Who Really Wants to Indoctrinate Students?

Pouring over the bills that survived Iowa legislature’s March 3 “funnel” deadline, I came across House File 12, which immediately gave me a sense of déjà vu. The Republican-sponsored bill would require both public and charter high schools across Iowa to offer a United States government course that would, in addition to covering electoral procedures and the U.S. Constitution, entail a “comparative discussion of political ideologies, including communism and totalitarianism that conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy that were essential to the founding of the United States.”

This bill follows a similar one signed into law in June 2021 by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis which requires high school government courses to include “a comparative discussion of political ideologies, such as Communism and totalitarianism, that conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy essential to the founding principles of the United States.” DeSantis followed up in May, 2022 with a mandate that schools offer at least 45 minutes of instruction about the “evils of communism” on Florida’s newly designated “Victims of Communism Day,” set for November 7.

Florida Senator Rick Scott (R) recently introduced a bill in the U.S. House that would require schools nationwide to teach students “the dangers of communism.”

This sudden urgency to protect the precious minds of today’s youth from the allures of communism whisked me back to my senior year of high school in 1976 (the Bicentennial Year!). I recall whiling away hours in the back of the class, counting down the days until graduation, in a required course dreaded by all seniors titled “Americanism vs. Communism.”

In 1961, following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the Florida legislature passed a law requiring that all students take AVC, as it was universally called, to graduate. In addition to providing students with “a greater appreciation of democratic processes, freedom under law, and the will to preserve that freedom,” the law required that the course place “particular emphasis upon the dangers of communism, the ways to fight communism, the evils of communism, the fallacies of communism, and the false doctrines of communism.”

Initially, the State Department of Education used official reports of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s book A Study of Communism as texts. Instructors were forbidden from presenting communism in a favorable light. The course continued, in various forms, until the law was finally repealed in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

One study of Florida’s “Americanism vs. Communism” law refers to it as an effort to dispense an “official ideology,” mirroring the practices of the political systems the lawmakers intended to warn against.

Now we have been suddenly transported back a half century, which is puzzling. It is not as if the earlier precedent was a stunning success. One researcher interviewed faculty and students who taught or took AVC in Central Florida high schools in the mid-1960s. Students universally panned the course, considering it boring propaganda. I can certainly attest to this conclusion. I recall students with their heads on their desks, films showing red ink blots spreading across the globe to illustrate the communist threat and readings informing us that Karl Marx was a bad father. The teacher appeared to enjoy the course least of all.

Indeed, former instructors interviewed for the study generally disliked being forced to teach pre-cooked answers dictated by politicians rather than genuine social science. The bolder instructors sought to transcend the limitations of the required teaching materials by following established methods for teaching comparative government in the classroom, although this sometimes led to harassment in an environment where faculty were required to take loyalty oaths.

The irony of House File 12 is that it fails to recognize that communism and other forms of totalitarianism have failed in most places where they have been tried precisely because humans are generally averse to propaganda and indoctrination. AVC was a waste of precious class time and a distraction from the kind of education that serves as the real bulwark to closed and rigid ideologies: critical thinking and exposure to a diversity of ideas.

The retro-Cold War classrooms that the current crop of Republican legislators want to create as part of their broader culture war branding may prove good politics in the short run but will not serve any meaningful educational purpose. Perhaps that is the point.


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How the Ukraine War Influences Chinese Calculations about Taiwan

What lessons might Chinese President Xi Jinping and his advisers draw about Taiwan based upon Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Ukraine does present some good news from Beijing’s perspective. Russia’s nuclear weapons capability has deterred NATO from sending troops in direct defense of Ukraine. We know this because President Joseph Biden repeatedly broadcast the U.S. fear of war with a nuclear-armed adversary as the central rationale for ruling out direct American military intervention in defense of Ukraine. This might reassure Xi that the United States would likewise be deterred from intervening to save Taiwan.

Still, the comparison is inexact, which could lead Xi to dangerously miscalculate. The U.S. interest in Taiwan is far greater than the American investment in Ukraine’s fate. The loss of Taiwan would directly threaten Japan’s security and undercut the U.S. strategic position along the first island chain in East Asia. A failure to defend Taiwan would also strike a blow to American credibility in the region and around the world. Moreover, the U.S. retains nuclear advantages over China that it does not vis-à-vis Russia. Xi should also take into account that American public support for U.S. military intervention on behalf of Taiwan is much higher as compared with Ukraine.

Also on the plus side, Xi must take heart in noting that, according to polls, popular support among Russians for the war and for Putin has been high, despite Western efforts to puncture the all-encompassing media control exercised by Putin’s regime. An invasion of Taiwan would likely be popular among Chinese citizens as well.

While Xi might find the West’s unity around a campaign to arm Ukraine and sanction Russia unnerving, he can take some comfort from the fact that many countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have balked at fully cutting ties with Russia or endorsing the West’s narrative of events. And China has an even wider network of friends and dependencies than Russia.

Still, the Ukraine war presents Xi with considerable cause for alarm. Most obviously, Russia vastly overestimated its own military prowess and underestimated both the will and fighting capacity of the Ukrainians. This is doubly discouraging since Beijing’s Taiwan invasion strategy depends upon a decisive victory achieved quickly enough – within days – to present the United States with a fait accompli. If the Taiwanese manage to hold out, on the other hand, then the U.S. Navy would have the opportunity to intervene.

Not only has the Ukraine conflict forced Beijing to question the assumption of quick victory, but it has also provided Taiwan with tactical lessons in how to foil an invasion force. Those advocating for a “porcupine” strategy that confronts a Chinese invasion force with an asymmetric, whole-of-society response have now gained the upper hand. Moreover, public support for raising military spending and lengthening military reserve training has deepened.

Another worrisome sign for Beijing has been the willingness and ability of the West to effectively cut Russia off from the global financial system. Although the value of the ruble has bounced back from its initial downturn, Russia is currently on the precipice of its first sovereign default since 1917. China must be impressed not only by the unprecedented degree of coordination among the world’s financial great powers, but also by the willingness of these countries to absorb considerable costs in order to punish Russia.

Of course, China’s economy is far larger, more resilient and more central to the global economy compared with that of Russia. Still, Xi must confront the sobering realities that the dollar remains the world’s key currency and the global financial system runs through New York and Washington, D.C. As the Ukraine example illustrates, China will undoubtedly pay an economic price should it make war upon Taiwan.

Overall, the main lesson for Beijing from the Ukraine crisis is that once war is initiated, uncertainty prevails and events can easily spin out of control. After the West’s weak response to Russian moves on Ukraine in 2014, Putin had little reason to expect more than pro forma protests as he completed his takeover of Ukraine. And how could Putin have predicted that a former comedian and his underequipped military would stand up to the mighty Russian army? As he seeks lessons from the Ukraine that might provide guidance on Taiwan, Xi Jinping is left to contemplate the fog and confusion of war.

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The Purposes and Limits of Sanctions

The dramatic suite of sanctions that have been imposed upon Russia in the wake of the latter’s invasion of Ukraine represent the endpoint of a failed policy more than the beginning point of a potentially successful policy. The principal utility of sanctions lies in the threat of their use should the target engage in behavior that the wielder of sanctions seeks to discourage. By threatening costs contingent upon the target’s behavior, the state making the threat is engaging in an act of attempted deterrence. Should the target go ahead with the proscribed act, then this represents the failure of deterrence: the target either doubts the credibility of the deterrent threat or deems the costs to be imposed more than countered by the benefits to be gained from acting.

If the threat of sanctions fails, then the problem shifts from one of deterrence to compellence. Instead of seeking to dissuade the target from undertaking a proscribed act, the focus turns to reversing a step already taken or changing ongoing behavior. Compellence is much more difficult than deterrence. For one thing, once the act has occurred, it might prove difficult or even impossible to fully reverse the consequences. The damage brought by war, for instance, does not disappear once a cease fire is declared. Moreover, the target, once publicly committed to a course of action, would suffer political and reputational costs by buckling under to sanctions. Finally, as suggested above, if the cost of sanctions have already been priced into the target’s decision to act, then the likelihood of sanctions successfully serving the purpose of compellence will be low.

Beyond changing the target’s behavior, a more ambitious goal of sanctions might be to provoke the removal of the target’s leadership, through electoral loss, coup de etat or more thoroughgoing regime change. The actor may target elite supporters of the target state leadership in hopes they will abandon the leader. Sanctions may also seek to stimulate broader popular rebellion via sanctions that undermine the fundamental stability of the target state’s economy. If changing the behavior of a present set of target state leaders is difficult, removing them via sanctions is much more difficult.

Moreover, if leaders of the target state believe that the real purpose of sanctions is their removal, rather than just a change in their behavior, then they will be most unlikely to accede to demands. After all, no behavioral change on the part of the target state will suffice to relieve external pressures if regime change is the goal.

