated a realignment that was coming in any case. The pro-corporate, anti-labor, anti-environment economic program that began with Nixon and came into full fruition under Reagan, hit the inevitable wall, culminating in the Great Recession. The failure of Reaganomics to deliver results to masses of people, including, by the way, the white victims-of-capitalism who support Trump because he expresses their anger and says he feels their pain, is killing this country, tearing us apart. Yet that reality is, at the same time, fundamentally altering politics back towards a new, New Deal.

Meanwhile the demographic and generational change that has long been predicted to move the country leftwards is taking place. This is another new reality. Not only is the electorate more diverse, as immigrants and their children become voters, but also younger (and Millennials and Gen-Z are even more diverse than the whole of the population), more tolerant, and open more to change. The young also care more about climate change and other environmental issues.

It’s not only the young who comprise generational change: there’s a new middle-aged and getting older generation of educated people, particularly the females of that cohort, who see that good government is more than a zero-sum game about how much you pay in taxes. Conservative members of the Silent Generation and older Boomers, are, as happens to all, passing on.

Next week’s election is a great opportunity for the Left. While Trump, racial justice, and Covid-19 occupy center stage, the results of 2018 and, I would argue, Barack Obama’s election in 2008, were already evidence of realignment. It’s no accident that in spring of 2019 Joe Biden and the other principal Democratic candidates for president all already had significant leads in the polls over Trump.

The Left has seized the opportunity. At last, in vindication of Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, Democrats are active everywhere. The drivers of the expansive strategy, however, are the grassroots, not the party leadership. The money pouring into more than a dozen purple-state U.S. Senate candidates and several dozen purple-district House candidates (on top of 40 or so flips in 2018) was not orchestrated by the DNC, the DSCC or the DCCC. (All the people needed, it turned out, was ActBlue.)

The consensus that took place overnight among all the factions behind all the presidential candidates to unite behind Joe Biden also evidenced a sense of shared purpose unusual among the Left. (For once no one is taking seriously third-party candidates yapping about “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference.”)

The fact that our candidate, Joe Biden, has the confidence (and the money) to expand the map not only into red states, but also into historically Republican areas of every state, is more evidence that voters are realigning.

In times of extraordinary crisis and upheaval the American electorate has sometimes turned inward and rejected a positive governmental approach to solving problems. More often it has reacted to crises by recognizing the need for governmental and other collective action. I believe – I have faith – that this will happen Nov. 3.

Not a prediction. And not something that auto-actualizes. Keep making calls, sending texts, knocking on doors (but be safe). Vote and make sure everyone you know votes. Let’s turn faith into reality.

Thanks for reading.

Women’s March, January 2017

Stay the course, Santa Monica, but …

We California voters are receiving our ballots in the mail this week. When I fill mine out, which will be soon, I’m going to mark it in favor of the five incumbents running for Santa Monica City Council: Gleam Davis, Ana Maria Jara, Terry O’Day and Ted Winterer, running for the four-year term, and Kristin McCowan running (unopposed) for the two years remaining in what was Greg Morena’s first term.

Three of these candidates, Davis, O’Day and Winterer, are long-time incumbents and I know them well. They are thoughtful and conscientious and work hard as members of the City Council in good times and bad. They deserve our support as the City faces challenges unprecedented in living memory.

Dealing with the three specifically:

Once upon a time I included Ted Winterer into the “Santa Monicans Fearful of Change” category, which he protested, and while Winterer can still be a bit nervous about zoning for more apartments, overall he’s a politician with real grace who listens to all sides of an argument and does his best to craft progressive solutions.

It shouldn’t be news to my readers that of all the council members, the views of Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis are most closely aligned with mine, particularly when it comes to housing development, supporting unions, environmental issues, and closing Santa Monica Airport.

