After fighting her way through law school and toward respect on a divided City Council, Coleen Jarvis has come into her own
Coleen Jarvis, chatting over lunch in a hippie-populated coffee shop, is casually buttering her bread in that classy way they teach in etiquette courses—breaking off a bit at a time and applying butter to each piece.
The versatile political-science teacher, juvenile-dependency lawyer, mother and advocate for the homeless is as comfortable in this laid-back atmosphere as she is in a courtroom or on the City Council dais. Jarvis’ meal is interrupted several times by people who just want to say “hi” or compliment her on her new black dress—a hand-me-down from her mom.
Adored by her supporters and reviled by her enemies, Jarvis, 45, has become a sometimes-controversial figure in Chico politics, one known to raise her voice against fellow councilmembers of all political persuasions. Her style has won her verbal slaps from conservatives and labels ranging from “passionate” to “pushy.”
This month marks a year since she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and then colon cancer. Her apple cheeks have thinned, but she looks healthy, her pixie face framed with hair that’s grown back in slight waves. The short hair, and the subtle fact that she’s switched from drinking diet soda to iced tea, are the only outward signs of the scare that rallied friends and family to her side last July.
Catholic but pro-choice, Jarvis is a woman of conviction. She works so hard she has to be reminded to slow down. She’s a card-carrying feminist who calls her male companion her “partner” and gets a kick out of it when people think she’s gay. She likes show tunes, is “a crier” and names a 10-year-old as one of her best friends. And she’ll tell everyone within earshot that they had better go catch that local production of Godspell.
Jarvis was 21 years old when she first laid eyes on Chico, riding into town on the back of her boyfriend’s Kawasaki motorcycle. “He lasted two weeks. I’m still here.”
A tolerant upbringing, feminist friends who encouraged her to become more assertive and the requisite bad romantic relationships have helped shape her identity and give Jarvis a strong sense of self—sometimes strong enough to piss people off.
“I cannot for the life of me tell you how I became who I became,” Jarvis said, but it’s been a fun and sometimes trying ride.
While she was in grade school, the family moved frequently, and she lived in an Illinois suburb, Detroit and Pittsburgh. Coleen was a popular student whose favorite pastime, when she lived near Chicago, was going to Wrigley Field, where she was a “bleacher bum.” When she was 16, her parents announced they were moving from the culturally diverse town of Steubenville, Ohio, to a 4,300-student high school in Huntington Beach, Calif., where people seemed “racist” by comparison.
“I started smoking cigarettes on the airplane because I was so upset with my parents, and I didn’t stop for 16 years,” Jarvis said. “I was completely out of my element.”
The oldest of three children, Coleen was often saddled with caring for her siblings after her parents’ “not-nice” divorce. She enrolled at CSU, Long Beach, where a counselor advised her to get some distance from her well-meaning but troubled family.
Coleen’s mother, Bobbe Serena-Wayman, describes an inquisitive “free spirit” who “asked questions beyond her age.” Many people thought she would become a writer, but Coleen wanted to be a lawyer. “She told her grandfather, and he said, ‘No, you really need to be a legal secretary.’
“Coleen has been very strong-minded and very intelligent since Day One, and not in a negative sense—in a positive sense,” Serena-Wayman said. “Coleen was an extremely easy little girl to raise.”
Jarvis said her mother, who once accompanied her to a pro-choice rally in San Francisco, “quietly challenged the system” and taught tolerance even in the 1960s.
When Coleen was in high school, her mother volunteered for a mental-health agency. “We had the strangest people home for dinner,” Jarvis said. Coleen, too, volunteered with mentally challenged children. “She started early to develop a sense of helping others,” Serena-Wayman said. “I knew that Coleen was probably going to be a leader somewhere. … She has a great spirituality [that] goes beyond needing things for herself.”
Jarvis’ father, who has since died, was an alcoholic, which contributed to the family’s frequent moves and perhaps, she concedes, some abandonment issues. “God bless him, he apparently didn’t have the strength or didn’t understand [how it was harming the children],” Serena-Wayman said. “I think it’s left an effect on them.”
Jarvis was taught that there is good and bad in everyone, but it took a few hard lessons before she learned she couldn’t fix everyone. One of her boyfriends “beat the crap out of me,” Jarvis said, which led her to empathize with victims of domestic violence.
She gave the father of her two children, who was not abusive, several chances, but when his cocaine addiction threatened their livelihood and safety, she kicked him out. “He was a great father. He tried really hard,” she said. “Sometimes I think it was a cold, unfeeling thing to do. It was so abrupt, but I had to make a decision for my kids. I knew I could be a good single parent.”
