A tomboy who smoked by age 10, Mickey Flacks was a rebel, preferring to wear her father’s work shirts instead of the girlish dress code of the time. | Credit: Courtesy

Mickey Flacks, 1940-2020

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It all started out with a gag.

Mickey Flacks ​— ​then Miriam Sally Hartman ​— ​was a 17-year-old camp counselor at a communist Jewish summer camp in New York. The year was 1957, at the height of the Red Scare. Dick Flacks ​— ​also a camp counselor ​— ​was then 19. They first met in the camp office when a mutual friend was explaining how she had caught a case of  “vernal catarrh,” now better known as conjunctivitis. Mickey thought this name was hilarious and began riffing on it to the tune of “Johnny Guitar,” then a top pop hit. 

If it wasn’t love at first sight, it was the next best thing. “We knew we were meant for each other,” Dick Flacks recalled.

This astonishing partnership flowered into one that would have a profound impact on Santa Barbara County for half a century. 

Mickey and Dick Flacks have been making not just music together, but also history, and yes, blintzes. (The name of their 2018 co-written memoir is Making History / Making Blintzes.) They have redefined the very ecosystem of South Coast politics, spearheading the transformation of what was once a sleepy Republican backwater run by, for, and of the real estate industry into what’s now lampooned in some quarters as “the Socialist Republic of Santa Barbara.”

In a town where elected officials are famously known only by their first names, Dick and Mickey Flacks have long found themselves famously foreshortened to “DickandMickey.”

On April 20, it became just “Dick.”

Mickey Flacks ​— ​as fierce and tireless an advocate for affordable housing that Santa Barbara has ever seen ​— ​died surrounded by Dick and her two sons, Charles and Marc, two months after her 80th birthday. Done in by a sudden failure of her kidneys after a protracted battle with bone marrow cancer, she died in the midst of the current COVID pandemic, but she was not its victim. 

Over the years, Mickey liked to joke she would “let” Dick take care of saving the world, so that she could focus on more important matters, such as what’s happening right here in Santa Barbara. However which way they divvied up their labors, the Flackses enjoyed a collaborative partnership that remains unsurpassed in terms of duration and impact. They were, in the words of their son Chuck Flacks ​— ​now a major player as a homeless advocate ​— ​“enmeshed.”

Individually or collectively, the Flackses got a ridiculous amount done. When they moved from the University of Chicago to Santa Barbara in 1969 so Dick could take a position with UCSB’s Sociology Department, then-governor Ronald Reagan quipped that hiring Flacks ​— ​then a celebrity in left-wing academia ​— ​was like hiring a pyromaniac to work in a firecracker factory. It was a nice line, and true enough so far as it went. But egregiously overlooked in the equation was Mickey Flacks, a no-nonsense, get-shit-done, proto-feminist, Red Diaper Baby, working-class lab technician who suffered fools very little, if ever. 

In the 1970s, Mickey Flacks served on the founding board of UCSB’s now-stellar University-Community Day Care Center. Fifty years later, it remains the gold standard by which large-scale child care is measured. She was appointed to the county’s Affirmative Action Committee, and she served on the executive committee of the union representing state, local, and federal employees. She had a major hand in the creation of Network, and more recently, Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN), two grassroots organizations that advocated and lobbied for environmental and social-justice causes. She served on the boards of the Santa Barbara Tenants Union, the ACLU, Citizens Planning Association, the Environmental Defense Center, the Jewish Secular Humanist Society, CAUSE, the Fund for Santa Barbara, and a host of organizational acronyms dedicated to social justice and environmental protection. 

The Flackses played a major role in the creation of the Independent’s predecessor, the Santa Barbara News & Review, in the early 70s. Mickey took it upon herself to school young reporters on the idiosyncratic history of Santa Barbara so they better understood the deeper foundations of each news story. If she felt a reporter was falling down on the job ​— ​or succumbing to cynicism ​— ​she would intervene, crisply but diplomatically. Over the years, the Flackses’ living room became ground zero where umpteen political campaigns were hatched and from which even more political candidates would emerge.

But Mickey’s lasting impact would be with the issue of affordable housing. To her, housing was always far more than a financial investment, a retirement plan, or a tax dodge. It was about creating a community genuinely open to working people of all incomes, not just the very rich and the very poor. Without government intervention, she feared, Santa Barbara would be overcome by polarizing gentrification. We would become a gated community, just without the gates. 

Mickey was relentless. She testified in front of so many city councils that a council pew should be named in her honor. She was always way ahead of the curve, advocating for requirements that would ensure the maximum number of new units would be affordable for working families. Mickey served many years on the County Housing Authority board, mastering the bureaucratic and financial intricacies needed to translate theoretical dreams into practical reality. Much of what Mickey championed has come to pass. In later years, she even came to enjoy working with many in the real estate industry ​— ​some of whom she had so roundly castigated earlier in her career. The feelings, it turned out, were mutual.

Flacks had a great laugh, a sardonic chortle, and an evident impatience with poseurs and grandstanders. She could be severe and intimidating. Given her background, that’s not surprising. Mickey grew up in the Bronx, the second child of defiant communists at a time when such defiance came at a high price. Her mother, Sonia, grew up in Russia, coming of age during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. She wanted to serve that revolution but was forced to immigrate with her family to the United States. Denied her revolutionary dreams, Mickey’s mother became bitter and sad. She married a Polish immigrant with the Americanized name of Charles Hartman, who shared her revolutionary fervor. So ardent were their left-wing passions that they named their firstborn son ​— ​10 years older than Mickey ​— ​after two Russian martyrs to the communist cause. 

