At noon last Monday, the members of the Fortuna Chamber of Commerce packed the Monday Club for the final debate between their candidates for the Humboldt County Board of Supervisor. This would be their last chance to get a glimpse and gauge the politics of the three candidates, one of whom would become the first new face in county politics since 1996. Around 70 members and guests were in attendance. The lunch was burritos and salad, with Diet Coke, Tazo Iced Tea and Perrier as a choice of beverage.
The members of the Chamber of Commerce seemed representative of Fortuna at large. They possessed the same startling, anachronistic politeness and charm so often found in the Eel River Valley. It is the land that time forgot -- the very last bit of Humboldt County as it was 50 years ago. It is the capital of a small red state sitting at the heart of today's Humboldt County, and the capital of what candidate Estelle Fennell was soon to aptly call "the red-headed stepchild" of county politics: The Second District. Because in truth, everyone not from there considers the Second District a little bit strange. Sometimes it depends on whether you're talking about Fortuna and environs or the hippie-dominated hills to the south: Just about everyone thinks one or the other or both are somehow not quite right in the head.
Since the last election four years ago, there has been great change in the Second District -- much more so than in the county at large. Once the undisputed home of the county's timber industry, mills in the area have closed left and right at a devastating pace. Today, only the ex-Pacific Lumber (now Humboldt Redwoods) mill in Scotia is still operational, and with a much reduced crew. Fortuna may not be able to hold off the outside world much longer. The members of the Chamber of Commerce seemed very eager to hear what the candidates had to say.
After nearly a year of campaigning, the race for Second District Supervisor is finally drawing to a close. It's probably been the strangest political contest in the county for some time, all told, marked most dramatically by death of Roger Rodoni, the three-term incumbent, in a terrible car accident just six weeks before the June primary. For most of the last decade, Rodoni had been thought of as the only man who could square the circle between the conservative northern part of the district and the sparely populated southern end, dominated by lefty back-to-the-landers. He was for the legalization of marijuana and also for the timber and gravel industries. He had little trouble making friends.
His sudden death threw the race into a political and legal turmoil from which it has not quite recovered. November is supposed to be the county's run-off election, and yet there are three contenders for the seat rather than two. It's a state of affairs that required a good deal of legal analysis, and it's probably unprecedented in county history.
First, there's Johanna Rodoni, 60, cattlewoman, appointed to the board by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after her husband's death. She's currently running as a write-in candidate, as it was her deceased husband's name on the June primary ballot, not hers. A stately and confident woman, Rodoni has inherited a good deal of her husband's swagger and his cowboy appeal, as well as his libertarian-tinged politics.
There's Clif Clendenen, 55, scion of the famous Fortuna apple-growing family. Lanky and bespectacled, Clendenen is the living embodiment of the mild-mannered man. He surprised most everyone by running nearly even with Roger Rodoni's shadow in the first round of voting. Rodoni seemed politically untouchable in life; many thought his name would be equally so afterwards. Clendenen proved them wrong.
Then there's Estelle Fennell, 59, Irish by birth, SoHum citizen by choice, former news director of Redway's KHUM KMUD public radio station and an icon in the hills around the south end of the county. Fennell has been a professional communicator for years, and it shows. She's undoubtedly the best talker of the three, and her campaign runs just a touch hotter than those of the other two. She finished a length behind the pack in June -- 28 percent to Clendenen's 35 and Rodoni's 36 -- but she swept southern Humboldt by a huge margin, taking 60 percent of the vote in the Southern Humboldt Unified School District. The SHUSD, home to about 30 percent of the district's voters, serves as a good definition of SoHum proper -- the dividing line between the counterculture and the more conservative north.
Or is it? We're used to thinking of the Second District as being divided along the classic Humboldt County hippie-redneck lines, but the candidates in the current election do not conform to the model. Each of them brings a constituency, and it's not easy to pin those constituencies down. Clendenen and Fennell each originally presented themselves as running in opposition to Roger Rodoni. Johanna Rodoni wants to assume her husband's mantle. Apart from that, though, the standard division of the race into "liberal" candidates and "conservative" ones doesn't really apply. If the relative closeness of this three-way race demonstrates anything, it's that our old political vocabulary needs a rehaul.
Take, for example, the single most consequential matter that will face the next Board of Supervisors: The revamp of the county's general plan. The general plan serves as the "county's Constitution" for at least the next 20 years, laying the groundwork for all sorts of policy matters. The update has been in the works for about seven years -- far too many, and at too great an expense -- and the next board will not be able to put it off any longer.
Most importantly, the county's general plan update will lay out the county's policy for land use -- zoning, building and development. In California, the single greatest power that local governments possess is the ability to regulate what gets built where. There have been some bitter pre-update skirmishes around this question in recent years. Smart growth, anti-sprawl groups and the county's bureaucracy have pushed for a strong emphasis on "infill" development. They want to see growth concentrated around existing towns and strongly discouraged in the county's agricultural or timber-producing areas. Meanwhile, developers' groups and some rural homesteaders have strongly opposed this, to the point of lawsuits. Generally speaking, they want county government to stay out of the business of determining where people should live.