The other incumbent running for a full, four-year term, Ana Maria Jara, has been in office for nearly two years. Since I’ve been less active in Santa Monica politics lately, I don’t know her personally as well as the other three. However, I have paid attention to her votes and what she brings to the council and the City. She is just what the City needs more of: a City Council member who is not defined primarily by her views about development. Jara comes out of the social and economic justice world, and her worldview is different from the “First World problems” orientation of so much of politics here.

I know Kristin McCowan only from what I’ve read about her, what I’ve seen her do on the (virtual) dais since her appointment, and what longtime Santa Monicans have told me about her and her family’s involvement in Santa Monica over the years. What I’ve seen, however, and learned about her, is inspiring and I hope she will become a beacon for the next generation of leadership.

You might think that with this excellent group of incumbents to vote for I would be happy about the state of politics in Santa Monica, but I’m not. The political status quo in our city is perilous. As happy as I am voting for the incumbents, because they’re good, it’s not healthy to have politics without a credible opposition, and a credible opposition is something Santa Monica lacks.

Back in May, with Juan Matute, I wrote two blogs about how obscure the finances of the City were. No one seemed to know how much money the City had available to it to help ride out the Covid-19 storm. Then at the end of May the civil disturbances after the murder of George Floyd broke out, with the twin fiascos of how police dealt with protestors (which also involved the City’s misuse of curfews that criminalized peaceful protests and caused more problems), and the looting that took place downtown.

Real life in the form of admittedly extreme events—the pandemic and the nation’s overdue response to systemic racism—exposed the reality that the City Council needs to supervise staff more closely. Santa Monica has a City Manager form of government, which means that the executive branch of our local government does not answer to the public in elections. The City Manager runs nearly everything and hires everyone except the City Attorney, yet the City Manager is not a mayor who answers to the people. The City Council must be not only a legislative body, but also the “electorate” that oversees the executive.

I believe that the incumbents running for reelection understand this, but what we lack in Santa Monica is an opposition that credibly questions how the City Council fulfills its role. This doesn’t mean that if there were such an opposition, I would not still in this case vote for the incumbents, but at least the important issues would be raised and there might be real alternatives.

Instead in Santa Monica the opposition has taken the form of the kind of nihilism that plagues so much of American politics today. I know three of the main candidates running against the incumbents well, and none of them would bring to City Council either policies or an approach that would serve Santa Monica constructively. Whatever their politics are outside of Santa Monica, their rhetoric within the city sounds like the Tea Party.

Mario Fonda-Bonardi, as a Planning Commissioner and columnist, has put forward a constant stream of phony progressive mumbo-jumbo designed to hide adamant opposition to building a city for the next generation. He is par excellence a Santa Monican Fearful of Change.

Phil Brock has a long history in Santa Monica public affairs, but it’s a long history of saying anything to please whomever he is speaking to, and then invariably catering to the squeakiest wheel.

I formerly was a strong supporter of Oscar de la Torre (even once drafting for him a long defense, to give to the City Council, of his management of the Pico Youth and Family Center), but he lost me somewhere between his careerism at the Center, his embrace of anti-housing policies, and then his joining with fee-seeking lawyers to bring the district elections lawsuit. Given the demographics of Santa Monica, district elections might benefit de la Torre personally, but they would diminish the clout of Hispanic voters rather than increase it.

I don’t know Christine Parra, and she seems to be a well-respected civil servant in Culver City, but there’s nothing in her campaign that goes beyond the usual “let’s keep them out” slogans.

It didn’t use to be this way in Santa Monica. Back in the 90s when I became actively involved in local politics, there was content in the political conflict we had, and real choices. Then as now Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) was the dominate political force, and overall that was good for Santa Monica, but the platforms of the opposition politicians were more than various combinations of “Raise the Drawbridge!” and “Throw the Bums Out.” Whether you voted for them or not, council members like Bob Holbrook, the late Herb Katz, Bobby Shriver, and Paul Rosenstein cared about the city and its future in a changing world and brought constructive ideas to the discourse. There was pluralism within SMRR as well: “development skeptics” who received the SMRR endorsement, council members I often disagreed with such as the late Ken Genser and Michael Feinstein, had nuanced views, cared about social justice, and often surprised everyone (including themselves!) with their votes.

