Share on Social

Episode 111 guest Denny Zane

Move LA founder Denny Zane was instrumental in getting transit funding measures passed in Los Angeles County. He shares the importance of seeing opportunities in otherwise disappointing turnouts to make improvements and try again.


Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Zane: Denny Zane

Jensen: Today on The Movement podcast, we’re talking to Denny Zane of Move LA who was dubbed the godfather of Measures R and M in California by LA Mayor Eric Garcetti. He tells us what is required to be successful at effecting change, coming up on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.

F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.

Jensen: Denny Zane has spent decades organizing to create more equitable and sustainable housing and transit. As founder and executive director of Move LA, he helped pass Measures R and M, half-cent sales taxes that virtually double LA County’s fixed-guided transit system. Welcome to The Movement, Denny.

Zane: Yes, thank you.

Jensen: You’ve got a pretty extensive resume having once been the mayor of Santa Monica. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, Move LA’s origin, and the work you are all doing over there?

Zane: Hey, I grew up in the ’60s, graduated from college in 1969, which invariably means you’ve got some experience in activist pursuits. It’s just part of the blood. I was living in Santa Monica, I guess, mid/late seventies and got involved with a campaign for Tom Hayden to run for Senate. And that grew into an engagement with a number of local people, led to a local chapter of Campaign for Economic Democracy, and that led to a pursuit organizing rent control in Santa Monica. 1981 we organized a slate of candidates for city council, and we won all four seats.

We had done thoughtful work in thinking through what we would do if we won, and one of them was to try to make sure we had a strong affordable housing program. And, I have to say, to this day it’s one of the things I am most proud of. Santa Monica has had, I think, a very effective program building affordable housing, thousands of units in a relatively small city, 90,000 people. And I was responsible for initiating and creating the core concepts for what became the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, which is like a downtown revitalization strategy built around pedestrian oriented nonretail, mostly outdoor dining as a core strategy. It helped to create a local economy, retail followed, and it was very, very successful.

And during my tenure as mayor, there had been a moment when a corridor from Downtown LA to Santa Monica that had once been a civic Red Car corridor but had been closed down was being sold by Southern Pacific Railroad. And so we started a campaign then to purchase that corridor so we’d have a light rail system between Downtown LA and, my way of thinking, helping to address some of the congestion and access problem around our downtown. We did get the purchase of the corridor, and Metro did start to build the line, but it got stalled about half way. And then about 2006 Antonio Villaraigosa ran for mayor of Los Angeles successfully. I knew Antonio because I had worked on clean air legislation with him when he was speaker of the assembly, and I knew that he was passionate about transit, so I decided I would build a coalition to help Antonio.

I learned a few things. One thing was that in California all the money has be before the voters; and not only did voters have to approve it, it had to be two-thirds vote. That meant that the challenge to build a subway to the sea and finish our light rail line would require not only voter approval but a two-thirds voter approval. And the logic of this means you have to do a countywide measure, win two-thirds, or you cannot do that with just one line; you have to think about a system. I mean, why would Long Beach vote for the Wilshire subway? Why would the San Fernando Valley vote for the Wilshire subway? Every part of the county had to have really its own major project, and that meant a humungous kind of ballot measure rather than a little ballot measure.

So we launched coalition; get Sacramento to pass a bill, get Metro to put it on the ballot, get the supervisors to agree to consolidate the measure, and get the voters to vote two-thirds. Oh, my God; this is like a real challenge, but we organized a conference and had a terrific turnout. We had about 300 people, and all the leadership of LA County that needed to be there were there. You know, there’s one panel in particular where the leadership just kind of came together and agreed that we needed a ballot measure, and so the guy who needed to initiate the legislation in Sacramento was in the room. He started the legislation.

The thing that was sort of holding it all up is that there was, again, always when you need two-thirds especially, is talk about whether the electorate is ready for this. And so I went to the president of Santa Monica College and asked him for money for a poll because I knew the college was very eager to get the light rail line close enough to the college. And he agreed that indeed the college should support this poll, and they did; and it came back 69% “yes.” And when that happened everybody’s eyes got big. And then Mayor Villaraigosa had a poll done; it was 73% “yes.” So we thought we were well underway, that we could win this. We had a coalition; we had our organization framework, and we now had leadership convinced with the polling, and it started up.

