Sunday Commentary: Projects Can Be Defeated, but Slow-Growth Candidates Largely Not Competitive

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by David M. Greenwald

It wasn’t a tremendously long time ago when slow-growth progressives actually controlled the city council—Ken Wagstaff, Sue Greenwald and Michael Harrington.  But in the last 20 years, slow-growth candidates have lost ground and, while activists can still muster votes to defeat projects like DISC, the candidates running on those positions were largely not competitive.

The last time a slow-growth candidate was able to win, you could argue was 2012 when Brett Lee won with the backing of slow-growth activists—although he moderated his views once he got onto council.  You would have to go back to 2008 when Sue Greenwald won her third term, for a slow-growth candidate winning and governing as an opponent to development projects.

You would think that a candidate, who takes a clear position aligning with opposition to a key and polarized ballot measure, would be able to ride the coattails of that ballot measure—but that hasn’t proven to be the case for the most part.

A key example is, in 2016, when Jose Granda ran for the school board in a four-candidate field.  While Measure H won overwhelmingly, 72-28, had Granda pulled most of those votes, he would have been in the race.  But he only pulled 15 percent of the vote or 19 percent of the ballots, underperforming the No on H showing by over 2000 votes.

There was not enough opposition to Measure H to allow him to win, but he would have faired competitively under those conditions.

We saw something similar in the council election this year—the two opponents to Measure B that could have been competitive did not fare well at the polls.  Larry Guenther lost by a nearly 2 to 1 margin, in a district where Measure B went down by about a 200 vote margin overall.  In District 2, Colin Walsh was the only opponent to Measure B.  The two candidates that supported Measure B actually got nearly 79 percent of the vote, while Walsh finished third with just 21 percent of the vote.

To illustrate the issue we can look at Precinct 38 in the Second District.  Measure B trailed by 45 votes.  The No on B vote percentage was 50.8.  But among council candidates, Will Arnold, a strong supporter of B, received 51 percent of the vote to 28 percent for Dillan Horton, who also favored the measure, and just 20.9 percent of the vote for Colin Walsh.

Nor is this a new phenomenon.  In 2016, there was the highly contentious Nishi on the ballot.  It ended up losing by 700 votes.  There were just four council candidates that year for three seats, and all four supported the measure.

Two years later in 2018, with another contentious ballot measure on the ballot, again Nishi, this time it would pass 60-40.  Nine candidates for two seats and the two strong opponents of the measure finished a relatively distant fourth and fifth.

The question I think is why.

There are two theories here.  One of them was offered way back in probably 2007, by Sue Greenwald.  She believed that Measure J hurt progressives because she believed that voters felt like they could stop big projects with their vote and therefore they could vote for people whom they liked for other reasons.

It is an interesting theory and there may be some merit to it, but ultimately I think it falls short.  The people who end up supporting the slow-growth candidates are in fact those voters who are devoted to slow-growth policies.  The problem is—there aren’t that many of them at this point.

That suggests that, while voters may oppose projects, slow-growth candidates will have trouble competing unless they can form broader coalitions than just those on issues centering around growth.

The portion of the population that is absolutely opposed to growth or mostly opposed to growth has actually shrunk a good deal over the last 20 years.  A large number of people who were polled, for instance, last year saw housing and lack of affordable housing as the most important issues facing the community.

When they are voting against projects—for these votes—it is on a project by project basis.

We see this in the voting patterns for the last two projects that were defeated.  In 2020, the strongest concentration of opposition was on the east side of town—the portion of town most impacted by traffic effects.

In 2016, the strongest concentration of opposition was right down the middle of town, where Richards Blvd. was going to impact the most.

The maps suggest, as we pointed out in yesterday’s column, proximity concerns rather than a set opposition to growth.

Because most of the voters are in the fuzzy middle on growth issues, they are not necessarily going to make their vote for council primarily on that issue—and we saw that bear out in both 2018 and 2020.  The candidates that won did so on the basis of a broad array of issues, not a single issue of focus.

This has a bearing on the Fourth District race in 2022.  Gloria Partida would face reelection in that district if she choses to run again, and that district voted overwhelmingly against Measure B.  Will that make it hard for her to win reelection?  History suggests no.

Incumbents in Davis have tended to do very well for the most part.  And, in fact, the two actual incumbents who chose to run fared well this time, with both Lucas Frerichs and Will Arnold winning handily.