To reiterate: please join me and vote for all five incumbents. Happily. They’re good people. But here’s hoping for a rebirth of a principled opposition.

Thanks for reading.

A very stable election, or? (And return to the Miramar Hotel)

As we go crazy in response to the latest Trump provocation, the latest being his saying he won’t leave the White House if he’s not declared the winner immediately, or we go just as crazy in response to the latest article or column (even from David Brooks!), telling us to be prepared to hit the barricades if Trump won’t give up, it’s important to remember that the shape of this election, as described in poll after poll, has been stable since Joe Biden declared his candidacy 18 months ago.

Then, as the other Democratic candidates were arguing over details of their policy proposals, Biden entered the race and correctly diagnosed what the election was about, namely, in his words, “the soul of America.” Thankfully, Rep. Jim Clyburn and the Black voters of South Carolina rescued the country. Can you imagine if now, after all that’s happened this year, we were running against Trump on anything other than his manifest unfitness to be president?

Biden began his campaign polling about six points ahead of Trump, and that’s where he is today. The polls have been preternaturally stable, through one event after another. Let’s hope that leads holds (or increases!) for another month, because to be safe in the Electoral College, Biden needs a national margin of four or five points.

As is often discussed, the national polls in 2016 were largely correct, but state polling in the industrial heartland was off because the views of non-college-educated voters were undercounted. Trump, in basing his 2020 campaign solely on motivating his base, is counting on the same phenomenon. I assume this is why Biden is now pushing the Scranton vs. Park Avenue argument. Good for him, attack Trump where he’s strong. Let’s pray, however, he doesn’t forget that his path to victory will be paved with the votes of women, particularly Black women.

Trump tries to make the election about “Sleepy Joe” – with crazy insults and everything else his meme-machine can generate (which the media always amplifies) – but Trump has not succeeded. Every few days there’s a new revelation about Trump, or there’s a new outrage from him, that turns the spotlight back on him. Trump loves the attention, but now it is illuminating just how much he doesn’t care about the American people.

• • •

Back to local news and an oldie and now a goodie: namely the redevelopment of the Miramar Hotel. After the project’s approval a few weeks ago by the Planning Commission, City Council will consider it at the council’s meeting Tuesday night.

The Miramar is a project that’s been in development for a decade, and I’ve written about it many times. (Search on “Miramar” in my blog, and you’ll see.) I most recently wrote about it two years ago, when the hotel released the third major iteration of the plan. As I wrote then, after two false starts, the third plan, developed with a new set of (much better) architects and by a new development team, was good. In two years since then of environmental analysis and other inputs, it’s become better. Third time’s the charm.

Artist’s conception of the new Miramar Hotel

The Miramar along with the Paper Mate project were the focal points of the revival of no-growth politics after the City adopted the Land Use and Circulation Elements of the general plan in 2010. Looking back, the level of hysteria about the plan then seems incredible, when you actually look at what’s being proposed. True, the hysteria was inflamed by the well-funded opposition of the neighboring Huntley Hotel; but since the Huntley was found to be at the center of political finance shenanigans by the California Fair Political Practices Commission and fined $310,000, the hotel’s opposition has been muted, or at least under the radar. It also didn’t help to create a calm atmosphere to evaluate the merits of the proposal when the hotel got into a spat with then rising political star Sue Himmelrich, who based her winning campaign in 2014 to a great extent on her opposition to the project.

The opponents, and this continues today with various mindless opposition pieces, argue that somehow the project is “monstrous.” But it is, when you get down to what is actually proposed, modest. There’s (i) replacement of the hotel (the room count stays about the same, increasing from 301 to 312, certainly not a mega, Vegas-type hotel), (ii) replacement of an old tallish building with a some new tallish (but not taller than nearby buildings) buildings, and (iii) the addition of 102 housing units – 60 fancy condominiums on the hotel site and 42 affordable units on land across from the hotel on Second Street that the hotel will donate to Community Corp. of Santa Monica (the Miramar will also pay the costs of building the affordable housing). (The original plan was somewhat bigger, calling for 132 units, of which only 12 would be affordable, but even adding 132 units to downtown Santa Monica would not have been noticeable in terms of any impacts. There are, after all, about 50,000 housing units in the city.)