In fact, many studies have shown that sanctions seldom achieve all or a portion of the stated goals, whether the latter involve changes in behavior, leadership or both. So if sanctions fail for the purposes of deterrence and offer little prospect of success for the purposes of compellence, why impose them at all?

One purpose is to establish the credibility of future deterrent threats. Even if the threat of sanctions fails in the present case, a state will want to preserve the effectiveness of sanctions threats in future cases. That can only be accomplished by carrying through sanctions threats, even if there is little chance that such sanctions will compel the target to change behavior in the present case. The downside of doing so, of course, is that sanctions always involve costs to the states that imposes them, as well as to the target. There is, then, a price to preserving credibility.

Another purpose in imposing sanctions is not to alter the target’s behavior, but to convince politically significant domestic audiences that a leader is “doing something” about a problem, even if the “something” has little change of success. Indeed, rival political factions may compete over who is “tougher” on the issue by bidding upward the extent of sanctions. From the public’s standpoint, it may be sufficient that the sanctions “punish” the target state, even if they fail to alter that state’s behavior or leadership.

Which factors are driving Western sanctions on Russia? Preserving the future credibility of future sanctions threats does not require sanctions as broad and severe as those imposed upon Russia over the past week. So this would not appear a major factor.

Although the sanctions directed at Russia have been accompanied by demands that Russian troops leave Ukraine, it remains unclear whether Western policy-makers actually believe that this is a realistic goal. Reports suggest that some high-level officials are instead worried that the severity of Western sanctions may prompt escalatory moves on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s part, rather than retreat. Also, if the goal was near-term change in Russian behavior, we might expect some delineation of the conditions under which sanctions would be removed, so as to more precisely incentivize Putin’s conduct. So far, an explication of such conditionality has been missing in public statements by Western leaders.

There seems little doubt that the domestic demand for action has forced policy-makers in the US and Europe to impose sanctions far more severe than initially planned. This is linked to the determined resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces and population along with the extraordinarily effective messenging and leadership presented by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

There has been speculation that the West seeks to use sanctions as a tool to force Putin out of office. Some of the sanctions specifically target members of the Russian elite who are closely allied with Putin. The hope may be that these pillars of regime support can be stripped away. However, the severing of connections between Russian business elites and Western economies may simply make them all the more dependent upon their relationship with Putin. Regime change via ruptures in elite politics may be a goal of the West, but sanctions could nevertheless prove either ineffective or counterproductive for this purpose.

The most severe sanctions seek to isolate Russia’s Central Bank, force major Russian banks into bankruptcy and collapse the value of the ruble. Even if successful in destroying Russia’s economy, such measures will not impact the military situation on the ground in Ukraine in the near-term. But success is not assured, in part because China could provide a lifeline for Russian finance. The purpose of such thoroughgoing sanctions is not clear, but may rest upon the idea that Putin will pull back if faced with an economic downturn so severe as to produce popular unrest directed against his rule. Some Western officials may even hope that a popular uprising could remove Putin from office. If so, this expectation must be weighed against the possibility that the Russian people will direct their anger against the West rather than overthrow their rulers. One must also consider the morality of all-out economic warfare on a population which is, in a sense, hostage to the misdeeds of their ruler.

In the West’s clash with Russia over the invasion of Ukraine, sanctions are a second-best option. The focus on sanctions has somewhat obscured the more fundamental fact that Western leaders early on ruled out the threat of military force as a deterrent to Russian invasion or as a tool to repel or reverse such an invasion once it occurred. Indeed, it is the West that has been deterred from intervention in the conflict, mainly by Russia’s nuclear capabilities, and, to a lesser extent, by Russia’s conventional military superiority in the vicinity of Ukraine. Sanctions are what the West has left to wield once NATO’s military capabilities are removed from the equation. But they are unlikely to be enough to save Ukraine.

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Did China Just Swerve?

In October 2020, Chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley received intelligence indicating that Chinese leaders feared that the U.S. sought to prod China into a war over Taiwan as a means for shoring up President Donald Trump’s political fortunes. Milley called his Chinese counterpart to assure the Chinese that U.S. intentions were peaceful.

Yet this brief moment of reassurance has not dissuaded the two superpowers from ramping up their game of chicken over Taiwan over the past year. President Biden has continued to raise the level of U.S. official contact with Taiwan’s government. Biden approved a major new arms package for Taiwan while deploying U.S. war ships through the Taiwan Strait and conducting naval and air exercises with Taiwanese and allied forces. Biden has openly courted Japanese and Australian engagement in future military contingencies involving Taiwan’s defense. Most recently, news reports revealed the secret deployment of a small contingent of U.S. Marines on a training mission to Taiwan over the past year.

For its parts, China has dramatically upped the tempo of PLA war planes crossing through Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone and carried out threatening missile tests in the waters off of Taiwan. After a decade-long military buildup, American and Taiwanese analysts believe that China’s is now capable of successfully invading and occupying Taiwan, even if U.S. forces come to Taiwan’s assistance. China’s rhetorical warfare against Taiwan’s current policies and leadership has also reached new heights, with Chinese President Xi Jinping threatening in July to “smash” any Taiwanese move toward formal independence of the mainland.

Yet amidst these unprecedented tensions, Xi gave a relatively conciliatory speech on October 9 in which he declared: “achieving unification through peaceful means is most in line with the overall interests of Chinese people, including Taiwan compatriots.” Xi avoided repetition of his past insistence that Beijing reserves the right to use military force to resolve what the Chinese Communist Party regards as an internal matter that engages China’s sovereign rights. Moreover, Chinese spokespersons responded rather mildly to the explosive news of U.S. Marines stationed in Taiwan and apparently tamped down nationalist responses on social media.

Why the shift in tone? In part, Xi is no doubt responding to prior American moves that signal Biden’s desire to reduce tensions. These include a phone conversation between the two presidents in which Biden restated America’s commitment to a “one China” policy that recognizes the CCP as the sole government of mainland China. U.S. prosecutor’s also reached a deal that led to the release of Meng … by Canadian authorities and her return to China.

From another perspective, however, Xi’s apparent shift from threat to conciliation is illusory. From Beijing perspective, independence and unification are two very different things calling for differing responses. The CCP threatens military force as a tool to deter Taiwan from taking formal steps to declare independence from the mainland. Whenever Taiwan appears to be inching toward formal independence through incremental steps, the CCP responds with dire warnings and displays of military power.

While describing unification as “inevitable,” on the other hand, Xi and the CCP leadership consistently express a desire that this end be achieved through peaceful means. Moreover, Xi has refrained from setting a deadline for fulfilling the goal of unification. Taiwanese independence, in other words, must be resisted at all costs, including those entailed by war. Unification, however, can wait. The ambiguities of the status quo are tolerable, even if unsatisfactory from Beijing’s standpoint.

Xi understands that even a successful invasion of Taiwan would be tremendously costly and raise the risks of nuclear war.

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How China’s Ambitious Belt and Road Plans for East Africa Came Apart

 As China draws back from large scale infrastructure investments in Africa, it is worth considering why so many major Belt and Road (BRI) projects in the region, unveiled with great fanfare, have ultimately failed. A connecting thread across such cases has been China’s inability to manage the political complexities associated with infrastructure development.

Within China itself, the context for infrastructure development is defined by political continuity, deep-pocketed state actors, state-controlled media and a weak civil society. Authorities can plan and implement projects with few serious impediments.

The BRI was envisioned as an extension of this top-down, “China Model” of infrastructure development model to other countries. But, of course, the political circumstances familiar to Chinese actors at home are seldom duplicated abroad despite the fact that, according to Ding Yifan of China’s Development Research Centre of the State Council, Chinese companies “think other countries are just like China.”

Chinese actors typically approach BRI deals with two contradictory assumptions; first, the political leadership with whom they are dealing is either too weak or too venal to challenge contract terms that decidedly favor China; and, second, these same leaders will be strong enough to fend-off resistance to ambitious infrastructure projects by opposition politicians and civil society groups while also mobilizing the financial resources necessary to sustain expensive, long term projects.

In practice, few projects meet the “just right” conditions of this Goldilocks formula. Instead, conditions are “too hot”: strong leaders reject unfavorable terms; or “too cold”: weak leaders cannot defend bad deals against domestic opposition or rescue the projects once they run into trouble. The three case studies below each illuminate a different path to failure.

Strong Leader – Deal Nixed: Bagamoyo Port

            In March, 2013, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed an agreement for a $10 billion port designed to handle 20 million containers a year. China Merchants Holding was contracted to build the port with China’s Export-Import Bank providing the bulk of financing. The port would be connected to a large industrial city and the TAZARA Railway, allowing goods to move to-and-from central Africa.

            Situated in Kiwete’s home district of Bagamoyo, the port was well-positioned to shower benefits upon the president’s supporters. With his term in office ending less than a month later, Kiwete rushed to conclude port construction contracts in October 2015.