If this is the field onto which these candidates now storm, how to account for Clif Clendenen? He beat Roger Rodoni in conservative Fortuna in June's election, and yet he is by far the most restrictive smart-growther in the race. His ideas on the issue are just about completely in line with Arcata activists. They require a pretty heavy governmental hand. And yet Clendenen won Fortuna with them.
How? Maybe the message actually resonates with Fortunans, once someone they trust puts it in the right way. The citizens of "The Friendly City" take great pride in their town and its old-time feel; "smart growth," boiled down, is all about preserving and revitalizing town centers and neighborhoods. It isn't just hippies who want to see farmland preserved; nostalgists feel likewise.
Either that, or else the race in Fortuna and environs hinges on personality and character, and Clendenen's ancient name and upright demeanor carry the day. ("I would say people are more interested in meeting the person -- talking face-to-face," Clendenen said before the debate Monday, when asked what was on his constituents' minds when going door-to-door. "They're private about issues.")
On the other hand, Fennell and Rodoni are both far less comfortable with the idea of restricting further settlement in the hills. When the question came up at the Monday Club debate, Clendenen answered that further subdivision should be considered on a watershed-by-watershed basis. Fennell's answer and Rodoni's were far less restrictive, far more in line with the independent, don't-tread-on-me political philosophy long associated with all parts of the district, north and south. Rodoni's answer was simple: She said that she would fight for a general plan that let people live where they wanted to. Fennell said that she preferred a plan that stayed away from extremes, and allowed plenty of opportunity for the rural lifestyle so important to so many Humboldt County residents. Rodoni's answer was couched in language familiar to the right, Fennell's in language familiar to the left. Essentially, they were the much the same answer.
But it would be a mistake to draw strict parallels between Rodoni and Fennell's thinking on the issue. The same afternoon, the two differed sharply over the issue of the subdivision of the Tooby Ranch, which was done over the county's objections and became the subject of an expensive, still ongoing lawsuit. Fennell called the suit "a tremendous waste of money." Rodoni said that the subdivision was clearly illegal and had to be contested. She later added, though, that she didn't see a contradiction between this and her "live where you want to live" stance on the general plan; there are plenty of places in the county available for legal homesteading, she said.
Is it Clendenen's race to lose? That would seem to be the reasonable conclusion, given the results of the primary election and the fact of Rodoni's write-in candidacy. Some politically active SoHum residents have long championed the Clendenen candidacy as the only politically efficacious way to dump Rodoni. At least some former Fennell supporters have joined them after seeing the results of the June election. Of course it's impossible to calculate their numbers, but the existence of these pragmatists and Rodoni's missing name on the ballot would seem to be more than enough to make up Clendenen's 82-vote deficit (out of over 8,000 votes cast).
But Rodoni and Fennell are both working hard to confound expectations, and both are feeling pretty good about their chances.
Roger Rodoni never had trouble raising money in the Second District, and his wife has continued the tradition. She has taken in over $42,000 in contributions since July, and she's largely using it to educate people on how to vote for her. All her campaign literature, including her lawn signs, feature a graphic of a voter filling in the bubble on the Scantron sheet and writing her name on the adjacent line. Her campaign hands out custom-printed pens to reinforce the message. In an interview last week, she said that when she goes door-to-door some voters have been reciting the steps of the process back to her unprompted.
"People are getting excited about it," she said. "Anything that's a little different is always exciting."
Meanwhile, with most of SoHum in the bag, Fennell -- 700 votes behind in the June election -- is stepping up her ground game in Fortuna and the north part of the county. She's reopened a campaign office in town, this time (as she proudly notes) right on Main Street. "There's a lot more interest in who I am and what I stand for," she told the Journal last week. Then there's the fact that Fennell is the only Democrat in the race. Rodoni is registered Republican and Clendenen is not registered with a party, and Fennell's campaign feels that in a sense it is therefore running on Barack Obama's coattails. Turnout is sure to be high in a presidential election, and Fennell supporters are counting on that working in her favor.
What is at stake for the rest of the county? In truth, probably not much. The 2009-2010 Board of Supervisors is already in place, but for this one seat, and there is not much of an ideological divide. Conservatives from around Humboldt Bay are overwhelmingly supportive of Johanna Rodoni, but even if she prevails they are unlikely to get their way. In any politically charged matter that comes up, the left-liberal side of the aisle will almost always be able to cobble together a three-vote majority out of the coming board. Conservatives would nearly always be comfortable with Rodoni's stances. They are often comfortable with Supervisor Jill Geist's, and sometimes with Supervisor Jimmy Smith's. But rare is the issue in which they could get all three to vote together. Certainly not on the general plan.
But policy-setting, the actual business of vote-taking, is like the glacier of county government -- it's the 10 percent that lies above water. What Second District citizens will really be choosing is someone who they expect to take their calls, to work behind the scenes, to offer support and assistance through the confusing tangle of Humboldt County bureaucracy, to take their concerns seriously, to amass political capital and expend it on their behalf. And when your world is changing so quickly, that's not an easy thing to quantify.