After 23 years in office, Jane Dolan once again finds herself under fierce attack
Here is what a stranger from England who wandered into the Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting at around 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 8 might have seen:
The five supervisors were holding a brief discussion about a proposal to create a new four-way stop at an intersection in northeast Chico. Looking chipper and civil, they patiently listened to comments from the Chico residents who were concerned about their street’s traffic.
Our stranger might have thought: Ah yes, this is what we read about in my comparative-politics class. The ideal of municipal government: a nonpartisan board dealing with the people’s business in a constructive fashion.
Supervisor Jane Dolan, who has represented District 2 for 23 years, since 1979, when she joined the board at the age of 29, wrapped up the discussion with a suggestion: Instead of considering this particular intersection in isolation, why not convene a neighborhood-wide meeting to develop a comprehensive traffic-calming plan?
And here our stranger might have thought: That woman Dolan, she seems a little ill at ease in her skin here. But she also appears to be the smartest person up there—she threw out a constructive proposal just when the conversation seemed to be running around in circles.
This snapshot conveys a certain truth about what goes on in Butte County government. But if our stranger wandered out of the County Center at this point, he would have a comically sunny misapprehension of the true state of things. He would have no idea that the board is divided into two bitter factions that barely speak to one another. He would have no idea that lawsuits are flying or that the board’s three-member majority has been accused of violating California’s open-meetings law.
For Jane Dolan, things might feel as if they’ve come full circle. When she first joined the board, she was its youngest member by at least 15 years. She was a lightning rod of controversy, perceived by the county’s old guard as a hippie and a New Left zealot.
Twenty-three years later and now the longest-serving supervisor in county history, Dolan again finds herself at the center of a firestorm. Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi has put forward a redistricting plan designed to endanger her seat. Two weeks ago, Yamaguchi convened a press conference at which he characterized Dolan as “desperate” and charged that the zoning policies she supports have crippled the county’s economy. Dolan’s “legacy is last place, poverty, and no prosperity,” he announced.
The soft-spoken, far-from-extroverted Dolan seems an unlikely figure to have generated such venom—or, for that matter, to have chosen to face so much heat for so many years. On March 5, she’ll face election for a seventh term in office; elsewhere on the ballot, voters will have the opportunity to vote Yamaguchi’s redistricting plan up or down.
What compells Dolan to remain in the political arena—instead of, say, returning to the sort of community-service work she did in the mid-1970s as director of Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE)? What have been her greatest achievements and shortcomings in office? Has it all been worth it? And why are her enemies so eager to drive her from office?
In the summer of 1967, just after she finished Pleasant Valley High School (in that school’s first graduating class), Dolan decided, against her parents’ wishes, to move out of the house and pay her own way through Chico State University. “I just stood there at the end of the driveway,” she remembers, “and I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?'”
It had been a difficult year for Dolan. Her father, who owned a small real estate appraisal business, had always told Jane and her six siblings, “You can do anything that you want to do in life.” But now Dolan wasn’t sure that that was an equal-opportunity promise: Her parents seemed to be willing to pay for the boys in the family to travel away for college, but not the girls.
And she and her father had begun to argue about the Vietnam War. “These were not friendly father-daughter conversations,” she says. “These were serious arguments. My brother had just recently gotten a draft notice.”
Dolan moved in with friends, got a job at a burger joint called The Arctic Circle, and started at Chico State, where she thrived. In 1972-73, she served as the student body president and the following year became director of CAVE.
Dolan was emerging at a propitious time: 1973 marked a turning point for local politics. One year earlier, the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, had come into force. Suddenly, all of the town’s 14,000 undergraduates were eligible to vote, and they made themselves heard. In 1973’s City Council elections, a youthful coalition known as the April Committee led a pair of anti-Vietnam War, environmentalist candidates to office, the first left-liberals ever to challenge the city’s conservative, business-based establishment and win.
“I moved to Chico in December of 1973,” recalls attorney Mike Bush, who for many years headed up the local office of Legal Services of Northern California and is now in private practice. “And I could see that there was just a tremendous amount of political energy here. People were campaigning for bike trails, starting up co-ops, health clinics.”
From her position at CAVE, Dolan operated on the margins of this New Left scene. Bush recalls her as being somewhat shy and much more prudish—she didn’t drink or do drugs and wasn’t much of a partier—than most of his friends.
