Tom Hayden Was All Over the Housing Crisis — Even Before There Was One

Tom Hayden
Tom Hayden

Tom Hayden didn't invent the liberal Westside, but he loomed large as its longtime spiritual leader.

Hayden died Sunday at a Santa Monica hospital, his wife, Barbara Williams, told reporters. The 76-year-old Michigan native had been treated for heart problems after attending the Democratic National Convention this past summer. While Hayden was best known as a member of the Chicago 7, as an antiwar activist and as the onetime husband of Jane Fonda, he also was a longtime Westside resident who became a major influence on the region's politics.

Hayden's early-'70s group Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED) was considered by some U.S. officials to be part of a "far left" and "radical" movement to redistribute wealth. But its largest impact would come after Hayden lost his 1976 bid to become a U.S. senator from California. 

When a group of mostly retired Santa Monica residents, the Santa Monica Committee for Fair Rents, started to agitate about the rising cost of housing, they approached local organizers Denny Zane and Parke Skelton, who eventually created the organization Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights. The two were already tied to Hayden, having been involved in the CED and in his Senate campaign.

"While I think the national press to some extent overemphasized Tom's role" in SMRR, Zane says, "his role was powerful. He wasn't the czar, but he was a hell of a leader. He inspired us all."

A 1978 ballot effort to cap rents in Santa Monica was unsuccessful, but after Proposition 13 passed that year and gave landlords what amounted to big tax breaks, renters revolted because their rates kept rising anyway. SMRR tried rent control at the ballot box again in 1979 and was successful, launching the group's 35-year dominance of Santa Monica politics. "Activists within the Santa Monica-Venice CED chapter were the motivating force behind the rent control campaign," says Skelton, who describes Hayden as a "mentor" for SMRR.

Campaign for Economic Democracy meetings would take place in "a room in the back of the house" where Hayden lived in Santa Monica, Skelton says. The home "was a focus of everything that was going on" at the time. Sometimes organizers would retreat to Fonda and Hayden's Laurel Springs Ranch in Santa Barbara, too, he says.

"Tom created an organizational philosophy and template that attracted us," Zane says, "and the rent control campaigns were clearly an example of that kind of effort. The CED [Campaign for Economic Democracy] and Tom were ultimately a decisive part of the victory."

From 1979 on there were only a few times, including 1984 through 1988, that non-SMRR candidates composed a majority of Santa Monica City Council members, according to Zane. He estimates that SMRR controlled the council for about 29 of the last 35 years.

In 1990 the council approved a law that mandated that 30 percent of the units in new apartment buildings be made affordable to low- and moderate-income families. "It was SMRR leadership that made the city of Santa Monica a kind of leading voice for affordable housing," Zane says. "Tom joined with the local effort and helped to make it successful."

While Hayden helped locals organize into a political machine, he also provided leadership in Sacramento as a state assemblyman and senator from 1982 to 2000. 

"Certainly one of the reasons Tom will be forever linked to Santa Monica progressive politics is that we were proud that he ran and become our assemblyman and our senator," Zane says. "It was a badge of honor to be represented by a guy who was such a seminal figure for all of us."

After the rent-control victory of '79, Zane became a city councilman and mayor of Santa Monica. Today he's the executive director of Move L.A., which is spearheading the further expansion of public transportation in L.A. through the proposed Measure M tax increase. Skelton is now a preeminent political consultant who helped steer Antonio Villaraigosa toward the L.A. mayor's office in 2005.

In his heyday, Hayden helped his adopted city earn the tongue-in-cheek title People's Republic of Santa Monica. And as Berkeley and San Francisco waved the biggest flags for West Coast liberalism, his influence brought credibility to left-leaning politics in the land of movie stars. "He sought to save lives by helping negotiate a gang truce in Venice, and joined me in the fight to protect workers from exploitation with the city’s landmark anti-sweatshop ordinance," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement yesterday.

"Tom Hayden was one of America’s most dedicated progressive activists," said Jerry Peace Activist Rubin, a longtime Santa Monica resident who legally changed his name to avoid being mistaken for Hayden's fellow Chicago 7 defendant — the late Jerry Rubin. He said the "house was full" when Hayden came to speak to his Activist Support Circle in Santa Monica on June 6. "Tom’s activism and political wisdom should be deeply respected, remembered and honored."


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