Santa Cruz New American Movement

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Santa Cruz NAM

Taking over Santa Cruz

In 1981, reversing more than a century of conservative rule, a new progressive majority elected a socialist-feminist candidate to Mayor of Santa Cruz. Key to this historic transformation was the role played by a small chapter of New American Movement in Santa Cruz. This chapter had an explicit three-part strategy that included undertaking projects related to socialist-feminist work, helping to mobilize and consolidate a broad progressive community movement, and organizing in grassroots neighborhoods. The latter, unique for an explicitly socialist organization.[1]

Origins

Santa Cruz NAM originated on the University of California, Santa Cruz campus and was started by Elaine Draper and others with connections to the national group that founded NAM. The chapter had a committed core of about 25 members, and five or ten prospective members or people interested in a particular topic, at most meetings.

Political ambitions

In 1975, after about two years of socialist and anti-imperialist educational work centered primarily on campus, Santa Cruz NAM began to talk seriously about developing local political work that would allow it to break out of the small Left circles that had previously circumscribed its work. The group began discussing issues that might speak to the needs of ordinary people while exposing the limitations of capitalism.

However, in terms of developing what was referred to as mass practice, Santa Cruz NAM had a difficult time getting beyond the level of theoretical discussion. Meetings were often devoted to discussion of selections from works such as Strategy for Labor by Andre Gorz, and whether and how a particular issue might lend itself to development of the kinds of revolutionary reforms promoted by Gorz. These discussions went on for almost a year. Many members, often the most energetic, decided to leave the group because they were looking for more action and less abstract debate.

Meanwhile, at the national level, NAM pushed members and chapters to take a new approach to mass practice. It was no longer sufficient to think about taking NAM’s issues to a wider audience. Mass work was slowly redefined as working with existing and potential constituencies on their issues. The relationship of such work to the group’s socialist agenda was not commonly understood, but the idea that mass work meant some form of grassroots organizing was gaining strong support with most of the organization.[2]

Healthcare campaign

Finally, by early 1976, the Santa Cruz chapter had settled on the issue of health care. Consistent with NAM’s commitment to building a movement not focused solely on the poor, the group liked the health care issue because it was a concern that affected people regardless of their income. Also, health care raised many explicitly feminist concerns, such as reproductive rights and family access to care. A functioning Health Care Commission in NAM supported the group in this decision. It joined the Gray Panthers in endorsing the National Medical Service bill (carried by U.S. Congressman Ron Dellums), published Health Activist Digest several times a year, analyzed the health care crisis and potential solutions, and held conferences on this topic.

In late 1976, Santa Cruz NAM formed the Santa Cruz Health Care Coalition to approach the crisis comprehensively. Rather than focus on specific issues like abortion or birth care, they attempted to build a broad-based community effort to develop health care solutions.

Initial members included five NAM members, two Women’s Health Collective members, a public health nurse, and three other individuals. At first, the Health Care Coalition saw its role as one of building an autonomous neighborhood group capable of developing solutions to its own health care needs. This was consistent with NAM’s long-term strategy for socialism: a movement built by regular people and not delivered to them by a vanguard party.

The Health Care Coalition held a number of meetings and used outside research in deciding which Santa Cruz neighborhood to select for a grassroots organizing drive. Health care needs alone might have dictated a choice of the city’s poorest neighborhood, a largely low-income, Hispanic barrio in the Beach Flats. However, NAM’s class analysis centered on the identification, unification, and empowerment of an expanded working class, including low- and moderate-income people. As a result, the group looked for a neighborhood with high percentages of senior citizens and families with children who would have significant need for health care services. In addition, the anti-racist politics of Health Care Coalition members meant selecting a multiracial neighborhood. After much demographic analysis and discussion, the Health Care Coalition finally chose the Westside neighborhood— an area that seemed to best meet its criteria. The neighborhood had no apparent self-identity and was somewhat defined as the 5,000 or so homes bordered by two major streets, Bay and Mission, and the Pacific Ocean.

Organizing began with Health Care Coalition members knocking on doors to meet people, assess their health care needs, and probe for additional neighborhood concerns. While the Coalition felt that reopening the County Hospital was its major goal, residents made it clear they had little interest in that issue because they perceived a County Hospital as “poor people’s health care.” Because the Coalition’s took seriously its mission of listening to what the residents felt was important, Coalition members began to think about gathering support for a neighborhood health clinic.

Additional support came from a study group on grassroots organizing, led by a Coalition member through a local socialist school organized primarily by non-NAM members. Coalition members, members of a city-wide tenant organizing project, and other NAM members and community activists met weekly for two months. In this study group, Coalition members learned about grassroots organizing principles and tried to apply them to their own work. Discussions about strategy and tactics, as well as the ethics and organization of grassroots organizing, were important in preparing Health Care Coalition activists for the long struggle ahead. Material from established organizations, such as ACORN, and from organizer- training institutes, such as the Midwest Academy in Chicago, were extremely helpful.

