In summary

Santa Monica, a bastion of progressive politics, is fighting an effort to change the way it elects city council members, with allegations that the city minimizes nonwhite representation.

Four-plus decades ago, a coterie of left-leaning political activists, led by antiwar iconoclast Tom Hayden, captured control of Santa Monica’s city government.

Their issue was rent control – potent in a seaside community where renters, many of them retirees, abounded. Santa Monica’s rent control law became a model for other cities and sparked a counter-offensive by landlords in a duel that still reverberates.

Although the Haydenistas’ dominance of Santa Monica eventually waned, the city remains one of the state’s most liberal – or progressive – bastions. It is, therefore, a seemingly unlikely venue for a legal conflict over the political rights of nonwhite residents.

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what happened a few years ago when an organization of Latino residents sued Santa Monica to overturn its method of electing city council members – “at-large” rather than from individual districts.

A 2001 law, the California Voting Rights Act, made it easier for ethnic groups to challenge at-large election systems and dozens of California cities have since shifted to district-based elections, often due to threats of legal action.

The Pico Neighborhood Association alleged that at-large voting, which the Hayden group used to win control in the late 1970s, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for nonwhite residents of Santa Monica to elect their own council members.

The association persuaded a Superior Court judge that Santa Monica violated the law’s standards for political equity. However, an appellate court ruled for the city, which stoutly defended its at-large system, sending the issue to the state Supreme Court.

In August, the Supreme Court overturned the appellate decision and sent the issue back down for further litigation. In doing so, the court set forth a set of legal standards for determining whether a city was denying specific groups of representation.

It was a setback not only Santa Monica’s city government but implicitly for other cities that continued to use at-large voting.

The Santa Monica case is quite noteworthy unto itself, given its effects on other cities. But a new research paper, published this month, cites Santa Monica as an example of a broader syndrome.

Written by three political scientists, the study contends that during the 20th century, cities throughout the nation adopted at-large voting and city manager governance systems to minimize the political power of nonwhite groups as they became more numerous.

Jacob M. Grumbach of UC Berkeley, Robert Mickey of the University of Michigan and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard University correlate two waves of Black migration from the South to cities in other regions with wholesale changes in city governance systems.

“Our findings show how, at a critical juncture in the course of the country’s national democratization, local governments acted to stymie it,” they write.

Historians have noted that Santa Monica ridded itself of a burgeoning Black population in the 1920s, using zoning and property seizures. A generation later, during World War II, the city experienced another influx of nonwhite residents as Southern California armaments factories recruited workers, including many Black people from the South.

In response, the Grumbach-Mickey-Ziblatt paper says, “White elites’ concerns about the political consequences of the Great Migration sparked an overhaul of the city’s political system in 1946 that insulated policymaking from residents of color and organized labor.”

The paper concludes that “the self-styled racial liberals running the city since the late 1970s …have continued to block changes to the city’s political structure, in large part because their ‘party’ – Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights – has benefited from slate nominations that benefit from the continued use of at-large elections.”

The irony of that conclusion is palpable: liberals using a race-tinged form of governance to retain their political power.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...