Jeremiah was 6 and Carli was 4.
“I was struggling to find my own.” For five years in the mid-1980s Jarvis headed the local rape crisis center and was active in the pro-choice movement, but she kept her kids sheltered from those activities. “I felt myself getting stronger and stronger as a feminist,” she said. “I just loved that time in my life.”
But rape crisis work is draining ("There should be term limits"), and in 1989 she quit and became part-time coordinator of the Chico Peace and Justice Center.
She had expected to get unemployment benefits, and when she did not she signed up for public assistance. “I cried and cried in line,” Jarvis said, but out of sadness for the situation, not shame. “I lost my identity in a lot of ways.”
Still, she said, “My kids were raised to be proud of themselves and proud of us.
“I’m really lucky. My kids know who they are,” Jarvis said. “We didn’t have an easy life, but it was never insurmountable.”
Jeremiah, now majoring in religious studies at the University of California at Davis, said, “I don’t think she ever let us feel sorry for ourselves. She made sure we had everything we needed, just not everything we wanted.”
Between 1989 and 1994, during which she worked, went to school and collected welfare, Jarvis figures she accepted a little less than $35,000 in cash aid. “I’ve probably donated back to charity more than I’ve ever taken from the government.”
If you’ve ever offended Jarvis or questioned her integrity, there’s a good chance you heard about it. She’s fired off more than one hastily typed e-mail and now restrains herself from communicating that way. “It’s just too easy.”
In the 2000 election, the Chico Chamber of Commerce’s Political Advisory Committee made “civility” a main component in deciding whom to back. It was a very close vote, and Jarvis lost the endorsement but won the election. It was more than a little ironic, since Jarvis in 1999 received an award from the chamber for “community service.”
Building contractor Howard Slater, who was chairman of the committee, barely remembers the issue. “There’s been too many battles since then,” he said, and that one’s in the past.
“Her demeanor has calmed down over the last few years,” Slater said, adding that the change makes her more effective politically. “I’ve always thought of Coleen as one of the more intelligent people on council. … You could always sit down and talk to her. It doesn’t mean she’ll change her mind.”
In some ways, the council is like any work environment, in that it can seem at times like a dysfunctional family. Councilmember Steve Bertagna, for example, knows exactly how to push Jarvis’ buttons.
Bertagna said he feels a “kinship” with Jarvis, since they ran and were elected at the same time.
“Coleen is a passionate individual about her issues and has shown that demeanor on council at times,” he said. “When things get too far out of control, that can become uncomfortable. [It can get] a little overdone. I didn’t grow up in a family or an atmosphere where arguing is something that you did, so I’ve never been comfortable with arguing—debating is OK.
“I think Coleen has actually mellowed over the years. I think we all have,” Bertagna said.
Jarvis admits, more matter-of-factly than sheepishly, that a few years ago she was “less civil than I would have liked to have been.” She wasn’t as happy in her previous job, and the council was more fractured because of the presence of now-Assemblyman Rick Keene. And cancer always puts things in perspective. “I wish I could have been mellower, but I am now.”
Jim Mann, director of the local Building Industry Association, has butted heads with Jarvis more than once on development issues. “Working together we could really do some good things, but for some reason we seem to antagonize each other,” Mann said. “There are times when she can be absolutely charming and delightful to work with, but sometimes I don’t see respect returned.”
“I still think that some people think of me as, ‘Oh, that bitch,'” said Jarvis, who can’t help but wonder if part of that is a gender thing. (Former Councilmember David Guzzetti has a hot temper and no one called him a bitch.) She regrets the times when she was less than patient or cut speakers off at the podium. “I still go home after council meetings and relive every single moment,” she said.
“I don’t have as much confidence as people think I do,” Jarvis said, and that sometimes means hurt feelings and a desire to track down whoever got it wrong and make them understand her. “I am getting a thicker skin.”
She can handle it when someone challenges her about a values-based issue such as where to place the Esplanade House transitional shelter for homeless families. It’s when people challenge her patriotism and dedication to the city that she gets upset.
“There are very few people, and I could count them on five fingers, that I truly hate or despise. I believe that everyone is good and we all just have different opinions. Those that I feel the worst about, I pray for,” she said. “People who I think truly despise me don’t know me and base it on what they’ve heard about me. I believe that only when you know someone very well do you have the right to despise them.”
Her opponents don’t always feel that way.
