Two of my biggest concerns since I started the Vanguard have been advocacy for racial justice in our community and advocacy for empowering students. The two aren’t unrelated, but, for the purpose of this column, I want to consider them briefly but separately.
Perhaps one of my biggest surprises in the 14 years I have been focused on Davis has been the treatment of people of color in this community. In 2006, I was very surprised at the extent to which a white upper middle class but very liberal community was tone-deaf when it came to issues involving people of color – specifically policing, racial profiling and the achievement gap.
At the time, I coined it the “dark underbelly of Davis” – this streak of indifference between the veneer of tolerance. Now I will say that over the last 15 years this community has improved and part of the reason for that is it has changed. In 2001, at the time of 9/11 when my wife and I delivered flowers to Muslim community residents, they had been mistreated and bullied in their community – the community was 70 percent white, now it’s 55 percent white and we have active groups like the Phoenix Coalition, YIIN, and People Power, among others, advocating for racial justice.
And while Davis has become transformed into a community that could elect women of color like Gloria Partida, Cindy Pickett and Melissa Moreno, as I looked at the district election numbers, continuing that legacy is far more likely with seven rather than five districts.
Likewise, I have often believed that, while students are the backbone of this community, they are treated more as nuisances and second-class citizens than full partners. Indeed, part of that is the transitory nature of their lives here – they live here for four or five years but then leave.
However, while students are transitory at the individual level, they are omnipresent as a subgroup. As long as UC Davis is here as a world class university, the community will have a sizable student presence.
And yet, from a power perspective, they have lacked leverage into our system. It is stunning that, since 2002, there have been no market rate multifamily homes that have opened. When Sterling opens its doors in 2020, it will be the first in 18 years.
We have seen a glimpse of the power of students. It was in 2015 or 2016 that they started coming in larger numbers to council discussions about housing. That has produced a sea change, not only in terms of council policy but in terms of community awareness of the plight of students facing housing shortages.
They have not only helped push through projects like Sterling, Lincoln40 and Davis Live Housing, but they got the community to back Nishi by an overwhelming margin in 2018, and the community as a whole has become transformed around the need for affordable rental housing and affordable housing in general (I would argue small “a” affordable housing, not necessarily large “A” subsidized housing).
Looking at the maps, looking at the demographics, with seven districts we have districts where you have 70 percent renters in a given district. That will not automatically translate into more students on council, but it will given them opportunity if they organize and vote – as they are likely to do in 2020 when many will go to vote against President Trump.
Moreover, as we have noted, the more heavily student districts are more likely to be people of color, as UC Davis as a whole is nearly 3 to 1 in terms of enrollment in favor of people of color.
There are those who will argue that we are making a major change already with district elections – why go to seven districts? I understand that perspective. But I have a different perspective and that, is in my 30 years of being involved in politics, the status quo is the most powerful position in politics.
The American political system was designed to create stability and make change difficult. All things being equal, if you want to know what things will look like in five years institutionally, look at them today. It takes a lot to change things.
Let’s look at district elections. We have been talking about district elections ever since I started this in 2006. And of course, as Bill will rightly pull out, we were probably talking about it 20 years before that.
But as we reported in September, in January 1996 a governance committee appointed by the city council recommended, by a 14-5 vote, that the city go to district elections. Some interesting people served on that committee, including Jerry Adler, Isao Fujimoto, Dick Holdstock, and Kevin Wolf, among others, who were part of 14 to vote for the bill. Among those opposing it were Vigfus Asmundson, Bob Black and Joan Poulos.
This is a powerful group of people from the Davis of the past, they overwhelming voted to support district elections, and it did not happen. Not for 23 years.
What changed? A state law in 2003 and a letter from Matt Rexroad 16 years after the state law that, coupled with demographic change, forced the hand.
Bottom line: inertia is the strongest force in politics – bodies at rest tend to stay at rest until and unless an unstoppable force changes it.
If you want seven districts, this is the time to go to seven districts.
Otherwise, mark my words, it will be at least another quarter century before we consider a change.
For me the reasons to go to seven are that if we are going to go to district elections out of concern about racially polarized voting, and out of concern that people of color have been marginalized, and, for some, in hopes of empowering groups like students and even South Davis residents, the best way to do that is go to seven districts.
Is there a risk? Of course. I have seen seven-member bodies – in San Luis Obispo the school board was seven people and, honestly, it didn’t function that much differently from five. I don’t think there is a lot to worry about.
—David M. Greenwald reporting