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Roger Thornton -- the Quiet Power Behind SMRR -- Dead at 79

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By Jorge Casuso

October 29, 2021 -- Roger Thornton -- a founding member of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) who played a major behind-the-scenes role in turning the grassroots group into a local political powerhouse -- died in his Santa Monica home Wednesday. He was 79.

Over his four decades with the tenants group, Thornton created a cutting-edge data base that gave SMRR a marked advantage during campaigns, served as its treasurer and organized the group's political conventions.

Rent Control Wins front page April 1979

In 1978, soon after helping start the group, Thornton used an early personal computer to sort through voter files and compile the mailing lists that mobilized an unlikely coalition of hippies and seniors, resulting in a stunning victory for rent control in April 1979.

"Roger was the guy who sliced and diced the data," said former mayor Denny Zane, a fellow founding member of SMRR. "He was like the brain in the machine.

"He didn't look for public glory, he just did the work," Zane said.

A native of Nebraska who captained a Swift Boat in Vietnam, Thornton, who until recently sported a long pony tail, was a tall commanding presence on the sidelines of SMRR's political conventions.

During his tenure as SMRR treasurer, he also served in the role for individual candidates the group endorsed -- from the very first Council challengers to take over City Hall to School and College Board members soon before stepping down some five years ago.

"He was there for all the battles and always followed things with the greatest integrity, which is crucial in record keeping," said Bruce Cameron, a former member of SMRR's steering committee.

"He was irascible, didn't suffer fools at all and had a really clear sense of right and wrong," Cameron said.

"In a way he was larger than life," said Santa Monica College Trustee Nancy Greenstein, SMRR's former co-chair. "He may have seemed on occasion gruff, but he was the sweetest man and incredibly caring."

Patricia Hoffman, another former SMRR co-chair, said Thornton stood out, both in his physical stature and convictions.

"He knew what was important," Hoffman said, "that people should live out their lives without fear of eviction."

Thornton, who "created databases before Access or Excel," was difficult to replace, Hoffman recalled. "It took several of us to do what he did," she said.

After becoming part of the anti-war movement, Thornton joined what would become SMMR by way of Tom Hayden's Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), according to Zane, who was also a member.

Zane remembers Thornton paying close attention at a meeting "to a guy who had a small computer unit.

"He talked about using voter files and computer lists for direct marketing," Zane recalled. "Roger picked up on it."

Thornton brought his knack for technology to the Ocean Park Perspective, an activist local newspaper he laid out and for which set up a mailing list, said SMRR founding member Michael Tarbet.

"We ran the first article on rent control in Santa Monica and had it delivered door to door," recalls Tarbet, a tenant organizer who also worked at the paper.

There are no photos of Roger Thornton on the internet, a testament, his friends say, to the often imperceptible role he played in changing Santa Monica history.

"He didn't like being in the limelight, but he believed in the mission and wanted to ensure people in Santa Monica had housing and were part of the community," Greenstein said.

"And he was just always there."

Said former mayor and SMRR founding member Judy Abdo, "I've known Roger since the late seventies as my friend, and I haven't yet accepted that he's not there."

Thornton is survived by his wife Chris; two daughters, Jennifer Thornton Smith and Stephanie Thornton, and two grandchildren, Logan and Emilia.

A short commemoration of his life will take place at the SMRR Convention on November 14 at 1 p.m. Viewers should sign into Zoom around 12:30 p.m.

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