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Sonoma County politics – Green Dragon
Jan 242017

It’s here, folks. Everything we dreaded.

Today, the contemptible excuse we have for a President froze all EPA contracts and issued a blanket media ban on communication by federal scientists with the public. It’s not hard to see why: our environmental protections are being dismantled wholesale. 

Don’t kid yourself. This is not a drill, nor a false alarm, nor a scare. This is deadly serious.

Congress is lining up the legal framework for privatizing or divesting to states our federal lands, too.

The human horror show in the Oval Office has one very consistent personality trait: if you tell him he can’t do something, he will do it. That means that all those “third rail” programs, like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc., are very much on the chopping block. He will take particular delight in destroying them.

So what does this mean to us activists? What on Earth can we do?

I would suggest that we are in a war. And we are the underdogs—the insurgents—in that war. We are not going to save everything. We’re going to lose a lot, and the best outcome we can hope for is that out of the rubble left behind when the war is over, a more sensible and less meanspirited nation will arise.

There can be no spectators now. And for many of those who have been active, a radical change in priorities is required: a principle known as triage.

Triage means choosing which patients to treat based not on how badly in need they are, but on how likely they are to be saved, and how important to the war effort they are. It is an ugly business. It cuts against the grain of our sense of equality and fairness to choose that some will get medicine and others will not, that some will be rushed into surgery and others will not. 

Yet it must be done. Noble sentiment has no place in the prosecution of a war. And I repeat: make no mistake about it, this is a war.

For local activists, I think this can be a particularly challenging time, because frankly, the issues many of us have been working on pale in comparison to the stakes of the issues now in play in our nation. And I am here to say that, ugly as it may be, now is the time for those of us with the inclination and the skills and the commitment to reassess our political priorities.

Local fights over quality of life issues aren’t very high priority in the triage of 2017. I’m sorry, but they just aren’t. If you’re battling fiercely over something that boils down to whether you will experience more traffic and noise at your home or potential undesirables in your neighborhood, I urge you to take a long look in the mirror and ask whether that’s really what needs fighting over right now. You’re an activist, and that is a precious resource; surely, you can apply yourself to the issues that are truly life-and-death for our citizenry and our environment, rather than what you’re doing now?

Please think about it.

These are not normal times.

If we don’t want to lose everything, we must be willing to let the small stuff go.

At publication, the Dragon was DEADLY SERIOUS

Oct 242012

Hurry up, please, gentlemen, ladies: it’s time.

Here…let me get the good stuff from under the bar and pour you a shot. This is serious work, this democracy.

Every couple of years, as the elections approach, a number of my friends ask my opinions about candidates and ballot measures. Now I have an online megaphone, so those suggestions go here, for what they’re worth.

There are gaps here. I haven’t paid as much attention to Sonoma County municipal races this cycle, for instance, and will not endorse where I don’t feel I know what I’m talking about.

Federal Offices

For President of the United States: BARACK OBAMA. This is such a no-brainer I don’t feel I need to say more. If you have questions about this endorsement…well, wake the hell up, for one thing. But you could also look around this site for other posts on the race.

For U.S. Senator: NO ENDORSEMENT. Dianne Feinstein is going to mop the floor with the Republican nominee, and given that, I can’t bring myself to put my name behind hers. She’s just been wrong so very often. Though I feel confident she would never have followed the California GOP down the Tea Party rabbit hole, I have always believed that if Feinstein had emerged from any other California political context than the San Francisco Bay Area, she would have been a Republican.

For U.S. House of Representatives, 2nd District: JARED HUFFMAN Jared is the real deal. He has progressive values, a sterling voting record in the State Legislature (particularly on environmental issues), and a demonstrated ability to shepherd good ideas into law. Jared is not a symbolic-gesture guy; he’s a make-it-happen guy with a strong, liberal set of core principles. We will be lucky to have him representing us in Congress. (Disclosure: I did some work for Jared’s campaign this spring)

For U.S. House of Representatives, 5th District: MIKE THOMPSON. Thompson is one of the House of Representatives’ last surviving Blue Dogs, an effective campaigner, and in a safe seat: he’s not going anywhere. On most issues, he’s been a reliably good Democratic vote. However, I will say that I have consistently been disappointed by his reflexive water-carrying for the wine industry, which has led him to position himself against policies that would be best for our watersheds, wildlife, and groundwater. At the end of the day, he is a vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker, and that is enough for this cycle.

