Hooked on the cause
Kelly Meagher’s three decades of political activism
That Kelly Meagher has had a big impact on this community over the years is undeniable. He’s organized and funded numerous political campaigns, most in the name of environmental protection. More than anyone, he’s used his own money to support the causes he favors. He’s got wealth—though not as much as many other people in Chico—and he spreads it around.
He asked me not to dwell on that aspect of his life, or even mention it, lest a steady stream of people with unfunded but noble causes beat a path to his door.
“I’ll have every wacko in six counties coming to me for money to save the children or the whales, and there are no whales in Tehama County, I know it.”
But that is an important aspect of this story. His generosity and financial ability to back it up has helped launch a community radio station, has kept the heart of the Butte Environmental Council beating during tough times, and funded numerous political causes—many successful, some not—over the past 25 years.
Meagher is, in one observer’s words, a diamond in the rough. His once-red locks and beard now turned silver, his once-fit frame a bit expanded, he can often be found at his favorite perch on the west end of the bar at Duffy’s Tavern in downtown Chico, downing Pacifico beer and shots of Hornitos tequila. Hey, why not? He owns the damned building.
When a woman he knows walks past, Meagher will toss out his standard: “Hey, who’s beautiful?” which will most likely lead to an affectionate hug and kiss from the compliment’s receiver.
During Halloween, he’ll wear a red Santa jacket, stand in front of the bar and gesture to costumed children walking by during the downtown Treat Street event.
“I’m Santa Claws, kids,” he’ll call out to the startled little faces.
Meagher is a community character, a fixture who loves to talk and drink; he’s a pain to some, a savior to others. He’s rough around the edges and very opinionated. But he backs those opinions up with some pretty deep knowledge. More than anything, his friends and acquaintances will tell you, he’s incredibly generous.
Meagher (pronounced “mayor”) lives in Butte Creek Canyon, the area where he made his first foray into local politics, when he helped defeat a project that would have built 75 condominiums next to the creek just below the historic Honey Run Covered Bridge. His house sits on a nice lot on Honey Run Road just above the bridge.
I’ve visited his place many times over the years, but when I went up a few weeks ago to interview him, I drove right past it. Twice. That’s because every time I’ve visited in the past there have been 25 to 30 cars parked out front for some social gathering Meagher was hosting. It felt strange to be in his house without 50 local activists milling about, drinking beers and eating food dished out by caterer and longtime Meagher brother-in-arms David Guzzetti.
We sat in plastic lawn chairs in Meagher’s driveway on a blustery but sunny Saturday to do the interview.
Meagher was born in 1952 in south Philadelphia, he told me. When he was 6 years old, his family moved to the Southern California town of Whittier.
“My daddy was a rocket scientist, and that’s why we moved west,” he said. “He was hired by North American Aviation and had to move west.” Meagher’s mother was an educator most of her life.
He had two older brothers, both now deceased. Mike, the middle brother, a videographer, died in San Diego in 2004. Joe, a publisher, died in New Hampshire within the past year. Their deaths have hit Meagher pretty hard and made him think about his own mortality.
Meagher said his father was a Republican and his mother a Democrat. They divorced two years after moving to Whittier. Both are long deceased.
He attended St. Paul Catholic High School, where he played football. “I was the fourth-string quarterback on a team that didn’t have enough guys for a third string,” he joked. “My position was DNP slash CD, which means Did Not Play/Coach’s Decision. That was sort of my position on every team I was ever on.”
Upon graduating from high school in 1970, and while in the process of trying to gain conscientious-objector status—he’d been drafted—he went to work for César Chávez’s United Farm Workers union.
“I had volunteered for the union in 1969, while as I was still in school, and then again in 1970,” he said. “I helped work on the grape boycott. I had two great priests in high school, both Hispanic, who kind of steered me toward doing that. I wanted to be one of the Freedom Riders, you know, the kids from the ’60s who went to the South to help with the civil-rights movement. This was my version of that.”
He met Chávez while still in high school at a rally and march in downtown Los Angeles. “I got to know him a little better during the time I spent as an organizer with the union. … To say I was friends with César Chávez is stretching it. I worked for him. I worked for the union. And he was the head of the union.