In a stunning move, incoming President John Magufuli quickly moved to cancel the contracts. In contrast with Kikweta, Magufuli was an economic nationalist inclined to hard bargaining with foreign investors. Magufuli was also a tough, often authoritarian, leader who brooked little opposition.

            After years of further negotiations, Magufuli pulled the plug in October 2019. Declaring Chinese demands “exploitative,” Magufuli complained: “Those investors are coming with tough conditions that can only be accepted by mad people.” Tanzania Ports Authority Chief Executive Deusdedit Kakoko rejected China Merchants Holding International’s five key conditions, which included a 99-year lease, a tax holiday, below market rates for water and electricity, relaxed regulation and restrictions on Tanzania’s ability to develop competing ports.

            Following Magufuli’s death in office, newly installed President Samia Suluhu Hassan announced, in June 2021, the resumption of negotiations with China over the Bagamoyo Port project. Hassan is closely aligned with former President Jakaya Kikwete’s political network within the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) Party. Should Hassan prove pliable enough to accept China’s conditions, the port project would risk failure along our other two pathways.

Weak Leader – White Elephant: Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway

Weak leaders accept terms favoring foreign lenders and investors. But one-sided projects often generate fatal opposition or, if implemented, risk becoming financial white elephants. Our two Kenya cases featured contract terms heavily favoring China. Both projects were negotiated by President Uhuru Kenyatta, widely considered to be a weaker than his predecessors: Uhuru’s father Jomo Kenyatta, a towering anti-colonial figure who served as Kenya’s first post-independence leader; and the autocratic Daniel arap Moi, who held the presidency for twenty-two years.

Despite his family pedigree, Uhuru Kenyatta was soundly defeated in his first bid for the presidency in 2002. He barely survived a court challenge to his 2013 victory. Although initial returns from the August 2017 election showed Kenyatta the winner, the Supreme Court ordered a new election after siding with a challenge mounted by the main opposition candidate. Following months of growing tension, Kenyatta’s challenger withdrew from the October revote, allowing Kenyatta to retain office.

To improve his precarious political position, Kenyatta sought to accelerate Kenyan economic development by attracting foreign capital, especially from China. In 2018, China held close to $10 billion or 73% of Kenya’s overall debt, among the highest in Africa. Even as Kenyan debt service tripled between 2013 and 2018, Kenyatta defiantly declared: “I will continue to borrow to develop.”

 Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project served as the crown jewel of Kenyatta’s ambitious plan. The railway was designed to speed the flow and increase the capacity of goods moving to and from the Kenyan port of Mombasa. Kenya contracted with the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) to construct the SGR in three main stages. The plan also envisioned a fourth stage undertaken in cooperation with the government of Uganda, with a line running to the Ugandan capital of Kampala and eventually to the interior of East Africa. The financial viability of the project depended upon the expected volume of goods that an extended rail network would realize.

The bulk of financing for the first stage, from Mombasa to Nairobi, was provided by the China Export-Import Bank in the amount of $3.24 billion. A special purpose vehicle called the Kenyan Railway Corporation (KRC) contracted with CRBC to operate the line. Passenger and freight service were both operational by early 2018.

The terms of the SGR deal heavily favored the Chinese partners. Indeed, a Kenyan appeals court later ruled the original contract invalid due to the lack of competitive and transparent bidding. As collateral, Kenya was required to set up a special reserve account and to waive sovereign immunity for the port of Mombasa, making the latter vulnerable to seizure by Chinese creditors should Kenya default.

The loan for the first stage carried a high interest rate and quick repayment period. Conversely, to finance operations the CRBC borrowed from the KRC at zero interest and a generous grace period. Repayment made not in cash, but in services. Moreover, CRBC was relieved of liability for operating losses. Contract disputes were managed through arbitration in China under Chinese law.

Revenue from the initial year of operation came to less than half of projections and covered only half of operating costs. A Kenyan government report estimated that without subsidies freight transport along the new rail line cost twice that via truck. Despite hopes that the rail line would boost exports, the tonnage of goods shipped inland from Mombasa exceeded that shipped to the port by a ratio of almost 8 to 1. While the second stage of the SGR project is nearing completion, China’s Export-Import Bank pulled funding from the third stage due to concerns about financial viability as well as worries that Kenya is “politically unstable.”

In 2020, the SGR lost money at a rate of over $9 million per month, prompting the Kenyan government to require that government agencies and importers ship goods via train rather than truck, a demand resisted by importers and truckers. Kenya Railways defaulted on a $350 million payment to CRBC’s subsidiary Africa Star, which operates the SGR. In July 2020, KRC announced plans to take over management of the SGR from Africa Star, which, in turn, has demanded the full payment of past due debts before the full transfer of operations to KRC.

In sum, Kenyatta’s intended legacy project has become a financial morass while Kenya and China struggle to disentangle themselves from one another.

Weak Leader – Veto by Domestic Opponents: Lamu Power Project

In 2014, Kenya’s Ministry of Energy and Petroleum awarded a contract to Amu Power for construction of a $2 billion power plant, East Africa’s first to rely upon coal. Sixty percent of the total estimated project cost was to be financed by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, a Chinese state-owned commercial bank. The plant was to be built by state-owned China Huadian Corporation.

From the beginning, the project was bathed in controversy due to the close proximity of the plant to a UNESCO heritage site, Lamu Old Town, which served as the best preserved Swahili cultural settlement in East Africa. There were also worries about the environmental impact of the plant.

Opposition to the project arose within Kenya’s Energy Regulatory Commission before licensing approval was finally given in 2016 by the National Environment Management Authority. These bureaucratic delays allowed time for a coalition of local and international NGOs to coalesce in opposition. An umbrella organization called Save Lamu brought together forty local civil society groups. Save Lamu received international support from national NGOs such as the INUKA Trust Fund, and international NGOs, including South Africa-based Natural Justice. From 2016—2019, the coalition conducted a campaign of petitions, protests, public meetings and workshops under the “deCOALinize” banner.

Save Lamu repeatedly requested meetings with representatives of ICBC and the Chinese Embassy without response. In June 2019, a deCOALinize and Greenpeace march to the Chinese Embassy was interrupted by police. This succeeded, however, in securing a subsequent meeting with Chinese Ambassador to Kenya Wu Peng, along with representatives of two Chinese firms under contract to construct the plant. No ICBC representative was present.

Acknowledging that it was Kenya’s decision whether to proceed with the plant, Ambassador Wu expressed reluctance to engage with civil society groups: “You know the problem is who represents your people. As a country, how do we engage bilaterally? We cannot talk to each individual person. It is impossible. You have about 50 million people but you have one administration elected by your people. That is the only way as government to government.”

Save Lamu and other groups sued to halt the project. In 2019, the Kenya National Environmental Tribunal cancelled the license for the Lamu power plant project, ruling that officials had failed to carry out adequate environmental assessments or public consultations. In November 2020, ICBC withdrew from the project, as did General Electric, which had planned an equity investment.

In retrospect, ICBC and the other Chinese entities were hampered by their discomfort and unfamiliarity in navigating the political complexities posed by operating in a country with democratic institutions, an independent judiciary and a vibrant, transnationally-connected civil society. Director of the Green Belt and Road Initiative Center Christoph Nedopil Wang observes that foreign companies have little choice but to consult with civil society since “agreements between businesses and government are insufficient to ensure the implementation of a project.”

Environmental journalist Shi Yi writes: “State-owned enterprises rarely speak to the Chinese media or public and generally do so only for self-promotion. The same approach is often followed overseas. Any public communication may need approval from the headquarters in China, and Chinese companies often discourage their employees from interacting with local people. This means company leaders may not be aware of investment risks in time.”


The evident bargaining advantages that Chinese state-owned firms enjoy in relation to many host states often produce one-sided contracts favoring China, but do not endow Chinese agents with sufficient control over the political variables necessary to project success. One-sided deals may be rejected once a strong leader assumes office, fall prey to domestic opposition or prove financially unviable. The political Goldilocks solution sought by Chinese actors – a host country leadership too weak to drive a hard bargain but strong enough to push a project to successful conclusion against domestic opposition and financial constraints – is elusive at best. These considerations suggest limits on the possibility of projecting a “China Model” via the BRI. When it comes to Chinese infrastructure investment, perhaps Dorothy put it best: “There’s no place like home!”

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Public Servants Deserve a Hug, Not a Swift Kick

(Co-authored with Kyle Munson; reprinted from Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Perhaps you nod in agreement when politicians or pundits criticize some of the books available in your children’s school. Maybe you see vaccine mandates as an overreach of government power. You may think election security needs tightening. If so, you can vote, speak up at school board meetings, write a letter to the editor or grumble on social media. These are all legitimate channels for citizens in a democratic society who want to debate issues.

But it’s wrong to veer that debate into outright vilification of teachers and other public servants who are just trying to do their jobs—often persevering despite shrinking resources.