Meanwhile, a rundown hotel that’s a key part of the downtown economy gets rebuilt for another century (creating quite significant amounts of tax revenues for the city and the school district out of thin air), the site gets opened up to the public, two historic assets (the big fig tree and one of the old buildings) get preserved, and the economy gets a big boost. The architecture is good, too.

This is the kind of change that cities are supposed to experience.

So, what’s the problem? There is no problem other than panic on the part of Santa Monicans Fearful of Change (SMFCs), and a new group I’ve come to identify as Santa Monicans Resentful of Someone Else Making Money (SMRSEMMs). It always kills me to hear anti-capitalist greed rhetoric coming from Santa Monicans who live in houses worth millions north of Montana or, in this case, live in the high-rise building on California that overlooks the Miramar.

Oh, all right, I’ll admit it: the SMRSEMMs don’t actually resent people making money. It’s just that the rhetoric works for SMFCs in a good, leftie town like Santa Monica.

Usually in Santa Monica the SMRSEMMs avoid the anti-Semitic imagery historically associated with anti-greed screeds, but it looks like people opposing the Miramar project couldn’t help themselves. Over the weekend in the Santa Monica Daily Press someone paid to insert a flyer (shame on the Daily Press for accepting it) making wild claims about the project (it will ruin Santa Monica!) that included this image of Michael Dell, the owner of the Miramar who happens to be Jewish:

Michael Dell as depicted in a flyer distributed by an apparently anonymous group called SMAME.org

Here’s what Dell looks like in real life:

Is that Michael Dell? I thought he had a bigger nose. And where’s all the cash? No piles of golden coins?

Thanks for reading. (And l’shana tova to my co-religionists. Have an easy fast if that’s what you do.)

Labor Day 2020: even this year, a lot of politics is local

Labor Day is the traditional start of the election campaign. While this is a quaint notion given that Donald Trump began running for reelection immediately upon being inaugurated, and Joe Biden has been running to replace him for going on two years, I’ll use it as a starting point for returning to my blog.

Labor Day is also a reminder that many of our current crises, and I’ll include our response to Covid-19, have roots in the Republican Party’s attack, going back 70 years to Taft-Hartley, on the rights of American workers to organize. If workers and the middle class of workers that unions created were receiving the share of the American economic pie that they received half a century ago, when unions set the agenda for wages and benefits, imagine how much less discontented Americans would be? Imagine how much less they’d be fighting among themselves for the scraps that fall from Wall Street’s table?

I have written primarily about politics from a local perspective for 20 years, starting with the 2000 election. This is one year, however, when I have to admit that Tip O’Neil’s declaration that “all politics is local” seems irrelevant. The issues at stake in the national election, not only for President but also for Congress, overwhelm local concerns. Nonetheless, I would still hold that the attitudes of voters take shape locally, given that anti- and pro- Trump votes can be arrayed over a geographic spectrum from the centers of cities to rural communities, whereby the farther you live from an urban center the more likely you are to support Trump.

The closer people live to each other, the more they must acknowledge the role of government. People who live in rural areas and in small towns, even though their lives and livelihoods are just as or even more dependent on government than those of people who live in cities, are not reminded everyday of that dependence. They believe passionately that they are independent, “free” of the need for government. Yet they get back more money from Washington than they send there, and these days Republican members of Congress from rural districts are scrambling to save the Post Office.