Two months after the Great Recession started, LA County voters voted, like, 67.3% for a half-cent sales tax to raise $40 billion, build not just the subway to the sea, not just the Exposition light rail to Santa Monica, but several other lines as well. The Exposition light rail to Santa Monica has been open now for a couple years, and its ridership prior to COVID was very, very good. Meanwhile the Crenshaw Line coming down to connect the Expo Line to LAX is less than a year from being completed. There’s a project called the Regional Connector, which is an underground—I guess, it’s a subway, but it connects four light rail lines together to make really two continuous light rail lines and go straight through from Long Beach to Pasadena to Azusa.

Jensen: Wow.

Zane: And the West Santa Ana line from Union Station down through Paramount to Artesia, that’s going to happen sometimes soon. And the Crenshaw Line will be extended up to Hollywood. So when it’s done, people will go, “Oh, my God. LA’s got the best transit system in America.” So we will go from being the worst to the best.

Jensen: Yeah, that’s absolutely fantastic. And for those who aren’t familiar with the LA area, going from Downtown LA to Azusa, that’s about, like, a 20- or a 25-mile drive, which doesn’t sound that bad without traffic, but I know there were absolutely times when I lived in Santa Ana and I went to school in Korea Town; this was about a 20-minute drive without traffic, but in the afternoons it became a two-hour drive. This was 13 years ago, and I would imagine that traffic has only gotten worse.

Zane: Right about 2005 Silicon Valley decided to come to LA, and it was as if they all decided on mass, because multiple companies came. A million-square-foot office complex in Santa Monica was renamed Yahoo Center. And then Google had property in Downtown Santa Monica and around, and then they bought up property in Venice, and then they moved to Playa Vista, but they kept their property in Venice. And then Google is opening—is transforming a shopping center, the Westside Pavilion, into their big office complex. But dozens of other companies, they were coming to LA to marry Hollywood because Hollywood had all this content talent, which is what they really needed. But since that time we’ve had more than 300,000 new high-paid workers. That was a ginormous increase in higher-income workforce. You know, there were about 600,000 households with incomes over 100,000 a year. A decade later, there were 900,000. So there was a 50% increase in the upper-middle income households, most of them over 200,000 a year.

Jensen: Wow.

Zane: I began to realize that that was why suddenly our traffic got really worse all of a sudden, is because there was this big influx of affluent people who would get on the freeway and drive because they can afford a fancy car. And you don’t leave a fancy car just sitting around. Right? You use it.

Jensen: Yeah.

Zane: So that was the impulse, as it turns out, I think, for me to get involved with doing this. Also at that same decade we’d lost about 200,000 households that were low-income. And Metro had begun to lose ridership, bus riders especially. And so fingers were being pointed at Metro. “Hey, we just voted this money, and we’re losing riders. What are you doing wrong?” Metro was not doing anything wrong. They were doing lots of things really well. The problem was the low-income workforce, which is their primary base of riders, was leaving town. And they were leaving town because the high-income workforce started this wave of rent increases across LA county. Right?

They drove up prices, rents, and housing prices in the coastal zone, and suddenly we started to have a very significant pouring of low-income people out of the county, unfortunately maybe 50,000, 60,000 of them into the streets, homeless of Los Angeles County. You know, so, yes, I think that the explanation for our homeless challenge in Southern California is our good fortune who have been the target of so much investment by Silicon Valley. You know, I don’t think there’s blame to be had here. You know, we need a housing program. We’ve got in place, I think, a revenue source and an excellent plan for transit. We need to do the same thing for housing.

Jensen: There was some real political will there, which is something that, I think, is missing from a lot of these initiatives that we’re all trying to accomplish, not just in transit and in housing but just generally. The political will to do things is oftentimes the biggest factor holding us back from accomplishing real change.

Zane: I think that’s right. I mean, but there are lots of examples of why because there are lots of examples of people who tried and didn’t get it done. So there’s got to be a certain amount of dumb luck, the right mayor at the right time, the right supervisor at the right time. You know, they take political risks when they put things on the ballot, and politicians are loathe to take risks, which is one of the things that I find most annoying. But some are willing to take risks and lead the charge even if it might lose. And I admire them.