The Coalition looked for ways to increase contact with the people and solidarity among the neighbors themselves. The local Red Cross helped Health Care Coalition members organize and advertise classes on first aid and CPR. The County Health Department and the Visiting Nurses Association offered a well-baby clinic. After participating in these classes, the organizers increased their skills and knowledge, established new contacts, and created a health care discussion forum.

Perhaps the most important step of this early organizing was the neighborhood health watch created in the Circles area. Modeled on successful neighborhood crime watches elsewhere, the health watch allowed residents in a 15-square block area to get to know their neighbors at several house meetings and informal social events.

By the end of 1977, Health Care Coalition membership grew to twenty-five, eighteen of whom were NAM members.

The neighborhood’s big breakthrough finally came in June 1978, sparked by two events. Late in May, the Santa Cruz Medical Clinic— the only general medicine or family practice in the western half of Santa Cruz—announced its proposed move to a new facility on the eastern edge of the city. At the same time, California Proposition 13, the Jarvis-Gann tax reform measure, passed on the first Tuesday in June. The director of the City-County Library closed the Garfield Branch Library the following day. This small library, with one librarian, ran on an annual budget of $13,000, but it was both accessible and served as a social gathering place. Thus, it had been a major contact point for the Health Care Coalition outreach work to neighborhood seniors.

The Health Care Coalition already had planned a neighborhood newsletter, dubbed the Westside Story, for early June distribution. For several months, the group had developed a distribution network of 20 to 40 people who would deliver the newsletter to neighbors on their block. In the middle of June, the first issue came out, and it was delivered to about 3,000 doorsteps in the Westside. The issue included stories about the library closing, the health center’s moving, and the Health Care Coalition. There was also a gardening column, a profile of a neighborhood resident, and a back page announcement of a neighborhood meeting at the church in the middle of the Circles.

On July 13, 1978, about seventy residents and ten Coalition members attended the meeting called by the Health Care Coalition to address the crisis of the for-profit health center leaving Santa Cruz’s Westside. Reverend Ed Muggee, a conservative, life-long resident who had been active in disabled veteran issues, welcomed the attendees. His speech began, “We’re all kinds of people here: Republicans, Democrats, independents, socialists, but one thing you have to admit, we all need health care.” The meeting lasted about two hours, and the Coalition provided childcare and refreshments as well as simultaneous translation of Rev. Muggee’s speech in both Spanish and Tagalog...

General meeting discussions established the goal of a neighborhood health center, run by a board of residents, that provided services on a sliding-scale fee basis. Residents clearly rejected the “free” clinic model as inappropriate for seniors and families with children. Neighbors wanted patients to pay “reasonable and affordable fees,” although no one would be turned away for lack of money.

The strategy the group adopted, strongly suggested by the Health Care Coalition organizers, centered on obtaining federal Housing and Community Development (HCD) funding from Santa Cruz for the health center.[3]

Endorsement of Panetta and Mello

Throughout 1979 and 1980, the Westside Neighbors continued to focus political energy on creating a health care center. In February 1979, a delegation met with U.S. Congress member Leon Panetta (later Chief of Staff for President Clinton) and State Senator Henry Mello. The meetings resulted in their endorsements of the health center proposal and general, but vague, promises to “help in any way possible” from both politicians. They reconfirmed their support in September 1981.[4]

Elections

In March 1979, the City Council held at-large elections for four open seats on the seven-member Council. Mike Rotkin, an active member of Westside Neighbors, NAM, and the Health Care Coalition, came in first out of 19 candidates and was seated on the city council.

The campaign for a City Council seat had begun in January 1979, conceived as a protest to pressure the City Council about the healthcare issue. Having failed to obtain support for HCD funding, despite massive neighborhood support at Council meetings, the organizers were unclear as to what might persuade Councilmembers. Despite his distaste for electoral politics, Rotkin agreed to run, pressured by a combination of Coalition organizers and others in NAM who were interested in advancing progressive politics in Santa Cruz. Because he would be running as “socialist-feminist,” no one expected Rotkin to win, but the organizers hoped a strong showing would convince the City Council to take the Westside Neighbors’ health care concerns seriously.

Rotkin announced his intention to seek a city council seat at a Westside Neighbors meeting on January 17, 1979. Until then, the group had avoided elections, and many worried that this might be divisive to the group. But one senior said, “This is different. Mike is a founding member of this group, and we all know he is only doing this to get us a health center.” A unanimous endorsement quickly followed.

