Roger Thornton – the silent force behind SMRR – dead at 79

By Jorge Casuso

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

During his four decades with the tenants group, Thornton created a state-of-the-art database that gave SMRR a distinct advantage in campaigning, serving as treasurer, and organizing the group’s political meetings.

In 1978, shortly after helping start the group, Thornton used an early PC to sort through the voter records and compile the mailing lists that mobilized an unlikely coalition of hippies and seniors, resulting in a staggering victory for rent control in April 1979 led.

“Roger was the guy who cut and rolled the data,” said former mayor Denny Zane, a co-founder of SMRR. “He was like the brain in the machine.

“He wasn’t looking for public fame, he just did the work,” said Zane.

Thornton, a native of Nebraska, captain of a Swift boat in Vietnam who wore a long ponytail until recently, was a large, dominant presence on the sidelines of the SMRR’s political conventions.

During his tenure as SMRR treasurer, he also served in the role for individual candidates who supported the group – from the early council challengers to take over town hall to members of the school and college board of directors just before he resigned about five years ago.

“He has been there in all fights and has always followed things with the utmost integrity, which is critical to keeping records,” said Bruce Cameron, a former member of the SMRR Steering Committee.

“He was irascible, didn’t suffer from fools at all, and had a really clear sense of right and wrong,” said Cameron.

“In a way, he was larger than life,” said Santa Monica College Trustee Nancy Greenstein, former co-chair of the SMRR. “He may have seemed gruff at times, but he was the cutest man and incredibly caring.”

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

“He knew what was important,” said Hoffman, “that people should live their lives without fear of displacement.”

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

After joining the antiwar movement, Thornton joined the SMMR through Tom Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), according to Zane, who was also a member.

Zane recalls that at one meeting, Thornton “watched a guy who had a small computer unit closely.

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

Thornton brought his talent for technology to Ocean Park Perspective, a local activist newspaper he founded and set up a mailing list for, said SMRR founding member Michael Tarbet.

“We published the first article on rent control in Santa Monica and had it door-to-door,” recalls Tarbet, a tenant organizer who also worked for the newspaper.

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

“He didn’t like being in the spotlight, but he believed in the mission and wanted to make sure the people of Santa Monica had shelter and were part of the community,” said Greenstein.

“And he was just always there.”

Former mayor and SMRR founding member Judy Abdo said, “I’ve known Roger as my boyfriend since the late 1970s and I haven’t yet accepted that he isn’t there.”

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

A brief commemoration of his life will take place at the SMRR Convention on November 14th at 1pm. Viewers should register with Zoom around 12:30 p.m.

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