An anonymous flier, sent out during the Esplanade House debate, said Jarvis “brow beats, threatens and humiliates anyone who opposes her.” The writers wanted to “stop the Jarvis rein [reign] of terror.” People in the council audience have been overheard vowing to hurt Jarvis and even criticizing her personal appearance.
A mailer by the conservative PAC Chico Economic Foundation said Jarvis had bought a house and paid for her education at Northern California School of Law while on welfare.
She has little patience for this type of accusation and for the people who piled the fliers on the doorsteps of her neighbors. “It was so blatantly untrue, and I had worked so hard and I had graduated from the same frickin’ law school as Rick Keene, and they were trying to use that against me,” she said.
In court, by contrast, Jarvis is a calming force.
In a contract with Butte County, Jarvis works under the umbrella of the public defender as one of three juvenile-dependency attorneys appointed to represent a minor child, parent or potential guardian in dependency hearings.
In a room brimming with nervous tension—children’s lives are at stake here—Jarvis comforts a juvenile client, jokes with the judge pro tem and doesn’t stop asking questions until she’s sure she and her client understand everything about the proceedings. She’s calm, articulate and efficient.
“When she’s talking to a child or an adult client, they respond to her,” said Jarvis’ assistant, Sarah Jones. “She can explain anything to anyone, and she’s so gentle about it.
“I don’t think people realize how hard she works,” Jones said. Jarvis has more than 450 clients at any given time, and she gives focused attention to each of them.
They’re still unpacking at Jarvis’ new office at Seventh Street and Mangrove Avenue in Chico. Leaning against a wall are Martin Luther King Jr. posters, a Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter poster that was a present from the shelter board and a pro-choice poster her daughter made in sixth grade (she keyed into the issue on her own). A commemorative Susan B. Anthony dollar is displayed on her desktop. A number of plaques are nailed along one corner. ("My mother made me hang all those up. In fact, she hung them up herself.")
Jarvis decided to go to law school after a “family meeting” with her kids during the welfare years. She figured they were already struggling financially, and if they stayed poor a while longer, while she got her law degree, it would pay off later. Jeremiah and Carli were supportive. (That, and they were hoping for a swimming pool.)
One of Jarvis’ first jobs in Chico had been with Do-It Leisure, which takes disabled kids on outings. Her duties included cleaning toilets in a convalescent hospital, and she was later promoted to program manager. (Her Chico State degree is in recreational therapy.) While in law school, she went to work for the nonprofit Legal Services of Northern California. She had been a client there and was the named plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against then-Gov. Pete Wilson over welfare reform.
Jarvis said she never could have gotten her degree under today’s public assistance rules. She had to appeal to be able go to school, and even then, “most of my tuition went on MasterCard.”
At the same time she passed the bar in December 1994, a lawyer job opened up at Legal Services. She worked her way up to managing attorney, but that was the worst part of her 12 years there. “I don’t like to manage people. I like to do a job and advocate.”
She decided to run for council because she figured it could be a venue to help the poor. Her children, who in their 20s are not very political, “were the king and queen of labeling and sorting.”
The negative campaign ads didn’t work, and Jarvis was elected in 1996. She won her bid for a second term in 2000.
Just as things started to go smoothly in her work life, Jarvis started having health problems.
She’d been dieting, but when she rapidly lost 25 to 30 pounds, she went to a doctor, who told her she was fine. Four months later she began having horrible headaches and symptoms similar to those found in people suffering from irritable-bowel syndrome.
She started walking crookedly, and her partner, Michael Stauffer, took to staying on one side to veer her back on track. One day, she fell down and vomited at the Farmers’ Market.
Finally, she convinced her insurance company, Blue Shield, to approve a CAT scan. It never even crossed her mind that she might have cancer. “I always assume that things are stress-related,” Jarvis said. “I always assumed that I would lead a fairly healthy life.”
When she learned she had a brain tumor, on July 23, 2002, “I said, ‘Thank God,’ because now we know,” Jarvis said. Then she correctly predicted that she would shift into intellectual mode.
Stauffer and several close family members were out of town, and it wasn’t looking good. “The appointment after the MRI was almost like, ‘You’re gonna die.'” They knew that cancer had spread elsewhere in her body, and they found it in her colon.
He mother was traveling in the state of Washington when Jarvis called. “Coleen tends to not tell me things if she thinks it’s going to upset me,” Serena-Wayman said. “That’s one of those days that will stick with me forever. I had to literally hang up the phone. I got on a plane immediately.”
