The Leftmost City

Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz


Richard Gendron and G. William Domhoff

First Edition • December 30, 2008 • 256 pages


Print ISBN: 9780813344386 • $35.00 USD$73.99 CAN

Ebook ISBN: 9780786727469 • $19.99 USD$22.99 CAN

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Almost all US cities are controlled by real estate and development interests, but Santa Cruz, California, is a deviant case. An unusual coalition of socialist-feminists, environmentalists, social-welfare liberals, and neighborhood activists has stopped every growth project proposed by landowners and developers since 1969, and controlled the city council since 1981. Even after a 1989 earthquake forced the city to rebuild its entire downtown, the progressive elected officials prevailed over developers and landowners.

Drawing on hundreds of primary documents, as well as original, previously unpublished interviews, The Leftmost City utilizes an extended case study of Santa Cruz to critique three major theories of urban power: Marxism, public-choice theory, and regime theory. Santa Cruz is presented within the context of other progressive attempts to shape city government, and the authors’ findings support growth-coalition theory, which stresses the conflict between real estate interests and neighborhoods as the fundamental axis of urban politics. The authors conclude their analysis by applying insights gleaned from Santa Cruz to progressive movements nationwide, offering a template for progressive coalitions to effectively organize to achieve political power.


Richard Gendron is associate professor of sociology at Assumption College in Massachusetts. His research on the political contestation over development in Santa Cruz has appeared in Sociological Perspectives and City and Community.

G. William Domhoff is research professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of many influential books in sociology and political science, including Who Rules America? (1967, 2006); The Powers That Be (1979); The Power Elite and the State (1990); and State Autonomy or Class Dominance? (1996).

Chapter 1—The Leftmost City in America

Chapter 2—The Rise and Decline of the Santa Cruz Growth Coalition

Chapter 3—The Rebirth and Defeat of the Santa Cruz Growth Coalition

Chapter 4—The Progressive Coalition in Power

Chapter 5—Shaking Up the Power Structure

Chapter 6—Progressives Versus Progressives Over Growth and Neighborhoods

Chapter 7—Fault Lines of Power

“In most US cities, the growth coalition controls local government. Santa Cruz, California, is one of the few exceptions to this rule, which is why Gendron and Domhoff’s analysis of its politics is of particular interest. … [They] use their case study to evaluate the effectiveness of competing theories of urban politics and end up arguing that a modified version of growth coalition theory does a superior job of explaining urban politics. Highly recommended.” —Choice

“The Leftmost City is a wonderful contribution to urban political theory as well as a concrete guide for how to exploit new opportunities for moving urban America forward. Without cynicism or romantic illusion, the authors use Santa Cruz to show the possibilities for community groups to exert effective local action against entrenched business interests. Thanks to their keen ethnographic eye and fast-paced narrative style, Santa Cruz becomes a laboratory for understanding how to take and hold power, and for seeing what local power can and cannot do.” —Harvey Molotch, New York University; Coauthor of Urban Fortunes

“The Leftmost City is an exceptional book and a pleasure to read. It is built on 25 years of careful research and written in a way that is clear and lucid, free of posturing and jargon. It is a piece of inspirational literature that offers…both a rigorous case study on the politics of the community and a critical analysis of urban political theory.” -City & Community

“A well-written and jargon-free book that is pitched at an appropriate level for advanced undergraduates and master’s-level students… . This book represents an important new addition to the arsenal of books that can be used to teach courses in urban or political sociology. It is theoretically informed, well organized, has an interesting case, and is written in a way that most undergraduates and new graduate students will find approachable.” —Teaching Sociology

“The Leftmost City gives the reader lively prose, provocative arguments, and a fresh stream of ideas. Advocates of progressive politics will find this book a rich resource to draw on. Across the political spectrum, all will learn from the extraordinary politics of Santa Cruz, thanks to the lucid and down-to-earth instruction by authors Gendron and Domhoff.” —Clarence N. Stone, Research Professor, George Washington University; Author of Regime Politics

“This is a terrific book that shows how cities can chart a course between self-destruction at the hands of the ‘growth at any cost’ advocates while maintaining the tax base to provide social services and preserve neighborhoods. It’s a lively case study of two decades of progressive government, carefully documented, reads like a novel. And along the way, Gendron and Domhoff provide a theoretical underpinning that suggests how this experience can be repeated elsewhere.” —Pierre Clavel, Professor of City and Regional Planning, Cornell University; Author of The Progressive City

“The Leftmost City provides cogent insights on the opportunities for and persisting barriers to progressive politics at the local level. From a rigorous case study of Santa Cruz and critical analysis of urban political theory, this book offers essential reading to anyone who wants to understand and change the quality of life along with the opportunity structure in the nation’s metropolitan areas.” —Gregory D. Squires, Professor of Sociology andPublic Policy and Public Administration, George Washington University; Coauthor of Privileged Places: Race, Residence, and the Structure of Opportunity

“A well-researched and richly detailed empirical case analysis, which adds an important and compelling theoretic contribution to the ongoing debate about the nature of power and governance in American cities.” —David Imbroscio, University of Louisville; Coeditor of Theories of Urban Politics

“Advocates of progressive politics may read The Leftmost City as a guide for taking control of local and even national policymaking through activism, coalition-forming and electoral efforts … those from across the political spectrum will gain insight from the reporting of the unusual course of the rise and fall of various political factions in Santa Cruz, and will find the book useful, as Domhoff pointed out, ‘for understanding how cities are really governed.'” –Santa Cruz Sentinel

“The title of this book suggests that it is just the story of politics in a unique community with little to tell us about power and politics more generally. But Leftmost City is much more than that … for participants and practitioners, Leftmost City shows that political action in communities can make a difference, despite the notorious limits imposed on cities by higher levels of government and globalization.” –Urban Affairs

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