By Jorge Casuso
October 29, 2021 – Roger Thornton – a founding member of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) who played a major role behind the scenes in turning the grassroots group into a local political powerhouse – died in his Santa Monica home on Wednesday . He was 79 years old.
During his four decades with the tenant group, Thornton created a cutting edge database that gave SMRR a marked advantage during campaigns, served as its treasurer and organized the group’s political conventions.
In 1978, shortly after helping start the group, Thornton used an early personal computer to sort voter files and compile mailing lists that mobilized an unlikely coalition of hippies and old people, which resulted in to a resounding victory for rent control in April 1979.
âRoger was the guy who sliced ââand diced the data,â said former mayor Denny Zane, founding member of SMRR. âHe was like the brain of the machine.
âHe wasn’t looking for public glory, he just got the job done,â Zane said.
A native of Nebraska and captain of a Swift Boat in Vietnam, Thornton, who until recently sported a long ponytail, was a large imposing presence on the fringes of SMRR political conventions.
During his tenure as treasurer of the SMRR, he also served as the individual candidates the group approved – from the very first board challengers to take control of town hall to members of the board. from school and college shortly before resigning about five years ago.
“He was there for every battle and always followed things with the utmost integrity which is crucial for record keeping,” said Bruce Cameron, former member of the SMRR board.
âHe was irascible, didn’t suffer from fools at all, and had a very clear sense of right and wrong,â Cameron said.
“In a way, he was larger than life,” said Nancy Greenstein, administrator of Santa Monica College, former co-chair of SMRR. “He might have looked gruff at times, but he was the sweetest, incredibly caring man.”
Patricia Hoffman, another former SMRR co-chair, said Thornton stood out, both in his physical stature and in his beliefs.
“He knew what was important,” Hoffman said, “that people should go about their lives without fear of being deported.”
Thornton, who “created databases before Access or Excel,” was difficult to replace, Hoffman recalls. âIt took several of us to do what he did,â she said.
After being part of the anti-war movement, Thornton joined what would become the SMMR through Tom Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), according to Zane, who was also a member.
Zane remembers Thornton paying special attention in a meeting “to a guy who had a small computer unit.”
âHe talked about using voter files and computer lists for direct marketing,â Zane recalls. “Roger got it.”
Thornton brought his talent for technology to Ocean Park Perspective, an activist local newspaper he started and has a mailing list for, said Michael Tarbet, founding member of SMRR.
“We ran the first article on rent control in Santa Monica and had it delivered to your doorstep,” recalls Tarbet, a tenant organizer who also worked at the newspaper.
There are no pictures of Roger Thornton on the internet, which his friends say is testament to the often imperceptible role he played in the evolution of Santa Monica’s history.
âHe didn’t like being in the limelight, but he believed in the mission and wanted to make sure the people of Santa Monica had housing and were part of the community,â Greenstein said.
“And he was just still there.”
Former mayor and founding member of the SMRR, Judy Abdo, said: “I have known Roger since the late 1970s as my friend, and I have yet to accept that he is not here.”
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 1:00 p.m. Viewers should tune in to Zoom around 12:30 p.m.