We're on the edge of the twentieth century and Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco concludes that without abundant water and electrical power San Francisco is stymied. He fixes his thirsty gaze upon Hetch-Hetchy 200 miles east, a U-shaped glacial valley in the Sierras, flat-floored and hemmed in by 2,500-foot granite cliffs. Through it flow the abundant waters of the Tuolumne River. Problem: Hetch-Hetchy lies within the bounds of Yosemite National Park, and conservationists led by John Muir vow a fight to the death to save the valley.
After an epic struggle Congress passes the Raker Act in 1913, which OKs the construction of a dam that will inundate Hetch-Hetchy. Muir dies the following year. Representative John Raker, in whose district Yosemite lies, is a progressive, a profound believer in public power. Under the terms of his act the Feds will waive Hetch-Hetchy's protected status to San Francisco. The dam must be used not only to store water but also to generate electric power. This power must be sold directly to the citizens of San Francisco through a municipal power agency at the cheapest possible rates. Publicly owned water and electric energy will free the city from what another progressive Congressman calls "the thralldom...of a remorseless private monopoly." If San Francisco does not honor the terms of the Raker Act, it will lose the federal waiver.
By the early 1920s San Francisco is watering itself with the Tuolumne, and it has built a powerhouse at Moccasin Creek to use the Tuolumne's pent-up power. It buys hundreds of miles of copper wire to run that power into the city. Pending completion of its own power lines, it agrees to sell the hydro-power to a rapidly growing utility company called Pacific Gas & Electric, which will use its grid to carry the power to San Francisco, at which point PG&E will sell the power back to the citizenry at an outrageous markup.
The camel's nose is under the tent, and there it stays. In the Roosevelt era Interior Secretary Harold Ickes fights a tenacious struggle to force San Francisco to abide by the terms of the Raker Act. PG&E's mayors, newspapers, public utility managers, city supervisors and legislators steadfastly thwart the bonds required to finance a municipally owned utility.
Years go by. The Raker Act is all but forgotten. PG&E rules supreme. In the mid-1960s a young muckraker called Bruce Brugmann comes to San Francisco. He's grown up in Rock Rapids, Iowa, a public-power town. He's gone to school in Nebraska--thanks to George Norris, a public-power state. He founds the Bay Guardian and by the late 1960s is deep into the PG&E wars. By now the utility is trying to build a nuclear power station at Bodega Bay. Joe Neilands and Charlie Smith, respectively a UC biochemist and an organizer, mount a successful battle against PG&E's plan. In the course of this campaign Neilands disinters the hidden history of the Raker Act and Brugmann publishes the story.
Let Brugmann carry our drama forward:
"What heated me up and got me increasingly angry over the years was that this was a structural scandal of epic proportions. PG&E had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars down the years. But it was verboten to discuss PG&E publicly. The phrase is, When PG&E spits, City Hall swims. The company had wired the city, put out thousands of dollars to various civic groups. It controlled the grand jury, and to a large extent the judiciary. Then the downtown boys managed to put in at-large elections in San Francisco, meaning candidates had to raise large sums. That slowed us down for a generation.
"Finally we got district elections again. That changed the rules of the game. Now we have a more progressive board of supervisors, beholden to constituents and their districts. Then we won a sunshine ordinance. Our coalition got the 24,000 signatures last year. We dealt with each and every condition the city attorney imposed. Then, in the first district elections in years, our slate won, so we suddenly have a progressive 9-to-2 majority. At the Guardian we tied down every supe to a pledge to put a municipal utility district on the ballot and to support MUD. We finally have a pro-public power and anti-PG&E majority. Of course, we still have to win the election. PG&E is lobbying behind the scenes, putting millions into the fight, even though it's bankrupt. But for the first time in our memory nobody is running on a pro-PG&E platform."
Act III is unfinished at this time, but if ever there was a favorable moment, it's surely now. When PG&E successfully pushed deregulation through the California legislature in the mid-1990s it surely patted itself on the back for a master stroke. The public would pick up the tab for the company's vast losses in nuclear power. Nationally, the Clinton Administration was ushering in a whole new era of energy deregulation. Senator Dianne Feinstein was at PG&E's beck and call. The public-power crowd was hemmed in, and "green" outfits like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council were actually in the vanguard of the dereg movement.