Having won a voice on the Chico City Council, the progressives next turned their sights toward the county level. In 1974, at the age of 25, Dolan was persuaded to face off against Chico High School civics teacher and liquor storeowner Bernie Richter in the race for the District 2 county supervisor’s seat.
The famously truculent Richter won that year, but he soon found himself in hot water with a vital constituency: the farmers who live and work in the corridor west and south of Chico.
“We really felt that Richter had misled the voters about his commitment to protecting agricultural land,” says Juanita Farley, who helped to lead a recall campaign against Richter in 1976. “All of a sudden, he was supporting new developments here and there [on farmland]. That’s not what farmers had thought they were voting for.”
The recall-Richter campaign, which was unsuccessful, had nothing directly to do with Dolan. “At the time, we thought of Jane and her friends as a completely different circle—the Campaign for Economic Democracy [CED] crowd,” says Farley. It was only in 1978, when Dolan and Richter were again pitted against one another, that the farm activists and Dolan’s more-urban network of supporters began to get to know one another.
This 1978 race was bitterly fought. “You should have seen some of the anti-Dolan leaflets,” says former Supervisor Ed McLaughlin, a Durham-area farmer who served on the board in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “They beat her up unmercifully. They were bringing up all kinds of attacks based on her college days, things about Vietnam, things not at all relevant to the issues of county government.”
Longtime Butte County Republican activist (and Paradise Post columnist) Jim Ledgerwood says that the 1978 Dolan-Richter race changed the tone of county government forever. “At that time politics in Chico and the county had no particular sophistication,” he says. “If you were prominent in business, if you were known in the community, at one point they’d tap you on the shoulder, take you to lunch with the editor of the newspaper, and say, ‘It’s your turn, pal. Why don’t you run for supervisor?’ But Dolan’s team brought a whole new dimension to things. Bob Mulholland’s skills were way beyond anything we conservatives had at the time.”
Mulholland—Dolan’s friend and political ally since 1974 and her spouse since 1989—is now a prominent operative for the state and national Democratic Party apparatuses who works in Sacramento. Back in 1978, he was a Vietnam combat veteran who’d metamorphosed into a canny, hyper-energetic local organizer with the Campaign for Economic Democracy, an activist organization founded by New Left veteran Tom Hayden.
Partly because of his CED experience, Mulholland was able to guide Dolan’s supporters in effective, relentless door knocking, phone calling and get-out-the-vote work.
In Mike Bush’s recollection, these techniques worked not so much because of their sophistication, but because the group that worked on the campaign was full of high spirits.
“We’d all gather at this house on Chestnut that Mulholland shared with [fellow Vietnam vet] Ed Caldwell,” he says. “Kenny Grossman, who later helped start Sierra Nevada, would provide the beer. We’d sit around and argue about politics and philosophy, and then we’d get our assignments—you’d get your list and your flashlight and go do literature drops at people’s front doors until 3 in the morning. That’s how I met my wife, going out together to do literature drops.”
Dolan won the 1978 race, much to the shock of Richter. ("He had every excuse other than his own performance to explain his defeat,” recalls McLaughlin.) Her first priority in office was to address the land-use issues that had gotten Richter into trouble. Her campaign had promised to develop a comprehensive plan to protect agricultural land and to control development in the area surrounding Chico.
But before she could roll up her sleeves and get to work on zoning reform, Dolan first had to find her footing on the Board of Supervisors. This proved to be easier said than done. “I had a naive idea that winning the election would be the hard part,” she says, “and that when I actually joined the board, I’d be accepted. But in fact there was this sense on the board that I was not just a political opponent, but also somehow illegitimate.”
Dolan jokes that during her first year on the board she couldn’t even find a second if she moved to approve the minutes. Every important vote came down 4-1, with Dolan on the losing end; her Chico softball team gave her a jersey with the number 421.
“I got all kinds of patronizing comments,” she recalls. “'You’re just so smart,’ they’d say. ‘But I can’t vote with you on this.'”
By the final year of her first term, however, Dolan had gained enough clout to push through the ordinance with which she is most associated: In 1982, the county finally established the Chico Greenline. The Greenline establishes strict barriers that protect the farmland west and south of Chico from commercial and residential development.
