Anyone who's lived in Humboldt County for long knows that our political divide doesn't align very neatly into the standard camps of Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal, O'Reilly/Maddow. We might identify with one tribe or another when we're voting for state and national representatives, but local government tends to revolve around land use: Can I build a house on my property if it's zoned for timber production? Will a big box retailer be allowed on the waterfront? Should trails be built on our railroad rights-of-way?
Which isn't to say party affiliation doesn't matter. Quite the contrary. "In this county you're not going to get anywhere if you don't have the ‘D' after your name," Eureka resident Pam Service recently told the Journal. She and her husband Bob are two of the 23 members of Humboldt County's Democratic Central Committee. An official arm of the statewide Democratic establishment, the committee promotes the party platform and supports Democratic candidates.
Well, most of the time.
Earlier this month, former KMUD news director Estelle Fennell failed to earn an endorsement from the committee despite being the only Democratic candidate running for the 2nd District seat on the county Board of Supervisors. (Incumbent Clif Clendenen has no party affiliation.) This happened for a simple and predictable reason: Fennell, who is not only a lifelong Democrat but also a member of the central committee, is nonetheless perceived to be on one side of the county's political divide while most of the current committee members stand on the other.
Fair or not, this perception can be traced directly back to Fennell's 2 ½-year tenure as executive director of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights (HumCPR), a consortium of developers and property owners that advocates for either individual liberty or unbridled development, depending on whom you ask.
The Fennell endorsement battle was bitterly fought, but in the end she fell far short of the 60 percent support required. Sid Berg, a retired plumber and former union rep, was among the committee members advocating endorsement, and he was so outraged by the result that he promptly announced his resignation and stormed out of the meeting.
"She's a model Democrat," Berg said of Fennell. "She's a sitting member, voted into office by her constituents of the 2nd District. To vote against an endorsement for her, as far as I'm concerned, was inexcusable."
Fennell was actually appointed to the committee in lieu of election in 2010, since the number of candidates equaled the number of available seats. Regardless, Berg believes the committee has become dominated by those on "the extreme left" of the political spectrum. "They don't want economic development here locally because they've already come here and they've got theirs," he said bitterly. "Their idea of job growth is bicycle trails and tourism. ... We need real jobs that people can sustain families on."
In many ways, this is a replay of previous tests of loyalty faced by the Democratic Central Committee. Former Eureka City Councilmember Mary Beth Wolford failed to earn its endorsement in 2002, when her only opponent had no party affiliation, and again in 2006, when fellow Democrat Larry Glass got the nod. Recalling those events on Monday, Wolford said she was "quite disappointed" about being twice denied. She suspects it was ideologically motivated. (Wolford described herself as "very pro-business development.")
Former pulp mill worker and union organizer Richard Marks, a lifelong Dem and current harbor commissioner, said he still holds a grudge from the 2006 supervisorial race, when the committee again showed its willingness to disregard party labels by denying him an endorsement against then-Republican Bonnie Neely. "That's kind of what started my war against the central committee," Marks said last week.
He retaliated in 2010 by supporting a slate of more conservative candidates, endorsing Virginia Bass over Bonnie Neely for county supervisor, and backing Marian Brady and Mike Newman over Larry Glass and Ron Kuhnel for Eureka City Council. Both Glass and Kuhnel were (and remain) associate members of the Democratic Central Committee. Marks himself was a full-fledged committee member at the time, and his colleagues considered him a traitor. They accused him of violating organizational bylaws, and he resigned in a huff. (He remains an associate member.)
Nearly two years later, Marks is executing a new plan of attack: He has recruited some unlikely bedfellows to run for seats on the Democratic Central Committee. In doing so he hopes to shift the ideological balance of the county's dominant political party. "I just think that they're going too far to the left," Marks said of the committee. "I'm going to bring in people I feel are like-minded with myself."
These include Eureka resident Chuck Ellsworth, Eureka Councilwoman Marian Brady and Supervisor Virginia Bass (whose husband, Matthew Owen, has been working behind the scenes toward the same goal). They, along with Marks, are among the eight candidates seeking four available seats to represent Humboldt County's 4th District on the committee.
They consider themselves moderates. Level-headed centrists. Their opponents, including Eureka Councilmember Linda Atkins, Bob and Pam Service and Charlene Ploss, think of them more as wolves in sheep's clothing. A flier written by Atkins and the Services and distributed to local Democrats sounded the alarm: "Our local Party is in danger of being taken over by pseudo-Democrats," it reads. "They support the privileged over the people and endorse and work for Republican-like candidates over Democrats in local elections."
Reached via phone last week, Bob Service said the county's two political camps are best defined by their top priorities. For one side, it's jobs; for the other, it's the environment. Granted, plenty of Democrats (including Sid Berg, the retired plumber and Fennell supporter) put jobs at No. 1. But as far as Bob Service is concerned, those folks are at odds with the party.
"The Democratic Party in Humboldt County recognizes that the most important issue that we're facing as a society is the rapid climate change that is occurring," he said. His wife, who was sharing the phone line, agreed. She said that their political opponents -- Fennell included -- support "unrestrained development." "The side that Estelle comes down on is not, I would say, one that represents the mainstream of the Democratic party in Humboldt County, and that's why she did not get the endorsement."
Not surprisingly, Fennell doesn't accept that premise. She characterized her involvement with HumCPR as a reflection of her ability to work with people from disparate backgrounds. "I believe there can be a balance that protects both our private property rights and our environment," she said last week. She declined to comment on being lumped in with the "pseudo-Democrats."
Brady, however, took umbrage with the term -- "like if you're for business you must be anti-poor people," she said. "Democrats are a continuum." She's also offended that the committee denied Fennell an endorsement. "What's that about? That's because she has some concern for rural land use and stuff like that? ... What is wrong with these people?"
Bass took less offense, at least on her own behalf. She can understand why some Democrats are wary of her. After all, she just changed her party affiliation three years ago, and when she sought the central committee's endorsement in 2010 she identified Ronald Reagan as one of her heroes. ("It's because he was a great communicator," she explained. Then she added, "I think Obama is very good at that" too.)
Her personal migration to the Democratic party was the result of a long push-pull, she said. "Democrats have been the more welcoming party," she said. "[And] the Republican party moved so far to the right. More of us in this community feel like we're more moderate than both sides."
The ideological tug-of-war in the Democratic Central Committee doesn't much worry the group's chair, Milt Boyd, who said the in-fighting is a valuable part of political discourse. The Democratic party, he said, represents a broad range of views: "We all exist under a big tent."
Currently, the struggle for political power in Humboldt County is contained within.