What is interesting is that Rochelle Swanson, who had served two years on the council, and was out of office for two years, lost 43-29 in the Fifth District.  She wasn’t really an incumbent—and thus did not become only the fourth incumbent to lose reelection in this century.  And there is the oddity that she was running in a new district, but that was an interesting result that bears more scrutiny in future installments.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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56 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Projects Can Be Defeated, but Slow-Growth Candidates Largely Not Competitive”

  1. Ron Oertel

    If there’s a clear take-away from this election, it’s the overwhelming victory for Measure D.  If I’m not mistaken, support for this measure has actually increased, since the prior elections. The campaign for Measure D was quite limited and low-key.

    Of course, there was no formal developer opposition to it, either.  But certainly, the Vanguard and others have been repeatedly attempting to weaken it. I suspect that they’ll try again, over the next 10 years. 😉

    Gloria (and Robb Davis) have expressed “reservations” regarding it.

    All of the other candidates/incumbents appear to be strong supporters (including Will Arnold).

    Polling is a tricky thing, depending upon how questions are asked.  I suspect that most (including students) would prefer infill, if needed.

    But, don’t count out the possibility that the city has permanently changed to some degree, due to Covid and the accompanying shifts that may cause.

    In any case, thanks to those voters who helped the city avoid a big mistake, in the form of DISC.

    Maybe the city should put the brakes on the continuing conversions of its existing commercial sites, until this all shakes out.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      The point of my piece is actually the seeming disconnect between voting for a candidate who supported a project that you ended up voting against. And why such candidates opposing those projects are seemingly losing ground over the last decade.

      1. Don Shor

        Measure J made it possible for people to vote for candidates that they supported for other reasons regardless of that candidate’s position on development. Prior to Measure J, the council majority went back and forth between ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ growth councils, and development was typically the defining issue. With Measure J, the voters simply reserved for themselves the right of final say on projects.
        ‘Anti’-growth candidates, because their position is essentially negative, can appear strident.
        Over the last decade voters have shown a preference for candidates who show willingness to work together and achieve consensus. Newcomers to Davis politics probably don’t realize how contentious it was here before the election of 2010. Candidates from outside the two usual groups began to win by walking precincts and stressing comity over confrontation.
        I think Mayor Partida is a good example of the type of council member Davis voters want now. She pulls her support from a broad spectrum of the community. Should she choose to run for re-election, I expect she will win handily in the new district she would now represent. She clearly is supportive of building some types of housing, but slow-growth voters would have little reason to hold that against her.
        In effect, Measure J removed housing growth policies as the defining issue of each campaign, and allowed the voters to take a broader perspective in assessing the candidates.

        1. Alan Miller

          ‘Anti’-growth candidates, because their position is essentially negative

          No bias in that statement 😐

          Newcomers to Davis politics probably don’t realize how contentious it was here before the election of 2010.

          True, but that was personalities, not issues.  Measure JeRkeD began long before 2010.  I don’t believe the cause and effect is as direct as you state.

          1. Don Shor

            ‘Anti’-growth candidates, because their position is essentially negative

            No bias in that statement 😐

            It’s not a matter of bias. It’s intrinsic to the position of being against something. And for the record, I have supported candidates who were on both sides of the growth issue.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Alan: Thanks for pointing that out.

          For what it’s worth, I’m going to continue to take some pride regarding my very small part in helping to preserve the DISC site, as is.  As with the Covell Village site (and Measure D, itself).

          Those are positives, in my opinion.

          And I plan to continue speaking out (periodically) regarding oversized infill proposals, even if they don’t personally impact me. Others do, as well.

        3. Ron Oertel

          It’s not a matter of bias. It’s intrinsic to the position of being against something.

          Depends upon whether or not you’re “for” preserving farmland/open space, or “against” a given development proposal.

          Sort of like Measure D:  Is one “pro-choice”, or “anti-choice”?

          Or, does one support more “inclusionary” housing, or is one “anti-student” (even though students are not prohibited, and have exclusive access to campus housing)?

          Or, is one for more “gentrification”, or are they “NIMBYs”?

          We already know how these various positions are “framed”.

        4. Alan Miller

          It’s not a matter of bias. It’s intrinsic to the position of being against something.

          Every issue is a stick with two ends.  To be against something is to be for something else, and to be for something is to be against something else.  What you define as negative only shows your bias, nothing intrinsic.

        5. Ron Oertel

          I think that the most effective “political framing” of all is put forth regarding abortion.

          Are you “pro-life” (or “anti-life”)?

          Are you “pro-choice” (or “anti-choice”)?

          For some reason, I want to extend this into “are you with us, or against us”? (Pretty sure that George W. framed something this way.)