In the wake of the recall-Richter campaign, there was tremendous community support for some sort of new zoning restrictions—and Dolan worked many months on the details of the plan. “Lots of communities in California were doing this kind of thing in a vague way,” says Dolan. “I wanted to make sure that we constructed an ordinance that was very specific, that had real teeth. We went around and looked very carefully at every plot of land around the edges of Chico’s development, to make sure that we were drawing the lines as best we could. To this day, I can still tell you where just about any address west of Chico is. My niece is always joking about that—if anyone has a question that requires a map, she’ll say, ‘Ask Aunt Jane.'”
The Greenline is still broadly popular among farmers (almost none of whom, ironically, are represented by Dolan anymore—redistricting following the 1990 census gave her a compact urban district). The line is also well regarded by Chico residents concerned about sprawl and the aesthetics of the landscape. Many developers and property-rights activists, however, argue that the zoning regimen in Butte County has become much too tight, and that the local economy is suffering for it.
Harold Galliett, an Oroville resident who led a 1996 attempt to revise the county’s land-use rules, says, “My impression of Jane Dolan is that she’s always ready to pass some new law that prevents you from using your property as you see fit. She’s pretty free with other people’s property.”
Post columnist Ledgerwood predicts that the county will become increasingly conservative and Republican over the next decade. But when asked whether he believes even a solidly conservative, Republican electorate would want to dramatically loosen the Greenline, Ledgerwood replies, “Maybe not. But there are some important things the county board could do on the margins. They could adopt policies that are a little friendlier toward manufacturing and industry. And they could be more aggressive about creating business campuses, developing an infrastructure for high-tech jobs.”
Dan Ripke, the director of Chico State’s Center for Economic Development and Planning, disagrees sharply, however, with claims that the Greenline and other land-use policies have stunted Butte County’s growth. “We have a large inventory of industrial-zoned land that hasn’t been filled in yet. Just think of the Chico airport region. So industry is obviously choosing to locate elsewhere for reasons other than land-use policy. Industrial firms are concerned about any number of other things: proximity to I-5, telecommunications infrastructure.”
Twenty years later, the Greenline still stands as the great policy battle of Dolan’s tenure in office. Since then, everything has been trench warfare: grappling with zoning issues on a case-by-case basis.
One current example on which Dolan has worked is the proposal to build 320 units of residential housing on Route 32 northwest of West Eighth Avenue. (The site is now county land but will be annexed to the city of Chico if construction plans go forward.) In late December, this proposal was brought before the Chico Planning Commission, even though very few of the surrounding residents had been notified of the hearing.
“I received the notice from the Planning Commission some time in November,” says area resident Mary Brownell. “I couldn’t believe the size of what they were proposing to build: 320 units, mostly for students. I knew Jane Dolan from trick-or-treating in the neighborhood, so I called her up and asked what she knew. She hadn’t heard of the project either.”
Dolan went down to Chico City Hall, asked some questions, and showed up at the December Planning Commission meeting, making things very uncomfortable for the staff. ("Bob watched the commission meeting on cable TV,” she says. “He told me he’d never seen me quite so tough.")
Dolan convinced the commission to defer the vote until they’d conducted a community meeting about the project. When that meeting was held at the Emma Wilson School on Jan. 10, more than 80 people showed up to vent their concerns about the traffic and noise problems they feared the project would cause. Had it not been for Brownell and Dolan’s intervention, the project might have sailed through with no such public feedback.
The would-be developer, a clean-cut young Texan, wore his game face throughout the community meeting, smiling and attempting to answer questions about drunk driving, bike paths, and Chico State’s enrollment projections. Dolan, for her part, did no grandstanding that evening—in fact, she barely spoke. She simply sat back and listened to her neighbors’ comments, letting the process take its course.
The commission unanimously voted down the project on Jan. 17. The decision is likely to be appealed to the City Council.
Long hours of listening have also been crucial to Dolan’s other major project: fighting to win services and improvements for the Chapmantown and Mulberry neighborhoods, a historically low-income, unincorporated area surrounded by the city of Chico.
“I’m continually asked why I spend so much time in Chapman,” she says. “It’s partly because when I was growing up, I was always told that it was a place where you just shouldn’t go, and it seems ridiculous to have social divisions like that.”
During her second term, in the early 1980s, Dolan began to attend neighborhood and church meetings in Chapmantown, trying to get a sense of the area’s needs. “I first met Jane at a neighborhood cleanup,” says longtime resident Wanda Story. “And she was the one politician I actually saw getting her hands dirty there. We’ve known her for years now, and she’s never just down here trying to push her own agenda. She and my husband have argued about speed bumps, but it was always a respectful thing.”