Although the campaign was organized separately from the Westside Neighbors, many members became active in it. Twenty or thirty individuals walked electoral precincts; others helped organize fundraisers, distribute or display yard signs, or develop radio spots. They held a city council election forum at a local elementary school and invited all candidates. At their next meeting, they endorsed a slate of four neighborhood and environmental candidates, including Rotkin and Bruce Van Allen (also a NAM member from the Downtown Neighbors Association.)

On March 6, 1979, Rotkin and Van Allen came in first and second in the election. Along with previously elected liberal Bert Muhly, they remained a minority on the Council, which was still controlled by four conservative members. However, their neighborhood work and subsequent support made it possible for these inexperienced candidates, saddled with a difficult labels, to get elected. In formerly conservative Westside precincts, including the one where conservative incumbents lived, Rotkin, and sometimes Van Allen, received more votes than the conservatives.

In August l979, Spiro Mellis, who had generally been considered the most likely swing vote on the Council regarding the health center, agreed to meet with representatives of the Westside Neighbors and the new Health Board. He listened carefully and expressed sympathy for the health center, but he did not make any concrete commitment of future HCD money for a Westside clinic. However, the Neighbors were convinced that an impressive lobbying effort might force him to add his necessary fourth vote for HCD funding that fall.

That November, the Westside Neighbors again approached the City Council for HCD funding. The conservative majority continued to insist there was “no demonstrated need for a health center.” In response, one progressive Councilmember made a motion to give the Westside Neighbors $9,300 for a study of neighborhood health needs, but the motion failed on a 3-4 vote.

At the end of 1979 and through most of 1980, the Westside Neighbors focused less on the City Council and more on leadership development, social connections, and smaller issues such as storm drains, stop signs, and traffic islands on Woodrow Avenue, one of the widest streets on the Westside. Meanwhile, the Community Action Board (CAB), an organization channeling federal poverty funds into Santa Cruz County, responded positively to a request for health care planning money. With help from CAB-funded consultants, the Health Board developed a clearer idea of how a neighborhood-controlled health center might function.9 Also in early 1980, the Westside Neighbors mobilized to prevent the Garfield Park Library branch’s closing again. Many members attended a council meeting, turned in thousands of petitions protesting the closing, and again successfully prevented the closing recommended by the city manager.

By fall, however, HCD funding once again became a major focus of Westside Neighbors and the Health Board. Because most Councilmembers, including Spiro Mellis, still insisted a formal study was required that showed the need for a health center, the Westside Neighbors put in a two-phase request for HCD funding. They first requested $10,000 in HCD money for a Westside health needs study, and a $50,000 contingency fund for the health center’s startup.

Once again, Westside Neighbors mobilized to garner HCD funding from City Council. They devoted one meeting to strategies that would get the four votes needed for the HCD money. They called a special meeting to make signs, distributed thousands of blank post cards neighbors could use to lobby City Council, and chose lobbying teams to meet with each Councilmember before the HCD hearings in November.

In this third struggle, Westside Neighbors found strong allies in many other neighborhood groups around the city. A struggling new organization, started by two Health Care Coalition members in the city’s poorest neighborhood, Beach Flats, drew residents interested in parks for Flats children. Other groups, including the Downtown Neighborhood Association, the Seabright Neighborhood Association, the newly-formed River Flats Neighborhood Association, the Western Limits Neighborhood Association, and members of the Santa Cruz Housing Action Committee (a pro-rent-control group) supported the health clinic concept and demanded more neighborhood- oriented priorities for HCD funds.

Once again a noisy crowd of Westside Neighbors, joined by other neighborhood groups, packed Council chambers. They all requested HCD funding for their projects. Despite the opposition at the meeting, the conservative Council majority supported spending $106,000 in HCD money on city water mains. Councilmember Mellis voted with the progressive minority to appropriate $10,000 for a study of Westside health needs and to set aside a contingency fund of $50,000 for health center funding. The same four also agreed to fund a small park in the Beach Flats neighborhood. The health center study was conducted throughout the spring and summer of 1981. Summaries were published in August in the daily Santa Cruz Sentinel and in the Westside Story, and the study demonstrated, beyond any doubt, the necessity and feasibility of a neighborhood- controlled health center on Santa Cruz’s Westside. The Neighbors thus began gearing up for their second request, the $50,000 contingent appropriation to fund the health center. This money quickly became the Westside Neighbors’ major focus.

On October 9, the neighbors called a press conference at city hall. To dramatize their health needs, many residents appeared for a “sickin” either on crutches, or wrapped head to toe in bandages, or carried on litters. Forewarned of these wonderful photo opportunities, the local press showed up in force, and the event received major coverage in all the daily media.

