By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
Most people involved in current San Pedro Harbor Area politics have long ago forgot Jim Stanbery’s campaign for the Los Angeles City Council. Some locals only know of him as a teacher at Los Angeles Harbor College. But back in 1977 and then 1981 Stanbery had a vision for a different kind of city, and decades later some of it actually came to pass. Some of the issues touched on are still with us today.
Ten years ago, former Random Lengths News editors Eric Kongshaug and senior editor Paul Rosenberg wrote about the beginnings of RLn for its 30th anniversary, noting that:
From the beginning, Random Lengths has stepped quite consciously in the footsteps of muckraking author Upton Sinclaire and his populist paper Epic News. Sinclair funded and wrote that historic newspaper to wage his political campaign to “End Poverty in California” (EPIC); the founders of Random Lengths began with a $2,000 donation from liberal candidate Jim Stanbery, then a resident of Point Fermin.
Random Lengths published a few stories on Stanbery’s 1981 attempt to win the 15th council district seat. When the editors of 2015 looked back at the Stanbery of three decades earlier, they described him as a young liberal in the Kennedy mold who in 1977 forced the seemingly invincible Councilman John S. Gibson into runoff. Just a few years later, in the early 1980s, Stanbery was described as a populist.
A quick perusal of Random Lengths’ coverage of Stanbery’s candidacy bears this out. More importantly, a perusal of RLn’s Stanbery coverage reveals the degree to which his platform and his ideas anticipated the ills our communities still face or rather how entrenched our communities are in the ills fostered by the city of Los Angeles. Stanbery anticipated the growth of neighborhood councils and community policing (though he doesn’t attempt to take credit for the development of either), community planning and renters’ rights. Stanbery even anticipated the trajectory of conservative attacks on international institutions such as the United Nations, World Trade Organization and NATO.
Kongshaug and Rosenberg didn’t spend a great deal of ink on Stanbery’s candidacy or his activism, focusing instead on the large sweep of history that carried this newspaper forward.
Gibson was a Christian fundamentalist who loathed laws and regulations he felt hampered free enterprise; his pro-business, pro-growth views often angered environmentalists and tenants seeking protection through rent control and condominium conversion ordinances. Gibson also blocked a community plan for San Pedro for nearly 20 years because he opposed government-mandated controls on growth.
In clearer terms, Gibson was an obstacle to San Pedrans who wanted to remove volatile gas tanks from their neighborhoods; he opposed the creation of any city plan that hindered growth.
Stanbery said he doesn’t pay close attention to the politics that affect the Los Angeles Harbor Area, noting that his involvement in politics has dropped off significantly over the past 20 years.
But at 76 years old (40 years after his two runs for City Council), Stanbery is now about the same age as Gibson was when he won his final term in office in 1977. I recently interviewed Stanbery, a retired Los Angeles Harbor College history professor and got him to reflect on his work and the peculiar historical moment mostly associated with Donald J. Trump as our president.
Stanbery agrees with the statement, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’’ The words were first popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and later by former President Barack Obama. This quote originally came from Unitarian theologian Theodore Parker. Stanbery agrees with this statement even now under Trump, in a moment where facts and truth are under assault.
“I don’t think it’s a constant move forward,” Stanbery said. “I would say it is more of a cycle… sometimes it feels as if you’re going backwards. But the drift of the cycle is to the left.”
A former Peace Corps volunteer, Stanbery has always been regarded as ambiguous in terms of his politics. In earlier times, Stanbery’s reply to this assessment went like this:
I could have won as a Democrat, but being a Peace and Freedom candidate closes all the right doors. It’s my freedom, the guarantee of my integrity.
Stanbery’s politics are at once socialist and libertarian. He has spent a great deal of time considering the relationship of the citizen to their elected government and the responsibilities of the individual as a citizen.
“I think there has been some movement in that direction. The neighborhood councils we have now are much bigger than the neighborhood associations I was advocating,” Stanbery said.
