Community and Electoral Politics: An interview with Mike Rotkin and Bruce Van Allen
by Bruce Dancis
Socialist Review, Vol. 9, No. 5, September-October 1979, pages 101-118.
2009 Introduction by Bill Domhoff
Shortly after Mike Rotkin and Bruce Van Allen surprised everyone, including themselves, by winning election to the Santa Cruz City Council running as socialist-feminists who supported neighborhoods, they were interviewed by fellow leftist, historian, and friend Bruce Dancis for the New Leftist journal, Socialist Review, in an effort to see if their success had any relevance to those who wanted to bring socialism to the United States.
As the interview shows, Rotkin and Van Allen thought it did. Here's the way things looked to them back then, just before Reagan was elected president and a corporate-Christian Right coalition took power.
In March 1979, voters in Santa Cruz, California, elected two city council candidates who identified themselves as socialists and feminists. Finishing first and second in a field of nineteen candidates in this town of forty thousand on the north side of Monterey Bay were Mike Rotkin, a University of California lecturer (and Socialist Review editor), and Bruce Van Allen, a community activist.
Rotkin and Van Allen's victory reflects the extensive social, cultural, and political changes the city of Santa Cruz has seen over the past fifteen years. The founding of the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California did more than anything else to start the transformation of the one-time retirement center. The addition of nearly six thousand students, plus the university's staff, faculty, and hangers-on, helped drop the city's median age from nearly 44 years in 1960 to a little more than 34 years by 1970. (The median age in the state of California fell from 30 to 28.4 years in the same period.) There was an accompanying population boom: the county's population nearly doubled between 1960 and 1976 as commuters working in the San Jose area plus assorted artists, hippies, business people, and surfers joined the university-related immigrants.
As the population of Santa Cruz burgeoned, its politics shifted markedly to the left. Although local elections are sharply and closely contested, Santa Cruz voters now tend to be among the most liberal in California. Active feminist, radical, and progressive movements have thrived throughout the 1970s and have had a significant impact on local political life.
As expected, Van Allen and Rotkin ran extremely well in the university precincts. In one such precinct, for example, they each received approximately 350 votes, while the conservative incumbent who finished third in the council race scored 2 votes. But while the campus vote made an important difference in the election, perhaps more significant -- particularly in its implications outside of Santa Cruz -- was the way in which voting patterns tended to break down along income lines. Despite the large number of relatively affluent students, teachers, and university staff, Santa Cruz remains an area where income levels fall below state and national averages. In 1976 over 41 per cent of the households in the city reported annual incomes of under $6,000. The United States Department of Labor classifies the Santa Cruz area as one having "substantial unemployment."
Rotkin and Van Allen did poorly in the wealthy parts of town, but gained pluralities in low- and middle-income neighborhoods; a major factor was their involvement in a growing, populist-oriented neighborhood movement. Putting together a coalition of students and university employees, senior citizens, poor people, labor, and moderate-income homeowners, they won while taking radical, provocative positions on local issues.
Shortly after taking office, Van Allen and Rotkin spoke with Socialist Review about the meaning of their victory for socialists in other communities, the role of electoral politics in building the socialist movement, and the difficulties facing leftists holding elective positions in government. Then, four months later, Socialist Review went back to Rotkin with some of the same questions to see how his brief tenure in office had influenced his views.
Bruce Dancis: Santa Cruz seems to be very different from other cities and towns. It has a large student and youth population, for instance. Do you think your victory has any broader significance?
Mike Rotkin: Although Santa Cruz has a fairly large progressive community, including feminist, gay, and student communities, what made this campaign interesting was the large vote that we got from traditionally conservative neighborhoods. We successfully battled the right wing for votes and support from people who in the past wouldn't have much to do with left politics. I think that happened because we tried to organize a campaign that spoke to real issues in the city as they affect people. A number of people working in my campaign had worked for Barry Goldwater in 1964 -- and are beginning to understand the need for a real grass-roots community organizing movement. The neighborhood movement in the United States is really growing, as part of a populist tendency that can either move to the right or the left. I don't think it's automatically a left phenomenon, but it's definitely an area where the left will have to fight.
Bruce Dancis: But from looking at the election returns, it seems that the areas you carried overwhelmingly were the university precincts.
Bruce Van Allen: We would have been elected even if the university had had zero votes. Instead of being first and second we would have been third and fourth, for the four seats. Obviously it made a difference that there were some students living downtown, but we didn't depend only on the university vote to get elected.