We now seem to live in a world where we’re told that teachers in local schools pursue a “sinister agenda” by providing “grooming materials” aimed at preparing our children for sexual exploitation. Vaccine mandates are “totalitarian” if not deadly. The 2020 presidential election was stolen, with Trump supporters urged to“fight like hell” and “take back” their country.

The reality, of course, is that teachers aren’t sinister. The vast majority are deeply engaged in the task of helping prepare children and young people for happy and productive lives. Public health workers aren’t fascists trying to poison us. Rather, they are doing their best to keep us healthy in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. Local election officials aren’t engaged in vast conspiracies to steal elections. They instead play a vital role in making our democracy work. And when rare cases of wrongdoing arise, existing systems of accountability kick in. If those prove inadequate, the answer is to advocate for thoughtful reform, not broad-brush attacks on public service itself.

The demonization of public servants is, of course, the product of cynical political calculation. Yet such attacks go well beyond ugly rhetoric. Elected officials have proposed to subject government workers to fines, lawsuits or arrest for doing their jobs. Across the country, as average Americans are taken in by conspiratorial thinking and false claims, health workers and election officials and even their families have become targets of vitriolic personal attacks and occasional violence.

The consequences hurt us all. Educators are leaving the profession. Election officials are quitting. Public health workers are resigning. Although the pandemic and other current realities have contributed to this wave of resignations, the personal and political attacks to which many public servants have been subjected have played an outsized role. As public institutions become shorn of the experienced professionals upon which their effectiveness depends, the ultimate victims of these trends, of course, are students, those in need of health care and democracy itself.

Politicians and pundits who use extreme rhetoric to are unlikely to pull back from the brink out of appeals to conscience. They will persist as long as such tactics work to bolster their political ambitions.

But there is the opportunity. We can speak up to defend the integrity of our friends, neighbors and family members in public service. We can learn to recognize when politicians and pundits cynically appeal to our deepest fears and basest emotions. And we can deny votes to candidates for office who engage in dangerous scapegoating. After all, we get the politics we deserve.

In the meantime, if you know a public servant, let them know you appreciate the work they do as champions of what civility remains.

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The Nexus between Rent Control and Incorporation in East Palo Alto

David Skidmore
Department of Political Science

Drake University

August, 2021

In the early 1980s, East Palo Alto was a small community of 18,000 people (today over 30,000) nestled amidst the growing and increasingly prosperous cities of Silicon Valley (Golden, 1982). When East Palo Alto incorporated in 1983, it gained a place among the early minority-majority cities in California and joined Richmond as one of only two cities in the state with a Black majority population (Camarillo, 2007). Within a year after incorporation, East Palo Alto became just the third municipality (joining Berkeley and Santa Monica) to pass a comprehensive rent stabilization and just cause eviction ordinance.

The incorporation of East Palo Alto thus stood at the confluence of two major social movements: the struggles for Black liberation and economic justice. The channeling of these movements through electoral politics and legal reform required the construction of multi-racial and cross-class coalitions that rested upon compatible, if nevertheless distinct, sets of interests and identities. The story of East Palo Alto’s founding as a city close to four decades ago remains relevant today for the lessons it offers about building complex political coalitions that can successfully pursue progressive change in the face of unreceptive institutions and entrenched opposition. These lessons have gained renewed currency during a time when the forces of progress and retrenchment have each mobilized to heightened levels of intensity.

This study examines one particular facet of the incorporation struggle – the role that the fight for rent control played in the incorporation campaign and in the early life of the city. Rent control was not initially a major focal point of the incorporation campaign, but came to play a central role due to both the housing crisis of the early 1980s and its potential for reshaping electoral coalitions at the margin in favor of incorporation amid a tightly contested political landscape.

This account rests upon personal recollection[1], interviews with key participants, contemporary documentary sources, press reports and prior studies of incorporation.

Historical Background

East Palo Alto’s history has been defined by constantly changing demographics. Communities marginalized within the broader society found a home in East Palo Alto. These groups often sought bottom-up empowerment through social and political movements that struggled against the constraints, and sometimes outright exploitation, placed upon them by external forces.

In 1916, Charles Weeks founded Runnymeade Little Farms Colony, a utopian agrarian community that focused on poultry. The colony, located within the historic boundaries of East Palo Alto, peaked at one thousand members in the 1920s before ultimately failing. During the 1930s, Japanese and Italian immigrants launched successful flower-growing operations. The substantial Japanese population of East Palo Alto was removed and placed in internment camps during World War II (Berman, 2010; Daeenabi and Sosa-Ramos, 2019).

After the war, East Palo Alto grew rapidly from a population of 1,500 in 1947 to 12,000 in 1953 (Berman, 2010). Most of the newcomers were members of the White working class. While East Palo Alto participated in the general economic boom of the post-war years, its status as an unincorporated area of San Mateo County left it politically vulnerable and inhibited the development of a strong sense of identity.

In 1949, neighboring Menlo Park annexed the Belle Haven neighborhood, which had traditionally been considered a part of East Palo Alto. In one fell swoop, East Palo Alto lost one quarter of both its population and its property value (Berman, 2010; Anning, 1998). In subsequent years, Menlo Park annexed the Menlo Oaks and North Palo Alto neighborhoods while Palo Alto took land to the south for the purpose of building a municipal golf course (Lowe, 1983).

A more devastating blow came in 1958 with the expansion of the Bayshore Freeway, which led to the erasure of East Palo Alto’s main business district and the closure of over fifty shops, only a few of which reopened in new locations within the community. Appeals by local residents to shift the route eastward to spare the business district were rejected. Construction of the freeway also prompted neighborhoods to the West of the Bayshore to leave Ravenswood School District, which served East Palo Alto and parts of Menlo Park, and to join the Menlo Park School District. This only worsened existing patterns of racial segregation in the schools (Coolidge, 2012; Lowe, 1983; Berman, 2010).

Demographic Change

During the fifties, a number of Black migrants from the rural South found that housing in working class East Palo Alto was both more affordable and more accessible than in neighboring cities. Yet Black residents were clustered into two small enclaves and the 1960 census found that East Palo Alto’s population remained 70% White (Post, 1997).

Over the course of the following decade, however, East Palo Alto transitioned from a predominantly White to a predominately Black community as a result of discriminatory housing practices. In 1958, the NAACP conducted a survey which found that 19 of 20 peninsula real estate agencies discriminated against Blacks in new developments and prosperous neighborhoods (Post, 1997). Race-restrictive housing covenants were also common in established White neighborhoods. Between 1925 and 1950, a majority of subdivisions in neighboring Palo Alto mandated: “No person not wholly of the White Caucasian race shall use or occupy such property unless such person or persons are employed as servants of the occupants (Sheyner, 2019).”

White flight out of East Palo Alto arose from concerted “block busting” campaigns carried out by local real estate agencies during the years 1962-64 (“Housing Discrimination…,” Cutler, 2015; Rothstein, 2018). Agents blitzed crowded Black neighborhoods in San Francisco with fliers advertising the bucolic charms of East Palo Alto. Organized bus tours drove Black prospective home owners through White neighborhoods in East Palo Alto. Once the racial exclusivity of an area was broken, realtors played upon the fears and prejudices of White residents to buy out whole neighborhoods at low prices, only to then sell these homes to Black purchasers at much higher prices. Once Black homeowners came to predominate various East Palo Alto neighborhoods, the Federal Housing Administration stopped approving Federally-insured loans for Whites who might wish to buy homes in those areas (Rothstein, 2018: 12-13; Post, 1997). By the 1970 census, the White population of East Palo Alto had fallen to 20% in what was now a majority Black community (Post, 1997).

Historian Herbert Ruffin II (2014: 97) observes that East Palo Alto’s transition to a Black majority was accompanied by growing social distress: “East Palo Alto became a ghetto overnight, falling victim to White flight, capital flight, unfair taxation, debased city services, and divestment in the housing market.” Ironically, passage of the Fair Housing Act, which ended racially restrictive covenants and outlawed housing discrimination based upon race, contributed to East Palo Alto’s woes during the 1970s as middle-class Black families moved to more affluent cities (Cutler, 2015).

San Mateo County, of which East Palo Alto is a part, was among the richest counties in the United States in the early 1980s. During this period, East Palo Alto stood out as a 2.5 square mile enclave of poverty, with a 25-30% unemployment rate (60% among teenagers) and 30% of San Mateo’s welfare cases despite comprising only 4% of the county’s population. East Palo Alto’s median family income fell 40% below that of the county as a whole (“Incorporation of Coast Town….,” 1983; Biddulph, 1983c; “Racism Charges….,” 1983; Skidmore, 1983).

