Growing Pains: Thirty Years in the History of Davis

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Chapter 2 - The Election of 1972: A Political Watershed

Vigfus A. Asmundson didn't know it at the time, but an era was nearing an end when he won a seat on the Davis City Council in 1968. A 31-year-old bachelor, he hadn't intended to enter the race for three of the council's five seats. He was willing to listen, though, when approached shortly before the filing deadline by a group of civic leaders, including one of the city's leading developers and the head of Wells Fargo Bank's local branch. At the first meeting, Asmundson cautioned the group he didn't want to be beholden to anyone and would make his own decisions. "They assured me that they only wanted an independent thinker," he recalled. "Opportunity knocked, and I opened the door." [1]

The race attracted eight candidates, including Ralph Aronson, an incumbent who owned Star Pharmacy, and Harry Miller, a UCD 4-H adviser recruited by the same group that convinced Asmundson to enter the fray. For Asmundson, the eight-week campaign was an eye-opener. Near the midway point, his treasurer defected, saying he had decided to vote for someone else. Asmundson had ideas to promote, but soon realized that many citizens were more politically experienced, and had better ideas. He quickly learned to listen. The main issue was a $10.4 million bond measure on the same ballot that was to raise funds for several projects, including a new sewer plant and construction of the Veterans' Memorial Center. Asmundson waited until about two weeks before the election, then came out against the bond issue at a forum, arguing the price tag for the center was too high and the city should return to the voters later with a scaled-down project. The bond measure failed badly, and Asmundson emerged as the leading vote-getter among council candidates. Unofficial results gave him 2,354 votes, placed Aranson second with 2,289 and Miller third with 2,238.

Incumbents Maynard Skinner and Norm Woodbury won re-election two years later and the council elected Asmundson to be mayor. Thus, for four years, the makeup of the council remained stable, and its members concentrated on nuts-and-bolts issues: providing a better sewer system, funding an overpass to take Covell Boulevard over the railroad tracks, and proceeding with plans for developing more parks. "There wasn't a willingness to do a lot of experimental sorts of things," Skinner recalled.

"The four years that I was on the council were a time of noticeable development and new construction," Asmundson added. "If a development proposal complied with the existing General Plan, it was permitted." [2] The council normally met twice a month, and, after meetings, council members and City Manager Howard Reese frequently stopped off to have a beer in a back room at The Club, a popular bar on G Street. During a 1992 forum on city politics, Asmundson noted his council unwittingly helped sew the seeds of change. Its main emphasis was on providing the sewer system, bike paths, parks and other infrastructure the growing community needed. The council's progress in satisfying those needs provided an opening for other issues to capture the spotlight. "At last the type of work our council did wasn't really needed anymore,'' Asmundson said during "Bike City Politics,'' a forum produced by the city in conjunction with its 75th anniversary celebration in 1992. Most council members before 1972 were downtown businessmen, local professionals or university officials from the agriculture school. Exceptions included the 1958 victory of Kathleen C. Green, the first woman to serve on the council, and the 1960 victories of Woodbury and Clyde E. Jacobs. Green was a good-government candidate from the League of Women Voters and Woodbury and Jacobs are credited with helping bring a more professional approach to city government. The pace of change accelerated rapidly beginning in 1972.

By then, Davis was ready for change. There was little doubt about that. The main question facing voters was how dramatically they wanted to shake things up.

Several forces were at work, changing the community's political mood. A wave of political and social change was sweeping across the country, and Davis wasn't immune. The university and city were growing by leaps and bounds with no end in sight. Population figures published a week before the election showed the trend: the California Department of Finance reported the city's population had grown by 2,000 over the preceding year to reach 27,700. A decade earlier, the city had only slightly more than 10,000 residents. During 1972, UCD enrollment passed 14,000, about 10,000 more than it had a decade earlier.

As the 1972 city election neared, the community discovered that a major shakeup in the makeup of the council was in the works. Miller said he would be a candidate, but Asmundson and Aronson announced they wouldn't seek re-election. Woodbury announced plans to step down even though he had two years remaining on his term, because he had decided to take a job in San Francisco with the California Judicial Council, the administrative arm of the state court system. As a result, only one incumbent was running for the three council seats up for grabs in the April city election, and the three victors would join Skinner in selecting a replacement for Woodbury.