On the issue of community policing, Stanbery said he initially believed that police departments would engage the neighborhood associations by delivering reports on crime and other policing issues in the neighborhoods, very much the same way senior lead officers do now at the neighborhood council stakeholder meetings.
“I felt that the police officers involved in a given neighborhood would meet as often as possible with these neighborhood associations and they would share any concerns that members of the association would bring up over this or that incident,” Stanbery said.
In turn, the community would get a response from the officers regarding any incident and explain what happened from their point of view or admit a mistake if a mistake was made by the police.
As part of his effort to educate 15th district council residents, Stanbery and his allies made a recording explaining the neighborhood associations and mailed the recording to 10,000 recipients so that people could hear instead of trying to read it somewhere.
The neighborhood councils of today have trended it in the direction that Stanbery and his allies advocated for 40 years ago, but he believes that if he were elected back then, the neighborhood councils would have aligned even more strongly with what he envisioned.
“In ‘77, I would have been 34 years old,” Stanbery said. “I had written a book called the California 2000 Campaign looking forward at the year 2000 as a sort of breaking point and it spelled out goals in 10 different areas.”
Stanbery said that many of these goals could only have been completed at the state level.
“But some could have been approached on the citywide level and that was the rationale for running for city council,” Stanbery said.
On populism, the professor notes that the term is used in many different ways—to the point that Donald Trump is referred to as a populist.
“There’s a formal definition of populism which I taught in my classes,” Stanbery explained. “But the sense I was trying to espouse it in a campaign was that it wasn’t traditionally left or traditionally right.
“On the two basic issues of politics which are the civil and moral issues on the one hand and the economic issues on the other… Populism would be considered to the left on economic issues but Libertarian on social issues.” Stanbery said. “That is to say complete minimum government interference on the civil issues.”
Stanbery said he believes Trump allowed himself to be incorrectly described as a populist in the early stages of his 2016 campaign before it became clear that he would be a standard rightwinger on both the civil and economic issues.
“I think it’s important to remember as the impeachment proceedings come to a climax, compared with previous impeachments there’s actually much more public support for impeachment at this stage than there were in earlier ones,” Stanbery said.
“In Nixon’s case for example, the public was strongly against impeachment until the release of the tapes where John Dean’s testimony, which had been denied, it had been verified in the taped conversation almost verbatim. And then all of a sudden the pendulum swung toward impeachment.”
Nixon had decided to resign about a year before he actually did.
“There were Republicans crossing over making it impossible for him to stay in office,” Stanbery said. “But the point I’m trying to make here is that public support for impeachment did not go over 50 percent until the John Dean stuff, which was really late in the game.”
Stanbery noted that in Clinton’s case, support never approached 50 percent for impeachment. So the fact that impeachment now is supported by nearly 50 percent of the voters means there’s more public support for impeachment than was ever the case this early in the game during prior impeachments.
There was never any chance of Clinton being convicted and it looked like that would have been the case with Nixon as well. At that point the Democrats controlled the Senate, but they didn’t control it by a two-thirds majority. It was only in the last weeks of the summer of ‘74 that the pendulum swung and key Republicans led by Sen. Barry Goldwater went to Nixon and said look, you didn’t just lie to the American people, you lied to us. So we can’t sustain you any more.
Citing polls he saw a few days prior to our interview, Stanbery noted that Trump was losing narrowly to all of the Democratic contenders, including Elizabeth Warren.
“I think the really extraordinary thing about Trump’s presidency is that normally the President’s approval ratings correspond to how well the economy is doing,” Stanbery said. “The economy is doing comparatively well, yet Trump’s approval ratings remain where they were all along, down in the 40s.”
Stanbery admitted that this doesn’t mean Trump can’t win reelection. He notes that in 2016, a lot of people didn’t approve of him but still voted for him because they liked Hillary Clinton even less.
“It’s important to remember that Donald Trump did not win the popular election. He lost by 3 million—so he started 3 million votes behind to begin with,” Stanbery said. “I think that if the Democrats remain focused on their own message they have every likelihood of winning.”
It’s cyclical. It works out on average to a political breakthrough, once in a lifetime.