State Offices

For California State Senate, District 3:  LOIS WOLK. A solid Democrat in every sense of the term, with a great record on environmental and social issues.

For California State Assembly, District 2:  WES CHESBRO. Chesbro is an experienced Sacramento hand, an effective legislator and a rock-solid vote on environmental issues, particularly in relation to solid waste and recycling. Hailing from Arcata, he served at both the municipal and county levels and has a good grasp of the challenges facing local governments.

For California State Assembly, District 10:  MICHAEL ALLEN.
I’ve known Michael for quite awhile, and he’s a solid advocate for working people and the disenfranchised. His voting record in the Assembly has been great. He made a couple of boneheaded misjudgments in the past year, frankly, but particularly when looking at the rogues’ gallery that is funding his opponent, Mark Levine, it’s pretty clear who the good guy is here. An easy call.

(State ballot propositions below)

Sonoma County Offices

For Sonoma County Supervisor, District 1: SUSAN GORIN.

I’ve known and worked with Susan since before she went onto the Santa Rosa City Council. She is a thoughtful, open-minded, public-spirited person who cares about the interests and quality of life of ordinary people and Sonoma County residents. I do not believe the same can be said of her opponent, John Sawyer, who during his tenure on the Council has been prickly, inaccessible to citizens who don’t have insider juice, dismissive of environmental and neighborhood concerns, and a guaranteed vote for whatever the development community happens to be pushing this week.

This endorsement is not a close call. Sawyer has received nearly $50,000 in donations from a realtors’ PAC in Los Angeles, and is backed by the usual self-interested gang of grind-Paradise-into-money kingmakers who fancy themselves the owners of Sonoma County. Having him on the Board of Supervisors would be a huge step backwards in the effort to safeguard Sonoma County’s future. He’s the wrong man for the job. Vote for Susan Gorin.

Municipal Elections


City Council: JOHN DELL’OSSO. A park ranger and longtime terrific vote on the City Council. An asset to the City.

Measure U (Bans Roundabouts): NO. Reeeeeeaaally dumb idea. Roundabouts are cheaper than traffic lights and actually facilitate traffic flow-through faster than traditional metered intersections. This measure is entirely a fear-of-the-new thing. Dump it.


City Council: TOM CHAMBERS. I may not agree with Mr. Chambers about everything, but I think his heart is in the right place and he brings a collegial tone to city deliberations. He deserves another term. I also encourage you not to vote for Gary Plass, who has been a terrible vote on the Council and seems to see his job as facilitating as much building as possible.

Measure W (Reauthorizes Urban Growth Boundary for another 20 years): YES. One of the proudest accomplishments of my career was Conservation Action’s involvement in passing UGB measures throughout the county in the 1990s. They’ve worked: they’ve reined in urban sprawl, and they’ve forced cities to make better planning decisions. Santa Rosa and Petaluma have already extended their UGBs for another 20 years; Healdsburg should join them.


City Council: NO ENDORSEMENTS, but don’t vote for Mike Healy or Gabe Kearney. Both have been simply terrible.

Measure X (Park & Recreation Projects): YES

Santa Rosa

City Council: CAROLINE BANUELOS, JULIE COMBS and GARY WYSOCKY. Yes, there are four seats open. I encourage you only to cast three votes. These are three candidates who will genuinely represent the people of Santa Rosa, rather than its entrenched interests and their own ambitions. Particularly, I encourage that you don’t vote for Ernesto Olivares, who has been a terrible vote and dismissively divisive on the Council, or for Erin Carlstrom, who claims to be running as a progressive but cut a mutual-endorsement deal with Olivares, helping him to green up his image while advancing her own prospects and signalling to Santa Rosa’s Powers That Be that she is willing to play ball with them. I tend to vote values over ambition, so: Banuelos, Combs, Wysocky.

