I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised by the blowback against the Social Services Tax proposal by Mayor Robb Davis, but given Davis’ reputation as a progressive community, you would think the community would be more embracing of a modest-sized tax to fund affordable housing and additional homeless services.
There was also the comment I received during my text messaging exchange on the opposition to the tax proposal: “And Robb’s 50 to fund bringing more non clean non sober addicts to our downtown ?? Crazy ‘Fund them, they will come’. A veritable field of dreams….”
There is of course also the possibility that what we are hearing from the community represents a vocal minority, and that at the same time a more silent contingent in the community is fully willing to back such a forward-thinking initiative.
Still, I am left to ponder: Is the mayor and by extension the Vanguard out of step with the community on the topics of housing, homeless services, economic development and other issues, or is the community simply fractured and fragmented with a number of voices speaking loudly that perhaps are not representative of the community at large?
This is actually an existential question that the Vanguard has wrestled with since forming.
When I founded the Vanguard, I truly believed that there was a “dark underbelly in Davis” and that if you scratch below the veneer of progressive Davis you end up with something that’s much more reactionary. We have seen this over time play out on a number of issues.
As it turns out, this is nothing new. In the 1980s, UC Davis sociology professors John and Lyn Lofland called this “lime politics.” Here in a 1987 publication of political sociology, they argued that the politics in Davis has never been “that” progressive.
In their article they divide progressive thought into “color vocabulary” of red, green and blue. Red refers to the goals of civil rights, personal freedom, and economic justice. Green stands for concerns for peace and the environment. Meanwhile, blue is used (these days probably a little counter-intuitively) to “denote the opposing tendency toward ideological conservatism.”
Davis’s reputation as a progressive city, they argue, “grows out of a more than a dozen years of well-publicized municipal activities.”
In this 1987 publication they consider the 1984 council and district attorney elections (interestingly enough, given the races about to emerge in 2018) and what they find is “a distinctive and distinctively selective variety of local progressivism” that they term “lime politics,” which they contrast with more tradition liberal concerns (they call red) and a newly emerging “green” perspective.
Indeed, in 1984 we saw a battle for DA between longtime Davis activist and former mayor and supervisor Bob Black and David Henderson – the latter would become a longtime district attorney until he was replaced by his deputy Jeff Reisig.
Professors Lofland note that not only did Mr. Black run behind Mr. Henderson, a deputy DA in the rest of Yolo County which was more conservative, he “did not even carry Davis, losing to Henderson 49 to 51 percent.”
With respect to the 1984 city council race, they find: “The revealing facts of the 1984 city council election were the failure of the quintessentially green candidates to win and the widespread appeal of the two candidates who watered down the green ideology into lime.”
The professors therefore conclude that “the political life of the city of Davis, California, progressive political culture is composed almost exclusively of a green orientation.”
They note, as we have using different terminology, that “red” issues like “civil rights and economic justice may find expression in the electorate’s voting patterns at the state and national level, but in terms of local politics, such concerns are muted.”
Twenty years later when I emerged on the scene in 2006, I found a similar breakdown. The community was very willing to back the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama in 2008, and it remains at the forefront on national issues and recently in opposition to the Trump administration. For the most part, it has a fairly strong environmental record.
But its record on local civil rights and economic justice on the home front has often been lagging, and at times at odds with its white and upper middle class tilt. I first noticed this in 2006 when the community largely failed to back people of color pressing for more police oversight, turning a request for civilian review at that time into a quagmire that ended up with the police chief resigning and the Human Relations Commission being disbanded.
The question as of right now is whether things are changing. The string of national police incidents starting with Ferguson in 2014 and continuing today seem to have shifted the center of gravity on that issue. The city council seems amenable to civilian review and, while the Picnic Day incident itself has been controversial, the remedy sought at the city level and the discourse around it have been markedly different from 2006.
But there is still a current of opposition to student housing, new affordable housing, and of course to helping the homeless, which seems to bolster the lime politics thesis created 30 years ago.
The question going forward is whether we are seeing more of the same, or the beginning of a new progressive era.
In 1972, Professors Lofland describe the “coalition of university-oriented and self-consciously ‘progressive’ political amateurs (who) wrested control of the city council” from more traditional interests. They note that in retrospect the shift was not a surprise, as it matched the changing demographics of campus and the town.
But, at the time, they write, “it felt revolutionary.”
We have already seen signs of possible change in Davis. But this revolution would have to happen at the level of the citizens, not the city council itself – which has been far more progressive in the red sense than the voting populace as a whole.
We will see where this community goes on issues like student housing, affordable housing and the like.
I believe there might be a more silent majority that is much more progressive and which simply does not speak out on this stuff.
But those voices need to come out because, far too often, leadership reacts to the loudest voices in the room regardless of whether they are representative of the community as a whole. And, even if that doesn’t happen, the voters themselves have the capacity to thwart progressive change.
—David M. Greenwald reporting