        6. Matt Williams

          Don Shor said . . . Measure J made it possible for people to vote for candidates that they supported for other reasons regardless of that candidate’s position on development.

          .
          I believe Don is 100% correct in his assessment.

  2. Alan Miller

    The maps suggest . . . proximity concerns rather than a set opposition to growth.

    In other words, Davisites are selfish F–ks, no surprise.  Davis isn’t a town of NIMBYs, it’s a town of YIYBYs.  Davisites want growth, but NOT in OUR DISTRICT.  If you live in East Davis, put it in West Davis.  If you live in South Davis, put it in North Davis.  It’s the “Davis Way” 😉

      1. Alan Miller

        Not really, NIMBYs are agnostic as growth elsewhere.  No harm.  YIYBYs want growth, but definitively want it to effect someone else.  The perks but not the harm.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Someone familiar to most of you told me (more than once) that “no neighborhood gets thrown under the bus”.

      Division is what allows developers to take advantage, pitting one neighborhood (and possibly district council member) against the other.

      Words (and values) to live by.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          You’re understanding the importance of what I’m saying here.  You may view it as an adversarial process.  People looking to do a project for the most part of hoping to avoid confrontation, not create or disperse it.

        2. Ron Oertel

          People looking to do a project for the most part of hoping to avoid confrontation, not create or disperse it.

          Of course, “people” (meaning developers) are hoping to avoid a confrontation.  Is that news?

          By the way, “corporations are people, too”. 😉

  3. Matt Williams

    The job of being a City Council member includes much more than the occasional decision regarding individual development projects.  It involves MRAP, the Ghandi Statue, Parking, Budget, Picnic Day Policing, Inter Jurisdictional Cooperation meetings, providing community leadership … the list goes on and on.  So it is no surprise at all that voters would think beyond a single litmus test issue when they cast their votes for City Council candidates.

    There is one other factor that is very important … personal friendship.  People vote for candidates that they know and/or personally.  Development proposals don’t have the ability to smile, shake your hand, or hug your baby.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      One problem with the theory of personal friendship – most people don’t know who their councilmembers are, let alone know them. So while it might be a factor with the regulars who pay attention to things in the city, probably less so with the average citizen.

      1. Alan Miller

        A few years back, I had the personal cell phone number of every city council member in my phone – not because I was collecting them, but because I knew them all well enough.  Now it’s down to one.  The City Council is much less Alan Millery than it used to be.

        1. Alan Miller

          A few years ago, you also led the city in public comments.

          I was?  You’ve been keeping track?  #sniff#  I am so touched 🙂

          You’re not the typical member of the public.

          I’m not the typical anything.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          I do not buy this – there are too many people end up voting in the council election who have no idea who the people are on council.  I would wager the majority of those voting are that way.

        2. Ron Oertel

          I would wager the majority of those voting are that way.

          That might also explain the results.

          As does the “pool” of people willing to take on the challenge (and gather the necessary resources) in the first place, for a “temporary” job with very little pay, but significant work.

          And, plenty of “barbs” directed their way, regardless of the positions they take.

        3. Matt Williams

          David, I agree with your “people end up voting in the council election who have no idea who the people are on council” supposition, and would add to that supposition that the majority of people end up voting in the council election who have no idea what any of the candidates stand for.  Which is why I used the Telephone analogy.  They turn to their neighbors and/or friends and ask who the neighbors/friends are voting for.

  4. Ron Oertel

    For what it’s worth, it appears that growth pressures (statewide) are lessening (even prior to Covid).

    There’s a net outflow of people from the state, and has been for some time.

    Lately, I’ve been enjoying watching YouTube videos regarding this phenomenon.

    1. Alan Miller

      Lately, I’ve been enjoying watching YouTube videos regarding this phenomenon.

      What does that look like?  The opposite of films of Okies with the belongings strapped to the roof of their cars, fleeing the Dust Bowl for California?

      1. Ron Oertel

        It’s generally the “poorer” (lower-middle-class) people who are leaving.  Those coming to California are wealthier than those leaving, and are essentially displacing them.

        Those arriving in California have their belongings strapped to Teslas. Those leaving are doing so in Kias, I assume. 😉

        That’s ultimately why places like the Bay Area are no longer affordable for “natives”. This started occurring maybe 30-40 years ago, and has accelerated greatly since then.

        Then, there’s the “really poor” class, who are homeless (and remain, or come from elsewhere).

      2. Ron Oertel

        The latter, of course – having shopping carts instead of cars.