Bruce Dancis: What were the main bases of your support in the campaign?
Bruce Van Allen: The neighborhood movement, in which both Mike and I have been very active, was important. I helped to organize the Downtown Neighbors Association a few years ago and Mike has been active on the west side. During the campaign we spoke to environmental and housing issues, and both movements are strong in Santa Cruz. The students were also a factor.
Mike Rotkin: A lot of our support came from people who have been involved in activist struggles over the last ten years, such as environmental issues, housing, prison or jail issues, struggles around the Bakke decision and affirmative action questions, feminist and gay issues. These movements brought us campaign workers and supporters who were willing to go door to door. The end result was that our campaigns probably had more direct contact than any, except possibly one of the conservatives, who took third place.
Bruce Dancis: What issues were particularly important in your campaign? Where did a radical analysis strike a responsive chord?
Mike Rotkin: One of our main issues was attacking bureaucracy from a left perspective, trying to suggest that citizens themselves should be directly involved in the governmental process. We made an explicit attack on big business and the outside speculators running the town, and tied that to a critique of the idea that our government has to be run by experts or bureaucrats. We attacked the city manager system as well as the particular ties between our city manager and local business interests.
Bruce Dancis: What do you mean by an attack on the city manager system of government?
Mike Rotkin: We pointed out that the city council had been a rubber stamp for the city manager and that the city manager made his decisions based on what the local business interests wanted to have happen, rather than on what people in the neighborhoods wanted to see happen. The Westside Neighbors group which I worked with had raised a clear issue around Housing And Urban Development monies coming into the city -- whether such federal funds should be spent for neighborhood health care clinics, day care centers, or low-income housing versus the city manager's plan to spend that money to improve a business mall downtown. All the candidates, right and left, were forced to speak to the issue of whether they favored neighborhood health care centers, and whether they believed that federal money should be used for the mall. Where leftists can focus on a concrete issue and talk about the divergence of interests between the business "community" and neighborhood people, it's possible to build a campaign.
Bruce Van Allen: One other area I can think of is housing. We supported a very strong rent-control law that required an elective rather than an appointed board to administer it. We were able to speak to issues such as whether people had the right to speculate on other people's homes. And we called for the city to aggressively promote home ownership, either singly or cooperatively, and some form of local public ownership of the rest of the residential land.
Mike Rotkin: That was the issue Bruce and I pushed that came closest to attacking the concept of private property. We were the only two candidates who argued that the idea that land and housing should be a commodity was an idea whose time had passed. At the beginning of the campaign, we were not very good at explaining that. Some people thought we believed the government should run everybody's house. I actually got a telephone call from members of the local gun club asking whether I thought the government should tell them what kind of wallpaper to have in their bedrooms. But by the end of the campaign we were doing a much better job of explaining that large tracts of land -- undeveloped land in the community -- should be a community resource and not a commodity bought and sold by private owners. Bruce was quire outspoken about that at the local board of realtors. It didn't get him a lot of support. But it did get good press. We also were attacked by libertarians and more traditional right-wing people who suggested that since we were attacking private property, we didn't believe in any kind of human rights. We did a good job trying to distinguish between what we considered human rights -- freedom of speech, assembly, press, and so forth -- and property rights.
Bruce Dancis: Both of you called yourselves or were described by the press as "democratic socialist feminists," But when I looked at your campaign literature, neither of you maintained that you were socialists. Mike spoke of neighborhood control, using old Students for a Democratic Society rhetoric about people taking control of their lives, and Bruce talked about our democratic traditions and trying to fulfill them. How explicit were you about your socialist-feminist politics?
Bruce Van Allen: We both got braver and better. We realized we were getting a good reception being much more explicit, as long as we articulated it well. Toward the end of the campaign we were much more outspoken than at the beginning. The decision to leave some of the words out of the literature was made at the very beginning of the campaign, when we didn't know how it was going to go, and also because of the real fear of a word being there without us being there, of our not being able to put it in context. This is still a problem around "socialism."
Mike Rotkin: We didn't make a lot of use of the labels "socialist" or socialist-feminist." We had about twenty-five or thirty forums. In about a third of these forums we used the term "socialist-feminist." That came up whenever we were asked to give ourselves a label -- "How would you define yourself politically?" was a typical question. We were always explicit about saying "We are socialist- feminists," and went on to say what that meant.