Now we have California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer pushing a criminal investigation into the conspiracy to hike energy prices. Among the big questions: Is PG&E a shark that got chewed by bigger sharks from Houston, like Enron, or did the utility simply shuffle its money elsewhere on the Monopoly board and then declare bankruptcy? Almost a century after Raker sought to write public power into the history of San Francisco, the tide may be turning, and we have long-range populist campaigners like Brugmann and his Bay Guardian to thank for it.
Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. And for much of the spring it seemed possible that America's second-largest city would elect as its mayor a progressive Latino who at one time had a tattoo that read, "Born to Raise Hell." Antonio Villaraigosa hailed from the barrio, marched with striking workers, replaced municipal bromides about economic development with a call for "economic justice" and asked the right questions about the drug war, immigration and a tattered safety net. The high school dropout who parlayed a second chance into the Speakership of the California Assembly sought to build a rainbow coalition of the left in a rapidly diversifying city.
So Villaraigosa's 53-to-47 loss Tuesday to City Attorney James Hahn, the colorless scion of the city's best-known political family, was more than just another municipal dream deferred. It was a reminder to progressives in LA and nationally that coalition politics is always easier said than done. Villaraigosa's army of 2,500 union volunteers tripled Latino turnout from just eight years ago, but African-American voters--many loyal to the moderately liberal Hahn because of his father's long advocacy for communities of color, and others worried about losing political clout in a city that is 47 percent Hispanic--gave Villaraigosa barely one-third of their votes. And suburban Anglo voters were scared off in droves by a relentlessly anti-Villaraigosa campaign that portrayed the former president of the Southern California ACLU as soft on crime. Last-minute Hahn mailings to suburban neighborhoods sought to link Villaraigosa to a cocaine dealer and warned, "Los Angeles just can't trust Antonio Villaraigosa." Shelly Mandell, president of the LA National Organization for Women, said, "I've never seen anything worse done to a good person."
The viciousness of the final phase of the campaign was not typical of Hahn, whose record and rhetoric suggest he will be a more liberal leader than outgoing mayor Richard Riordan. But Hahn will never be the movement mayor Villaraigosa would have been.
The election was "a gut check," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute. LA didn't quite have the guts to embrace what the Los Angeles Times described as "the audacity of [Villaraigosa's] aspirations for the city." (Nor, if a close unofficial tally holds, did it have the guts to elect the audacious Tom Hayden to the City Council.) But in a year when New York, Detroit, Cleveland and other major cities--all experiencing their own demographic and political shifts--will elect mayors, opportunities remain for progressives to make the rainbow real. The challenge, and it is a big one, will be to recognize that the rainbow does not just appear; it must be created. And it must be strong enough to withstand the politics of fear and division that can dash even the most audacious aspirations.
The urban rebellion in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood that followed the April 7 death of yet another black man, Timothy Thomas, at the hands of police shocked city residents. Mayor Charlie Luken lamented the "violence" as "unthinkable" and at a press conference pleaded for it to stop. At times like these it is vital to think clearly about how social problems, especially violence, are defined. In Cincinnati the media identify the core problem as "police-community" relations. But reducing the myriad and interrelated forms of violence in the inner city to a problem of police-community relations misses an opportunity to understand such issues in a deeper and more systemic sense. We need to understand how violence has been waged against people of color for a very long time.
Since the late 1940s a series of moves on the part of government and the private sector have reinforced an American form of apartheid. Ushering in the explosion of the suburbs for the white middle class, the Federal Housing Authority's liberalization of the mortgage market, its regulations favoring new construction of single-family detached houses and its appraisal process helped insure that neighborhoods continued to house the same social and racial classes. Under "urban renewal," many black neighborhoods were razed to make way for freeways, sports arenas and corporate redevelopment. Global restructuring of the economy then gutted the black working class's job base in the manufacturing sector.