        In any case, Covid has actually caused rents to drop significantly, in places like San Francisco.  So apparently, the “tech bros” are leaving, as well.  (For Tahoe, among other places.)

        I recall seeing an article that community “feeder” colleges are not seeing the same temporary “bump” in enrollment which occurred during the last recession, and that enrollment is continuing to drop. Seems to be part of a continuing trend toward the drastic nationwide drop in college enrollments.

  5. Eric Gelber

    Slow growther would seem to be a misnomer. It’s not a matter of speed. (Are there fast growthers?) A more appropriate distinction might be between planned growth and developer-driven growth. Opposition to particular projects by planned growthers is more based on whether the project is seen as addressing priority city needs than on how fast the city is growing. Developer-driven growthers may focus on whether the project meets a general need (e.g., for more housing or more commercial space) but are content to leave the details to the developer. Overlaying this, however, is the issue of NIMBYism, which results in highly motivated voters in opposition to projects that are perceived to have a negative impact on them determining the outcome.

    Ideally, these competing perspectives and concerns would be worked out ahead of time, jointly by the city, the developer, and impacted residents. Unfortunately, Measure J—>D does not encourage this collaborative process; rather, it encourages the Council to abdicate its responsibility because the voters are the final decision makers. If, for example, traffic was the primary concern of nearby homeowners in the case of DISC, then more effort should have been put into identifying mitigation measures prior to putting the project up for voter approval.

  6. Ron Glick

    “The job of being a City Council member includes much more than the occasional decision regarding individual development projects.  It involves MRAP, the Ghandi Statue, Parking, Budget, Picnic Day Policing, Inter Jurisdictional Cooperation meetings, providing community leadership … the list goes on and on. ”

    I thought the job of the CC was to provide basic services; water, sanitation, public safety and infrastructure with representative power over the budget that provides those services. Sadly, the choice of issues Matt uses as examples, serve to demonstrate why people in both Davis and neighboring communities often find Davis governance to be a running joke.

    1. Matt Williams

      Ron, it is the job of the City to provide basic services … water, sanitation, public safety and infrastructure.  I would also add social services and fiscal responsibility to your list.

      The job of the City Council members drills down a level from those broad brush strokes summaries.  MRAP is a drill down under the public safety category.  The Gandhi Statue is a drill down under the social services and infrastructure categories.  Parking touches public safety, infrastructure and social services.  Budget touches them all.  Picnic Day Policing drills down into Public Safety and Social Services.  Inter-Jurisdictional Cooperation touches them all as well, as does providing community leadership.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Matt… add to that, processing applications for ‘entitlements’… flowing from State law… but, not inconsistent with the functions you correctly point out…

        Davisville became a City due to water supply, fire protection, flood control, waste (including ‘sanitary’ [aka ‘sewage’]) issues… not development issues, recreation, social issues beyond that… it is in the records… 103 years ago… basic… things folk can’t reliably do for themselves..

  7. Ron Glick

    “Those arriving in California have their belongings strapped to Teslas. Those leaving are doing so in Kias, I assume. ” 

    Many people are leaving California for lower tax states. Your comment demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the demographic challenges California faces.

    1. Ron Oertel

      So, this took me all of about 3 seconds to find:

      ‘Not the Golden State anymore’: Middle- and low-income people leaving California

      U.S. Census Bureau numbers show that the middle- and lower-classes are leaving California at a higher rate than the wealthy.

      https://calmatters.org/california-divide/2020/01/not-the-golden-state-anymore-middle-and-low-income-people-leaving-california/

      And, this:

      “Substantially more rich people are moving into California than moving out,” Cristobal Young, a Cornell University sociology professor, said in a Los Angeles Times column.”

      https://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article228433589.html

  8. Tia Will

    Anti’-growth candidates, because their position is essentially negative.”

    I would like to confirm this misperception, and its political use from my personal perspective. I have been pro projects that I felt met a real community need ( Nishi, Lincoln Forty, Paul’s Place) as examples regardless of their location. I have opposed projects that I felt did not truly reflect community need ( The Cannery, Trackside, and DISC as examples).

    I have never run for office, however, my opposition to the above projects got me labeled on this site as a no/slow growther and Nimby, even though that was demonstrably untrue if one chose to consider all my choices. I feel that this same false narrative might do significant damage to a candidate for city council if someone chose to make the same false accusation about them to promote a different candidate. This could account for some of the discrepancy you note.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Good point.

      For that matter, I understand that Sue Greenwald supported a business park at The Cannery.

      I believe that Colin was not opposed to WDAAC.