Bruce Dancis: What did you say it meant?
Mike Rotkin: We would talk about people having control over the institutions that affect their daily lives, and then expand with examples about control over workplaces, control over community institutions, over health care, over housing, in terms of meeting people's basic needs. In those situations we wouldn't use phrases like "control over the means of production" or "abolish private property," but the effect of what we were talking about was precisely that.
A number of times I would label myself a socialist and people would respond that I was misusing the term. I would talk to a group of neighbors on the west side and they'd ask me, "What are your politics? I hear that you say you're a socialist." I'd say, "That's right, I'm a socialist," and I would explain what that meant. They'd say, "Well, you're not really a socialist because that's not what socialism is," and they'd describe a totalitarian state. Often the label was much less relevant than the actual position on a particular issue.
Bruce Dancis: Then why use the label at all? Why not use some term like "economic democracy," as other radicals in California have done?
[Editorial note, 2009: Here Dancis is referring to an effort by a group called the Campaign for Economic Democracy to create a left-liberal vision that would bring about a mixed economy with both public and private enterprises; this effort was indeed "radical," but it was not socialist. See Martin Carnoy and Derek Shearer, Economic democracy: The challenge of the 1980s. M.E. Sharpe Publishers, 1980.]
Mike Rotkin: Electoral politics is not all we need to do to build a socialist movement in the United States or in Santa Cruz. Electoral politics is part of building a broader movement for a socialist society. Some work that we do will take place in a political context where debates between capitalism and socialism are not really what's at stake-when we're battling with the right wing for control of a popular movement, for example. At the same time, we have to be involved in building a socialist movement that has a developed understanding of state power and all the traditional questions socialists have wrestled with. There's a tradition of socialist movements in the United States and the world that both Bruce and I identify with, although we're obviously critical of aspects of it. Calling ourselves socialist-feminists is a way of saying that our politics are much broader than the politics it's possible to articulate in an electoral campaign. You can't lay out an entire long-term strategy for socialism in any given electoral campaign.
Bruce Van Allen: In terms of the usual discussion of specific campaign issues and local issues, nothing is cast in a socialism-vs.-capitalism manner. But characterizing ourselves as socialist-feminists had to do with wanting to distinguish ourselves from, in effect, just more liberalism. When walking door-to-door, people asked me, "Well, what are you, a liberal or a conservative?" The first time I was asked I said, "I guess I'm on the liberal side." And in the press there are only two sides -- liberal and conservative -- and we're just ultra liberal. After that first time I felt dissatisfied with the answer I gave that person. The next time somebody asked me, I said, "Neither. I'm radical because I don't think liberals or conservatives know what's up." And people would go "Yeah!" I feel that people are ready for radical ideas and radical change, even if not in radical terminology.
Mike Rotkin: Let me raise one more thing about working on a number of different levels at one time. We won't build a socialist society unless at some stage along the way we are successful in building a socialist party that can win people to that vision. One thing that socialists have sometimes thought is that you could use elections as a place to do education, as a way of doing educational work about socialism. That's fundamentally a misconception. My understanding at the end of this election is that you can educate people around particular issues, you can struggle with the right wing for people's support, but you don't change many people's minds during electoral campaigns. Basically, it's more a consolidation of people's feelings. Moving a person significantly to the left really requires a different level of political work than electoral campaigns. It requires neighborhood organizing, or workplace organizing, things that really engage people in terms of what goes on in their daily lives. When I started out I thought I could both do educational work in this broad sense (explaining what socialism is) and try to consolidate the power of the progressive community in Santa Cruz. Now it seems much harder to do both.
Bruce Dancis: Both of you ran as socialist- feminists. What does it mean to be a feminist on the city council?
Bruce Van Allen: I feel that the ideological battles and more direct struggles around feminist issues are moving to a new sphere. I want to find a way at almost every meeting to raise a feminist issue. I feel both a responsibility and an opportunity to make feminism an active part of local politics. The city council could relate much better to problems such as rape and affirmative action.
Mike Rotkin: I think feminists are discovering that many of the issues raised by that movement in the last ten years are intersecting with state power and government decisions around issues like child care and affirmative action. Affirmative action questions are going to become very important in terms of employment, particularly in this town where the local government and the contracts it gives out probably account for over a third of local employment. I think we'll be able to raise a struggle there that will be significant. There are other feminist issues that are not so easily dealt with by governments, and have more to do with questions of people's personal lives. What Bruce and I are trying to do on the council is make the public discussion of those issues a more accepted fact of life. That means, for example, discussion around questions of sexuality, gay and lesbian rights, battered women, and battered children. Those are not things to be kept outside the public realm.