Although East Palo Alto had the density of an urban area, it relied wholly upon San Mateo County for services due to the community’s unincorporated status. Instead of representing specific locales or districts, San Mateo supervisors were chosen through county-wide elections. As a result, no supervisor specifically represented East Palo Alto. Nor did the votes of East Palo Alto residents carry sufficient weight to ensure political clout. As a result, the community’s interests were routinely ignored. Community leader Barbara Mouton noted: “We have been the stepchild of San Mateo County, and have not gotten the services we need and merit … The county supervisors are not equipped to run a municipality (Golden, 1982a).” As an example, the county Sheriff Deputies who policed East Palo Alto’s streets did not live in the community and could not readily be held accountable by its residents. Indeed, San Mateo treated East Palo Alto as a dumping ground (literally) for the county’s problems as exemplified by the siting of a waste treatment plant and the country landfill in East Palo Alto (Kahan, 2015, Cutler, 2015).

Black Empowerment

This confluence of economic distress, rapid demographic change and political disenfranchisement took place against the backdrop of rising Black power consciousness and the struggle for civil rights. East Palo Alto became a hub for Black political and cultural expression.

A two-year Nairobi College and a Nairobi Day School (K-12) were opened in the late sixties under the leadership, respectively, of Bob Hoover and Gertrude Wilkes.[2] In 1968, voters narrowly rejected a proposal to rename the community “Nairobi.” Pan-African cultural nationalism competed with the Marxist-influence nationalism of the Black Panthers, which established a chapter in East Palo Alto. Political and intellectual figures such as Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael and Jesse Jackson regularly passed through East Palo Alto (Berman, 2010; Olewe, 2015; “A Structure for Survival…., 1972; Cutler, 2015).

In the sixties and seventies, a number of significant civil rights and Saul Alinsky-style community organizing groups were either based or active in East Palo Alto. Examples included the San Mateo County Black Action Council, Mid-Peninsula CORE, the Community Action Council and the Palo Alto Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In the late sixties, East Palo Alto hosted several Black Action Conferences, which drew over one thousand attendees (Berman, 2010; Ruffin, 2014).

In short, even as East Palo Alto struggled with economic distress and political marginalization, it also began to develop the racial consciousness, local institutions and community leadership necessary to challenge these conditions.

Housing Costs and the Rising Demand for Rent Control

The demographic transformation of East Palo Alto coincided with an emerging housing crisis that took increasingly intense form as one moved from the national level to the Bay Area and finally to East Palo Alto itself. The political expression of this crisis took the form of growing popular support for rent control.

Nationally, median rents increased by 13% in 1982, compared with an overall inflation rate of 4.7%.[3] In East Palo Alto, rents rose 15% per year during the late seventies and early eighties, creating financial strain and housing insecurity for local tenants, who constituted 55% of the population of East Palo Alto.[4] Average family income among renters stood at only 55% that of homeowners. Three quarters of renters had low or very low incomes using standards set by San Mateo County. If, as is customary, we consider 25% of overall income devoted to rent as the upper bound of affordability, then one third of all East Palo Alto renters and three quarters of those with low incomes struggled with unaffordable rents. Overall, rent consumed an average of 32% of renter income.

A mismatch between housing supply and demand helped drive up rents. During the 1970s, the workforce in San Mateo County grew by 37% and in neighboring Santa Clara County by 82%. Meanwhile, multi-family construction permits issued by San Mateo County for unincorporated areas fell from 1440 during the first half of the seventies to 220 in the second half of the decade. In East Palo Alto, the rental vacancy rate in the early eighties hovered between 1% and 3% – anything below 5% is considered a serious housing shortage. In this environment, property values for multi-family rental complexes rose rapidly. As a result, money was diverted from new construction to speculative investments in existing properties. Speculation was further fueled by tax laws that allowed accelerated depreciation.

These conditions were not confined to the Bay Area. Between 1977 and 1980, surveys of Californians showed a dramatic flip in public views regarding rent control – from two thirds opposition to two thirds support (Shearer, 1982). The first rent control ordinances were passed in Santa Monica in 1979 (Shearer, 1982) and Berkeley in 1980 (“History of Rent Control in Berkeley”).

It is not surprising, then, that housing gained currency as an issue in the incorporation struggle. But among the many significant challenges facing the community in those years, why did housing affordability rise to the top of the agenda, especially preceding the 1983 incorporation vote? And why did the new City Council take up rent control as its first act in office and pass a sweeping law within its first year in the face of determined and well-funded opposition?

These questions are all the more puzzling when one considers that the political center of gravity in East Palo Alto rested among the long-term Black homeowners who occupied single-family houses on the East side of the Bayshore Freeway. These voters were divided on incorporation. Why, then, did leaders of the incorporation campaign come to embrace rent control?

The Fight to Incorporate East Palo Alto

To answer these questions, we must look first at how the campaign for incorporation unfolded. Following years of advocacy by the East Palo Alto Citizen’s Committee on Incorporation (EPACCI) and a failed effort in 1982, East Palo Alto was incorporated as a city on July 1, 1983. The June 7, 1983 victory came with a margin of only 15 votes out of the 3,459 cast. Barbara Mouton was selected as the city’s first mayor (Gordon, 2007). Other members of the initial Council were Omowale Satterwhite, Ruben Abrica, and James Blakey (Batchelder, 1994; Grieve, 1983; “Incorporation of Coast Town…, 1983).

This victory was a close, hard-fought thing. Opposition to incorporation was substantial. Divisions emerged among long-time friends and allies. The organizational expression of the opposition to incorporation took the form of a group called Citizens Coalition Against Incorporation Now (CCAIN). Three members of the pre-existing Municipal Council – a powerless body set up to advice the county on community issues – came out against incorporation: Gertrude Wilks, Henry Anthony and Pat Johnson (Biddulph, 1983b).

Among the skeptics, many worried that a cash-strapped city might raise taxes or fees on homeowners or small businesses. Wilks, a revered figure in East Palo Alto for her work in education and social services, was the most vocal on this point, contending: “Self-determination and pride will not finance a city … I represent people on a fixed income and they can’t afford to pay for a city (Biddulph, 1983b).” These fears were, however, largely misplaced as Proposition 13, a statewide initiative passed in 1978, severely limited the ability of local governments to increase property taxes.

Wilks argued that San Mateo County sought to wash its hands of East Palo Alto’s dire social and economic problems: “The powers that be will stop at nothing to rid themselves of the poor and black and other minority people in East Palo Alto (Biddulph, 1984).” Of the pro-incorporation campaign itself, Wilks saw it as an example of “exploitation” of “black people by black people (“Incorporation of Coast Town…, 1983).” Realtor Arn Cenedella similarly contended that in view of the financial drain East Palo Alto placed upon San Mateo, county officials supported incorporation in order to get East Palo Alto “off the books (Golden, 1982a).” Perhaps swayed by such considerations, the East Palo Alto Homeowners Association opposed incorporation.

Although housing affordability was one among many issues that EPACCI listed in its campaign literature, rent control was not on the agenda prior to the 1982 vote (Romero interview, 2021). Nevertheless, real estate interests stepped up as the primary funders of CCAIN. The mostly White and mostly absentee (83% of multi-unit rental housing in East Palo Alto was owned by out-of-town landlords [Harrington, 1984]) landlords who owned apartment buildings on the sliver of East Palo Alto that lay on the West side of the Bayshore Freeway fought the hardest to avoid inclusion in the new city. At this point, landlords were concerned that incorporation would foreclose the possibility of the West side joining more prosperous Menlo Park.  At the time, two local realtors candidly told a reporter that the same property on the West side would have a higher market value with a Menlo Park address than with an East Palo Alto address (Golden, 1982c).

When EPACCI petitioned San Mateo County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) in 1981 to seek approval for a ballot measure on incorporation, one quarter of West side property owners (including owners of both multi-unit buildings and single-family homes) asked LAFCo to leave the West side out of the boundaries of the proposed city. Responding to pressure from the West of Bayshore Committee for Annexation to Menlo Park, LAFCo initially announced its intention to set the Western boundary of East Palo Alto at the Bayshore Freeway. However, after a financial feasibility study concluded that the exclusion of the West side apartment buildings, which accounted for almost half of the apartment units in the community, would decisively weaken the financial viability of East Palo Alto, LAFCo reversed itself. Now it would exclude only a small area of the West side that consisted of single-family homes (Golden, 1982a).

While this was a victory for EPACCI, LAFCo structured the ballot in ways that seemed designed to frustrate incorporation. In addition to a vote on incorporation itself by residents who lived within the proposed boundaries of East Palo Alto, LAFCo required that voters also approve four other measures dissolving sanitation, recreation, water and county service districts. Although the latter three districts coincided with the boundaries of the proposed city, the sanitation district covered areas not within East Palo Alto. LAFCo required that all five measures be approved before incorporation could move forward. It was in part because of this confusing ballot that community leader Barbara Mouton declared that LAFCo “did everything they could do to defeat us (Golden, 1982a).

In the event, four of the five measures passed, including the main question on incorporation, which gained 1587 votes in favor versus 1238 votes against. Only the measure providing for dissolution of the sanitary district failed to gain an overall majority in favor, falling short of passage by 41 votes. As incorporation proponents had feared, the sanitary district measure did pass among voters residing within the boundaries of East Palo Alto, but failed due to opposition by voters living within the district but outside of the proposed city (Springen, 1982; Golden, 1982d).

