Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Geography Trumps Ideology


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“Ideologies have no heart of their own. They’re the whores and angels of our striving selves. — John Le Carre

Transcendence be damned. Nuances notwithstanding, most politics can be reduced to stereotypes of liberalism vs. conservatism. When I moved to Humboldt County in the ’90s, the ideological lines of the North Coast were clear and pronounced. Fresh on the heels of Redwood Summer, none of the politics surprised me. Rallies at Stafford. Tree sits. Pepper spray. “U.S. out of Humboldt County.” Wal-Mart. Marijuana. It all culminated in 2002 with the first election of Paul Gallegos as District Attorney, revealing progressive politics as a burgeoning force countywide, as conservatives dug in for a siege.

But the siege never came, and politics have never been the same.

At first the lines held strong. Bonnie Neely, longtime Republican pol and wife of the vanquished D.A. Terry Farmer, jumped all over Gallegos in the aftermath of the initial filing of the Palco suit. “You’re all alone,” she told him coldly at a meeting stacked by Palco employees who had circled the Courthouse in a demonstration with images reminiscent of the Chilean truckers strike, circa 1972 — as the Board voted to decline Gallegos leave to farm the case out to private counsel.

But then came the recall. Robin Arkley, Sr., ponied up five grand to prime the Palco cash pump. But then Arkley, Jr., no raving liberal, trumped him with 12 g’s to oppose the recall. Palco and its parent Maxxam threw down $85K for a campaign that went down in a thud with numbers so convincing that one has to assume at least a portion of the “old guard” had broken solidarity. Conservatives, who had not voted for Gallegos, and would not vote for him in the subsequent election, didn’t like recalls, or perhaps distrusted Palco more than they despised the upstart.

A minor, and perhaps fleeting, shift. But it didn’t end there.

Three years later Bonnie Neely embraced Gallegos at his reelection party. She also celebrated her own victory taking her to a runoff election with a fellow Republican, beating out the lone Democrat with the blessing of local Democratic Party activists. She was deemed the “liberal” candidate. In that same election moderate Republican Virginia Bass was elected Mayor of Eureka with the help of a progressive activist campaign manager (who had opposed Wal-Mart) on a de facto slate opposite Neely’s coalition, in which Neely informally caucused with unmistakable liberals like Larry Glass and Chris Kerrigan.

The engine of reshuffling was probably the General Plan process, as some of the “old guard” and Chamber types began to concede that changing local economic realities might require more planning and environmentalists were invited to the table to discuss comprehensive county policy. Environmentalists all of the sudden found themselves with institutional voice and governing responsibility.

Enter the Palco bankruptcy, from which emerged a proposal to convert a large portion of Palco TPZ land to high-end residential property, drastically reducing what’s left of the primary economic base, and triggering a forceful reaction from the BOS in the form of a moratorium on construction on TPZ land. The backlash from the old guard was largely predictable, until it exposed a latent division in the local progressive milieu that carries the potential for at least a temporary realignment of local politics. While activists based in Eureka and Arcata praised the sups’ move as a bold attempt to get the bankruptcy court’s attention, Palco’s opposition was joined by the usual property rights posse, but also some “back-to-the-landers” who’ve invested in TPZ properties with plans to homestead — many of whom have funded the very environmental organizations employing the activists seemingly calling for their demise.

Under heavy pressure, the Board let the moratorium expire. The “urban” activist core saw hypocrisy in their homesteading counterparts and in private conversations railed about the tax benefits associated with TPZ land. Despite conciliatory efforts, such as a recent summit between property rights progressive Peter Childs and Supervisor-elect Mark Lovelace, the divide within the progressive half of the county is clear.

Meanwhile, the now infamous Code Enforcement Unit exploded onto the transitional political geography. As rural hippies organized a response, the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights (organized in response to the TPZ moratorium) showed up at a Garberville town-hall meeting organized by the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project, distributing buttons to young hippies either unclear on the CPR agenda or in the throes of what progressives have called the “radicalizing” or “consciousness altering” experience, only sending them rightward in conventional political terms. Conflations of the code enforcement issue with opposition to the General Plan under an umbrella frame of “property rights” and “rural values” were posted on the blogs, with harsh ensuing debate between longtime allies online and off.

While he was still with us, Roger Rodoni made the same appeal and suggested that his district and Jill Geist’s had been targeted by Code Enforcement. Rodoni believed this was tied to moves toward replacement of Planning head Kirk Girard and 2nd and 5th District Supes’ opposition to General Plan alterations that would impose more property restrictions. A serious charge to say the least, couched in dripping sarcasm about the “coincidence,” as Rodoni minimized the fact that Jimmy Smith’s district also saw CEU activity — Smith being yet another representative formerly viewed as “conservative” and now a darling of “urban” activists.

While some homesteaders have proposed alternative code standards such as “rustic rural,” others shake their heads in strong opposition to any enforcement of building codes in rural areas. The message is clear: “Don’t tread on us and leave us alone!” It ruffles the feathers of some “urban” (and even some rural) environmental activists who want codes enforced against logging interests as well as homesteaders, because the increases in population in the rural subdivisions are taking their toll, particularly on the rivers.

The new dichotomy is alive in the 2nd District politics, as Clif Clendenen, an “urban” candidate, supports a moderately restrictive general plan (A- to B+), opposes big box development in the district, and expresses concern about lifestyle impacts on the two rivers of his district. His SoHum opponent, Estelle Fennell, does not comment on the General Plan except to call for the process to be “inclusive” (implying that it is not), and she actually supports big box development in Fortuna. Clendenen receives considerable support from the environmental activist community in a remarkable coalition with Fortuna business owners concerned about the big box impact on the city’s economy, while Fennell’s appeal crosses ideological lines behind the theme of “rural values.” The oft-referenced dynamic of Clendenen trying to convince Southern Humboldt residents that he is not so conservative and Fennell trying to convince Fortuna residents she is not so liberal has several rings of truth, but oversimplifies. The realignments are real and the intra-ideological differences salient.

Most recently, Geist took her fellow Supes to task over the official sponsoring of Sanctuary Forest’s offer to develop a water management plan for the languishing Mattole River. Geist, initially elected by the efforts of progressives including environmentalists, is apparently concerned that a plan drafted by an environmental group rather than a county-established advisory group will generate a regulation-leaning frame in the ongoing conflict over the General Plan. In private conversations, some of her former supporters see Geist as having sold out to timber interests, but it’s more complicated than that. She was and is progressive. Bottom line is, the ideologies remain intact, but the interests have shifted.

Don’t count out the old politics just yet. The port proposal may even be their salvation, or something else. Inertia favors the traditional lines. But the status quo may never be the same.

*Eric V. Kirk practices law in Garberville and hosts a blog, SoHum Parlance. He kindly offers his guest opinion while the Town Dandy is on vacation. *


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