All around Steve Bertagna
The city councilman is a bedrock conservative, but his joviality and open-mindedness make him popular with everyone, including his liberal colleagues
for Chico City Coun-cil
Ah yes, his musical slogan. Anyone living in Chico in 2004 heard it so many times that it’s imbedded in his or her subconscious. The jingle was bubbly, quaint and widely mocked. Yet the ad was effective: It helped Bertagna win a third term on the City Council by a healthy margin.
And it was so Steve. Anything that makes people laugh—at him or with him—is fair game. He just can’t help himself.
Recently, during an interview before breakfast at Nash’s, a waitress came over to refill coffee. “Can we quote you?” he asked. “Sure,” Katie Henshall replied.
So, what do you think of Steve?
“What?!” he replied.
“Do you know me?”
“Of course I know you. I saw you on TV.”
“What do you think of me on TV?”
“Very experienced, and I think personable, actually, given all the situations you guys deal with.”
Wait for it … wait for it …
“Thank you. I’ll give you your $100 later.”
Bertagna’s term expires this winter, so it may be time to roll out the jingle again.
Or, maybe not. He hasn’t announced whether he’ll seek re-election. The other three incumbents will; three challengers have lined up, too. (sidebar.)
At least publicly, Bertagna is noncommittal. He talks of holding “a family caucus” (which, considering all the Bertagnas in the area, could rival Iowa’s). He’s tossed out the date of June 17—that’s when he’ll reveal his decision, he said, at the place he first threw himself into the public arena 12 years ago.
Local politicos predict he’s done. Former council colleague Dan Nguyen-Tan writes in the Bullfight blog that Bertagna “has been lobbied strongly by his supporters to run … but he’ll likely step away from the public limelight.” The man himself acknowledges the former but won’t admit the latter.
Still, talk to him long enough, and he’ll give you more reasons to bow out than return for an encore.
Take, for instance, All Around Sound, his stereo business on Mangrove Avenue. His “office"—i.e. the small desk near the front door—might as well be at City Hall.
“No other councilmember is accessible to the level that I am. I mean, they’re just simply not, with due respect to all of them,” he said. “I doubt many constituents show up in Glenn County to talk to Scott Gruendl. Tom [Nickell] can wander around downtown, but you can’t go on [Chico High’s] campus and find Mary [Flynn], and you can’t go to an office and find any other councilmember.
“It’s two to five hours every single day. If something goes down, someone needs to find a councilmember—left, right, whatever—I’m easy to find, because they know where I’m at.”
Same with the business phone: “I answer well over half the calls that come into my office, so chances are you’d get me if you called.”
It’s not all bad. Bertagna is a garrulous guy, after all, who finds it “fun to be connected … fun to be the guy that can get things accomplished.” Plus, being in the public eye is free advertising.
“I find that even most of the people who wouldn’t be on the same side as him [politically] enjoy buying here because of the affiliation with Steve,” said Jesse Meyers, his “right-hand man” since 1999. “A few people have walked in, seen Steve and turned right around. But Steve’s being in politics has been good for the business.
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens when his term is over,” Meyers added—then, catching himself: “Maybe four years from now.”
The last term, whenever that is, naturally wouldn’t be possible without the first. That came in 1996, when the conservative outsider whisked into office as the leading vote-getter.
“Everyone can blame or thank, depending on your perspective, David Guzzetti for me running for City Council,” Bertagna said, “because David Guzzetti was so far out there …
“Dave and I are cordial to one another, so this is not an attack, and he’ll probably laugh about this, but he used to do things that pissed me off so much that I had to run for council to have the opportunity to counter some of that.”
Guzzetti, of course, seared his place in Chico history as a firebrand to beat all firebrands. That’s saying something, considering he served with the late Coleen Jarvis, another strong, passionate liberal voice.
“One of the most positive things of that campaign for me was it wasn’t a one-issue deal,” Bertagna said. “I don’t think one-issue people best serve a community. Issues come and go.”
In 2000, he easily won re-election, trailing only Nguyen-Tan—recently graduated from Harvard—in total votes. Ditto in 2004, when he took second again, just 12 votes (out of 12,000) behind Ann Schwab.
The off-year elections haven’t gone as well for him. Twice he’s run for the Butte County Board of Supervisors; the late Mary Anne Houx kept her seat in 2002, and her hand-picked successor, City Councilwoman Maureen Kirk, won in a runoff in 2006.
“As often as I can, I speak to kids, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, you are the mayor,’ or, ‘You are the councilmember,’ and I’ll correct them: ‘Being a councilmember is what I do; it’s not what I am.’ There’s a big difference. [Politics] is not a career for me. It’s just not a career.”
A funny thing happened after the ‘06 election: The man who joined the council determined to blunt liberal politics has built a strong relationship with “the lefties” currently on the dais.
The City Council comprises five progressives, Bertagna and Wahl. Cynics may argue a member of the minority has to reach out to the majority, but that’s not necessarily true; Wahl dissents with regularity.
Schwab jokingly tells Bertagna, “Come over to our side, Steve, it’s a lot of fun.” (Fun—he likes fun!) “He’s not ready to make that leap,” the vice mayor continued, “but on several crucial decisions for the city—Meriam Park and sustainability—he’s voted not the ‘right’ way but the left way, a nonpartisan way.”