Bruce Dancis: Mike, you have been a national officer and an active member of the New American Movement (NAM). Did you run as a NAM candidate? What did being a NAM member mean in your campaign?
Mike Rotkin: I didn't run as a NAM candidate. My literature listed that I was a member of the National Interim Committee of NAM, as well as a member of the Central Labor Council and the steering committee of Westside Neighbors. It wasn't given a lot of prominence, though.... The real effect of the connection with NAM was that being a member of NAM for the last eight years meant that I had connections with a number of ongoing local struggles. It's important to understand that the Westside Neighbors, a populist organization, grew out of NAM work over the past two years. Finally, although the NAM chapter didn't collapse itself into my campaign, I got a significant number of campaign workers from NAM.
Bruce Dancis: I don't think that anyone would deny the importance of being part of a functioning group or organization. That can mean a great deal, not just in terms of campaign work, but in personal support and the development of your political practice. But what does a national organization like NAM have to offer you in a local election?
Mike Rotkin: The first thing it did was to give me some sense that it was possible to engage in an electoral campaign as a socialist. I've always had a localist bent. Generally, it came out of a New Left experience that left me feeling that we should keep away from elections and keep away from traditional unions and argue with ourselves and have ideological debates about visions of the way future society ought to be. I think the fact that we're a local chapter of a national organization has pushed us in a direction we probably wouldn't otherwise have gone. If it weren't for the shifts in politics that were debated in NAM in 1975, with the national NAM convention pushing local chapters into mass work and away from abstract socialist politics, I don't think our chapter in Santa Cruz would have done that kind of work. And I would never have been in the position, in terms of real local contacts, to run a successful electoral campaign.
Bruce Van Allen: Our work has been localist in a lot of ways. But it doesn't make sense to have a socialist perspective only local. The struggle for socialism has to happen nationally and internationally. If it were only Mike and I and some of our friends trying to create this socialist state of Santa Cruz, it just wouldn't feel relevant. Organizations like NAM help provide a context for our work.
Bruce Dancis: You're both familiar with the debates that go on among leftists about working within the Democratic Party, Some groups, like the Campaign for Economic Democracy or the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, are attempting to function as radicals or socialists within the Democratic Party. Though the election was nonpartisan, did this issue have any bearing on your race?
Mike Rotkin: I've often thought that those debates take place on the wrong level. What seems to be debated is how can you use elections, in and of themselves, as a road to state power. It's important to see that elections are more a tactical question in relation to building a progressive and eventually a socialist movement in the United States. The question of when or if you work with the Democratic Party is much more a question of whether a particular election will help you extend existing struggles. In other words, I saw my campaign for city council as an extension of struggles going on in the Westside Neighbors group, and in the progressive community in Santa Cruz, and as an aid to building a populist and socialist movement in Santa Cruz. I don't think either Bruce or I see the electoral arena as a road to power in and of itself. It's how can we use the electoral arena and our positions in the government in a way that will aid building a mass movement, and not as a substitute for it.
Bruce Dancis: Almost every candidate on the left who wins an election promises to keep the movement that got them elected alive between elections. But generally they fail to do so, in part because it's difficult to perpetuate the enthusiasm that's been generated by their campaign. How will you two be different?
Mike Rotkin: Neither of us knows that much about what others have tried or why they failed, so we're almost starting from scratch. We're trying to establish groups that will work with us on an ongoing basis, so that people will meet with us and talk about the agendas on the city council. We're also trying to set up a combined group between the two of us so we can work together. We want to divide responsibility for research on the different agenda items and come up with proposals that we can push in the city council.
Bruce Dancis: Who would be in these groups -- campaign workers?
Mike Rotkin: It would start from that. For me it would involve, obviously, people within NAM, but also people who worked in the campaign who are not members of NAM. The Westside Neighbors have made a decision to have one member of the group attend all the city council meetings, make regular reports back to the group, and run a column in our neighborhood newsletter about city council politics. They're hoping to be intimately involved in what goes on. Bruce and I have made a commitment to meet on a weekly basis with anybody that wants to meet with us about city council politics.
