Across the great divide
Chico City Council race isn’t as simple as left versus right
Chico politics tend to be polar in nature. Even for officially nonpartisan positions, such as seats on the City Council, candidates typically find themselves in one of two groups, like it or not: “liberals” (synonymous with “Democrats,” “progressives,” “environmentalists”) or “conservatives” (“Republicans,” “pro-business,” “developers’ slate”).
Litmus tests define the divide. Earlier in the decade, it was Bidwell Ranch. Recently, it’s Walmart. Disapprove of construction, and you’re in league with the Esplanade League; approve, and you’re in cahoots with the Chamber of Commerce.
So, what’s to make of the 2010 race, when one of the two liberal-bloc incumbents voted in favor of Walmart expanding and the other contributed to the project’s denial? When one voted in favor of including the so-called West Park Avenue extension and bridge over Comanche Creek as an option in the general plan and the other voted to exclude it?
Mary Flynn and Scott Gruendl are hardly identical, even though they are closely aligned.
And what about the two wild-card candidates? Quentin Colgan and Brahama D. Sharma come from outside the political mainstream, and both defy categorization. How do they fit in the left-versus-right paradigm?
Answer is, they don’t. So throw the old storyline out the window.
Sure, it’s possible that the three seats up for grabs will go to Gruendl, Flynn and progressive newcomer Mark Herrera (who stepped up after Tom Nickell, the current vice mayor, opted not to seek a second term on the council). It’s also possible that businessmen Mark Sorensen, Bob Evans and Bob Kromer will ride an anti-incumbency, Tea Party wave into City Hall.
More likely, though, is something wholly unexpected. Without the sort of polling available in statewide and national races, this horse race is hard to handicap.
The stakes are particularly high for local politicos because of a development in the June election. Veteran Councilman Larry Wahl, a self-identified conservative, upset Butte County Supervisor Jane Dolan for the District 2 seat she’s held for 32 years. He has two years left on his council term, and his four years on the Board of Supervisors will not begin until after the November election, so voters will not determine who replaces him.
The next council will do that. Thus, the outcome Nov. 2 could radically shift the perceived balance of power, which for the past two years has stood at six “liberals” to one “conservative.”
Sorensen, Evans and Kromer each hopes the other two join him on the council, while stressing they’re not campaigning as a slate (unlike Sorensen’s first bid in 2006, when he ran with then-incumbent Dan Herbert and fellow newcomer Michael Dailey).
Likewise, Flynn is campaigning independently, but she shares a common theme with Gruendl and Herrera: Getting out the vote. “It’s a mid-term election, not a presidential election,” Flynn noted, “and voter turnout is always lower in a mid-term election, so we have to be smart in getting the vote out from all demographics.”
Call it the lesson of June 8. Dolan lost by a slim margin in an election that many Democrats ignored. “If there’s anything I worry about more in this election than anything else,” Gruendl said, “it’s getting my base to show up, so what happened to Jane doesn’t happen to me.”
Here are the contenders:
Herrera is a 2008 graduate of Chico State who knows “No Way, San Jose” from the perspective of a former resident of that city. “I’m part of the future,” said the youngest candidate by 28 years, “and I think that someone who’s part of the future should be up there making decisions for the future.”
Herrera’s focus is local. A leader in community-supported agriculture, he sees opportunities for job and business creation in support of the North State’s leading enterprise. Protecting the Greenline “is near and dear to my heart,” he said, “because unless we want to start eating pavement, we’d better keep some soil free of pavement.”
As the sitting mayor in 2006, Gruendl easily won re-election to the council. He knows 2010 poses a harder challenge, but he sees unfinished business with the budget and general plan requiring continued attention.
“It’s important to have an experienced individual who understands how we got to where we’re at and what we need to do,” he said. “That’s evidenced by a balanced budget with reserves.”
The revised general plan, set for approval by the next council, “is as far as we’ve ever gone in maintaining a compact urban form, but we do have a few growth areas added to it that are really safety valves in case we are not able to accommodate all the growth within the existing city limits.”
After four years in office, Flynn says, “I’m at peace with my decisions—very much so.” Some of her votes have deviated from the expectations of some supporters, but she accepts this: “The approach I’ve taken as a council person, where I’ve demonstrated my willingness to provide independent leadership, has worked for me.”
She plans to continue her focus on the budget, revitalizing downtown and economic development. The last distinguishes her from the progressives emphasizing the “Think Local” concept—“I think that’s an important piece, but I also think that we have to recognize there are limits to depending on our local economy to support us in the future. We have to be careful about only recirculating our wealth.”
Brahama D. Sharma
Dr. Sharma may be known for his frequent letters in the CN&R, but his jump into politics isn’t about raising his profile. “When I was in India, Chico was a city well-known internationally,” he said. “But when you live in Chico, you don’t feel it’s an internationally known city. I really want to have a part in council discussions on how we can make the city a city, not a town.”
A retired chemistry professor and a prominent parliamentarian, he sees the need for a systemic, systematic approach on the council. “We need to look at the whole city, not which developer will be able to do what or what this part needs and that part needs,” he said. “The city as a whole needs an upgrade.”
Another frequent letter-to-the-editor writer, as well as a blogger, Colgan sees a fundamental inequity in city decisions.
“The average working stiff doesn’t have a voice in Chico politics,” he said. “Who’s representing them? In this economy, there’s not going to be a lot of growth for the future, but in this election you can see that certain candidates are bought and paid for by developers, and I can’t see how that’s going to help an average Chicoan.”
Noting that the improvements needed for the general plan aren’t all covered by impact fees, “the more we grow, the more the taxpayers get the shaft,” Colgan says. “It might be time to make sure we have someone in there who’s an advocate for the taxpayer.”
Retiring to Chico following 35 years in corporate America, Kromer found himself quickly involved with local government. He served on a committee formulating the county general plan, then got involved with the city’s general plan, and he regularly attends city Finance Committee meetings.
“It’s interesting to watch how government works versus how private industry works,” he said. “The biggest trend that I’ve seen is one where there isn’t a close linking of priorities, goals, fiscal objectives, a budget and a spending plan. Art, parks and all kinds of other things are absolutely things we should be talking about, but unless you get your house in order, you don’t really have the time or funds for those sorts of things.”
For Evans, retired after two decades of running LifeTouch, the linchpin for Chico comes down to jobs—more in the private sector, too many in the public sector.
He says that the first thing he’d do if elected is encourage City Hall to “survey all our local employers, and if they have plans to expand and if that expansion means jobs, expedite the process.”
Along with streamlining permits, Evans sees the need to reduce payroll, particularly in the Planning Department. “I know how the private sector handles it when you’re not making budget and when you see it’s not going to be a quick turnaround: You cut jobs. You get down to core responsibilities and service your customers as best as you can.”
After two elections in which he came tantalizingly close to a council seat, will the third time be the charm? “Absolutely,” Sorensen said. “It’s a different atmosphere with different issues on peoples’ minds. I get a sense from a lot of ‘liberals’ that there’s a lack of balance [on the council], and certainly we’ve demonstrated a disconnect of what goes on over there and the real world.”
Sorensen, a small-business owner who has the added perspective of two years on the Planning Commission, says city staffers recognize the importance of business. “Their livelihood is sales-tax generated,” he said, “so if there’s no sales tax, there’s a problem. Hopefully they’re looking for some change; hopefully they’re not just feeding me that.”