      Eileen (though not a candidate) supports various development proposals – including The Cannery (as it now exists).

      I think that Alan P. (again, not a candidate) was not opposed to Nishi 2.0.

      Just some examples.

      But really, I’d like to see the conversation shift to what should be preserved (in terms of agricultural land), and what should occur (or not) within the boundaries of the city.

      1. Don Shor

        For that matter, I understand that Sue Greenwald supported a business park at The Cannery.

        I believe that Colin was not opposed to WDAAC.

        Eileen (though not a candidate) supports various development proposals – including The Cannery (as it now exists).

        I think that Alan P. (again, not a candidate) was not opposed to Nishi 2.0.

        Which ones have you supported?

        1. Ron Oertel

          I am not a candidate, though I’m not all that unhappy with what’s occurred so far.

          If I were, I’d likely be considered to be among the slowest-growth of all.

          What lands do you support preserving?

          To what degree do you support infill?

          1. Don Shor

            What lands do you support preserving?

            I vigorously opposed the conversion of Mace 391 from the proposed ag easement to a development proposal. It’s all here in the archives from 2013. I have argued on the Vanguard repeatedly for the conservation of prime ag land. I have proposed an urban limit line in east and south Davis to prevent encroachment onto prime ag land.
            Infill is fine, but there are very few interested and willing landowners, and I don’t think there is a binary choice between infill and peripheral development.
            Which projects have you supported, Ron? Any?

        2. Ron Oertel

          I vigorously opposed the conversion of Mace 391 from the proposed ag easement to a development proposal.

          Thanks – appreciate that. 

          I have proposed an urban limit line in east and south Davis to prevent encroachment onto prime ag land.

          Where?  And, what about the other two directions?

          Which projects have you supported, Ron? Any?

          You’re not likely to find me “actively” supporting any, but that doesn’t mean I’m opposed.  But the default seems to be that they’re approved regardless of my input, unless there’s a campaign that I can assist with (if I’m opposed). So, I’m not sure why I need to “help” developers, who seem to get quite a few approved regardless.

           

           

        3. Ron Oertel

          Oh, wait:  There’s at least a couple of recent ones I would have stated my support for, if asked:

          Nugget headquarters (even if they might, or might not have “poached” that from other locations)

          Residence Inn

          Hyatt

          I would have preferred Nishi to be owned by UCD, to be used (and paid for, regarding long-term costs) as they see fit. The air quality concerns are ultimately beyond my pay grade.

        4. Ron Oertel

          And I would also likely (in principle) acknowledge support for some kind of development within the remaining large space (inside the Mace curve).

          And ultimately, Chiles Ranch (infill). Though I’d like to see some acknowledgement of what was once there (e.g., the barn). If I’m not mistaken, an earlier proposal included some kind of similar community structure proposed, there.

          Oh – and probably the marijuana sales operations that have arisen.

          With that, I’ll wait to see if you respond to my questions.

        5. Ron Oertel

          Me, to Don:

          Where? And, what about the other two directions?

          Not seeing it in that link you subsequently posted, above.

          Maybe you could just respond directly, since I answered your questions (in detail)?

          1. Don Shor

            An urban limit line to the west would typically be on Road 98. But between the current edge of Davis and Road 98 there is a charming little farm, and the land in those parcels is prime ag soil. There are also pretty important drainage issues there that would likely present an obstacle to residential development. The owner of the property to the north edge of that section has done us all a favor by planting a walnut orchard in the last year or so. Given the increased value of that land now due to orchard installation, and the significant initial cost of planting a new orchard, I’d say that land is off the development market for at least a couple of decades. I could see a logic to making the current west boundary of Davis the limit line, or extending it to Road 98 with considerable restrictions on the nature of development. I believe that parcel was removed from the city’s Sphere of Influence (LAFCo term) a few years ago, so it is probably ag for the indefinite future.
            North of Covell Blvd, including the Northwest quadrant in the city would be the logical growth boundary for reasons of soil quality and drainage. In fact, as I have stated before, in my opinion the Northwest quadrant is the most logical place for Davis to develop a new residential subdivision.
            The City of Davis and NGO partners are doing a good job of conserving lands to the north, and I believe that is considered a high priority for Measure O funds.
            https://www.cityofdavis.org/home/showpublisheddocument?id=3254
            Likewise there are lands conserved south of Davis. That is all prime ag land, so the open farmland south of town merits conservation all the way to Putah Creek. Commercial development could proceed along Chiles Road to the overpass. I have no idea what the intentions or desires of those landowners might be.

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