The cities have also been, since the end of the 19th century, where most immigrants have arrived and settled, and where Blacks from the South settled during the “Great Migration.” The nativist sentiments that Trump exploits are going to be stronger where there are more “natives” (paradoxically where there are fewer immigrants to bother them) even if those natives are often themselves descendants of the despised immigrants of a century ago. While there’s no doubt that changing demographics have caused tensions in cities over the years, ultimately city dwellers realize that they “have to get along,” to paraphrase the immortal words of Rodney King, and Trump’s appeals to xenophobia have been less successful among whites who live in cities and suburbs, and they have little appeal to the immigrants themselves, let alone to African-Americans.

So, I don’t know if all politics is local, but a lot of it is.

We saw that in the closing days of the recently-concluded session of the California legislature, where a host of housing bills died. I’m not endorsing every provision of every housing bill that failed, but in the face of a statewide housing crisis, a crisis that Governor Newsom promised to solve, it’s incredible that the legislature has let another year pass without taking significant action to make it easier to plan, finance, and build housing.

The obstacles to housing legislation are essentially local, but not necessarily in ways that are obvious.

The obvious local obstacle to housing legislation is that statewide laws limit the cherished powers of local governments over land use. Local governments, which have responded over the decades to constituents who oppose building apartments by zoning apartments out, claim, loudly but unconvincingly, that Sacramento does not need to limit their powers over land use to get more housing built. Nonetheless, I don’t believe that local government opposition has been the crucial factor preventing state legislation. By now a majority of legislators, and the governor, are ready to buck the interests of local governments and pass major housing legislation. The question is why they haven’t done so.

In-fill housing under construction in Santa Monica last year.

I would argue that the reason for the deadlock is that the elements of the Democratic coalition in Sacramento cannot agree on legislation that balances the interests of those elements. There is agreement if not consensus that the solution to the housing crisis, which has resulted in high housing costs for California’s middle and working classes and the shame of rampant homelessness, is to build more multi-unit buildings, in all forms from duplexes to apartment towers (as and where appropriate), as urban in-fill rather than more sprawl. There’s also broad agreement that the state needs housing for all income levels, notwithstanding that some “housers” from the “YIMBY” side push relaxed zoning requirements as a cure-all solution, and some housers from the anti-gentrification side push only for more affordable housing.

What happens in Sacramento, though, is that elements of the Democratic coalition resist housing legislation that affects the concerns of their constituents. These concerns aren’t ideological or national, even though they reflect issues that are general; they are what local politics is all about.

For instance, the building trades unions want to make sure that the housing that is enabled by statewide legislation does not undercut the wage rates of their members or their jobs. They argue that the good wages they have negotiated are what allow workers to afford housing, and they have a point. Given the real cost of building housing (independent of wage rates), a good case can be made that it’s not that housing costs are too high, but that wages are too low. (A result of the Republican assault on labor unions; see above.)

This legitimate advocacy for their members, however, frustrates proponents of affordable housing, including unions that represent relatively low-wage service workers as well as builders of housing for the homeless, who are astounded by the high cost of building affordable housing.

Meanwhile, the environmental movement, another element of the Democratic coalition, is torn. On one hand, environmentalists don’t want to see more sprawl, and they support in-fill development which reduces greenhouse gas production, but on the other hand, environmentalists are concerned that many housing bills would limit review under the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s signature environmental law, and they worry about CEQA being killed by a thousand small cuts.

Then there are complex issues about where to build housing so as not to displace currently housed working people. Legislators from working class areas want more housing options for their constituents, but they don’t want to see development pressures that ratchet up the cost of existing housing by suddenly increasing the value of land. While on an economic theory level well-intentioned people may agree that too much land in California cities is zoned for single-family houses, it’s more difficult on a practical level to agree on exactly where and how single-family zoning should be modified.

I could go on; I haven’t even mentioned conflicts over financing. The point I want to make is that these conflicts are too complex to resolve in the pressure of a legislative session, especially in the context of all the other crises we are experiencing today. What needs to happen is someone—perhaps the governor, or if not him, a consortium of housers—needs to canvass or convene all the elements of the Democratic coalition and forge an approach to housing legislation that balances their competing interests.

Thanks for reading.