Bruce Van Allen: Sustaining movements or organizations is a big problem. I've been involved in I don't know how many Santa Cruz progressive coalitions that tried to stay alive much longer than they really had any life. That's a frustrating experience I don't want to keep repeating. Mike and I will try to use our prominence as council members to give support and some degree of legitimation to socialist groups and progressive groups in the community by participating, by taking them seriously, by getting them on the agenda. But the basis of it all is the ongoing work of the groups, not simply our endorsement.
Bruce Dancis: What do you see as being the most immediate problems you'll face in translating your campaign goals into policy?
Bruce Van Allen: The biggest problem is that city council decisions become depoliticized, bureaucratized, neutralized. Anything that is political, that has to do with class issues, gets eliminated or covered up. So one big struggle is going to be to re-politicize issues. Another problem is that for the last eight or nine years I've worked in collectives, where striving for consensus, a feminist type of process, and a sensitivity to taking care of each other and acknowledging all points of view was very important. On the council you're counting votes and four votes wins out of seven. It's a parliamentary procedure that goes contrary to what I've been trying to develop in myself. I'm really having to make myself more aggressive in meetings and to be all these things that we struggle against in consensual groups. So those are two problems I see. They're both political.
Mike Rotkin: The depoliticizing is critical. There's a real tendency to try to work things out. It's amazing how quickly it comes -- compromising different issues and deciding you don't know enough about something to make a challenge. One concrete example: there's a bid out for paving a firehouse driveway. The estimate from the city has a cost of about $4,000, and the bid from the construction company was $ 3,998. First of all, why should it cost $4,000 to pave a driveway that is just a couple of square feet? The other question is how the company came so close on their bid. I don't have the information to challenge this. It's something I would like to challenge, but given that we have maybe five hundred to seven hundred pages to read every week, week after week, it becomes easy to let that go. Such items are usually voted for en bloc on the consent agenda. Each council member can pull anything off that consent agenda. So, should I pull this firehouse driveway off the consent agenda? If I raise a question about it, what question can I raise when I don't have enough information? All I can do is say this is pretty strange. If I don't do that, I'm recording a vote in favor of this driveway. I have a vision of how a year from now there's going to be a huge scandal about this construction company and its connections with the city, and I'm going to be one of the council members who voted in favor of giving them this contract....
Bruce Dancis: When you don't have enough information to vote on something, how do you avoid being painted as an obstructionist?
Bruce Van Allen: I'm not sure. We can't make principled "no" votes all the time, or it's going to look silly.
Mike Rotkin: On the other hand, it's important for us to maintain a kind of independence from the day-to-day decisions made by the council. We have to stand out as people that take principled positions, even if it seems a little bit absurd to the business-as-usual mentality that pervades council meetings.
Bruce Van Allen: It's the kind of problem that a progressive member of our county board of supervisors faces. When people come to him for help on an issue coming before the board, he says either of two things: "I can't help you, you'll have to go to the people who have the votes," or "If I help you it's going to hurt you, for the other side is going to automatically oppose it."
Bruce Dancis: As council members you'll be dealing largely with matters like sewers, sidewalks, streetlights. How does a socialist perspective deal with the rather mundane concerns of city government?
Mike Rotkin: Outside of coming out for socialism in one sewer, one of the key questions is citizen involvement. It's a slogan that's been taken up by the right as well as the left. At this point almost everybody stands for it in the abstract, but what it means in practice is trying to politicize people around issues that affect them. So instead of having a situation where the city planning department decides on a certain kind of street development or to put curbs and gutters in a certain area, we need to concern neighbors in the area with that question, so they can get a sense that they can control those kinds of decisions. We hope this will expand to issues of major capital expenditures in the city, and ultimately to the question of who runs the city. And that means a battle with right-wing ideology that says there's only two kinds of people who can make decisions -- experts or private business people. We can suggest in every possible small way that society can be run by the people who live in it and not just by the experts and bureaucrats or the private businessmen.
Bruce Van Allen: Every decision about a sewer or streetlight involves priorities. Are we going to build this? That means that we're not going to build something else. You can talk about providing the infrastructure for new development, which is the sewers and the streets, etc., and that's the kind of thing that has to be under the decision-making control of the people in the community. It is important to push the idea that a socialist local government is good government and works well and is related to the people.