Friends and random well-wishers were crowded in the waiting room before Jarvis’ surgeries, which were followed by radiation treatments.
“The flowers were overwhelming,” said Serena-Wayman, who herself has been in remission from lupus for many years. Cards, letters and notes for Jarvis filled three or four albums.
The other two juvenile-dependency attorneys stepped in to cover her caseload, and the council never made a move toward removing Jarvis from office—its prerogative if she missed three meetings.
“I knew there was not a thing I could do about what was going on in either my work life or my civic life,” Jarvis said. Conservatives and progressives alike wished her the best, and she jokes that she’s still enjoying a “honeymoon period.”
Jarvis, now vice-mayor, is enjoying the greater political involvement the shift away from a conservative council majority has afforded her.
“I always felt like I was not treated with the same respect as other members,” said Jarvis, who has finally been appointed to key commission seats she’d long coveted. “I had to take a deep breath when I realized I was part of a majority not to do the same thing to other people. … At the beginning, there were a couple of things, like, ‘We’re in charge now.’ But it wasn’t like, ‘Ninny, ninny, ninny.'”
The shift actually makes it harder for progressives to plot if they so choose. “Before, so what if David [Guzzetti], Kim [King] and I got together? It didn’t matter. Now, there’s a potential for me to violate the Brown Act,” she said. “I very rarely talk to other councilmembers of any persuasion before the meeting. You’re supposed to come to council with an open mind, especially when you’re having a public hearing.”
Dan Nguyen-Tan, who figures he got the “civility” stamp of approval from the Chamber of Commerce largely because his “low-key” personality isn’t outwardly emotional, sees the council as more balanced since the last election.
“The only times when I’ve seen Coleen get upset is when someone makes a personal accusation against her, as opposed to a policy argument, or when she believes someone is being hypocritical or outright lying to her in public,” said Nguyen-Tan, who leans left but has also been on the receiving end of Jarvis’ ire. “She tends to be more outspoken on some issues, and perhaps this is why some think she’s controversial.
“People who do not like Coleen tend to be people who are intimidated by strong, intelligent women who are unafraid to speak their minds,” he said. “If she has any enemies, they are people who have not taken the time to get to know her, to look beyond stereotypes or misconceptions, or people who are quick to judge someone based on a very limited view of that person.”
Jarvis sometimes surprises with her votes, particularly the one in favor of Stirling Housing’s since-shelved application to build a student apartment complex in a neighborhood of vocally opposed residents, including county Supervisor Jane Dolan.
“There are certain positions I think people expect of me, and I think I meet those expectations. That’s my ideology,” Jarvis said. “Sometimes I’m the only vote in support of a development. … I pride myself on voting in such a way that it is in the best interest of the entire community. And I’m fiscally conservative.”
One day, Jarvis might become a public defender, but she wouldn’t be comfortable practicing criminal law while on the council, since the city could come up as an opponent.
“It’s not a forever thing, and I don’t feel council is forever either,” said Jarvis, whose term expires in 2004. “God has a purpose for my life, and I don’t know what it is. I just know I’m on a path.
“I have always wanted to run for higher office,” Jarvis said. “I would love to be in Congress. I would love to be one of our two senators.” That’s not realistic, though. “I’m living in the wrong community to run for state office,” she said. “I’m not going to be a token Democrat. If someone wants to leave me $500,000 … I think I would be an excellent assemblyperson.”
When she was first elected to the council, Jarvis would read the informational binder cover to cover and call staff a dozen times. Now, she’s a veteran.
“She knows the political system very well, and I have a lot of respect for her,” said John Blacklock, the former chief administrative officer for Butte County. “She’s tough.”
Jarvis, always one to fill up any free time with new obligations, is trying to make more time for herself. “I’m doing much better with relaxing since my cancer.” She recently took time out to visit her grandmother in Phoenix, Ariz., stayed in the Beverly Hilton and went to a spa in the Napa Valley.
“They say I’m still pretty much cancer-free,” she said, glossing over the qualifier. “I don’t worry about it at all. I can’t go through my live fearing that I’m going to develop cancer again.
“I marched for the Relay for Life, but I almost felt awkward in it,” Jarvis said.
Jeremiah, whose mother still attends his wrestling matches, where teammates call her “Mama J,” says he and his sister are as supportive of their mom has she has always been of them.
There was a time when he worried that his mom was taking on too much, especially after the cancer diagnosis. "I don’t worry about her anymore," he said. "She knows what she can do."