Hoping for a miracle
Robin Huffman faces a steep climb as she tries to unseat two-term District 5 Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi
“If somehow I miraculously pull this off …”
That’s not a caveat most politicians would let slip in an election year. It’s one thing to be an underdog; it’s another to be an underdog who needs divine intervention. Yet when talking about her 2008 campaign for Butte County supervisor, Robin Huffman readily acknowledges the uphill battle she’s waging.
Huffman is the lone challenger to two-term incumbent Kim Yamaguchi for the seat in District 5, which encompasses the Paradise and Upper Ridge areas. Yamaguchi got elected in 2000 with nearly a 60-40 margin and re-elected in 2004 with 73 percent of the vote. He boasts endorsements from four of the five Paradise town councilmembers. And, if actions speak louder than words, consider how those four decided not to give the fifth a turn as mayor for 2008. The odd one out: Huffman.
“It’s purely political,” she said. “This campaign is going to get ugly, and it’s been ugly.”
Huffman advocates for smart growth, trails, viewsheds, cultural sites and outdoor activities—priorities more in line with Chico progressives than Ridge conservatives who’ve given Yamaguchi a strong base.
Yet forward she forges, drawing inspiration in part from a painting by local artist Iko Shy that hangs in her living room. The square canvas shows an Indian confronted by a mountain lion and a rattlesnake at the opening of a treacherous path leading to a distant vista. To Huffman, it represents perseverance—"I’ve come through a lot of storms,” she said, and she sees another brewing.
So why did Huffman jump into the maelstrom, and stay there? The answer takes some time to unspool—nearly an hour last Friday morning, over tea and banana bread, in the home she shares with her husband (acclaimed blues musician Big Mo Huffman) and son.
“I feel constrained as a councilperson in Paradise,” she said about a half-hour in. “There’s such a lot of work that needs to be done here that the county can’t, but councilmembers show me where my boundaries are. ‘You shouldn’t be working on a trail in Magalia.’ Yeah, but I use it!
“I don’t just stay within my lines. I bicycle out of town. I work at Butte College and Chico State. I see the views of the valley.”
Her main concerns fall within District 5 boundaries—and so do her main criticisms of Yamaguchi. “The reason I’m running for supervisor is because the supervisor works not only for the people in Paradise but the whole Ridge, and we need a more proactive supervisor.”
She “couldn’t wait to run” after the board did not address concerns raised by the Town Council and a county ad-hoc committee about preserving the Skyway. “The least he can do is bring it to the board” in a public session, she said; instead, the council got a letter from a county administrator saying to wait for the general-plan update.
Huffman worries about development along this “resource for Butte County.” She opposed the Gateway Shopping Center where a Wal-Mart seems destined to go, and she fears the Tuscan Ridge Golf Course is not a buffer but a magnet for growth.
“I’ve spent my entire education career in social science and biology, and I teach anthropology,” she said, “so I’m very much looking at the big picture. I see how civilizations grow, and I see the need to plan.”
She’s watched Paradise grow over the past 19 years, in a manner she characterizes as “lot by lot” planning that has turned the town into a small city where kids walk to school along busy roads with no sidewalks. General plans are great, but what about specific plans? She sees Paradise past when she looks at Butte Meadow.
That brings her back to Yamaguchi, who she says doesn’t pay enough attention to the needs of Butte Meadows and Magalia. The latter community of 20,000-plus doesn’t get the share of county services it deserves—law enforcement, for instance, even though Yamaguchi cites an increase in sheriff’s patrols over the past year. In addition, Huffman said, the trail and other assets for outdoor activities should be bolstered to promote economic development through tourism.
“People will put me in some kind of box: I’m a ‘treehugger,’ “ Huffman said. “I’ve been known to hug trees. Not ones in the way of development—just big ones in the forest while I’m taking a walk.”
Along with incumbency and political affinity, Yamaguchi has fresh developments to point to in his third campaign.
Lookout Point, a deadly cliff that vexed two Ridge supervisors before him, finally has a Skyway barricade. The county purchased the land from its private owners and, with the aid of a grant, is turning it into a safe vista point.
Meanwhile, the Upper Ridge escape route is clearing its final regulatory hurdles, and money for paving is in the bank—$13 million, including a $1 million earmark from the recent federal omnibus bill.
He’s also found some common ground where once he helped ignite a battleground. In his first term, Yamaguchi proposed a redistricting plan that would have affected both of the districts in Chico. It didn’t stand up to the countercampaign or litigation by Jane Dolan—for whom, five years and two elections later, he cast the swing vote as board chairwoman. Yamaguchi made a fresh start with Maureen Kirk, elected to Chico’s other seat in 2006.
“Any community leader matures and tries to learn from successes and failures, what works and what doesn’t work,” Yamaguchi said last Thursday evening, relaxed and affable at the conference table in his office.
“We all win some and lose some. Do you mature and learn and gain knowledge? If you don’t, I don’t think you graduate.”
Or be effective and get re-elected.
So why is he running? Unfinished business, beyond the aforementioned projects.
Butte County still has not completed a relicensing agreement for Oroville Dam with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Magalia Dam, condemned by state officials concerned about its seismic stability, needs to be replaced or renovated. The latest update of the county general plan is under way. He also wants to play a part in regional water management as well as the county’s latest budget crunch.
Those are broad, far-reaching matters on which Huffman is not yet fully up to speed. Asked about FERC, Huffman stared silently for a moment, then answered: “It’s hard to run against the incumbent because he has all these years of experience with those acronyms.”
She continued: “Yamaguchi didn’t even have Town Council experience when he won. I’m a fast learner. I know a lot, contrary to what he’s telling people.”