For her first five years, Mickey Hartman spoke only Yiddish. Smart and tough, a tomboy who smoked by age 10, she was a rebel, preferring to wear her father’s work shirts instead of the girlish dress code of the time. Her mother was a devout atheist who celebrated the family’s Jewish culture. The family moved a lot during the Depression. There were rent strikes and rent parties. As a girl, Mickey would enthusiastically pass out notices for her mother, who was organizing a tenant union. Less enthusiastically, Mickey also had to collect the union dues from her neighbors. 

Mickey Flacks, shown with one of the few candidates not to get vetted during Thursday meetings in the Flackses’ living room

Over the years, Mickey’s mother would get fired for being a “Red Commie,” and her father’s nose was broken by police during a strike. Her mother taught her that if someone punched you, you should punch right back. She was coached to tell FBI agents to pound sand if they came around asking nosy questions. And that’s exactly what Mickey did. She never allowed FBI agents into her family’s apartment, or they would have seen the bust of Lenin and the photograph of Stalin in the entranceway.

Mickey embraced her parents’ politics and their secular Jewish identity. But in 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev revealed the truth that Josef Stalin, his predecessor, had exterminated millions and millions of Jewish citizens. For most communists, this sparked a profound crisis. For Mickey Hartman ​— ​and for young Dick Flacks living across town in Brooklyn ​— ​this revelation shattered their faith in Soviet Communism, but not their ideals for a better, more just world. 

When they finally met, Mickey was getting a biology degree at New York’s City College, and Dick had been accepted to the University of Michigan, where he would earn his PhD in sociology. During their courtship, they went to Greenwich Village clubs and coffee houses; he liked jazz, and she liked folk music. Not long after they married in 1959, Dick was helping to pen the Port Huron Statement, the 1962 manifesto from which Students for Democratic Society (SDS) and the whole New Left soon emerged.

Less famously, in the autumn of 1963, Mickey interrupted a lengthy Saturday afternoon powwow of SDS big wigs. She and Dick were going to a University of Michigan football game. The meeting wasn’t over, many objected. Mickey held her ground: “We go to football games on Saturday.” 

And off they went.

This fondness for football did not abate when they moved to California. First, she rooted for the Rams, and then ​— ​when the Rams abandoned Los Angeles ​— ​for the Raiders. But naturally, there was soft spot in her heart for the Green Bay Packers, the only professional franchise ever to be collectively owned by a town. That’s as close to socialism as the United States will ever allow itself to get. 

But the real life lesson behind this love of football was the love of life itself. Every night, the Flacks family would sit down to dinner together. Dick and Mickey made a point to see one or two movies a week. They had friends with whom they loved to eat and loved to argue. “We argued the world,” recalled their son Chuck. “That was my childhood.” 

Mickey loved movies like Casablanca and The Grapes of Wrath. She loved detective novels, especially those by Ross Macdonald, who lived in and wrote about Santa Barbara. She would masquerade as a folk singer and even played an elderly Irish woman in a Center Stage production. Mickey and Dick figured out the balance needed to remain creatively engaged while so many of their peers were falling prey to cynicism and burnout.

When the Flackses moved to Santa Barbara, it was to escape the University of Chicago, where faculty dinners typically were served by African-American waiters and entertained by string quartets. That was decidedly not Mickey’s thing. Here was a woman who, during the Chicago Democratic convention riots of 1968, drove scores of protesters bloodied by the police to the hospital. At the university, her husband had barely survived a political assassination attempt by a hatchet-wielding assailant. Santa Barbara, which Mickey had initially derided as a bastion of right-wing whack jobs, began to look better and better. When UCSB offered Dick Flacks a post, Dick and Mickey jumped at it.

For Mickey, the culture clash was instantaneous. Everyone was so nice, she complained. The roads were too narrow and too windy. “And where were the sidewalks?” she asked. By day, Mickey worked as a lab technician. By night, she ventured out into the world of activism. 

In 1970, she joined the Citizens’ Coalition, a group of good government types worried about excessive growth. Before long, Flacks was declared vice president. Four of the seven city council seats were up for grabs, and the Coalition’s slate won, including Leo Martinez, the first Latino councilman in the 20th century. The new council funded the first comprehensive study on the impacts of growth in Santa Barbara County. Based on this research, the council concluded the city’s resources could accommodate 85,000 residents, about 6,000 more than were living here at that time. To reach this goal, they downzoned the city, restricting how many new residential units could be built.

From the very start, Flacks bristled. The council needed to establish a balance between new jobs and new housing. To limit just housing but not commercial development, she argued, would promote the proliferation of new jobs. That, in turn, would push housing prices beyond what most workers could pay. That would lead to the gentrification of Santa Barbara. And that was the fight Mickey Flacks waged for pretty much the next 40 years of her life. 

Rob Rosenthal, now a professor of sociology at Wesleyan University, got to know Mickey in the 1980s, when they were both working with Santa Barbara’s homeless population. “Mickey wanted the world to be better,” he said. She taught him three things that he passes on to his own students: “Never come to visit without something in your hands. Don’t falsify history to match current thinking. And win or lose, you continue the struggle.”

At some later date, a public celebration of Mickey Flacks’s life and struggles will be held.

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