“A lot of people get all caught up and say, ‘You worked for César?’ I say, ‘No. I worked for the union.’ And if you asked him he would say, ‘It’s not César Chávez’s union, it’s the workers’ union.’ ”
Meagher worked as a union organizer for 2 1/2 years, before reality took its toll. “I got really tired of not being able to buy a pitcher of beer for my friends or take a girl out on a date,” he said.
At about that time he achieved his conscientious-objector status, which meant he could either go into the military as a non-combatant working in a kitchen or hospital, or he could do community service.
He thought working for the UFW would qualify, but because of the political climate of the day the government wouldn’t recognize the union as providing a place for community-service work.
“You have to remember: César was considered a communist by many,” Meagher said. “People thought we were all communists then. That we were evil, that there was something really wrong about standing up for people’s rights. … So I had to take a job as a janitor at a hospital in Fullerton, which paid me like 30 times more than working for the union did.”
He worked at the hospital for two years, completed his government-required community-service work, and then moved to Berkeley, where he became a self-employed house painter.
“It was good living,” he said. “I was really a good little capitalist—I made a lot of money painting.”
He painted houses—inside and out—for the next 5 1/2 years. Then, on July 19, 1979, his life changed in a split second. Ever since, he’s referred to July 19 as his “rebirthday.”
He was working on a four-story building in downtown Berkeley. Running parallel to the building was a thick black wire that emitted a pulsing buzz.
“I had learned enough in my painting time there to know that’s a dangerous wire,” he said. “It’s kind of close, too. So you could pay funds to this major utility and they would shut it off. I asked them to turn it off for two weeks while we finished the job.”
When the job was finished, he and another fellow removed the scaffolding.
“If I helped set up and take down the scaffolding, I got 50 percent off the cost from the scaffolding guy, who was my neighbor.”
As they were taking it down, a cross-rod broke loose.
“It was going to fall four stories down like a javelin and probably going to harm someone,” Meagher said. “It was on Shattuck Avenue right downtown. The hospital was right there. I could see it was going to hit the dead wire. And I thought, I can just hold it. Well, the wire was on.”
He jokes darkly about what happened next: “It was a shocking experience, and I got a real charge out of it.”
He stayed conscious through the ordeal.
“I remember going up in the elevator at Alta Bates hospital and the doctor telling me, ‘I don’t think we can save your hands.’ And I looked at my hands and saw charcoal. I couldn’t feel them, I couldn’t move them. They were clinched. They were burnt black, black as night.”
He said he was in shock and felt no pain. He remained in the hospital about four months.
“I had a brilliant surgeon, but the nurses saved my life,” he said in typical Meagher style. “God bless the nurses.”
Before he left he was fitted with prostheses, “my hooks, as I like to call them.” By flexing muscles in his shoulders and back he can make them open, which enables him to grasp objects such as glasses and eating utensils.
He filed a lawsuit against the power company, which he eventually won. He says he is limited by the structure of the settlement regarding how much he can say about it.
He initially stayed with his brother in San Diego. After about three months he heard from a couple of high school friends, Paul Vittori and Mitch Wyss, who’d moved to Chico. “They called and said, ‘Hey come on up to Chico, man. We’ll pick you up.”
Wyss and Vittori had started a rafting company called Kingfisher Float Trips. In April 1980 Meagher came to Chico “just to check it out.”
One of the first things he did was take a rafting trip on the Eel River, which flows through Mendocino and Humboldt counties along the Northern California coast.
“All of a sudden I realized that even though I didn’t have any hands, I could do anything I wanted to. My friends sort of made me do this. I told them, ‘Don’t baby me.’ Well, they didn’t.
“I wasn’t defeated by the accident, but I was scared. Once I went on this river trip I knew that I could beat it. My goal was to be the same old asshole I always was. Well, guess what? I am.”
The river trip, he said, was a life-changer. He moved in with one of his friends, who happened to live in Butte Creek Canyon. He turned and gestured to his own home. “I actually watched them build this house, and I used to think, ‘Boy I’d like to live there.’ ”
He was hired by the Butte Environmental Council as an intern in 1980, and he later served on the board of directors and twice as general manager.
“That’s because we were broke and nobody else wanted to do it,” he said. “I ran the recycling center, but as [former BEC office manager] Carol Mueller will tell you, I spent most of my time at LaSalles and she ran the place.”
