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“There’s the California that people imagine, a place I would love to visit and maybe buy a house on one salary,” Mayor Daniel Lee, now running for Congress, says with a smile. “Then, there’s the actual California.”
Back in 2018, when Lee was elected as Culver City’s first Black councilmember, he didn’t know about the city’s history as a “sundown town,” a reference to all-white areas that enforce segregation through local laws, intimidation and violence. It was only at the Annual Legislative Conference hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation that other Black elected officials told him their stories of taking roundabout drives in their youth to avoid the notoriously racist Culver City Police Department.
The city was founded by Harry H. Culver, who advertised it in the Los Angeles Herald in 1915 as a “model little white city.” Lots were reserved for white buyers into the 1960s. Property deeds still bear legacy “non-Caucasian” clauses today, though they are unenforceable. The price of these single-family homes grew exponentially, with the typical home in Culver City now priced at more than $1 million. Generational wealth comes through that legacy, says Lee — the only renter on the council — while “poverty comes from a lack of generational wealth or any wealth at all.”
This understanding motivated Lee to fight for affordable housing policies while on the council, passing temporary rent freeze measures in 2019, passing permanent rent control and tenant protection ordinances in 2020 and ending single-family home zoning. In June 2021, the council passed a resolution addressing Culver City’s history of discrimination, segregation and police abuse, creating “a system of reparations designed to narrow the racial and income housing gap.”
But calling Culver City “progressive” is “still aspirational,” Lee says.
The night when the council approved the temporary rent control measure in June 2019, for example, Culver City resident Ron Bassilian also founded Protect Culver City, an anti-rent control political action committee purporting to “represent the forgotten resident, the moderate resident who feels spurned by council.” Bassilian has also published what he calls an “alt-right manifesto,” has used racial slurs in deleted tweets and appeared to call for violence against women; he lost his 2018 bid for California’s 37th Congressional District seat, where Lee is now running.
Protect Culver City (not to be confused with the pre-existing, pro-rent control group, Protect Culver City Renters), was fundamental in getting the anti-rent control Measure B on Culver City’s November 2020 ballot. Measure B failed, 55-45, but would have repealed the council’s rent control ordinance and reopened loopholes to let landlords evict at-will.
Protect Culver City also warned against defunding police and wants to criminalize homelessness, as explained in the group’s blog post titled, “Harry Culver’s Dream City Reduced to Skid Row By Local Politicians.” Meanwhile, the local police union — the Culver City Police Officers’ Association— put out a press release criticizing UCLA professors they labeled as “Defunders,” created a video vilifying individual community members who support police reform, and ran attack ads against two council candidates who supported cutting police budgets.
One of the candidates targeted in 2020, Yasmine-Imani McMorrin — who was recommended by the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America — won the first Culver City council seat ever occupied by a Black woman. The election created a progressive majority on the five-person council, with (at the time) Mayor Alex Fisch and Vice Mayor Daniel Lee.
Then, “An Unicorporated [sic] Group of Culver City Residents” attempted to start a recall movement against Fisch and Lee, the group stating on its website that if the two “remain in office, Culver City will lose the small town community aspects that have made our town as desirable as it is today.” The group failed to gather enough signatures to get the recall on the ballot.
According to data from the California Secretary of State’s Election Division, there have 179 attempts to recall state officials since the system’s conception, most of them after 1980. However, only 11 of these efforts ever made it to the ballot, and only six have resulted in successful recalls.
In a deep blue state, California’s Republicans, who haven’t won a statewide election since 2006, can utilize recalls and ballot initiatives to protest candidates and measures they dislike. In the high-profile recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a progressive who ran on a platform of decarceration and ending cash bail, for example, two-thirds of the recall money (more than $1.8 million) comes from a single PAC, Neighbors for a Better San Francisco. The PAC’s largest donor is Republican billionaire William Oberndorf.
Lee, who loudly supports such issues as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and reparations, is running to represent Culver City as well as parts of Los Angeles in Congress — a seat being vacated by Karen Bass as she runs for mayor of Los Angeles.
One of Lee’s motivators for seeking higher office is to address the corrosive influence of corporate money on politics. Proposition 209, for example, a 1996 anti-affirmative action measure backed by conservative business tycoons, is holding up Culver City’s reparations program.
California’s century-old referendum, recall and ballot initiative systems were originally developed by the Progressive movement to counter the influence of big business—specifically the monopolistic control of the Southern Pacific Railroad — and give citizens a more direct voice in government. While California Republicans today depict these systems as examples of direct democracy working as advertised, Lee believes the systems are vulnerable to influence by corporations. Instead of lobbying, corporations “can just bankroll initiative[s] that were obviously created to benefit their businesses,” says Lee. He cites California’s ballot initiative Proposition 22, which classified Uber and Lyft drivers as independent contractors, as an example — gig economy companies spent a record $200 million on the ballot initiative.
Lee serves on the board of Move to Amend, a coalition to end Citizens United—the Supreme Court decision that deems corporate political expenditures to be protected free speech — through a constitutional amendment. Lee has been organizing with Move to Amend for more than 10 years and in 2011, successfully pushed the Los Angeles City Council to make the city the first to approve a constitutional amendment to deny corporate personhood. Lee says if politicians don’t strike at the source by overturning Citizens United, corporations can reverse any progressive gains by injecting cash into elections. Moreover, Lee also wants to re-examine the constitution more broadly as a document “designed to protect moneyed interest.”
Before that, he’ll need to secure his spot in the primary in June. In a wide open field of candidates, the frontrunner is Sydney Kamlager, who beat Lee in a race for state Senate last year with the endorsement of the California Democratic Party. Lee believes his status as a “frequent critic of the Democratic party” who does not “come from that insider system” sets him apart from his opponents.
In the meantime, as Culver City mayor, Lee has pledged to “[use] the instrument of government to address and excise the traditions and practices that we should leave in the past: racism, classism and other bigotry.” He notes how the crises of climate, income inequality and the “everloudening march of fascism” can “bleed into and reinforce the worst parts of each other,” and adds, “These are not election year issues. We have a lot of work to do. We must do it quickly.”
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Paige Oamek is a writer and fact-checker based in New York. Their writing appears in The Nation, The American Prospect and elsewhere.