Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Unified Theory of Eureka

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Four years ago, your reporter undertook a sort of sociological analysis of the Eureka city elections ("City Asunder," Oct. 26, 2006). The division I identified at the time -- between old Eureka power and the lefty newcomers -- continues to fester, at least in certain circles, as this year's massive election in the city approaches. But to all appearances the great mass of active Eureka voters simply does not much care. This is, perhaps, to their credit.

A couple of months ago, one Arcata political type told me that the voters of Eureka had earned his grudging respect. The type's analysis was this: You never know whether Eurekans are going to flop left or right, because regardless of ideology they always go for the candidate with the strongest pitch.

Example: For the last several years, the first order of business on the Eureka docket for political classes both left and right has been Marina Center -- Rob Arkley's proposed Home Depot-anchored development on the site of the city's defunct downtown rail yard. Well, history shows us that Candidate X may be strongly supportive of Marina Center and Candidate Y may be strongly critical of it. Yet both X and Y -- Mike Jones and Larry Glass in 2006, Frank Jager and Linda Atkins in 2008 -- win their respective races.

Why is this? I have a theory.

The Eureka public is savvy enough to know that when it comes to issues like Marina Center -- issues that people spend money fighting over -- both sides, to one degree or another, are full of shit. They know they are merely the battlefield upon which the interested parties conduct their political war, and they know those parties will do or say anything they can get away with in order to win their battles.

All this is natural, but the thing that makes the Eureka electorate special is that they are aware of the manipulation, and they reject it as unimportant. Thus, when an election rolls around they pay little attention to the position a candidate takes -- pro- or anti-whatever -- and much more attention to his or her justification for taking that position. They're looking for intelligence, honesty, forthrightness, capability -- any kind of quality that may come in handy during those occasional moments when the City Council or Board of Supervisors turns from the battles of the wealthy and well-connected to things that might more directly affect them, personally -- crime, parks, water rates, roads, taxes, etc.

This indifference, of course, is immensely frustrating to the powers behind the curtain -- the people who, being participants in the battle, can no longer directly run for office themselves (thank God). Unlike in Fortuna or Arcata, there is no litmus test, no ideological questionnaire that can predict a candidate's chances with any degree of accuracy. There are no obvious chains to yank.

But political interest groups feel they have to try something. Lately, Arkley's Security National has taken a tip from the Tea Parties and organized rallies inside the Arkley Center, filling minds with shock and awe at the socialist agenda that supposedly motivates their opponents, all the while delaying Coastal Commission review of the project so as to play the victim a while longer. Maybe it will take; probably it won't.

On the other hand, the environmental groups standing in opposition to Marina Center paint pictures of a burbling toxic soup seeping into the bay from the Balloon Track, regardless of the fact that state water quality regulators have given the thumbs-up to Arkley's proposed clean-up plan, and, in any case, there are much more toxic sites around the bay that no one cares much about. This line seems to have even less traction than Security National's teabaggish fury.

Which, again, is to the Eureka electorate's credit. They seem unwilling to be cajoled into confusing their own interests with the interests of the town's unelected political players. To those, they are mostly indifferent. They're looking for a strong candidate, and their definition of strength has little to do with how someone votes on a particular hot-button issue.

There are, of course, occasional exceptions to the rule -- cases where the demonstrably vaguer and weaker candidate for Eureka office nonetheless prevails. Maybe they scuttle my hypothesis completely, or maybe they are to-be-expected vagaries of the sort that mock social scientists who long for iron-clad laws of human behavior. I don't know. Whichever the case, in the interest of politeness I will leave identification of these exceptions as an exercise for the reader.

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