Jensen: Mayor Garcetti called you the godfather of Measures R and M, thanks to your organizing efforts. So you’ve been doing this for over 40 years now. What do you think are some of the most important things organizers needs to do or keep in mind to be successful at effecting change?

Zane: I think tenacity matters. I think people who know me would say, “He’s a pretty tenacious guy.” You know, I don’t get discouraged easily. I think, the good fortune to succeed and win, that keeps you going. And the lessons are, I think, that democracy runs on coalitions, so gather coalitions. Having been mayor of Santa Monica before I got started on this countywide coalition was certainly advantageous. There were people who would have lunch with me who might not have if I just called, so having kind of spun up through the ranks, if you will, enabled me to get together with leaders of the labor movement and the business community and the environmental world. And sticking too it—right—and not seeing a disappointing turnout as a defeat but rather as an opportunity. And “better next time,” I think, is an important lesson.

You know, you have to know the institutions, what the laws are that govern. How you find the right [INDISCERNIBLE], I suppose, certainly mattered. Right now we’re working on some folks thinking about a ballot measure statewide in California to raise the money to accelerate all of our efforts to combat climate change. These things don’t come together all of a sudden unless you’re just really rich and you can do a press announcement and everybody says, “Oh, there he goes; there she goes.” If you’re not really rich, then you’ve got to do it incrementally. Right?

Jensen: Yeah. I wonder who has the money to do that. It could be something like the government. [LAUGHS]

Zane: Well, there are some fairly progressive leaders who have wealth. They also have a lot—they’re thinking about it themselves.

Jensen: Yeah.

Zane: They’re not waiting for us to bring the big idea; they’re developing their own big ideas. So we’re about to have some polling done, and I know that the idea that you’re able to win is a crucial threshold. Having polling that shows you’re able to win will catch a lot of people’s attention. Now, we’re still in COVID. We don’t know whether the voters are aspirational as they once were. I believe they are because it wasn’t so long ago the voters of Los Angeles were voting kind of right-wing crackpots onto the LA City Council. Now the LA City Council is fairly progressive, or it’s got a number of fairly progressive people. It’s not that people’s minds have changed; the people have changed.

The population mix is much more aspirational than there was 30 years, 40 years ago. I think that that population mix is still there and is still aspirational. I think California as a whole has now an aspirational population who wants to get problems solved and move things forward and is not so anti-tax. I mean, remember, California’s Prop 13 started the anti-tax wave across the country. You know? Howard Jarvis’s cranky White guys are not in charge anymore. This is a different population. And I feel blessed to be part of it.

Jensen: If you have not, there is an article in the winter issue of Dissent Magazine, and you can read it online. It’s called “The Austerity Politics of White Supremacy,” and it’s kind of that same idea that as these wealthy people were losing power they started this anti-tax movement.

Zane: Oh, yeah. We see, you know, a new Latino majority coming and Asian and—you know, so the cranky White guys, they think by requiring a two-thirds vote they’re pulling up the drawbridge so that even if there is a strong majority, they’ve got no resources to do anything with. The cranky White guys don’t represent the White community well at all. And now, you know, the more progressive, environmental, oriented toward justice, more liberal, White community is in a strong alliance with the aspirations of the Latino community, and there’s a new growing Asian population, also much more aspirational. I think, Southern California, California as a whole really can do important things, address environmental justice issues, address healthcare issues.

You know—what—we had about 65,000 homeless people on the streets in Los Angeles County. The last year the county program was successful if getting about 50,000 people into housing. Why didn’t our homeless population drop? Why did it grow? The answer is more than two thirds of the homeless now are newly homeless, became homeless in the last year because of job losses, rent increasing, and the like. And so if we had a strategy to prevent new homeless people like rental-assistance program, like Section 8, like a combination of federal Section 8 and local resources, and prevent them from becoming homeless we could win that fight. It’s not about just building, building, building more housing; it’s about helping people stay in the housing they’re in. There’s nothing cheaper than the housing that already exists.