Following the 1982 defeat, EPACCI successfully petitioned for a second vote the following year. LAFCo gave approval, also agreeing to allow a straight up-and-down vote on incorporation. The campaign prior to the second vote took on a different complexion. Rent control now moved to the forefront of the debate.

The Formation of the East Palo Alto Council of Tenants (EPACT)

From a political and organizational point of view, the East Palo Alto Council of Tenants (EPACT), formed in 1982, played a crucial role in mediating the relationship between incorporation and rent control. Among the prime movers in EPACT’s creation were Ruben Abrica, Lon Otterby and Carlos Romero. Abrica was an educator who was later elected to East Palo Alto’s first city council. Otterby was a machinist and political activist with experience in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Romero was a Stanford student. Others who worked on local housing issues, whether through EPACT or separately, included Sharifa Wilson, Nate Branch and Duane Bay (Abrica, 2014).

Abrica recalls: “I went through every single apartment on the west side two or three times. I started finding out how abusive some of the managers and landlords were (Real, 2015-16).” EPACT provided tenants with information on their legal rights, mediated tenant disputes with landlords, and helped tenant’s navigate government bureaucracy. In one such case, for instance, Otterby contacted government agencies on behalf of a tenant who was threatened with an eviction notice after refusing to sign a landlord’s petition to annex the neighborhood to Menlo Park (Otterby, 1983). EPACT met with Stanford law students working at the East Palo Alto Community Law Project to help them better understand the kinds of issues that faced tenants and the sorts of legal assistance that was most needed.

Canvassing was a major way that EPACT informed and organized tenants. Members distributed leaflets at the doors of apartments to invite people to meetings or events and to encourage them to become politically active in support of tenant’s rights. EPACT aimed to have at least one person in each building who would volunteer to open locked security gates so that canvassers could gain access to the building (Lon Otterby interview, 2021).

In addition, EPACT members participated in voter registration drives, spoke before official bodies on behalf of incorporation, wrote on rental issues for a community newspaper called the East Palo Alto Progress (published by historian Bob Lowe), carried out workshops on renter’s rights, staffed information tables at the local supermarket, lobbied City Council members, helped research and design rental legislation and served on the East Palo Alto Rent Stabilization Board.

EPACT, Coalition-Building and Incorporation

While EPACT was, from one point of view, a natural outgrowth of the housing crisis that enveloped East Palo Alto at this time, it also connected to strategic moves within the pro-incorporation camp. The decision to elevate the salience of rent control in the incorporation campaign owed much to the peculiar geography and demographics of East Palo Alto.

Since the freeway was completed in the late fifties, the ties between this West side outcropping of East Palo Alto and the rest of the community had grown increasingly tenuous. Among the 4,000 residents of this area, only 20% were Black, with most of the remainder White or Latino (Golden, 1982a; Biddulph, 1983a). Most West side renters were short-term residents, such as the bulk of the estimated 350 Stanford students who lived in East Palo Alto (Biddulph, 1983b). In 1980, only 15% of East Palo Alto renters had occupied their apartments for more than five years, while 54% had lived in their unit for less than sixteen months (Kazak, 1995).

After the 1982 defeat, EPACCI not only needed to convince LAFCo to allow another vote a year later, but also had to show that there was support for incorporation on the West side so as to insure that LAFCo would not remove the West side from the boundaries of the proposed city, as it has originally planned. The emergence of EPACT as a voice for renters along with the incorporation campaign’s embrace of rent control gave West side tenants a reason to support incorporation and gave EPACCI a stronger hand in making the case to LAFCo that the West side should be included in East Palo Alto.

When it came to the actual vote on incorporation, the rent control issue would potentially drive away more East side homeowners. For this reason, it became even more crucial to offset these possible losses by registering and turning out West side voters. EPACCI therefore needed to broaden its appeal to White, short-term residents who lived in West side apartments. Once again, EPACT played a crucial role, especially in registering West side voters, thereby contributing to the overall doubling in the number of registered voters in East Palo Alto over the course of the incorporation campaign (Skidmore, 1984c).

Rent control gained salience in the campaign preceding the second incorporation vote not only because it was a key to winning votes on the West side, but also because the prominent role of White absentee landlords on the anti-incorporation side provided the pro-incorporation forces with a useful foil. In a Black majority community, it was not hard to generate resentment against the White, wealthy absentee landlords who were bankrolling the anti-incorporation campaign. As Satterwhite asserted: “We’re in the midst of the Black Power movement. And so, yeah, we weren’t going to capitulate to some White landlords (Satterwhite interview, 2021).”

It is difficult to know precisely what difference EPACT and rent control made to the successful incorporation vote of 1983. Ruben Abrica (Abrica interview, 2021) recalls that a slight majority of West siders voted in support of incorporation. Tenant activist William Webster (Webster interview, 2018)  argues: “No EPACT, no East Palo Alto.” On the other hand, the margin of victory in 1983 was only 15 votes while the pro-incorporation margin in 1982 was 349. It is possible that rent control cost more votes for incorporation than it gained. Certainly, CCAIN’s slogan – “Save Our Homes” – explicitly appealed to homeowner fears that rent control would harm property values (Baer, 1983).

In any case, the new City Council enacted a 90 day ban on rent increases as one of its first acts in order to allow time for the crafting of a new rent control ordinance. The Rent Stabilization and Just Cause Eviction ordinance passed by the East Palo Alto City Council on November 23, 1983 allowed landlords to increase rents once per year at a rate no greater than the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The costs of major improvements could be passed along in addition to the CPI. The law also protected tenants from arbitrary evictions and required that interest earned on security deposits be returned to tenants annually. Newly constructed units were exempt from the law, as were landlords who rented out four or fewer units. Implementation of the law would be overseen by a Rent Stabilization Board appointed by the City Council (Abrica, 2014; Harrington, 1985; Skidmore, 1984b).

This did not end matters as landlord-funded groups fought tooth-and-nail against the city. The Tri-County Apartment Owners Association (San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz), representing 3,200 landlords, solicited a fee of $2 per unit toward a war chest to fight rent control in East Palo Alto. Similarly, the Palo Alto Park Association, representing landlords owning 2400 units of rental housing, assessed a $20 per unit fee to raise funds for the anti-rent control fight (Skidmore, 1984a). Following the election, CCAIN, represented by former U.S. Congressional Representative Paul McCloskey Jr., challenged the outcome in court with charges of voting fraud. In the end, a San Mateo judge ruled against the challenge and allowed the incorporation vote to stand (Biddulph, 1983a; Alexander, 1984, Kazak and D’Agostino, 2003; Lynch, 1983). The case was appealed to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the city (Gordon, 2007).

A landlord group called the “Private Property Rights Committee” spent $20,000 on collecting signatures to force a referendum that proposed to reverse the rent stabilization ordinance previously passed by the City Council (Abrica, 2014; Skidmore, 1984b). Mayor Barbara Mouton confided to Ruben Abrica her worries over whether the referendum – cynically titled the “Property Owners Civil Rights Initiative” might succeed. Abrica, who had quit his job in order to campaign full-time to defeat the referendum, reassured her that it would fail (Abrica interview, 2021; Harrington, 1985).

Abrica proved prophetic as the initiative was defeated on April 10, 1984 with 58% voting in favor of rent control. Notably, West side voters rejected the referendum by a 328 vote margin, while the pro-rent control margin on the more populous East side was only 35 votes (Abrica, 2014; Skidmore, 1984c).


Through many permutations and against varied kinds of resistance, rent control East Palo Alto has continued over the past four decades to provide legal protection for the rights of tenants and mitigate the economic distress associated with the Bay Area’s brutal housing market. A study of the rent control law’s impacts a decade after it went into effect concluded: “In East Palo Alto, the data is particularly compelling. The law protects tenants and the affordable housing stock (Kazak, 1995).”

Rent control had other impacts. Once the city was established, municipal leaders faced the task of ensuring a reasonable degree of cohesion and common identity between the West side and the East side of East Palo Alto. Ruben Abrica has observed that: “The one thing that integrated the west side to the east side much more was the rent law. By having a law that protects tenants, people became acutely aware that they were part of the city of East Palo Alto (Goebel, 2012).” Even West side renters who did not plan to put down long term roots in East Palo Alto quickly understood that they depended upon the city to protect them from exorbitant rents.

East Palo Alto’s struggles to incorporate as a minority-majority city and to protect the economic interests and rights of renters both foreshadowed the state of California’s future direction. Together, the state’s Black, Latino and Asian residents now constitute a majority of the state’s population. Meanwhile, rent control – once considered radical – is now the law of the land as California’s legislature passed a statewide rent control law in January, 2020 (Barta, 2021). In these ways and others, East Palo Alto served as a forerunner of broader social changes.

