Pitch and Launch
When I returned to San Francisco at the end of 1990, I called Bill Kortum and proposed that we launch what would turn out to be the first county-scale, locally-focused canvass organizing operation in the country. I was 29.
Bill was still interested in the idea. He convened a meeting of local activists at his home—as I recall, it was Bill, Dick Day, Len Swenson, Juliana Doms, and Bob Higham—and I presented my idea to them. While by no means convinced, they were intrigued. They, after all, hadn’t seen what a canvass could do, as Bill and I had. Still, they respected Bill tremendously. Maybe he and the kid were onto something.
Bill began raising seed money while I prepared to move back to Sonoma County. An initial board of directors was convened comprised of Bill, Dick, Juliana, Allen James of Windsor, and Joan Vilms of Santa Rosa. They approved the name I proposed for the organization: Sonoma County Conservation Action.
By April of 1991, I was again living in Santa Rosa, had found office space, had a logo designed, secured workers’ comp and liability insurance, and was busily creating the forms, operating procedures, employee manual, canvassing and training materials, and accounting and information management systems necessary to administer the new organization. Bill and Lucy Kortum donated a computer: a Macintosh 512k that had been upgraded to a Mac Plus; it was already a museum piece by that time. Les and Audrey Ayres donated the first canvass car: a red 1974 Volvo station wagon. If there had been any doubt that this was a grassroots, bootstrap effort, the car and computer put that to rest.
Then it was just a matter of building a canvass crew. Which, for those who haven’t done it, is a near-Herculean task. Canvassing is stressful, poorly paid, and requires a person who is intelligent, articulate, personable, and able to let a great deal of rejection roll off her or his back. During my tenure, we had 32 canvass applicants for every one who successfully completed the three stages of application and training to become a Conservation Action staff member. That’s a lot of time and energy invested in interviewing and training people who end up falling short, but it’s how you build an effective organizing team.
On September 9, 1991, trainee Lew Brown by my side, I stepped up to a house on the corner of Starburst Ct. and Starr Road in Windsor, knocked, and recruited the first member of Conservation Action.
Walking down the driveway filling out my stats sheet, I remember thinking, that woman just wrote a $25 check to an organization that only exists on paper, with the promise of a newsletter, a report card on local officials, and election endorsements, none of which yet exist. All because she supports a vision of democracy, public participation, and loyalty to what makes this place so special.
…This can work.
Soon, Lew (who had prior canvassing experience) would successfully complete training to become my first field manager. The days were packed: Mornings, I interviewed applicants and scheduled training days; evenings, I took out new trainees to canvass. I kept up with accounting and data entry after our return to the office. We were on our way.
SCCA’s very first campaign opposed the proposed incorporation of Windsor, a suburban-density region of the county between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. The development/Chamber of Commerce crowd were all for it, and with good reason: the transition terms the county was offering to the prospective new city were so meager—and the area’s tax base was so small—that if incorporated, the new city would have been the land use equivalent of a crack baby, dependent on constantly approving more development in order to generate permitting fees to pay its bills.
We campaigned hard with our little crew, built a Windsor membership of hundreds of households, and heard strong support for our slow growth message. But many voters felt that the county had betrayed and ignored them, and believed they would have a better chance with local control. We lost.
Ironically, it turned out that though we couldn’t have known it, we were on the wrong side. The newly incorporated Town of Windsor sued the county over its transition terms, and they won, giving the new Town much more favorable conditions for getting up on its feet. By 1996, when SCCA-backed candidates took a majority on the Town Council, Windsor was on its way to becoming what is arguably the most forward-thinking, environmentally-oriented municipality in Sonoma County from a land use standpoint, with a revitalized “smart growth” downtown, a tightly drawn Urban Growth Boundary, and growth management and design ordinances to make growth orderly, more compact, reasonably paced, and attractive.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Despite falling short, we could see that our program had frightened and confused the political establishment in Windsor. The press rhetoric of the pro-incorporation campaign about Conservation Action’s canvassing grew increasingly hysterical as what they thought was a slam dunk became a competitive election. We even caught one candidate for the Town Council stealing anti-incorporation lawn signs and stashing them in the pro-incorporation office. We called the cops; she drove away before they could get there.
Those who were accustomed to calling the shots in local politics clearly did not understand the new phenomenon. They believed that if they smeared us in the press and ignored us politically, our public support would dwindle, and we would disappear.
Mobilizing the Grassroots Voice
Following the November 1991 special election in Windsor, Conservation Action launched its first letter-writing campaign, mobilizing hundreds of letters from Petaluma residents to the state Public Utilities Commission in opposition to their city’s plan to privatize its sewer system and wastewater treatment and eliminate public regulation of utility rates. Though Petaluma’s City Council, City Manager and prospective builders and managers of the proposed system had pulled out every political stop, the PUC agreed with the citizens expressing opposition, and denied Petaluma’s application to privatize.
Times were different then: Petaluma didn’t have a single City Council member who voted well on environmental issues, so what we knew about the buzz among political insiders came second-hand. But we understood it was growing. Who are these people, and what can we do about them?
But then, as it turned out, we seemed to go away. Things went back to business as usual for awhile.
Next: A Shocking Result