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

Review from:

City & Community

September 2010 (Vol. 9, No. 3)

Review by Norman Krumholz, Cleveland State University

The Leftmost City: Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz, by Richard Gendron and G. William Domhoff. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2009. ISBN:978-0- 8133-4438-6 (paper); 240 pp.

Santa Cruz is a medium-sized city on the Pacific Ocean between mountains and beaches. After a recent visit there, I had the impression that the city was a laid-back outpost of playful freedom.

The first few pages of The Leftmost City: Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz quickly corrected my impression. Beneath the placid surface lay some 40 years of political organization, struggle, and conflict as a progressive coalition of neighborhood advocates, social welfare liberals, environmentalists, and socialist-feminists squared off -- and won -- against the business community for control of land use and development in the city. The Leftmost City offers the details of the struggle. It is a brilliant piece of sociological/political/urban planning research that offers both a rigorous case study of the politics of the community and a critical analysis of urban political theory. It is also a framework for exercising effective political action against entrenched business interests.

In most American communities of the 20th century, the organized business community sets the community's priorities and policies, but not in Santa Cruz, where the business community has lost on every major development proposal since 1968. Plans to widen local highways, build a convention center, expand downtown, and build market-rate housing on vacant green space have all gone down to defeat at the hands of the progressive coalition. It has held together, governed the city, raised necessary revenues, and moved Santa Cruz further to the left for longer periods of time than any other city in the United States.

The book begins with an overview of recent history in Santa Cruz and continues with an account of the four major theories of urban power: Marxist urban theory, public choice theory, growth coalition theory, and regime theory. The authors summarize the similarities and differences among the four theories. Each chapter following recounts how strategies and maneuvers by the progressive bloc or the growth coalition support or contradict the four theories of local power.

Chapter 2 gives an overview of critical moments in the history of the downtown growth coalition from its inception in the 1840s. During that period, business leaders controlled the local agenda with little opposition. Chapter 3 picks up at the end of WWII, describing how the growth coalition made ambitious plans for a much larger city including a campus for the University of California at Santa Cruz. They also proposed the expansion of downtown and the highway system to take advantage of federal highway and urban renewal funds. These plans were seen by local progressive activists as threatening to neighborhood values and the environment. They organized against them, and recruited and deployed hundreds of vocal citizens to protest. Facing this widespread opposition, the state Highway Department lacked the stomach to build new highways or widen the local street system. Local neighborhood and environmental advocates learned that they could win and how to take city hall.

The next chapter details how the new university campus became a Trojan horse undermining the local power structure by turning an already activist student body into an overwhelmingly progressive voting bloc large enough to swing elections.

Chapter 5 describes the disastrous earthquake of October 1989 that destroyed much of downtown Santa Cruz. Tensions surfaced almost immediately over rebuilding plans. First, the growth coalition wanted to expand downtown to the dismay of the progressives. Then the most radical environmentalists and neighborhood advocates fought for more open space. As the struggles continued, splits opened up in both factions but were compromised.

In Chapter 6, the political dynamics of the city are discussed after the rebuilding process was finally underway with the progressives firmly in control. Ironically, even though they had been defeated politically, members of the business coalition were prospering as never before. Downtown has been attractively rebuilt and most outside franchise businesses have been kept out. Housing is extremely expensive since the city's unique atmosphere appeals to buyers across the mountains in Silicon Valley. At the same time, the progressives have been successful in governing as well as in electoral politics. They have defended neighborhood and environmental values, expanded social services, built affordable housing, and improved the quality of life for low-income residents.

The final chapter returns to a deep assessment of the four theories of urban power while comparing and contrasting the elements of each with the Santa Cruz case study. The authors conclude that growth coalition theory provides the best starting point for understanding the Santa Cruz experience.

Santa Cruz proves that progressive success in local politics is possible in a mediumsize, attractive community where people cared enough for their neighborhoods and environment to organize and vote. Santa Cruz also shows us the need for committed, long-term leadership and the need for coalition factions to compromise on important issues. The university community was also helpful to the success of the progressive agenda.

Modified versions of the Santa Cruz experience have been documented in Burlington, Santa Monica, Berkeley, Madison, and similar cities but have had less success in larger cities. The progressive coalition in Chicago could not survive the death of Mayor Harold Washington, and Mayor Dennis Kucinich's version of urban populism in Cleveland fell in only two years. Progressive initiatives in San Francisco and Boston were partial and fleeting victories. The key seems to be coalition building and appeals to environmental and neighborhood use values.

The Leftmost City is an exceptional book and a pleasure to read. It is built on 25 years of careful research and written in a way that is clear and lucid, free of posturing and jargon. It is a piece of inspirational literature that offers a hope and a plan. Academics and their students in sociology, political science, and urban planning have much to learn from the unusual politics of Santa Cruz.

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