Overshadowing the other changes were two developments with the potential to revolutionize city politics: the minimum age for voters had been lowered from 21 to 18 in the United States and the California Supreme Court had ruled that voters not yet 21 years old could vote in the cities where they attended college, rather than be required to vote where their parents lived. The court decision overturned a decision by state Attorney General Evelle Younger that unmarried students not yet 21 years old generally had to vote in the communities where their parents lived. No one, of course, could gauge accurately how the changes would influence the council campaign. The potential impact of student voters could hardly be overestimated: in the two preceding council elections, the candidates with the most votes had received around 2,500 votes. Now, the balance of power might be held by thousands of newly enfranchised UCD students, including many who would stay in town for four years, then move on. The 1970 census found that Davis had about 3,400 residents from 18-20 years old, including university students and non-students. [3] Political pundits, on the other hand, were quick to point out that young voters tended to stay away on Election Day more frequently than older voters, and many university students paid little, if any attention to city politics.

Further complicating the election was a peace initiative on the ballot that observers said might lure many student voters to the polls. Sponsored by the Davis Peace Action Coalition, it called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Vietnam. "It is the policy of the city and the people of Davis that there will be an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia and a realignment of our national goals to place the problems of hunger, poverty, the economy and education in front of our military involvement in other countries," the initiative said. [4] It was placed on the ballot after more than 1,300 valid signatures were gathered during a petition drive headed by Jeff Loeb, a 19-year-old UCD student. Also on the ballot were three bond measures to raise $380,000 for construction of the Veterans' Memorial Center, $710,00 for construction of five neighborhood parks and $300,000 to build a city swimming pool complex in East Davis.

As the campaign unfolded, circumstances made the potential power of student voters loom even larger. First, the Associated Students of UCD mounted a registration drive that signed up about 7,000 new voters. Approximately 76 percent were first-time voters, and the bulk of those were individuals between 18 and 24 years old. Of the more than 7,000 people who registered, about 67 percent signed up as Democrats and 80 percent were eligible to vote in the council election because they lived within the city limits. [5] Some residents were obviously concerned about the potential implications. "I hope the students will be resentful of those who are trying to capture them and use them as a base for political power," said Charles S. Slap in a February letter to the editor. [6]

Second, critics charged that candidates Joan Poulos, Richard S. Holdstock and Bob Black were running together as a slate aimed at garnering the student vote. Champions of the status quo had nightmares where an army of student voters cast their votes en masse for the trio, allowing them to swamp the other six candidates. Twenty-five years later, recollections differed. Poulos denied the slate charge then, and later. "I share common concerns with several candidates, but common concerns do not mean uniformity in approach or solutions," she wrote in a letter to the editor during the campaign, responding to newspaper speculation the three candidates were mounting a student takeover of City Hall. [7] Skinner, a supporter of all three, said he considered them a slate, indicating he was part of an activist group that settled on the trio during a series of meetings, some at his house. One of the objectives was balance: they settled on Black, a former campus leader who could appeal to students; Poulos, a woman; and Holdstock, a well-known liberal activist. Poulos recalled a series of meetings, but said she made her decision independently, and would have entered the race even if the group had decided to back another woman candidate. "And, we each came in, I think, with our own real strong agendas," she said, reporting she didn't even know Black and Holdstock until they all became involved in such groups as the Davis Democratic Club. All three candidates shared one obvious trait: each wanted city government to be much more active than it had in the past.

Last, the campaign was bound to arouse passions because of Black's candidacy. Supporters praised him as a visionary politician who could plot a new, progressive course for Davis. Critics dismissed him as a far-out champion of fanciful causes, a quitter who dropped out of college during his term as student body president. Adding to his image as an anti-establishment rebel were his long red hair and beard.

Both Holdstock and Poulos had progressive ideals of city government in tune with Black's ideas, but didn't arouse the hostility Black did. Holdstock, 37, was UCD's environmental health and safety officer, a founding member of the Davis Human Relations Council, and a veteran of other community groups. "My highest priority will be for providing decent housing for those people who work in Davis and want to live here," he told a March 8 forum at UCD, decrying a lack of low-cost housing in town. [8] Poulos was a 35-year-old attorney who taught a course on the legal rights of minors through UCD Extension and a mother of two who claimed an unusual political power base: the Davis Parent Nursery School. "I'm really interested in consumer protection," Poulos told the UCD forum, saying the city needed to establish an agency to handle consumer complaints and advise consumers of their legal rights. [9]