“When Jane started coming down here in the 1980s,” says Mark Hooper, a nurse and a Chapmantown resident since 1976, “she discovered, to a lot of people’s amazement, that a lot of people who live here don’t want it to be turned into the typical city layout. We like having narrow streets. We don’t necessarily want curbs.”
By the early 1990s, Dolan had created a design plan for Chapmantown and inserted it into the county’s General Plan. “It’s the only area in the county, in or out of towns, that has a design plan like this,” she says. “It’s intended to help preserve what people value about the community. You can’t come in there and build fourplex boxes surrounded by asphalt. We haven’t been able to find money to pay for certain elements of the plan, but that will come.”
Hooper serves on the board of T.E.A.M. Chapman, a youth development organization that Dolan helped to establish. At its January meeting, the board (half of whose members are teenagers) had a full agenda—discussing plans for a new neighborhood health clinic, a series of camping trips for students and this year’s neighborhood cleanup.
On each of these points, Dolan offered the board concrete advice about how to negotiate the county bureaucracy and how to tap various sources of funding.
“I think everyone in the community now feels comfortable approaching Jane,” says T.E.A.M. Chapman’s young director, Darcia Johnson, whose mother Dorothy is a longtime community activist. “I can’t remember a time in my life when Jane wasn’t a familiar face.”
A common complaint about Dolan’s work in Chapmantown is that she hasn’t done enough to support (or oppose) the neighborhood’s annexation into Chico, a prospect that has been discussed for decades. Michael Jones, a local dentist and the editor of the Web site chicopolitics.com, argues, “It irritates me that Chapmantown is not part of the city. The area is quite liberal, and if it were part of the city, it would increase the chances of liberal candidates winning seats on the City Council. In each of the last two elections, the conservatives retained control of City Council by only a few hundred votes. If Chapmantown were annexed to the city, we’d have a liberal council, which presumably Jane would want.”
Dolan replies to such arguments by saying that she’s simply respecting the wishes of Chapmantown residents: “I’m acutely aware that there’s strong sentiment in the neighborhood against annexation. And I’m also aware that annexation is going to happen eventually. So I see my responsibility as helping the community to protect what it values as the process goes forward, and to make sure that the neighborhood remains affordable.”
In any event, these questions might soon become moot: The redistricting plan put forward by Supervisor Yamaguchi would remove Chapmantown from Dolan’s District 2 and split the neighborhood between Districts 3 and 4.
The furor surrounding this redistricting plan—which, after being approved 3-2, was the target of a successful referendum petition drive and will be placed before voters on March 5 as Measure B—has made this the most difficult political season for Dolan since her first year on the board.
And this latest fight, remarkably, carries strong echoes of Dolan’s bitter 1974 and 1978 races against Richter (who died in 1999 after serving six years in the state Assembly). Yamaguchi’s primary political consultant is David Reade, who happens to be Richter’s son-in-law. “In some ways, I feel like my legitimacy is being challenged all over again,” says Dolan.
The tumult of 1973, when the energies of the New Left first spilled into Butte County politics, still hasn’t quite ended.
In the early and mid-1990s, the county board seemed to function without such bitter disagreements. What has changed? District 3 Supervisor Mary Anne Houx, a moderate Republican whose seat might also be endangered by the redistricting plan, believes that it partly has to do with purely factional feuds, some dating back to the 1970s. But she also believes that the new tumult is driven by an honest policy dispute: the board majority’s desire to rewrite the Greenline.
“I think the development community is very concerned that they’re running out of land,” says Houx. “They’ve given a great deal of money to my opponent [Chico City Councilman Steve Bertagna], who has promised to scale back the Greenline. I think the developers are wrong about this. There’s no need for us to break the Greenline and encroach on agricultural land. There’s plenty of land that could be developed to the east of Chico, although we’ll have to be sensitive to environmental issues.”
Most observers predict that Measure B will be defeated in March. Ledgerwood, a critic of the local Republican Party’s hardliner faction, says: “Look, I support the idea of redistricting Jane out of her core district. I’m a Republican. That’s what we do. But I’m also for good government and proper procedure, and you just can’t support the way Reade and Yamaguchi brought this plan forward last summer.”