Finally, the story of how the forces of racial and economic justice converged in the campaigns for incorporation and rent control in East Palo Alto forty years ago underscores the potential for building similar multi-racial and multi-class coalitions for progressive change today.



Author Interviews:

Ruben Abrica (2021)
Duane Bay (2018)
Robert Lowe (2020)
Diane Otterby (2021)
Lon Otterby (2021)
Carlos Romero (2021)
Omawale Satterwhite (2021)
William Webster (2018)

Ruben Abrica, “Political Independence and the Struggle to Adopt and Protect the First Rent Stabilization and Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance in the City of East Palo Alto,” March 26, 2014.

Vicky Anning, “Reversal of Misfortune,” Stanford Magazine, January/February, 1998.

Paul Baer, “East Palo Alto Should Incorporate,” Stanford Daily, May 11, 1983.

Chris Barta, “Updates on California Rent Control Laws,” NOLO.com, January 11, 2021 https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/california-rent-control-law.html.

Batchelder, Lily, The Incorporation Movement of East Palo Alto: Renegotiating the Boundaries of Community Organizing Theory. May 1994

Mike Berman, “Race, Ethnicity and Inter-Minority Suburban Politics: East Palo Alto, 1950-2002,” collectiveroots.org, 2010

Jeff Biddulph, “McCloskey Urges East PA Vote Delay,” Stanford Daily, January 28, 1983a.

Jeff Biddulph, “Students Lobby for EPA Cityhood,” Stanford Daily, February 7, 1983b.

Jeff Biddulph, “East Palo Alto’s Economic Woes Overlap into Politics,” Stanford Daily, February 24, 1983c.

Jeff Biddulph, “Court Ruling Halts East Palo Alto’s Incorporation Vote,” Stanford Daily, April 11, 1983d.

Jeff Biddulph, “Court Approves EPA’s Cityhood Election,” Stanford Daily, May 23, 1984.

Alberto M. Camarillo, Cities of Color: The New Racial Frontier in California’s Minority-Majority Cities,” Pacific Historical Review, 76(1), 2007.

Jake Coolidge, “Jake Coolidge Cartography,” 2012, https://www.jakecoolidgecartography.com/ravenswood-city-school-district.html

Kim-Mai Cutler, “East of Palo Alto’s Eden: Race and the Formation of Silicon Valley,” TechCrunch,” January 10, 2015.

Imahn Daeenabi and Maria Sosa-Ramos, “History of East Palo Alto” San Mateo Board of Supervisors, Summer, 2019 https://bos.smcgov.org/history-east-palo-alto

Bryan Goebel, “Divided by a Highway, East Palo Alto Looks to Reconnect Its West Side,” StreetsBlogSF, October 25, 2012 (https://sf.streetsblog.org/2012/10/25/divided-by-a-highway-east-palo-alto-looks-to-reconnect-its-west-side/).

Jeffrey Golden, “East Palo Alto Voters to Decide Community Status,” Stanford Daily, March 30, 1982a.

Jeffrey Golden, “The Fight Continues in East Palo Alto Incorporation Dispute,” Stanford Daily, March 31, 1982b.

Jeffrey Golden, “Residents’ Pride, Hope Spur E.P.A. Move to Incorporate,” Stanford Daily, April 1, 1982c.

Jeffrey Golden, “EPA Voters Approve and Reject Incorporation in Elections,” Stanford Daily, April 16, 1982d.

Rachel Gordon, “Barbara Mouton – First May of East Palo Alto, Whose “Heart and Soul” was Serving Community,” SFGate, March 19, 2007.

Tim Grieve, “Incorporation Starts for East Palo Alto,” Stanford Daily, June 24, 1983.

Susan Harrington, “Rent Control Debate Heats Up,” Stanford Daily, January 5, 1985.

“History of Rent Control in Berkeley,” TenantNet, 1995 http://www.tenant.net/Other_Areas/Calif/berkeley/1history.html#:~:text=Rents%20in%20Berkeley%20have%20been,Proposition%2013%20in%20June%2C%201978.

“Housing Discrimination: A Closed Door in Palo Alto,” PaloAltoHistory.org, updated http://www.paloaltohistory.org/discrimination-in-palo-alto.php

“Incorporation of Coast Town Divides Community,” New York Times, August 17, 1983.

Michael B. Kahan, “Reading Whiskey Gulch: The Meanings of Space and Urban Redevelopment in East Palo Alto,” OC-CA-SION, August 31, 2015

Don Kazak and Bill D’Agostino, “Palo Alto Weekly” September 10, 2003

Don Kazak, “Rent Control: 10 Years Later,” Palo Alto Online, February 22, 1995

Lisa Lynch, “Opponents Challenge EPA Cityhood,” Stanford Daily, October 5, 1983

Dickens Olewe, “American City Was Almost Renamed Nairobi,” The Star, July 19, 2015

Lon Otterby, “Local Tenant Claims Harassment,” East Palo Alto Progress, May 1983

Alison Post, “From White and Blue to Black: A History of East Palo Alto,” Stanford Daily Magazine: Arcade, Spring 1997, pp. 10-16

 “Racism Charges Cloud Vote on Coast,” New York Times, August 3, 1983.

Ellie Real, “Profile of Ruben Abrica, the First Latin Mayor of East Palo Alto,” EPA Today, Fall 2015-January 2016

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, New York: Liveright, 2018.

Herbert G. Ruffin II, “East Palo Alto, California (1925-),” BlackPast, October 28, 2011 https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/east-palo-alto-1925/

Herbert G. Ruffin II, Uninvited Neighbors: African Americans in Silicon Valley, 1769-1990, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014

Gennady Sheyner, “Housing’s Troubled History of Discrimination,” Palo Alto Weekly, March 29, 2019

David Skidmore, “Rent Control Needed,” Stanford Daily, October 1983a.

David Skidmore, “Gouging, Speculation, Unfair Evictions Signal Need for Rent Measure,” East Palo Alto Progress, Winter, 1983b.

David Skidmore, “Landlords Force Referendum on Rent Law,” East Palo Alto Progress, January 1984a.

David Skidmore, “Provisions of Rent Ordinance,” East Palo Alto Progress, January 1984b.

David Skidmore, “A New Spirit in East Palo Alto,” Stanford Daily, Spring, 1984c.

Karen Springen, “EPA Incorporation Loses by Close Vote,” Stanford Daily, April 14, 1982.

“A Structure for Survival: East Palo Alto Branch Black Panther Party, Opens with Community Survival Day,” The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, vol. VIII, no. 27, September 23, 1972

[1] My wife and I lived in East Palo Alto from 1981-84, covering the time period discussed here. I was an active participant in the campaigns for rent control and, to a lesser extent, incorporation. I served on the Rent Stabilization and Just Cause Eviction Task Force appointed by the East Palo Alto Council City Council in 1984. The Task Force report provided the recommendations that were incorporated into the city’s first rent control law.

[2] Both schools were firebombed and burned down in 1975, the same year that Ravenswood High School was closed, after which East Palo Alto students were bused to high schools in neighboring districts (Cutler, 2015).

[3] Data in this paragraph and the next drawn from Skidmore, 1983b.

[4] Between January 1978 and August 1979, average rent on two-bedroom apartments in East Palo Alto rose 36.6% while the average rent for studio apartments rose 45.5% (Harrington, 1985).

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What Joe Biden Can Learn from Jimmy Carter’s Foreign Policy

David Skidmore, Drake University

President Donald Trump pursued a foreign policy path strewn with discarded treaties, alienated allies, broken norms and the tattered remnants of America’s global reputation. Where can President Joe Biden look for ideas about how to repair the damage?

Based upon my own research, I submit that a good place to start is with the foreign policy approach pursued by President Jimmy Carter. After all, the circumstances Carter faced bear an uncanny resemblance to those Biden now confronts: recent presidential scandal, the after-effects of a long and unsuccessful war, perceptions of U.S. decline and a sense, at home and abroad, that Americans lack a uniting sense of purpose.

A one-term president who left office with low approval ratings, Carter’s presidential performance is often dismissed as a failure. The widespread admiration Carter has gained over the years is associated with his post-presidency, which he has devoted to fighting tropical disease, monitoring elections, promoting human rights and extolling the power of dialogue as a path to peace.

Yet there is much that Biden could learn from Carter’s White House record, beginning with the need to restore a positive agenda for America’s global role rooted in core moral values and vigorous diplomacy.

Such an approach stands in contrast with the amoral, Realpolitik philosophies that drove both Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Nixon’s brutal calculus of power helped produce devastating humanitarian catastrophes in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile and Southern Africa. Similarly, Trump displayed an appalling preference for authoritarian rulers over traditional democratic allies.

With America’s global reputation in tatters following the Vietnam War and Watergate, Carter recognized the urgency of restoring a moral foundation for American foreign policy. To be sure, the pursuit of power and profit are both unavoidable aspects of the foreign policy of any country. Yet the willingness of many countries and peoples to accept American leadership after World War II rested in part upon the moral vision at the heart of the American-shaped liberal international order as set out in Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter.