Black was bound to arouse political passions. On March13, an anonymous letter to the editor chastised him for calling himself a student-oriented candidate, telling students, "He wants your vote as just so many sheep in a flock." [10] Three days later, a second letter attacked Black for dropping out of school while ASUCD president. "Sensible voters will see to it that he changes from a hopeful candidate to a hopelessly defeated one," concluded Frederick A. Sorley in the second letter. [11] Black responded to both through letters to the editor of his own, noting that he did drop out of school in May 1967, but completed his term as student body president with the unanimous consent of ASUCD's Legislative Assembly. After that, Black left Davis, leading a nomadic life that took him to Portland, a post office job in his hometown of San Rafael, a stay in Mexico, work organizing anti-war students for the National Student Association and a stay at a commune in Pennsylvania for several months. In the fall of 1969, he returned to Davis and joined with partners to start Natural Food Works, a health food store.

The attacks against Black continued as the campaign wore on. "My opposition to him is based solely on the belief that history is an excellent guide for predicting the future and that Black's past conduct indicates Davis would be better off without his wise counsel and advice," wrote James F. Wilson in a letter published about a week before the election. He concluded, "Mr. Black returned to Davis because it is such an attractive place, made that way by over half a century of good conservative city government, not by a government of impractical visionaries who would restrict growth and tell people where they shall be allowed to live." [12]

Black's supporters fought back with a letter-writing campaign of their own. "I feel, and have heard similar feelings expressed in this community, that we are entering a new age, that we are into a new beginning, and that we need to make changes now," wrote Aggie Constantini, emphasizing that Black had good ideas for helping Davis change with the times. "All he needs now is a chance to be heard from a position of leadership--if the system will only open up its doors." [13]

Both sides agreed that Davis voters were going to be offered clear-cut choices in the 1972 election. Black, Holdstock and Poulos represented the forces of change. Black set the stage for his candidacy in September 1971 when he and several other activists announced formation of the Greater Davis Planning and Research Group to press the city to take an aggressive stance toward planning. The group's first objective was a complete review of the Davis General Plan, which members said was inadequate and outdated. Though Black was weighing the prospects for making a council bid, a cloud was hanging over his head that had to be dealt with first. At the 1992 forum, Black said few people knew it at the time but a federal grand jury in San Francisco had indicted him in June 1971 for resisting the draft. In November, a federal judge threw out the indictment, and Black was free to run. The indictment never surfaced as an issue during the campaign, though Black's anti-war activities did.

Black left little doubt he would be an active councilman committed to change. "My feeling about council politics over the past several years is that the council has been always in a position of catching up with the concerns of the people, usually lagging about two years behind. This is true with the bike lanes, the bus system, Diogenes House and low-cost housing. It will be true again on the issue of growth if we don't elect some real leadership on the council," Black said in a position paper issued about a month before the election. "A limited-growth policy will enable us to preserve the small-town atmosphere we favor." He proceeded to put forward 24 ideas he wanted the city to consider, including creation of a city-sponsored market for farmers and crafts workers, a small grant fund for city cultural and beautification projects, a staff person to organize neighborhood childcare centers, a study of the possibilities for establishing a city-owned liquor store, a city program where youth crews would help develop city parks and a city affirmative action program for minorities.

Aligned against the trio were six other candidates, including Miller, the incumbent. Gregg Manston, an 18-year-old UCD viticulture student, ran on a free-fruit platform, saying the community should plant fruit trees on unused land and allow residents to fight inflation by picking free fruit. Also in the field were four candidates with ties to the business community. Ron Whitworth, 25, assistant manager of a local bookstore, repeatedly called for city action to ensure apartment owners maintained their properties. Al Eaton, 58, owner of the Rock Shop, called for better business representation on the council. Fred R. Pearson, the 37-year-old owner of Hamilton Jewelers and a member of the Davis Area Chamber of Commerce's board of directors, argued the council was neglecting many important issues, citing a need to develop an industrial park in Davis, redevelop the Olive Drive area and participate in the bus system started by ASUCD. Fred Foerster, manager of Larry Blake's restaurant, came out in favor of the General Plan review and expanding the community's tax base by attracting new businesses and industry.

Soon, the battle lines were clear. On one side were the candidates of change: Black, Poulos and Holdstock. On the other were three candidates with strong ties to the status quo: Miller, Pearson and Foerster. Whitworth and Eaton were destined to trail the pack, and Manston nearly disappeared as the campaign wore on. The contrasting styles between the candidates was readily apparent when they were asked by a group known as the Environmental Quality Coalition how much development they would allow to be built on the farmland that covered much of South Davis and how they would handle the traffic bottleneck on Richards Boulevard at the railroad tracks. In written responses published in The Enterprise, Black called for halting development there temporarily, Holdstock said he would discourage development there until the city solved the problems at Richards and Poulos said she had serious reservations about allowing more development there. The development of any area should be based on need and demand, Pearson wrote. The Enterprise said Miller gave no answer to the question and Foerster didn't respond to the group's questionnaire.