Add to these the rise to power of neoconservatives, who divest the state of responsibility for meeting social needs, evidenced by rollbacks of affirmative action, the elimination of welfare and cutbacks in housing, combined with more punitive measures like increases in police forces and prison-building and a continued militarized economy.
The "hypersegregation" of blacks in the inner cities is now a structural reality. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton note in American Apartheid, "One-third of all African Americans in the United States live under conditions of intense racial segregation.... No other group in the contemporary United States comes close to this level of isolation within urban society."
Recent census data show that Cincinnati is the ninth most segregated city in the United States, with Over-the-Rhine, about 77 percent black, being its poorest neighborhood. This extreme social and spatial isolation exacerbates the effects of poverty, making it difficult to sustain neighborhood institutions and social organizations. These trends take a particular form in Cincinnati. Consider that in 1996, at the request of an alliance of corporate, business and city power, the Urban Land Institute came to Over-the-Rhine bearing gifts of a homeownership agenda for a community where approximately 75 percent of the population have incomes well below the reach of the rental market, let alone homeownership. Consider Cincinnati Pops director Erich Kunzel's "dream" to build the Greater Cincinnati Fine Arts and Education Center near Music Hall, which, after originally promising no displacement, called for the removal of the Drop Inn Center, the area's largest homeless shelter and lead institution in the Over-the-Rhine People's Movement.
And consider the motion passed by the City Planning Commission last July not to fund additional low-income housing units on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine, a motion that discriminates against a particular race and class and ignores the city's own Consolidated Plan, which identifies the need for 30,000 affordable housing units. Further, city records show that between January 1995 and the first quarter of 2000, 60 percent of the $8 million invested by the Department of Neighborhood Services in housing programs in Over-the-Rhine supported market-rate rather than affordable housing development.
Last, consider the mayor's about-face decision last summer not to support the $4.5 million tax-credit package of ReSTOC, a community-based, nonprofit housing cooperative, intended to finance construction of economically mixed housing in Over-the-Rhine, a project that qualified for state funding. The mayor then forced ReSTOC to sell one of the buildings in its package to a private owner to develop dotcom enterprises.
These examples of institutional violence have one thing in common: the way they market Over-the-Rhine as an idealized version of itself, effectively erasing it as a place for poor people of color. Revitalization efforts are selling an image that has no place for the poor who actually live there. "Development" means attracting people of higher incomes to live and play and work.
I am not suggesting that the neighborhood keep out newcomers, including people of higher means. The point is that the city fights to deny resources to community-based organizations while promoting renovation that caters to white, wealthier residents. And in this process, the buildings and urban ambience are sold like a stage set to folks who want to consume an urban night out. Over-the-Rhine is being Disneyfied, and this requires pushing people who don't fit the postcard image out of the way. No wonder Over-the-Rhine residents feel resentful.
Gentrification is often advocated as an antisegregation measure. This may be true in the short run, before poor residents are displaced. But community development today is rarely conceived outside the ideology of corporatism, with its lingo of public-private partnerships, enterprise and empowerment zones, tax incentives, and abatements and deregulatory legislation, all of which are ploys to advance privatization and subordinate social movements to the interests of business and the profit system. Community development has been reduced to a kind of plea bargaining with the powers that be, and thus what gets constructed as hope within the community is the desire to have a little more money funneled in its direction. That community institutions persist at all in these circumstances is an amazing testament to their perseverance in meeting desperate need.
Urban disruptions like the rebellion in Cincinnati are indictments of entrenched patterns of police-community relations and community development. Gentrification that produces displacement is an act of violence. Economic development that neglects to provide jobs for Over-the-Rhine residents is an act of violence. Building stadiums and supporting corporations at public expense while closing inner-city schools are acts of violence. We should not be surprised when communities erupt in righteous anger against the bonds of their oppression.
New York City voters aren't thrilled with their options in the fall elections.
His mayoral campaign platform is the most progressive in modern city history.