For her part, Dolan says that it’s ridiculous to propose splitting Chapmantown into two different districts. “Charles Bell [the Sacramento attorney hired by the board majority] said several weeks ago that we shouldn’t worry so much about Chapmantown, since it’s represented by Chico anyway. And I had to explain to him: No, the neighborhood is unincorporated. It has always been unincorporated. How could he not know that?”
“I don’t think Yamaguchi could even find his way to Chapmantown,” says neighborhood activist Story. “I don’t think there’s anyone out there who would pay as much attention to us as Jane has.”
But more-critical voices, like Michael Jones (who, like Ledgerwood, opposes the redistricting on procedural grounds), are happy to see Dolan facing new heat. “I think Jane started out very idealistic, and I admire that,” says Jones, who has sparred with Dolan over the issue of public access to park trails. “But I think over time she’s become more like one of the boys, and she hasn’t done much to build the Democratic Party in Chico.”
Jones may have a point here. On the other hand, Dolan (unlike Mulholland) has never proclaimed party building as one of her central goals. Longtime Chico Democratic Party activist Michael Worley says, “Jane Dolan has developed many people locally—especially students and young people. But she tends to direct them into nonprofits like T.E.A.M. Chapman or the Cancer Society. And that’s a legitimate choice, I think. It’s more important to get people involved in the community than into electoral politics per se. If these people are destined for politics, that’ll come over time.”
A January afternoon in Dolan’s district office on Memorial Way finds her extremely busy. She juggles her time between her county work and her appraisal business, which she inherited from her father after working alongside him for several years. (The sting of their late-1960s arguments didn’t cause any permanent rift.) She also serves as a county probate referee, a political plum she received when Willie Brown was speaker of the Assembly.
Today she’s reviewing the city’s traffic studies for the proposed Route 32 development and plans for a Chapmantown health clinic. But she still has time to relax and banter with her staff, telling them that her niece recently quit one of her high school sports so she could attend her boyfriend’s matches. “Bob [Mulholland] got right on the phone with her and said: ‘Wait a minute here. Would this guy give up his sport to come root for you?'”
I ask Dolan whether she’s ever felt too demoralized to continue—since she’s almost always been an embattled minority on the board, and since most of her policy victories since the Greenline’s enactment have been small-scale. “No, I haven’t,” she says. “If I had gotten tired or demoralized, the voters would have figured that out long ago, and the voters would have moved on.”
Dolan can be relaxed and funny in small groups, as at the T.E.A.M. Chapman gathering, but in larger settings and at board meetings she never seems quite at ease. She purses her lips, raises her eyebrows, and sometimes speaks to audience members at a tight clip that seems almost schoolmarmish.
At January’s board meeting, a management consultant made a jargon-ridden presentation about reforming county government. Houx interrupted the consultant, saying: “Hang on here. You’re talking to us about separating department ‘goals’ from department ‘objectives.’ I looked those words up in the dictionary, and they mean more or less the same thing, so I don’t know what you’re talking about here.” This was a perfectly sensible question, and, asked in Houx’s broad, easygoing manner, it got a good laugh. But I immediately thought: If Dolan had raised the very same sensible question, with her stilted style, it would have seemed somehow condescending and would have put a slight chill into the room.
So Dolan hasn’t been blessed with the brash, warm style that characterizes many of her 1970s cohorts (including Mulholland). But her quiet manner may have served her well in many arenas, including the long process of listening and consulting that allowed her to gain the trust of Chapmantown activists. For his part, Mulholland believes their contrasting personalities make them an effective couple.
“If it were me sitting there [at supervisors’ meetings], I wouldn’t be able to tolerate a lot of what goes on on that board,” he says. “I mean, I wouldn’t be like the hockey dad, but I wouldn’t tolerate it very well.”
Former Supervisor Len Fulton, who served the Paradise district for 11 years, sometimes had trouble himself coping with his colleagues on the board. “The repetition sometimes got to me,” he says. “I enjoyed doing my homework and mastering the details, but then you’d just hear the same things from the same people, week in and week out. But Jane seemed to tolerate it well, and I’m sure she knows more about county government than anyone walking. Fifty years from now, people will probably have forgotten about Len Fulton, but they’ll probably remember Jane Dolan. For the Greenline, if for no other reason.
“I just hope the board doesn’t completely melt down,” Fulton continues. “There’s an entire chapter in the History of the Peloponnesian Wars about the dangers of party passions. And human nature is still the same all these centuries later. We’re just waiting for the signal to go into the bear pit and chew each other up."