The candidates also displayed their differences in political advertisements that appeared in the final days of the campaign. "You still have a chance to decide to direct the changes that will affect you. You can do it now," Black told local votes in one of his ads. "The council must lead, not be content just to follow," Poulos said. Holdstock ran a standard ad listing people who had endorsed him.

Miller, on the other hand, characterized himself as a stable influence in one ad, listing the roles he played on the council, such as liaison to the Planning Commission, but offering no insight into what he would do if re-elected. "The City Council has during the past four years made significant progress in meeting the needs of residents," Miller said in another of his ads, listing park, street, public safety and utility accomplishments made during his tenure. "In seeking a second term, my pledge is to continue to work for the best interests of Davis." "Who has realistic approaches to real problems," asked Pearson in one of his ads, obviously hoping that voters would decide he was the one. In an ad that ran the day before the election, Pearson agreed Davis was at a crossroads, telling voters, "I have faith in your ability to think independently and not be misled by Utopian philosophies or idealistic programs that cannot be realistically accomplished. I urge you to go to the polls tomorrow and vote for candidates who can solve the problems of Davis instead of creating new ones." Foerster used one of his ads to run a lengthy statement on growth, saying it was the main issue in the campaign. "What I have stated is that I believe, regardless of what my opponents may say, that growth in Davis is certain because of a set of pre-existing conditions," he said, indicating opponents were implying he favored a laissez faire policy toward growth.

A few days before Election Day, The Enterprise endorsed Miller and Pearson. "We are satisfied with incumbent Miller's record during his present term," the newspaper said. "We find that Pearson's platform provides a welcome continuity." It declined to endorse anyone for the third slot, saying it couldn't choose among Poulos, Foerster and Holdstock. Black wasn't even mentioned. [14]

On Election Day, more than 67 percent of the registered voters cast ballots, giving Poulos, Holdstock and Black a landslide victory. Unofficial results showed Poulos led the way with 8,113 votes, Holdstock second and Black third with 6,463. Miller, the incumbent, came in fourth with 3,680 votes. His total showed how much circumstances had changed in two years: His vote tally left him far behind the leaders, but was substantially more than the 2,465 votes received two years earlier by Maynard Skinner, the top vote-getter among five candidates. The 1972 results showed Pearson with 2,728 votes, Foerster with 1,824, Eaton with 884, Whitworth with 468 and Manson with 145. The peace initiative won with 76 percent of the vote and the voters endorsed all three bond measures.

Afterward, political pundits agreed student voters weren't a deciding factor, but did boost the margins of victory for the three winners. Their appraisal was supported by the precinct-by-precinct breakdown: Poulos, Holdstock and Black all showed considerable strength throughout town. Poulos led the way in 17 out of 20 precincts, losing the other three to Holdstock. Holdstock, on the other hand, finished first or second in 18 precincts. Black tied Holdstock for second in one precinct and wound up third in 16. Voters who cast their ballot at Davis Senior High School and Pioneer Elementary School were the only ones who didn't place Black among the top four candidates. Looking back, Poulos said she believes student voters were less critical to the outcome than a second group: faculty members who came to Davis in the years leading up to the 1972 election because of the university's rapid expansion. Many brought with them progressive political ideals, and soon became active in city politics. To Skinner, the community's old guard didn't realize how much Davis was changing in 1972, and took for granted they could win at the ballot box once again. "But the town was ready for a change," he said. "It was just ready to try a different kind of politics."

Davis residents didn't have to wait long to see how much the times were changing at City Hall. One week after the election, the new council met for the first time, voting unanimously to approve a motion by Black offering city employees a two-hour paid break on April 21 if they wanted to attend a protest against the Vietnam War at UCD. At that first council meeting, the council selected Skinner to serve as mayor. Another early order of business was selecting someone to fill the council seat left vacant by Woodbury's resignation. One obvious solution for the council was to select Miller, since he finished fourth, but Poulos, Holdstock and Black discarded that idea. In the end, the council voted to fill the slot with Rich Weinstock, a 27-year-old personnel supervisor for Pacific Telephone Co. who served as chairman of the Veterans' Memorial Building Committee. The decision frustrated those who favored appointing a minority or someone with closer ties to student interests, but helped balance the council politically, and was seen as a conciliatory move toward the business community.