Survey the political terrain of this, America's second-largest city, on the eve of the April 10 mayoral vote, and the only possible conclusion is: What a Difference a Decade Makes. When deep-pockets Republican businessman Richard Riordan came seemingly out of nowhere to win the 1993 election for mayor, he persuaded a riot-traumatized and recession-battered city that he was "tough enough" to turn things around and that his first priority would be to beef up the LAPD with 3,000 more cops. Meanwhile his opponent, moderate Democrat Mike Woo, found himself pilloried by white-dominated homeowner groups enraged over his opposition to the death penalty, hardly within a mayor's purview.
That was then. This is now. California's anti-immigrant Prop 187 has since come and gone. Latino immigrants (and Asians, too) have continued to arrive, permanently changing the hue of Los Angeles. And with the military contractor-based economy now barely a memory, the city's work force increasingly grapples with lower-wage service jobs while it transforms LA into the union-organizing capital of America. All of a sudden, in the electoral arena, a powerful labor/Latino alliance, unthinkable in 1993, can credibly challenge the homeowner groups for power.
Consequently, the dozens of mayoral forums held these past few months have been marked by an emerging popular agenda: education, low-income housing, mass transit, environmental protection, expansion of the living wage and not just police but police reform. In a field of a half-dozen rivals, progressive Los Angeles even has its own candidate--one who might even win. Antonio Villaraigosa, 48, a former State Assembly speaker, former trade unionist and former president of the Southern California ACLU, has met the challenge of LA's balkanization by successfully creating a citywide, multiracial coalition. Villaraigosa has the support of major Democratic financial backers like Ron Burkle and Eli Broad, and his endorsements range from the Democratic Party itself and politically cautious Governor Gray Davis to the Sierra Club, NOW, the largest gay Democratic club and the powerhouse LA County Federation of Labor. Not only is labor cranking up the phone banks and deploying a street army of canvassers--it's also reportedly putting up as much as $1 million in an independent expenditure campaign on Villaraigosa's behalf. "Finally we have a candidate who not only supports us but is truly one of our own," says a federation official. "We are pulling out all the stops for Antonio."
Villaraigosa can't win this coming election outright--because of the crowded field, no single candidate is in a position to garner 50 percent of the ballots. So the ultimate winner will be chosen in a June runoff. The real contest in this first round is for second place. The top spot seems reserved for Democrat James "Jimmy" Hahn, LA's affable but lackluster city attorney. For four decades, Hahn's father was a popular liberal county supervisor representing much of Central Los Angeles, and he built a granite-solid base among African-Americans. His son has inherited both his enormous name recognition and the lock on the black vote. The campaigns of the two other Democrats in the race have failed to ignite: State Controller Kathleen Connell didn't even win the support of NOW, while liberal US Representative Xavier Becerra has done little except nibble away at Latino support for Villaraigosa.
Even among the two candidates vying for support from the white, wealthier and more suburbanized voters there's a whiff of new politics. Veteran City Councilman Joel Wachs, a former Republican turned Independent, is waging a middle-class populist campaign banking on his record of opposing public subsidies for big private development. Wachs, who would be the first openly gay mayor of a major US city, has also gone the furthest in criticizing embattled LAPD Chief Bernard Parks, saying he would not reappoint him to a second term. Running the most conservative campaign is Steve Soboroff, Mayor Riordan's handpicked successor. Soboroff, a wealthy real estate dealmaker, portrays himself in expensive TV commercials as a "can do" businessman and elsewhere as a moderate, pro-choice Republican. Still, he is the only candidate who has come out against the consent decree recently imposed by the federal government to spur LA police reform. At first lagging in the polls, Soboroff has recently surged.
A few days out from the voting, it's impossible to predict who will take second place to face Hahn in the June runoffs. A Soboroff-Hahn race would polarize the city along conventional partisan, class and color lines. But a Villaraigosa-Hahn matchup would force the city to choose between two Democrats: a moderate liberal and an authentic progressive. Just what the doctor ordered after eight years of Riordan's uninterrupted pro-business administration.
In Stamford, Connecticut, organizers are putting the movement back in labor.
Montgomery's transit system isn't segregated anymore. It barely exists.
London's new mayor is Thatcher's old nemesis. Is he also a leading indicator?
Activists are finding success solving social problems on a regional basis.