The November 1981 election complicated the strategic approach for Council funding. Incumbent conservative Councilmembers Mellis and Edler were running for re-election. Their opposition was an informal slate of progressive candidates who had made strong commitments to the Westside health center and other neighborhood and human service issues.

As a result, the Westside Neighbors and other neighborhood and progressive activists were caught in a dilemma. If they successfully lobbied incumbents Mellis or Edler to support funding for the health center, the candidates might use that support to get re-elected and then renege on their promises later. On the other hand, despite growing confidence of a progressive victory in November, the outcome was uncertain, and the election represented a rare opportunity to get conservative support for the health center.

Ultimately, voters lobbied both incumbents to support converting the contingency money into actual funding. In meetings with representatives from the Health Board and from Westside Neighbors, both incumbents remained vaguely supportive but refused to make any firm commitment to vote for funding. The Neighbors brought hundreds of residents to the October 13, 1981 meeting. This was rescheduled for a special Council meeting on October 27th, roughly a week before the election. A large crowd attended in support of health center funding. When neither Mellis nor Edler appeared during the first half hour, there was rampant speculation they might just try to “duck” the issue until after the election. However, they arrived in time for the funding vote and, surprisingly, both Mellis and Edler voted to appropriate up to “$50,000 for purchase, rent, or rehabilitation of a site for a Westside community health center.”

A week later, progressives Mardi Wormhoudt and John Laird were elected to the Santa Cruz City Council along with incumbent Spiro Mellis, who received about 30 percent fewer votes than either Laird or Wormhoudt. In early December, Councilmember Mike Rotkin was elected Mayor of Santa Cruz by the new progressive Council majority, and Council Member and Downtown Neighbors Association member Bruce Van Allen was elected vice-mayor. A huge crowd of Westside Neighbors attended the election and inauguration, too many to get inside Council chambers.

In June and July 1982, the new progressive majority on the Santa Cruz City Council faced its first city budget. In a series of 4-3 votes, they dramatically increased funding for non-profit, human service programs in the City of Santa Cruz. Along with first-time funding for many child care centers, a women’s health center, senior meal programs, recreation, and counseling programs for low-income youth, job training, and women’s self-defense classes, they funded the full request from the Westside Community Health Center. The four-fold increase in human service funding was all the more remarkable because it occurred in the face of decreased federal and state funding for local governments, including a cutback in federal revenue sharing funds to the City of Santa Cruz.

In September 1982, the Westside Community Health Center Board leased space in the old Santa Cruz Medical Clinic on Mission Street. Volunteers helped rehabilitate it for the Health Center. That December and into January, the center opened its doors for one-day health screening events. In February 1983, the first issue of the Health Center newsletter, the Neighborhood Health Watch, was distributed inside the Westside Story.

In April, Barbara Garcia, a Community Studies UCSC graduate from the early ‘70s, was hired as the first health center director. In June, a bilingual doctor with family practice experience in Puerto Rico, a nurse practitioner, two outreach workers, a bookkeeper, and receptionist were hired part-time. One of the outreach workers was a Black neighborhood resident; the other was a recent Hispanic graduate of the Community Studies program at UCSC. By late June 1983, after nearly five years of work and struggle, the Westside Community Health Center began regularly scheduled clinic services.[5]

Aftermath

The City could now use paid municipal employees, or city-funded, non-profit employees, to carry out activities formerly conducted by the residents. For example, because of pressure from Council Member Jane Weed and other progressives, in the mid-’80s the City of Santa Cruz instituted a curbside recycling program that completely obviated the need for the Westside Neighbors’ recycling program.

There were similar contradictions with the institution of city funded non-profit services. When the city-funded Westside Community Health Center finally opened its doors in June 1983, it replaced the all-volunteer health, dental, and vision screening which had been previously organized and staffed by Westside Neighbors. Many, though not all, of the neighborhood-organized childcare collectives were replaced by city-funded day care centers.

When national NAM merged with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, to form the Democratic Socialists of America in the early 1980s, their emphasis on working with existing mass organizations, such as trade unions and the Democratic Party, moved the local NAM group’s emphasis away from nurturing previously critical interpersonal relationships.

Ironically, the newly-formed DSA’s desire to promote the Santa Cruz NAM chapter’s election success literally drew local NAM members away to national DSA meetings and speaking engagements. And, of course, this drained vital energy necessary to sustain the local chapter and the neighborhood group.[6]

Tribute to Ben Dobbs

On Sunday, June 7, 1981, the Los Angeles Chapter of the New American Movement sponsored a Tribute to Ben Dobbs for "His lifelong commitment to socialism". The event was held at the Miramar-Sheraton Hotel, Santa Monica, California. Sponsors of the event included Santa Cruz NAM.[7]

References