Mike Rotkin: The right wing is trying to cut back the public sector by arguing that only private enterprise can do things and that the government is a drain on social resources. We need to argue that the growth of the public sector should continue, not in a bureaucratic fashion, but in a fashion that meets people's needs and that's under their control. That ideological battle begins with sewers and streetlights. One of the slogans of the conservatives in this campaign was that we need a city run like a business. In fact, we need a city run like a city, and that means a city run as a democracy. We are constantly trying to show that if you run the city like a business, the people who work for and live in the city are going to get screwed. And we're going to try to develop an alternative conception of what it means to have a city.
Four Months Later
Bruce Dancis: After being on the Santa Cruz City Council for several months, are you any less optimistic about your ability to affect change?
Mike Rotkin: I've learned that not having the four votes you need to pass a measure means you're not going to get it passed, no matter how righteous you are on the issue or how much research you've done. This is particularly true when we have what I'll call ideological issues. We attempted to put through a resolution supporting nationalization of the oil industry during the recent gas shortage in Santa Cruz. We've also pushed for a moratorium on whaling, and for a resolution on the Weber case. In those kinds of issues we just go down in flames, four to three.
Bruce Dancis: Did you expect these resolutions to pass or were you mainly trying to raise consciousness around those issues ?
Mike Rotkin: Both. I didn't expect that the nationalization-of-oil resolution was going to pass, frankly, but that was a consciousness-raising thing. It's also a way of making clear to the people who voted for me that I haven't changed my views about things. Even though I can't win the votes, sometimes going down to defeat is important. Take the Weber case resolution. At the next election in two years, people will be able to say that the council members who voted against it don't believe in affirmative action, not even voluntary affirmative action. During the election campaign, all nineteen candidates came out in favor of affirmative action. Whereas in the past all we could say was "We know that you don't really believe in affirmative action," now we have some evidence.
Bruce Dancis: Something like nationalizing the oil industry is beyond the power of the Santa Cruz city council. Have any of your constituents complained that you're diluting the power you do have by getting into this?
Mike Rotkin: On an issue like nationalization of the oil companies, there's more than symbolism involved. For the first time in the United States it's been reported that close to a majority of the people believe that there should be nationalization. Having a city council come out for it does make the idea seem more mainstream, more realistic. But most of the issues we work on affect what happens in Santa Cruz, and I am optimistic still.
It was recently demonstrated that we had to increase the sewer rates in the city. The possibilities before the council were to increase the rates for residential consumers or for industrial users, who are in fact putting the serious pollution into the system. I was able to make a proposal that recognizes the need for a life-line rate, so that seniors, people on welfare, and other low-income people are not going to have their sewer rates increased, while the rate for industrial users is going to go up commensurate with that for other people in the city.
There are many frustrations in not having four votes. The city manager is proposing that revenue-sharing money go to the police and fire departments and to a new sewer, rather than for child care programs, welfare, legal counseling for poor people. This is a real misuse of revenue-sharing money, but we don't have four votes to do much about that. We spend $100,000 on a single traffic light and $100,000 would fund many of the progressive revenue-sharing programs for a year.
Bruce Dancis: When you were campaigning you said that the business community in Santa Cruz had run things for too long and it was time for the people to take back that power. Have you had any successes along those lines?
Mike Rotkin: The sewer issue was the largest direct confrontation we've had with members of the business community. When they came to testify, they brought out the traditional threats of a capitalist society, "We're going to lay off all our workers, we're going to go under, we're going to go belly up and you have to subsidize us...." One of the largest businesses in the city is the tannery, which is also the largest polluter, responsible for most of the increases in sewer costs. They should be paying for the sewage they're creating.
During the campaign we made an issue of the council's misuse of Housing and Community Development money, which they were proposing to use for a downtown mall instead of for neighborhood health centers and housing for low-income people. HUD rejected their application and we were able to prevail because of the stink that we raised.
Bruce Dancis: When you were running one of the main things that distinguished your campaign was that you were closely tied to a community organization, an ongoing movement, What has occurred since you've been in office, in terms of your ties to these organizations?
Mike Rotkin: The first thing to happen was that the campaign group fell apart. We never really had clear long-range plans for how that group would hold together, but somewhere in the back of my mind I guess I had hoped that that group would form into something else. But to replace that group Bruce and I have established something like a shadow cabinet. We now have parallel groups for different areas: police issues, energy and urban services issues, and a number of others. We meet with them on a regular basis. On the sewer issue they've done much of the preliminary work around rates, what some of the alternatives were, and some of the technical questions. The city is considering building a new sewer outfall for $28 million, most of which would be federal money. Basically, all it's going to do it push the sewage further out into the bay. That group is now working on an alternative plan to create recyclable water, and to use it for agricultural purposes. We're going to be able to present this proposal to the council. Either we'll get it through because the proposal will make enough sense that the conservative council members will be forced to vote for it despite their inclinations, or it won't go through and we'll have a clear campaign issue in the next election.
