Musser accused council and specifically Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Asmundson and Councilmember Stephen Souza of duplicity, of strong-armed tactics, and made strong and pointed political threats. Council reacted defensively to these allegations, just as they have in the past. But at the end of the day instead of disbanding the Senior Citizens Commission and putting it on hiatus, they apologized for any misunderstandings and they dropped their move to merge the Senior Citizens Commission with the Social Service Commission.
Why was the Senior Citizens Commission able to survive while the Human Relations Commission was not?
First, the HRC “chose” the wrong target. When the HRC took on the police issue, they took it on just as they had any of number issues in their previous few years under the leadership of Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald. However, the police were different from all other targets. Police, even in a “progressive” town like Davis hold a strong measure of support—at the end of the day people want a strong and effective police force and many are willing to trade the rights of others in order to keep their security.
The police were able to counter-mobilize against the HRC, with Chief Jim Hyde and Lt. Dorothy Pearson able to rally large numbers of individuals in defense of the police. Moreover, through the help of council and the Davis Enterprise, they changed the issue from that of the police’s misconduct, to the conduct of the HRC itself. The HRC was portrayed as out of control and politicizing the issue of police misconduct. The battle culminated with the HRC being put on hiatus.
There is no such target in the case of the Senior Citizens Commission. The Senior Services Commission may remain more supportive of the move than the Senior Citizens Commission, but there this action poses no threat to them and thus they are largely a bystanders in this battle. This is simply a battle between Souza-Asmundson (with Saylor on the sidelines waiting to be third man in) and the Senior Citizens Commission and community.
Thus there is a situation where the Senior Citizens are mobilized but there is no group counter-mobilized to either go after the Senior Citizens Commission or defend the council. Moreover, this conflict is not about council policy in terms of a specific issue, rather it is a structural issue about the shape and scope of commissions. That gives the commission a bit more leeway in their battle.
Still, you would have to believe if the HRC was in the position of the Senior Citizens Commission, you would not have seen Asmundson and Souza falling over themselves to apologize for any misunderstanding.
The biggest difference in these two battles appears to be the influence of the constituencies that the two commissions represent at the polling booth. Seniors represent not only a sizable population group but also a potent voting bloc. First, seniors vote in high numbers, making their power disproportionate to their actual share of the population. Second, seniors are not necessarily natural opponents for the council majority. It is likely that a majority of seniors supported the council majority and particularly Ruth Asmundson. The council majority may rely on the senior vote as much as they rely on other constituencies. By alienating the senior vote, they would put their majority status in jeopardy.
The minority community of Davis, on the other hand, was very vulnerable. First, they are a small percentage of the population. Only two percent of Davis is African-American. Only nine percent is Latino. Second, their voting share is likely considerably smaller than the 11 percent of the population that they represent. Third, the council majority reasoned they were not going to get the vote of that demographic anyway and they were able to, through the police issue, mobilize a much larger base of people in defense of the police.
In the end, Elaine Musser Roberts was able to attack the council, specifically Souza and Asmundson with impunity. The HRC and Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald found themselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the efforts of the police chief to protect his turf.
Roberts was able to fight the council and win. In the process, she gained a number of admirers, tired of the council running roughshod over citizen commissions and concerned about an apparent power grab and consolidation of power and influence by council. While Roberts has won this battle, the war is still being waged. The Human Relations Commission is a shell of its former self and the council majority can simply lick its wounds and fight another day. Meanwhile, as we have seen, the rights of minorities in this community remain tenuous at best. Fortunately, the rights of seniors and the representation of the senior community remain intact. However, it is now incumbent upon the senior community to get the word out and remind their community who had their backs in this fight and who was ready to greatly diminish their influence.
—Doug Paul Davis reporting