Measure Q (District Elections): YES! Read this for my analysis


City Council: JOHN EDER. Eder served on the Cotati City Council with a great voting record, and I’m confident in supporting him in his new—but quite similar in size—municipal home. I don’t know any of the others well enough to make a call, with two exceptions, who I recommend you do not support: Kathy Austin, who was a terrible vote on the City Council previously, or Colleen Fernald, who…well, put it this way, seems to live on a very different planet than I do.

Measure Y (temporary sales tax increase): YES. Sebastopol has cut as much as it possibly can from municipal spending. It needs more revenue simply in order to deliver basic services. It’s a tiny town, with a tiny tax base, and needs this temporary boost.

I know that’s only 5 out of the county’s 9 cities, but I don’t feel I know enough about what’s happening in Cloverdale and Sonoma, and Rohnert Park and Windsor don’t have City Council elections this year, because only as many candidates declared as there are seats available.

State Ballot Propositions

Proposition 30: YES. This is the real increase-state-revenue-for-education&c-by-slightly-increasing-taxes-on-the-wealthy measure. Prop. 38 is the fake one.

Proposition 31: NO. A two-year budget cycle is a good idea, but the zero-sum requirement for all expenditures of $25 million or more, additional gubernatorial powers make it clear that this is yet another attempt right-wing attempt to tie the hands of the state government to gather revenue and deliver services. I was initially fooled by this thing, and a reader brought it to my attention. Vote no.

Proposition 32: NO NO NO NO NO. This is a power grab by corporations and the Republican Party to try to take away the last deep-pocket source of campaign funding for Democrats (from unions)…leaving the field to corporate spending under Citizens United. It is a terrible idea and needs to get spanked at the polls.

Proposition 33: NO. California’s regime of watchdogging the auto insurance industry is one 0f the best in the nation, and this proposition is a push by auto insurers to pull its fangs. It will result in higher rates, more uninsured drivers, and less public accountability for insurers.

Proposition 34: YES. Whatever you think about its morality, the death penalty doesn’t work. It doesn’t deter crime, it costs taxpayers a fortune, and it is inevitably applied disproportionately to the poor and minorities who don’t have access to top-drawer legal protections. States kill innocent people when they have the death penalty. Let’s stop, save ourselves some cash, and be better able to look ourselves in the mirror.

Proposition 35: NO. This measure isn’t really about human trafficking. The effect of the measure would be to turn law enforcement against prostitution into another drug war, complete with asset seizure, which creates incentive for police corruption. It so broadly expands the definition of pimping that those even remotely connected with a person arrested for prostitution—landlords, roommates, children, parents—could and would be ensnared…and then it brands those people as sex offenders forever, including controlling and monitoring their use of the internet. Headline-chasing prosecutors and police departments who want to seize houses, cars, and other assets are drooling over the prospect of this passing. Yes: forced sex work is a problem. This is not a solution.

Proposition 36: YES. The “Three Strikes” law, like nearly all rage- and fear-driven public policy, is a serious mistake. It destroys lives over small offenses, and because those it affects are nearly all poor, no one speaks for them. This measure corrects many of the wrongheaded ideas in the original measure.

Proposition 37: YES.  How, exactly, is it harmful to let people know the content of their food? Enough said.

Proposition 38: NO.  This is the wealthy pushback against Prop. 30, choosing to raise additional revenue by instead drawing nearly all increased state tax from middle class taxpayers instead of the undertaxed rich. It contains a provision that says we can’t amend it—even with another proposition—until 2024. It’s a scam. Vote no.