In terms of Westside Neighbors, I did withdraw from the steering committee when I got elected, just because of time problems. I've been less directly active in the group in terms of day-today work, but I've remained active by going to the general meetings and keeping in contact with people. I've remained active in NAM. I have to continue my commitment to socialist organizations, and I don't see myself pulling away from that at all.
Bruce Dancis: Though you call yourself a socialist-feminist, how have you been different from any other left-leaning progressive local politician in terms of what you're doing and what you're able to accomplish ? Where does the socialism fit into all of this?
Mike Rotkin: One place is in terms of making much more of an effort to keep in contact with community organizations than many progressive politicians do. For us doing base-building work is central, while for many progressive politicians it's getting the votes through however they can do it. There's also a difference in terms of how far out on a limb we might be willing to go. There's a difference in terms of how much energy you're willing to put into what are going to be lost causes in the short run. Probably the last area, and this might be the most significant, is the willingness to make certain kinds of speeches that may not be popular.
When Bruce and I talked about the sewer fund question, we didn't just give populist-type speeches. We tried to talk about the logic of a system that makes decisions without taking into account the needs of low-income people. When the local tannery threatened to leave town if we raised their sewer rates, we talked about runaway shops and multinational corporations. We said that although this company was not a multinational, what we were seeing was an example of something that's happening all around the country. Bruce's speech said in effect that if it means jobs for the city, maybe we should be subsidizing a particular industry. But if we're going to subsidize the industry, then the people should own it. So it's making those kinds of speeches about public ownership. We've said that having land as a commodity and making decisions about land based on profit is going to lead to irrationality. The difference between a progressive and a socialist on those kinds of issues is that we say the problem comes from the nature of a capitalist society.
Bruce Dancis: How as a feminist are you different from non-socialist progressives?
Mike Rotkin: The main difference is the extent to which we've been willing to make public stands on issues that are not generally considered to be of concern to the city council. Bruce and I called a public press conference to announce gay pride week in Santa Cruz, and we marched in the parade and the local gay pride celebration. We worked with members of the gay community to put together that press conference and make a statement about gay rights and discrimination. On the issue of women's rights and childcare, we've been pushing hard for various kinds of child-care programs -- whether we'll succeed is another question. Sometimes [our feminism] takes what seem like petty forms, and they might be in the short run, but when other council members make sexist remarks or jokes, we don't let it slide. It's just not allowing a certain public presence of male chauvinism to exist unchallenged.
Bruce Dancis: After being on the city council for several months, what do you now hope to accomplish in your four-year term?
Mike Rotkin: One of the major things would be making a real shift in the city's spending priorities, moving away from certain kinds of capital improvements that only service the automobile in various ways, or servicing developers. We need to take the money we spend on those programs and transfer it into human-service programs. I also have hopes of making major progress in a number of areas of long-range planning around environmental issues -- sewage treatment, working out some kind of development plan for the city that provides adequate jobs for people without spoiling the local environment -- but I don't think we'll be able to do much on those issues until the next election. We already have been able to make the government more accountable. I spend a lot of my time trying to deal with situations where people are being given Catch-22 answers to their problems. Department A says they can't act till Department B acts, but Department B won't act until Department A acts, and it goes round and round. As a city council member -- even with just one vote -- I'm able to walk in and break through that. I'd like to see a city council where all seven members have that attitude, so people felt like city government responded directly to their needs.
I would like to see in the long run -- I don't think this will happen in the next four years -- a totally politicized populace in Santa Cruz. Probably the biggest frustration I feel in city government is that it's not just that the government is unresponsive to people, it's that the government has been unresponsive for so long that people have been socialized to be inactive in local affairs. Even when things come up that directly affect citizens in a neighborhood, it's difficult to mobilize them to do something about it. It's hard for me to act as a minority on the council if I don't have neighbors down there saying what they want. So my biggest goal would be to have the people of this town run it. That's a possibility, but not in the next four years; it is part of a much broader political struggle for a socialist society where people take control of their lives.