The same sense of moral purpose was essential to domestic support for an expansive American role abroad. The amoralism of Nixon and Trump, by contrast, endangered support for American leadership and fueled isolationist sentiment.

Carter’s embrace of human rights must be understood in this light. Carter was mindful of the practical need to balance human rights considerations against other interests. Yet by placing a spotlight on human rights abuses and devoting American influence to curbing them, Carter sought to restore the perception abroad that the United States stood for more than narrow self-interest. Coupled with his promises to bring honesty and integrity back to the White House, Carter’s human rights agenda helped to revive domestic pride and confidence in America’s role in the world.

Carter’s human rights policies also had significant practical consequences. Vocal U.S. support for human rights gave added legitimacy and weight to the growing human rights advocacy of non-governmental organizations and international organizations. Authoritarian governments on both the right and the left came to realize that egregious human rights violations brought real costs. Arguably, the global diffusion of human rights norms contributed to the later fall of the Soviet-controlled communist bloc and to the spread of democracy in many countries around the world.

Biden faces the challenge of restoring the moral foundation of American leadership at a time when the liberal international order has entered a period of profound disarray. Carter’s example illustrates the importance of crafting a language and statecraft that can inspire and unite liberal forces around the world.

Carter’s experience also illustrates that diplomacy works; especially when founded upon the search for shared interests rather than the imposition of power.

Nixon and Trump, of course, both pursued vigorous diplomatic agendas. For each, however, diplomacy was an appendage of power, serving to capture the concessions forced upon others following a campaign of threats, military force or economic sanctions. While this sort of browbeating can sometimes work, it just as often forces the other party into a posture of defiance, as Nixon learned in his failed efforts to force North Vietnam into submission.

Carter’s style of diplomacy was based instead upon the search for common interests among parties initially at odds. He perceived diplomacy as a tool for both resolving insipient conflicts before they spin out of control and, where escalation has already take place, finding a path toward peace and reconciliation.

Carter’s approach paid major dividends. The SALT II agreement with the Soviet Union capped a dangerous and costly nuclear arms race (while never ratified by the Senate, both countries abided by the terms of the accord). The Panama Canal Treaties removed potential threats to the Canal’s security, while eliminating a constant irritant in U.S. relations with Latin America. Diplomatic recognition of China set the stage for China’s growing integration with the existing global political and economic order.

The Camp David Accords removed Egypt and Jordan as military threats to Israel’s security while the transition to majority black-rule in Zimbabwe, brokered by the United States and Great Britain, brought to an end to a bloody civil war there. The successful conclusion of the Tokyo Round trade negotiations sustained progress toward a more open global economy. It is difficult to think of another president who used diplomacy to better effect in serving major American interests.

Yet Biden must also take a negative lesson from Carter’s experience. Carter faced massive, well organized and heavily funded campaigns against both the Panama Canal and SALT II treaties, as well as a drum-beat of right-wing accusations that his policies left America unprepared to meet a (mostly mythical) Soviet military buildup. The Iranian revolution and the ensuring hostage crisis sullied Carter’s reputation and may have cost him his presidency, despite the fact that the hostages were safely returned.

Over time, Carter increasingly responded to domestic political pressures by trying to prove his toughness. Defense spending rose again. Military force was attempted, unsuccessfully, in an effort to rescue the American hostages in Iran. Carter greatly overreacted to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, treating it as a precursor to a Soviet move on the Persian Gulf rather than the limited response to instability along the Soviet border that it was.

These efforts to shore up his flank against right-wing attacks did little to improve Carter’s political position but did disrupt the momentum of success that Carter had established in other areas of U.S. foreign policy. The appropriate lessons are to avoid overreacting to occasional setbacks and recognize that no amount of pandering to hard-liners will alleviate the political attacks from that quarter.

Carter’s record during a period that bears similarities with our own provides fertile ground from which President Joseph Biden can draw useful lessons. A foreign policy that prioritizes diplomacy and broadly-shared values cannot solve all problems. But such an approach served American interests remarkably well during Jimmy Carter’s brief presidency and could again over the next four years.

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US-China: Searching for Common Ground

A Podcast by David Skidmore and Kyle Munson

The transition between administrations in Washington, D.C., and the global effort to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic provide the opportunity to reassess U.S.-China relations and whether our two nations might reclaim common ground for building a more productive partnership. This podcast—a public extension of Drake University Professor David Skidmore’s Spring 2021 course on U.S.-China relations—will gather insights from diplomats, scholars, journalists, businesspeople, and others involved in the affairs of both nations. We’ll analyze sources of conflict as well as opportunities for cooperation.

Podcast home: anchor.fm/uschina

Or find us on Spotify, Apple, and many other platforms.


  • Diplomacy: Former U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad
  • Superpower rivalry: Professor Wu Xinbo, Fudan University
  • Security: Professor Zhu Feng, Nanjing University
  • Biden and China: Thomas Wright, Brookings Institute
  • Journalism: Austin Ramzy, New York Times
  • Politics here and there: Professor Ren Junfeng, Fudan University
  • Tech: Professor Thomas Lairson, Rollins College
  • Agriculture: Bill Neibur, Hi Fidelity Genetics
  • Business across cultures: Kit Spangler, business development director
  • Hope or despair?: Matt Sheehan and Holly He, Paulson Institute
  • People-to-people: Kim Heidemann, international programming consultant


David Skidmore is a Professor of Political Science at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where he has taught since 1989. Skidmore’s teaching and research focuses on U.S. foreign policy and U.S.-China relations. During the 1996-97 academic year, he taught at the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing, China. He also served as a Fulbright Scholar based at the University of Hong Kong in 2010-2011. Skidmore is author, co-author or editor of six books. His most recent research focuses on China’s Belt and Road Initiative. His editorial writing has appeared in Fortune, U.S. News and World Report, Salon, The Conversation, the Diplomat, Global Times and the Des Moines Register. 

Kyle Munson is a journalist, writer, podcaster, and content strategist who currently works in content marketing and financial services. He previously spent 24 years with The Des Moines Register/Gannett in a variety of roles, including eight years as columnist. In 2017 he was awarded an international reporting grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to report on U.S.-China relations early in the Trump administration as Amb. Terry Branstad began his tenure in Beijing. That resulted in the project “Iowa in the Heart of China.” Munson also reported on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2012 visit to Iowa. He has volunteered and served as a board member with Iowa Sister States, a nonprofit dedicated to citizen diplomacy. He now chairs the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation.

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The Resistance Worked

There is no denying the damage that the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency have done to our institutions, our civic culture and our well-being as a country. Billions of pixels have been devoted to enumerating the seemingly endless ways that our outgoing president has challenged the norms and principles underlying American democracy. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his electoral loss is the most recent case in point.

Yet from the early days of the Trump presidency, a loose coalition ranging from liberal activists to Republican “Never-Trumpers” joined together under the #Resist hashtag out of a shared sense that democracy must be defended in the face of demagoguery.

As the Trump era nears its end, it is worth appreciating the impressive degree to which the “Resistance” worked. Faced with racially charged rhetoric from a president practiced in the politics of hate and division, millions of Americans took to the streets to defend Muslims, immigrants, victims of police violence and other vulnerable members of our communities. In the process, the Resistance has helped usher in a sea-change in American consciousness of racial injustice.

Trump and his supporters warned of a so-called “deep state” determined to undermine his presidency. Something of the sort did exist, but it consisted of dedicated civil servants – public health workers, postal service employees, environmental scientists and election officials – who doggedly persisted in following the law despite the efforts of Trump appointees to undermine the missions of the agencies they headed.

At great risk, whistleblowers emerged to shed light upon wrongdoing. When pressured to send American soldiers into the streets to confront peaceful protesters, top officers publicly affirmed the military’s apolitical role and its loyalty to the Constitution above all else. Former high officials warned the public about the dysfunction of the Trump White House.

The courts again and again repudiated the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine regulations rooted in law and science. The mainstream media carried out penetrating reporting on corruption. The House of Representatives impeached the president for attempting to enlist a foreign government in falsely discrediting his political opponent. Even the Republican-controlled Senate eventually produced a report that established collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian intelligence.

Fact-checkers identified and corrected Trump’s lies. Though far too late, social media networks eventually began flagging the political disinformation that has done so much to poison our politics in the age of Trump.

To be sure, Republican power-brokers failed – with a few exceptions – to call out the president’s misdeeds and tens of millions of Americans twice voted to elect Trump as president. Trumpism is far from spent as a political force. Yet Trump lost the popular vote in both elections and the electoral college vote in 2020. America’s democratic institutions have proven resilient enough to survive the most demagogic presidency of modern times. But the credit for this beleaguered victory goes not only to the system of checks and balances designed by the nation’s founders, but also to the determined efforts of the many people, high and low, who drove the Resistance.

First appeared in the Des Moine Register, November 2020

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