Proposition 39: YES. This measure raises an additional $1 billion annually by ending a backroom, sweetheart deal for out-of-state corporations that was a part of the 2009 budget deal. Also funds some energy efficiency programs. We need the money, and the deal was a bad one. You can tell by the hysterical tone of the arguments against this in the voters’ pamphlet that they are blowing smoke.

Proposition 40: YES. There is no longer organized opposition to this measure. It ratifies the new State Senate districts, and keeps in place our new nonpartisan redistricting system, which seems, so far, to be working.

Sep 262012

This is the second installment of a multi-part history of Sonoma County Conservation Action, a political organization I helped to form and lead. The first part is here.

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

Sep 252012

The story of the birth and evolution of Sonoma County Conservation Action has been described briefly in a couple of books about the environmental movements of the San Francisco Bay Area: The Country in the City by Richard Walker, and Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast by Martin Griffin, M.D.

Unfortunately, both of these works went to print without fact-checking their texts with those who were actually present at the events they describe, and as a result, they got substantial parts of the story wrong.

With the celebration of the 21st anniversary of the launch of the Conservation Action canvass, I’m thinking about those days again. As the initial proponent and overseer of the organization’s development for its first ten years, I may be the only person who remembers the organization’s early history in detail.

It’s a pretty good tale, if I do say so myself, and worth preserving. So here it is. We’re talking about a span of twenty-one years, all told, so this will come out in chunks. Enjoy.


A Sense of Place

After graduating from high school, I moved from Davis, a college town in California’s Central Valley, to Santa Rosa, located some 50 miles north of San Francisco. I was on my own when it came to paying for my higher education, and Santa Rosa Junior College was said to be the third-best such institution in the country: affordable, reputable, and with a high transfer rate to university. Off I went. It was 1979; I was 17.

Settling on Sonoma County for my first two years of college brought unexpected rewards. As those who come from across the world to visit will attest, the place is amazing…particularly if you have spent your childhood staring across table-flat sugar beet fields to the unattainable hills of the horizon.

Suddenly, I lived among epic landscapes of soft coastal mountains, gold in the summer and green in the winter, with oak, bay, madrone and manzanita in the ravines between them. Redwood forests that felt so ancient I expected dinosaurs to come crashing into their silence. A wild coastline of high bluffs and secluded coves that looks for all the world like Scotland. A (usually) mild, lazy river meandering to the sea, lined with green riparian forests. Temperate climate, neither too cold nor too warm. Great air and water quality (sadly, less so now than they were then). Some of the best wine, beer and food on Earth, period, full stop. And a population largely made up of tolerant, liberal-minded refugees from other places that have been ruined by urban sprawl.

When I arrived, the county’s electoral demographics had only recently shifted from a majority of rural and small-town conservatives. That transition was not in any way reflected in the county’s politics, which were dominated by developers, realtors and builders cashing in on the county’s sudden attractiveness to home buyers, and agricultural land owners selling lands on the urban fringe for conversion to sprawl subdivisions. While a substantial group of back-to-the-land counterculturalists had settled in the western part of the county in the early 1970s, it had failed to gain much traction over the county’s land use, transportation, and water policies. So while voices expressing environmental concern were heard, they were generally dismissed as fringe, minority positions, and ignored by policy makers, who continued to dance with them what brung ’em.

In 1979, Sonoma County was represented in Congress by a 9-term conservative Republican, and substantial majorities of both its Board of Supervisors and the city councils of its municipalities were owned lock, stock and barrel by the interests busily grinding Heaven on Earth into money. Polls showed that impacts of rapid growth were at the top of voter concerns, but their only sources of information about local candidates for office were the candidates’ own campaign literature and the local daily, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat…a substantial portion of the revenues of which derived from real estate advertising and other direct support from the interests running the show.

I became aware of all this, but didn’t engage with it much. I had always been interested in politics, but I was in college, waiting tables to survive and putting whatever extra time I had into speech and debate competition. I didn’t have time for activism.