Jensen: That’s wonderful that we came back around to this, because I know I kind of—I pivoted the last time you mentioned housing, but I think this may be the answer to my next question.

Zane: [LAUGHS]

Jensen: But I could be wrong. What conversations about mobility and transportation do you think we’re not having enough of or having at all that we should be having?

Zane: We’ve started talking in LA County—and, I think, thanks to Phil Washington, who had been the CEO in Colorado’s transit system before coming to LA—was just exactly the right guy at the right time because he was aspirational enough. He’s the one who convinced Metro board to put a measure on the ballot without sunset and to amend Measure R to have no sunset so that this program actually has a shot at getting build and operated. And in the context of the COVID pandemic where ridership dropped from a million a day to half-a-million a day and revenues plummeted and things are just coming back, Phil has suggested to his Metro board that consider a fare-free system where transit is funded not by fares, funded by voter-approved, taxpayer revenue, and the system is like a, you know, public utility that everyone can use at any moment, remove the pricing barriers to transit altogether, eliminate all the folderol that goes into having to collect the fares. And it turns out more than half of the fare revenue is spent on collecting or enforcing fares, and it becomes a de minimis part of the overall operating money.

Jensen: Oh, wow.

Zane: You know, you’re criminalizing lots of people who get busted for riding the transit system without paying. You don’t want your transit system feeding your youth prisons like that. So probably, I think, we’ll be in the next year starting a pilot program in fare-free transit that I’m very excited about.

Jensen: I’ve heard this characterized before as zero-fare because, to your point, everyone is already paying into it.

Zane: Yes.

Jensen: So it’s not fare-free; people are paying even when they don’t use transit, so it’s being double taxed if you do.

Zane: Nobody thinks it’s strange that freeways are free because they’re not free; we already paid for them in other ways. Right?

Jensen: Right.

Zane: Nobody thinks driving on the roads are free.

Jensen: Mm-hmm.

Zane: I mean, transit system is treated differently, is treated like we’ve got to pay with our taxes and we’ve got to pay with our fares. It’s an illogical arrangement. They should either all have fares or none of them have fares or the ones that are just congested have fares. It’s an experiment, sure, but COVID is, I think, forcing the hand on a number of important issues. I think, as well, I mean, there’s a big debate about could we up-zone all the residential areas, R1 areas or even multifamily areas. And, of course, if you up-zone for more building, you’re going to be displacing someone. Either they are displaced voluntarily or involuntarily.

Thirty percent of the R1 of the single family are renter, and there’s no eviction protection for those people. Developers are going to just evict people from R1 housing and build there. And so what’s the deal here? We’ve got four yuppies from Silicon Valley companies moving into units where there used to be two Latino families sharing a house. Now, I don’t understand why anyone would think that’s progress. So the transit system teaches us that there’s a lot of undeveloped land—we call it commercial land—that could be homes. So developing multifamily housing as mixed-use housing on commercial properties you can do without displacing people. Why aren’t we just doing that?

Jensen: Mm-hmm.

Zane: And there is legislation now trying to do that. In fact, my assemblyperson Richard Bloom, Assemblymember Bloom, has a bill that I think is going to be a very fine bill. It’s still got some issues. And that could be a transformational bill because it would make multifamily housing permitted use on all commercial properties in the State of California. It even has a 20% inclusionary requirement, so it actually will build affordable housing. If we also can find a way to fund investment in affordable housing, which, you know, I mean, frankly, it’s just like doing Measure R. You go to the voters, and voters see the need. Voters, I think, would support that.

Jensen: Mm-hmm.

Zane: So I think, you know, out of this era, out of this moment and part of what keeps me motivated and moving forward into my 70s here is that opportunities just like that present themselves, and it’s like finishing what you started. So that’s another piece of our work, is climate measure statewide and a countywide affordable housing measure with housing to be built near transit.

Jensen: I love that, finishing what you started.

Zane: Tenacity.

Jensen: Tenacity, that’s what’s needed. Thanks so much for joining us today, Denny.

Zane: Yes, thank you.

Jensen: You can find out more about Move LA and the work they are doing at

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.