Dolan, Kirk face hard-right challengers

What impact will Tea Partiers have on these local contests?

Jane Dolan

Jane Dolan

The contests for two open seats on the Butte County Board of Supervisors are shaping up as tests of how much the anti-incumbent fever represented by the Tea Party phenomenon can affect local, nonpartisan races.

The incumbents are District 2’s Jane Dolan, who is in her 31st year as a supervisor, and Maureen Kirk, who is in the fourth year of her first term representing District 3. These are the two northernmost districts in the county and together include all of Chico.

They are being challenged by two self-described conservatives, veteran Chico Councilman Larry Wahl in Dolan’s case, and political newcomer Erny Spears in Kirk’s.

Both men have actively courted the Tea Party vote, and Wahl’s campaign videos appear on the Chico Tea Party’s website.

Spears is running a low-key campaign, purposely, he says, but also because he doesn’t have much money. (He’d raised $4,798 as of May 27, compared to Kirk’s $33,541.) He’s knocking on doors, speaking to as many groups as possible, and of course appearing at candidates’ forums.

Wahl, whose name recognition is high because of his nine years on the Chico City Council, is doing as well as Dolan on the money front and has been running regular television spots, as has she. As of May 27, he’d spent $62,719 compared to her $65,553.

Both challengers are running on the idea that Butte County needs jobs above all else, and that the incumbents aren’t doing enough on that front. “The whole election centers around jobs,” as Wahl put it during a recent candidates’ forum.

They seek to hold Dolan and Kirk responsible for what they believe is county obstruction of business owners who are trying to provide jobs. The permitting process is so onerous and there are so many regulations, Wahl states, that businesses won’t and don’t come to Chico and Butte County.

Maureen Kirk

He and Spears also fault Dolan and Kirk for not supporting the zoning of land between the Skyway and Neal Road for a future industrial and research park.

“The county needs to focus on business retention,” Spears has said. “Our local governments don’t support local business trade.” Government, he charges, “is pushing business out.”

Wahl and his wife, Mary, own the UPS stores in Chico. She was born and raised here; he came here with his parents as a small child in 1945. As a young man, Wahl served in the Navy as a fighter pilot, flying combat missions in Vietnam and rising to the rank of commander.

He’s been a significant—but lately lonely—conservative voice on the Chico City Council, calling for fiscal prudence and limited government, though he’s OK with spending money on services he supports, such as public safety and the library.

He insists that Dolan has been on the board too long, that “it’s time for some new leadership that can seek new job opportunities for Butte County and make it friendly to those who would bring jobs here.”

He also promises, jokingly, not to hang around for 32 years.

Spears is the former owner of Communication Impact, a communications systems company that he sold recently. He now works for DigitalPath, the wireless Internet provider.

Larry Wahl

He’s long been active behind the scenes in Republican Party activities, but this marks his first venture into elective politics.

His concern about government’s impact on business results at least in part from personal experience, he said in an interview. A number of years ago, Chico State University sought to operate a voicemail service bureau that would compete with companies like his. He fought it and shut it down, he said.

He’s also resentful toward the county, which on three occasions, he said, went outside the county for telecommunications jobs, even though his bid was comparable. “It was all a statement of who knows who,” he said.

Given the economic situation, the county is in remarkably good shape, both Dolan and Kirk say. It will end the current fiscal year with a $15 million carryover of funds—at a time when other counties are facing multimillion-dollar deficits—and $11 million in contingency funds.

Any suggestion that they aren’t prudent managers of the county’s money is obviously wrong, they insist.

On the jobs front, they note that the county has included an economic-development element in its new general plan, set up the Butte Incubator Program to assist businesses, and is working to streamline permitting.

Erny Spears

As for the research park, Dolan states, the land in question is too close to the landfill and has too many environmental constraints to be suitable for development.

All of the candidates support the Greenline, the boundary created years ago at Dolan’s insistence that protects agricultural land on Chico’s west side from urban development. But in one of his TV spots, Wahl challenges Dolan’s commitment to preserving farm land, enlisting former Richvale-area Supervisor Curt Josiassen to charge that “thousand of acres of ag land was lost to habitat preserves” and Dolan “did nothing to prevent the loss of that ag land.”

In response, Dolan pointed out that creation of the preserves was a federal and state project, had nothing to do with the county, and involved “willing sellers”—such as the owners of the Llano Seco Ranch—who wanted their land to be preserved.

Under ordinary circumstances, Kirk and Dolan would be heavily favored in their contests. But this year is different.

For one thing, their base is with Chico-area Democrats, and there’s not much ballot energy drawing them to the polls in this primary. All the big action—Whitman vs. Poizner, for example—is on the Republican side.

And then there are the Tea Party folks, who are just plain angry at government, and especially incumbents. Whether that anger will translate into votes directed toward nonpartisan incumbents like Dolan and Kirk remains to be seen.