I did have one bizarre engagement with the county’s politics during this time. My roommate and I were dragged by his father—a realtor with the infamous Soderling Brothers, who were subsequently convicted of a series of felonies—to an Election Night party celebrating voter approval of the Warm Springs Dam. This was before the wheels came off the bus in the federal savings and loan scandal, of course, in which Sonoma County developers, political figures and financial institutions were to play a prominent role (read this book, if you haven’t. It’s both fascinating and damning).

I’m quite sure I’m the only person ever to become a part of Sonoma County’s environmental movement who happened to find himself at that party. I remember then-Sheriff Roger McDermott bending my ear about something while, trying to pretend to pay attention, I looked around at the room full of drunken, exulting cow-town Good Ol’ Boys, thinking, these cannot possibly be the people directing the course of this county’s future.



I graduated from SRJC (::cough valedictory speaker cough::) and then commuted by bus to San Francisco State to complete my Bachelors Degree.  When I opted for graduate school in 1986, I finally pulled up stakes and moved to the City.

I needed a job while attending graduate school, so I looked in the nonprofit, public benefit sector. A friend pointed me at a building on Market Street filled with the offices of public-interest organizations; I started at the top floor and worked my way down, asking at each office if any of them had any jobs. On the fifth floor, I found the California League of Conservation Voters.

They had jobs. Canvassing jobs.

Over the next three years, I became first a trainee, and then a canvasser, a trainer, and a field manager for the League. Unlike many canvassing operations—yes, I’m looking at you, Greenpeace and PIRGs—the League’s field staff were viewed as organizers, not just fundraisers, and the organization invested the time, content and rigor in their training program to give staff what they needed to be effective. The League viewed recruiting membership and contributions as a means to the end of keeping the staff in the field, where we mobilized thousands of hand-written letters from voters to elected officials in targeted campaigns, distributed endorsements and campaigned for candidates and ballot measures the League supported, recruited volunteers, and disseminated an annual legislative report card on the California Assembly and State Senate. League canvassers understood that we were the face of the organization and would be back at the same doors again year after year; we needed to maintain a cordial, respectful and professional demeanor when interacting with the public. Pushy, foot-in-the-door types were not welcome.

I knocked on tens of thousands of doors for the League and worked on at least a couple of dozen campaigns, raising more than $100,000 in contributions averaging less than $30 per. I learned how to craft effective messages: how to talk with people about the League’s issues from many different standpoints, whether birds-and-bunnies environmentalism, fiscal conservatism, grassroots democracy, government accountability or resource efficiency. I traveled on cross-training trips to work on campaigns and help build canvass offices for other organizations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and the League’s own office in Southern California.

While at the League, I met Bill Kortum, a former Sonoma County Supervisor who had been one of the founding members of the CLCV board. He and I hit it off because of our shared affinity for Sonoma County, and during breaks in board meetings, we had a couple of conversations about how Sonoma County could really use a local-scale grassroots organizing program before what was great about the county went the way that what was great about the San Fernando Valley had gone.


The Idea

in 1989, my life happened to reach a juncture where there was a chance to make a big change: a relationship had ended, I was being forced to move from my apartment, and it was going to cost every dime of my savings to move into another place. So I jumped sideways instead: I put my possessions into storage in my brother’s garage, bought a one-way ticket to Amsterdam, shouldered a backpack and took off. I traveled throughout Europe and into North Africa for more than a year, settling in Barcelona during the school year to teach English.

As I began to consider returning to the U.S. in spring of 1990,  I thought about those conversations with Bill. I knew Sonoma County was where I wanted to live, and wanted it to retain the qualities I so loved about it. Those qualities had already been threatened just in the time since I’d first moved there, and something needed to be done, or there was certainly the possibility that Sonoma County would go the way of many other formerly wonderful places: The “Valley of Heart’s Desire”, for example, which we now call Silicon Valley, or that well-known land of bucolic orchards, Orange County.

It occurred to me that there couldn’t be many people out there who had both a passion for Sonoma County and the skill set I had developed while working with the League. If a program like the one Bill and I had discussed was going to happen, I was probably going to have to build it.

Next: Early Days