An opponent emerges
Chico businessman intends to take Doug LaMalfa’s seat in Congress
Joe Montes describes himself as unapologetically conservative but, unlike some of his peers, embracing of people with opposing political beliefs.
“I look at how to find commonality with people,” he said during a recent interview. “When you step back far enough, it really comes into view.” Montes, 59, illustrated his point by forming a Venn diagram with his hands. He calls the overlapping space in the middle “common ground,” and says it’s much bigger than most people think. That philosophy—focusing on areas of shared concern—applies locally, Montes said, especially regarding poverty and homelessness. Ideological chasms only obstruct solutions, he said.
The same goes in bigger arenas—like, say, the cripplingly divided U.S. legislature. Montes recently announced that he’s running for Congress, entering the race alongside Redding-based attorney Doug Wright, a fellow conservative, more than nine months ahead of the election in November. Both aim to unseat two-term District 1 Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican from Richvale.
Montes likes LaMalfa personally, but believes the incumbent Congressman has lost touch with his constituency. As a first-time politician—Montes briefly ran for Chico City Council in 2014 but withdrew at the request of other local conservatives—he acknowledges that unseating LaMalfa is a tall order. But Montes believes the political winds are favorable and that, given the dismal approval ratings of Congress, voters will seriously consider candidates promising to shake things up.
“I’m frustrated like most people,” he said. “I’m just tired of complaining on the couch.”
There’s another point in his favor—a friendship with a prominent and politically well-connected businessman that dates back to Montes’ troubled teenage years.
Growing up in Sacramento, individual attention was scarce with two working parents and six siblings, but Montes was “willing to act out to get it.” In 1972, his parents sent him to live with his uncle in Truckee, hoping he would straighten up.
It didn’t work—not until he met Wayne Cook, now a real estate developer and owner of the Hotel Diamond in downtown Chico, but then a teacher at Truckee High School who “didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” Cook was also a coach on the wrestling team; he goaded Montes into trying out. “It was an in-your-face kind of challenge,” Montes recalled. “He said, ‘I would have invited you out sooner, but I thought you might get hurt and cry.’”
Montes took the bait and joined the team, beginning a decades-long mentorship with Cook that continues to this day. (He still calls him “coach.”) He credits the relationship with getting him on the right path, one that led to a stint with the Air National Guard, earning a law degree from UCLA in 1993 and serving both as an attorney and an administrative law judge in Washington state.
All the while, Montes said, he had his eye on the North State. He visited Cook at his former home on Broadway nearly every summer for 30 years. Now, after moving to Chico in October 2013, he and his wife, Cindy, live in that same house.
He’s since formed unlikely alliances with Tami Ritter, a progressive member of the City Council, and Michael Madieros, the director of Stairways Programming. With Ritter, he’s launching a youth court to divert troubled teens from the criminal system. With Madieros, he’s drumming up support and funding for housing homeless people.
“It has produced tremendous fruit,” he said. “Even if we don’t share the same political beliefs, there are things we can do together.”