Santa Cruz is known for the University of California, Santa Cruz, its beaches, and its historic Boardwalk and amusement park. But the city also has a striking, and, until this book, largely unreported political history, one that raises critical questions about the meaning of the terms “left” and “progressive” in the context of local politics. As Richard Gendron and Bill Domhoff show in their provocative new book, The Leftmost City, self-identified “socialist-feminists” have controlled the Santa Cruz City Council for over two decades. Yet the price of winning this control was an alliance with neighborhood activists that resulted in the city implementing strict “no-growth” policies. These policies have left the city among the least affordable in the state, with little racial diversity. Ironically, Santa Cruz was once a solidly pro-growth town whose political fate was redirected by the decision in the 1950’s to place a new campus within the city limits. When 18 year olds won the right to vote in 1971, students at the University of California, Santa Cruz could decide local elections, which they have done with regularity ever since.

If you are an alumnus of UCSC, you will want to rush out and get a copy of this book. It provides the most insightful analysis yet of the city’s political and social development over the past four decades, with particular focus on students’ role.

Pro-Growth Forces Dominate Pre-Campus Years

In order to set the stage for the city’s political transformation, the authors start the book by showing how pro-growth forces dominated the pre-UCSC years. Real estate interests won important rail access for Santa Cruz, and the widening of what is now Route 17, which facilitated car access to the city.

But when Santa Cruz leaders sought to turn Mission Street into a freeway, and to increase development at the beach, the revolt of the neighborhoods began. Fortunately, these development plans did not emerge until 1969, while UCSC was built in 1965; this enabled professors and students could use their expertise to defeat these projects.

Students had their first opportunity to elect a progressive, pro-environment City Council in the 1973 local elections. A chart in the book shows that 80% of students at UCSC in 1972 described their political views as “liberal” or “far left,” compared to only 56% who so defined themselves at the notoriously progressive UC Berkeley. While UCSC students became less progressive through 2002, they consistently remained more identified with the political left than those at other UC campuses, and were twice as progressive as the general public.

Students Decide Local Elections

In those 1973 local contests, the three progressive candidates swept into power after each won over 90% of the campus vote. 74% of eligible student voters cast ballots, and their impact was so great that only one of the three would have won but for the student turnout.

The authors show how future elections followed this dynamic, with the student vote often proving decisive. The progressive Council kept student interest high both by running candidates like Community Studies Professor Mike Rotkin (who has served on the Council for 25 years) and by putting measures on the ballot designed to increase student turnout (many of these measures, such as the 1979 initiative to stop U.S. military aid to El Salvador, were national in focus).

As a result of the student vote, inept strategies by the business community, and the political savvy of the Santa Cruz left, pro-growth politicians were soon replaced by those backed by neighborhood associations. These progressive Council members prioritized what the authors describe as “use value”---how a parcel could best be used without regard to monetary benefits--- over “exchange value”---i.e. maximizing the profits to be reaped from a parcel.

The exchange vs. use value dichotomy is a major theme of the book, and is used by the authors to explain many of the political controversies that have arisen in Santa Cruz in the past four decades. This includes the major battle over reconstructing downtown Santa Cruz after the 1989 earthquake.

Pro-growth forces saw the quake as offering a new opportunity to fulfill their longtime goal of connecting downtown to the beach through additional development. They also wanted to design a downtown that would not have too many public spaces for homeless persons to congregate, putting them in direct conflict with neighborhood activists who prioritized the use value of downtown and wanted ample green areas and public space.

With the city’s economy in a shambles without downtown’s revenue, progressive Council members ultimately deferred to business leaders. But the decision to create a downtown that would raise revenue for city services proved the exception to the rule. The city typically opposes any development regardless of its ability to create working-class jobs, increase affordable housing, or expand racial diversity.

Is Santa Cruz a “Left” City?

When it comes to national politics, gay rights, drug policies and environmental consciousness, Santa Cruz rivals Berkeley as the nation’s most progressive city. But the title, “The Leftmost City” and subtitle, “Power and Progressive Politics In Santa Cruz” focuses on local issues, and there is scant evidence that Santa Cruz is a “left” city as that term is typically understood.

Unlike Santa Monica, Berkeley, and San Francisco, Santa Cruz has no rent controls or eviction protections for tenants. Nor does the city prioritize building non-profit affordable housing, as such conflicts with the rigid building restrictions imposed to “protect neighborhoods” from overdevelopment.

While tourism is the city’s only major private sector industry that can offer significant new working class jobs, the neighborhood and environmental oriented Council members defeated a new 1200 seat conference center at the Dream Inn on the beach. Although it would be a “green” building, create union jobs, and bring in $2.7 million in annual revenues, it could not overcome the anti-development zealotry of the neighborhood associations. True progressives like Rotkin strongly backed the Dream Inn plan, but the debate showed that those prioritizing “use value” over working-class jobs and affordable housing hold the reins of power.

Santa Cruz’s 21st Century Environmental Shuffle

Although a new hotel and affordable housing development was approved in 2008, Santa Cruz’s self-described progressive Council majority has effectively used the old “environmental shuffle” strategy ---as that term became known for Marin County’s use of environmental arguments to prevent new affordable housing in the 1970’s. The city enacted a massive downzoning that greatly increased the property values of current homeowners and landlords, but did nothing to help low-income residents or in any way further social or economic justice.

I am not sure this was the authors’ intent, but the dominant message of The Leftcoast City is how easily the rhetoric of progressive social justice movements can be hijacked by those who then use it as a cover for enriching (literally and figuratively) their own personal lives.

That’s why anyone involved with local land use politics needs to read this book. It provides a cautionary tale for progressives whose strategic alliances with self-focused neighborhood activists may bring electoral victories, but actually hinder the advancement of economic fairness or equality.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book,
Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)