He moved out of the canyon and lived in town for a couple of years.
“I took up with this woman who I ended up marrying,” he said. “She had three kids, and she forced me to move to town. But once I settled my lawsuit, we moved [to the canyon] in 1985.”
The marriage lasted less than six months, he said. He didn’t want to talk about it other than to suggest perhaps nothing ruins a romantic relationship faster than marriage.
Meagher’s first foray into local politics was close to home—the plan to build 75 condos just below the house he now owns in Butte Creek Canyon. This was the summer of 1980.
“I stopped by one night at a meeting the citizens’ committee was having, which was a bunch of housewives at the covered bridge. My roommates had told me, ‘Kelly, they’re going to build these houses down there and ruin the canyon. You know, these guys are the most powerful people in six counties.’ And I remember thinking, that doesn’t sound right.”
So he went to the meeting. He said at that time in his life he looked like Charles Manson.
“They were scared of me. … They were very suspicious of me and kind of uptight thinking I was going to do something evil. But I had a nice dog with kind eyes.”
He offered his help, and they handed him the draft environmental-impact report on the project and asked him to come back with his analysis.
“I went to the Chico State library and asked the head librarian for the law books on the California Environmental Quality Act,” he recalled. “I read the stuff, I read the report, I came back the next week. I gave them 20 pages that I wrote out in hook, and they went, ‘You’re hired.’ Although they didn’t pay me.”
He ended up as their spokesperson.
“They made me cut my hair, shave my beard, and they took me to J.C. Penney, where they bought me ‘good clothes,’ as they said. They made me take my earrings out. But it worked, you know? We did it.”
In a referendum vote, the project was stopped. Meagher gives a lot of credit to then-Supervisor Jane Dolan, the only board member against the project.
A significant battle Meagher and his cohorts lost was the Canyon Oaks project that climbs into the foothills east of Yosemite Avenue, the neighborhood of stately homes where Rep. Wally Herger now lives.
“I screwed up,” Meagher said. “I thought we could win that one, but turns out the petitions were not proper and legal and it all got thrown out of court.”
Ironically, he believes, the defeat on Canyon Oaks resulted in a much bigger victory shortly afterward.
Rancho Arroyo, later known as Bidwell Ranch, was a high-density housing development just north of the entrance to Upper Park where Manzanita and East avenues merge.
“People were so upset that I had screwed up [on Canyon Oaks],” Meagher said. “A year and a half later, Ranch Arroyo came up, and people’s blood was still boiling. So that was sort of a no-brainer slam dunk.”
The City Council had approved the project, so opponents mounted a referendum. Meagher can still taste the sweetness of victory: “Rancho Arroyo backers spent $220,000 and we spent $20,000, but we kicked their ass with 70 percent of the vote.”
More recently, Meagher helped organize and fund the local No on Prop. 23 campaign in opposition to Assemblyman Dan Logue’s effort to cancel AB 32, the state’s greenhouse-gas-reduction law. He was also a major player in the 2010 campaign to defeat Measure A, an effort to move Chico’s City Council elections from November to June, when most college students are out of town.
Meagher, always eager to share the credit, points to others in the community who have made a difference.
“[Ed’s Printing owner] Ed Caldwell gets overlooked. None of the things we’ve done over the years could have been done without Ed.”
In no particular order he mentions former Mayor Michael McGinnis, environmentalist John Merz, former city Planning Commissioner and attorney Jon Luvaas, former Councilman David Guzzetti and activists Linda Furr, Emily Alma and Chris Nelson.
“There are just so many out there,” he noted.
He summed up his 30 years of political activity with a reference to one of his favorite pastimes.
“To use the old sports analogy, you can’t force it. You have to let the game come to you. So the things that came to me, that appealed to me, I got involved with. People get pissed off at me all the time because I won’t help them save their neighborhood. There is only so much I can do, and to be honest, over the years much ado has made about the few victories I’ve been involved with.
“Let me tell you, I’ve lost a thousand of these things. But they were minor skirmishes that not that many people cared about.
“I love it when people say I’m a no-growther. If this were sports, my record in no-growth would be like eight wins and 190 losses.”