“It’s subtle,” Mayor Andy Holcombe said. “Holistically, looking at the body of work from when it was 4-3 [the previous liberal majority] to 5-2, he’s sort of voting with his heart more and not the ideology of a certain perspective.”
Council minutes bear that out (see chart). So does his alliance with Nickell to expedite decisions on downtown parking. It’s enough to make Nickell say, “I would hope he runs again. I like Steve. He brings a great balance, and we get along great.”
The progressive rookie stressed this is not an endorsement, so don’t read too much into the fuzzy feelings—in either direction.
“I’m a Republican,” Bertagna said, “a fiscally and fundamentally conservative individual who understands that sometimes conservative issues or liberal issues are created. That’s probably what you’re seeing more than anything else.
“Fundamentally my decisions are going to be conservative because that’s my makeup and who I am. If it’s a contrived discussion point that’s supposed to look conservative or feel conservative, or feels liberal or appears liberal, it’s not going to be a part of my decision-making process. I’ve gotten beyond that…. I have become very comfortable just speaking my mind, so what you see is what you get.”
Like the “very experienced” and “personable” guy Katie Henshall has seen on TV.
Or the seat-of-his-pants speaker whose flippant remarks have drawn ire (including just last month, for referring to certain zealous citizens as “neighborhood Nazis").
“Joking or not, he’s had moments where he’s offended people seriously a few times,” Holcombe said, “but he’s weathered it. People understand shooting from the hip, and sometimes that means you shoot yourself in the foot. Speaking from the dais is a different injury than in the back yard.”
Sometimes onlookers just shrug their shoulders, such as when he declares he’s voting one way and changes his mind moments later for a quirky reason.
Case in point: an ordinance regarding cable-TV franchises that, in conjunction with state law, will allow the cash-strapped city to collect additional fees. It passed 5-2. Bertagna initially expressed support, then voted against it, explaining he remembered how irritated he gets each month when he opens his cable bill and sees all the taxes.
Contrary to a common conception, Steve Bertagna can read. It might not seem so when he asks basic questions of city staff rather than going through his binder, but he’s literate and educated.
“He says he reads agendas online,” Schwab said, neither affirming nor denying the claim. “I know he’s on his computer a lot, and he’ll respond to people’s e-mails quickly.”
“You know,” he began, “I’ve read thousands and thousands of pages, and what’s beautiful about having some experience is that you read something and, short of something getting changed, you know what it is.
“And the other thing is personal relationships with so many people you know downtown and throughout the community that’re as important as the written documents we all—we all—read.”
Nickell isn’t so convinced about the “we all read” part. He gets a kick out of seeing how soon before a meeting Bertagna or his wife, Kari, comes to get the binder (stunningly, Bertagna was first this week). Nickell puts reminders and jokes on Post-It squares he slaps on pages. “He’ll write me little notes that say read this section and this section, and I’ll write him back telling him he missed some of the points when he was reading and he should probably call a real councilmember to ask how it goes.”
Bertagna also tries to break the retired highway patrolman’s concentration in meetings with sideways glances, eyebrow raises and gestures. Then there are the gags, such as when Bertagna drew a smoking pistol, folded the paper and had it passed down the dais.
“But he gets his work done,” Nickell quickly interjected—as did Schwab, even after recalling Bertagna, an avid rider, leafing through a motorcycle magazine during a meeting.
“It’s always good to have different people with different temperaments, talents and convictions making decisions,” Nickell said. “He’ll see things that I don’t. I’ve changed my mind from some things he’s said, and he’s changed his mind from some things I’ve said. We work well together.”
How much longer will he do such work? Bertagna remains uncharacteristically quiet on that front, though he’s freely shared his thought process.
“All the usual stuff: time, commitment, the need for it. I’ll joke with [council colleagues] in closed session and say, ‘Be careful how you vote here—it might push me to run one more time!’
“It’ll be a personal decision. My son is doing the long jump this year [at Chico High]—he’s going for 21 feet this year. Raeanne’s on the track team, too. Kids come first; they always have.”
The Bertagnas’ older daughter, Brittney, is in college. Josh is a junior, and Raeanne is a freshman who’s making a name for herself as a 400-meter runner as well as a basketball player. “When he talks about his daughter playing basketball and his other kids’ accomplishments, you can see the smile on his face,” Schwab said. It hasn’t escaped Bertagna or his council colleagues that getting back two to five hours a day could translate into many games and meets.
“An enjoyable aspect of being a city councilperson is people want to talk to you about issues,” Schwab continued, “but it takes away from your personal life. City Council is my personal life. He’s the biggest fan of his family.
“To have done this for 12 years, my hat is off to him. He’s given our city a lot.”
Holcombe waited until his daughter, Kate, finished high school before seeking a seat. “You really have to be serious about it. I saw it with Dan Herbert [who served 1998-2006]: You get tired. I’m not sure if I get elected to a second term that I’d want a third term.”
Let alone a fourth.
Speaking of which …
“I have little mantras for the year,” Bertagna said. “and this year it’s about what I want to do. Not to be selfish—me vs. my family or politics or anything else—but I’ll decide based on what I want to do, that’s all. No one will tell me or ask me.”