To Poulos, the ensuing years were an exciting, fast-paced era, where the council was deluged with ideas. "My big thing was citizen participation. I really worked hard at that," she said, noting that the new council expanded citizen involvement in commissions and other advisory bodies. "We opened up government. We really did." "I'm not sure when it really tapered off, but there was a wave of energy that just kept on energizing the City Council in terms of ideas and sense of possibility," Black added. "You could just throw ideas on the table and there were resources to accomplish them."

The new council took several of those ideas and turned them into far-reaching city policies. Two cornerstones of its legacy were the city's growth-control policies and its commitment to energy conservation.

Growth control certainly wasn't a new issue, and the new council can't take all of the credit for the city's slow-growth policies. Organizations such as the Greater Davis Planning and Research Group had been pressing the city to bring its growth under control, calling for a comprehensive review of the Davis General Plan, which dated back to 1958. It projected reaching a population of 90,000 by 1990. In 1971, a survey asked residents what population they would like to see in 1990. Three out of four wanted less than 40,000, and only 17 percent of the participants said they would encourage growth. Led by Commissioner Gerald Adler, the Planning Commission was in the forefront of the slow-growth debate, agreeing that a major overhaul of the General Plan was needed. By December 1971, Mayor Asmundson had come to the same opinion. "A General Plan review is urgently needed and a committee of 100 citizens will be asked to give their special talents to help make Davis a better city in the years to come," he wrote in a city newsletter.

Historian Shipley Walters noted in a newspaper column written on behalf of the Davis League of Women Voters that the community was divided on the issue. "In 1958, the community was growth-minded," she wrote, saying that by 1972 many residents had started questioning the growth-for-growth's-sake philosophy because of the need to preserve prime agricultural lands, desire to avoid suburban sprawl and rising costs of providing city services to outlying areas. [15] Others, though, continued to believe the General Plan was basically sound, emphasizing the city's planning area should be big enough to accommodate inevitable growth. "The location, the presence of the university and the friendly atmosphere of the town attract people to Davis, and Davis profits from their presence," Walters said, summing up the latter group's attitude toward growth. [16] Asmundson initially favored allowing the new council to select committee members, but he and his council bowed to pressure in February, working with the Planning Commission to set up 10 subcommittees to review the General Plan and select 110 people to serve on subcommittees.

When the city adopted a new General Plan in 1973, one of its guiding principles was growth control. It was a radical step, because Petaluma was the only other town in California that had tried to impose growth limits. The main tool in Davis was the city housing allocation system, which relied on an annual needs survey to determine how much new housing the community needed and what mix of new housing would accommodate all income groups. After a needs survey was completed, home builders presented their projects to the city and city officials decided how much housing should be distributed to each. "This system permits city planners to choose only the best, most energy-conserving subdivision proposals," explained "Davis: An Energy-Conserving City," a booklet published by the city and University of California Energy Extension Service.

Energy conservation goals outlined in the new General Plan took on a new urgency when the Energy Crisis hit the United States in the winter of 1973. In a 1977 report published by the Urban Land Institute, Davis Community Development Director Gloria McGregor noted the General Plan laid out a sophisticated, comprehensive energy conservation framework that called for a better integrated transportation system, innovative building regulations and public education. "The plan changed the shape of the city from sprawling suburbia to a well-managed, compact community," she said. In October 1975, the council enacted an Energy Conservation Building Ordinance. "Tailored to our microclimate, this is the first local energy conservation building code in the country," the city booklet said. To comply, homebuilders had two options: following specifications detailed in the ordinance on such topics as window area and shading or meeting a performance standard by using energy-conservation techniques of their own.

Jim Stevens, a conservative who later became a Yolo County Superior Court judge, joined the council in 1974, and soon found himself frequently on the losing side of 4-1 votes on issues important to the progressive forces. He noted, though, that he sometimes won, and often the council sought consensus on key issues. A case in point was the city's innovative energy ordinance. "We could all see the advantages of an appropriately drawn energy ordinance, and, therefore, the big struggle was: what does appropriately drawn mean," Stevens said.He recalled that other critical decisions were made on unanimous votes, including passage of a city noise ordinance, introduction of the housing allocation system and the move to seek voter approval for buying and renovating the red brick building at Russell Boulevard and B Street to serve as City Hall.

Continue to Chapter 3...