Photograph credit ©2012 IsaacHernandez.com
This article was originally published by the weekly Santa Barbara Independent and is reposted here with permission.
The last time I saw Selma Rubin was maybe a month ago. She was recovering from an operation at the Val Verde Retirement Home. When we got through sharing political gossip – as usual she knew way more than I did – I gave her strict instructions not to go dying on me. She only had three years to go before hitting 100, a party I knew she wanted to celebrate. But mostly, I told her, I didn’t want to write her obituary. It would be too hard to imagine Santa Barbara without her. Apparently, she wasn’t listening. Late last week, Selma died just a few weeks shy of her 97th birthday.
In the shorthand of political caricature, Selma was the little old lady with gaudy window-pane sized eyeglasses and a collection of hats that refused to quit. And in the 47 years Selma called Santa Barbara home, she made it her personal mission to be everywhere, all the time. Or so it seemed. If you went to a concert at UCSB, Selma was there. If there was a speech at the Faulkner Gallery, she was there. And if there was political action afoot, especially of the progressive left-wing variety, most likely Selma helped organize it. That’s been Selma’s way when she first moved to Santa Barbara with her husband Bill in 1964. And it stayed that way until late last year when lung cancer slowed her down.
Selma’s accomplishments during her nearly five decades in Santa Barbara are beyond calculation. She helped start 42 grass roots political organizations dedicated, in various ways, to preserving the environment and promoting social justice. Many of these organizations have since faded from the scene, their purposes served. But, to a startling degree, many remain very much alive, engaged, and formidable – and so established they’ve become enshrined in the institutional alphabet soup that defines the South Coast left: the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), the Community Environmental Council (CEC), the ACLU, SBCAN, and the Fund for Santa Barbara among them. Taken in their totality, the organizations Selma nurtured effectively re-defined the range of political debate in Santa Barbara.
It’s worth remembering that values now taken for granted as safe and inevitable – like the preservation of open space – were not just improbable when Selma started, but positively dangerous. And Selma didn’t just change the political landscape. In ways dramatic, enduring, and very tangible, she – and the organizations she fostered – left an indelible mark on the physical landscape itself, beating back repeated efforts to industrialize the coast with offshore oil development, or to commercialize it with massive sprawling development.
The most glaring case in point involved well-oiled plans by out-of-town developer Jules Berman to construct no less than 1,535 new houses along the Gaviota Coast, near El Capitan, back in 1970. The County Planning Commission approved and so did the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors. There was no Coastal Commission to appeal to; it didn’t exist yet. There wasn’t even a California Environmental Quality Act to sue over; that didn’t exist either. Selma Rubin, then 55, along with her friend Anna Laura Myers, responded by launching a petition drive to put the proposal on the ballot. They needed 9,000 signatures; they collected 12,000. When it went to the voters, Berman’s proposal was rejected by a margin of two to one. District Attorney David Minier, then tight with powerful real estate interests, filed criminal charges against Rubin and Myers, alleging they forged some signatures and tampered with others. If convicted, the two women faced a maximum of 28 years behind bars.