‘Slates’ or ‘fields'?

Either way, Chico City Council candidates are forming into groups

HEY PAL, YOU’RE OUTTA HERE <br>Chico Mayor Scott Gruendl (left) and Councilman Dan Herbert are heading up opposing slates—or “fields,” to use Gruendl’s term—of council candidates for the Nov. 6 election. If either slate is successful, one of the two incumbents will get the boot.

Chico Mayor Scott Gruendl (left) and Councilman Dan Herbert are heading up opposing slates—or “fields,” to use Gruendl’s term—of council candidates for the Nov. 6 election. If either slate is successful, one of the two incumbents will get the boot.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Slates’ fates:
The only times in modern Chico history when entire slates won City Council elections were in 1981 and ‘85. In 1981 four candidates backed by the Tom Hayden-affiliated Campaign for Economic Democracy--Karl Ory, David Guzzetti, Anne Longazo and Mardi Worley--won office. Four years later, all four were swept out of office by a conservative slate--Mary Andrews, Karl Kumli, Bud Lang and Ted Hubert.

The shape of the November Chico City Council campaigns and election came into fairly clear view this week, when three candidates declared not only their intention to run, but also their alignment into something resembling a political slate.

In a press release, Dan Herbert, Mark Sorensen and Michael Dailey announced, as they put it, “plans to run as a slate” for council posts.

Three seats are up for grabs: Herbert’s, Mayor Scott Gruendl’s and Councilwoman Maureen Kirk’s. Kirk is running for the District 3 Butte County supervisor post.

Herbert, who heads the Sheraton Real Estate Management firm, is seeking reelection to a third term on the council. Sorensen, who owns a satellite television company and chairs the city’s redevelopment oversight committee, is making his first bid for public office, as is Dailey—that is, unless Associated Students president at Chico State University counts as public office. He filled that role in 2003-04 and—having graduated, gotten married and had a son—is now a loan specialist with Bank of America in Chico.

It’s fair to say the three men are on the conservative side of the divide that has characterized the City Council for years. They’re business people and can be expected to garner considerable support, financial and otherwise, from the business community. Politically, they stress the city’s role as a provider of public safety and infrastructure and fiscal conservatism, but they’re not doctrinaire, and individually and on specific issues they could diverge from such positioning.

Council candidates long have had a tendency to organize themselves informally into slates. As the deadline for pulling nomination papers nears, politically active Chicoans, regardless of stances, begin to discuss among themselves to determine their potential candidates and how the races can be organized to focus on the most viable candidates and discourage others from running.

This is the first time in many years, however, that a group has actually referred to itself as a slate.

Herbert said he, Sorensen and Dailey had been talking about running together for some time. “I wasn’t sure I even wanted to run again,” he said, “but I made a commitment to Michael a few years ago that I would run if he did.”

Dailey had been about to get married so the time wasn’t right, Herbert continued. This year it was, especially when Sorensen entered the picture. “I’m very impressed with Mark Sorensen,” Herbert said. “He’s a really sharp guy.”

For his part, Sorensen was a bit uncomfortable with the word “slate.”

“We certainly share a lot of the same views and thoughts,” he said, “but we’re each going to have our own [campaign] committee, so whether it’s actually a slate is uncertain.”

Herbert acknowledged that, for his trio to win, Gruendl would have to lose. “Scott’s done a good job for this town. I’m not trying to oust Scott Gruendl,” he said, explaining that campaigning “is not an exact science” and “we just decided to do it this way.”

If Gruendl, who has made no secret of his intention to seek re-election, was fazed by the slate lined up against him, he didn’t show it. In fact, he said, “we’ll have a slate on our side.”

Then he quickly added, “ ‘Slate’ may be a mischaracterization.” The word he prefers to use is a “field” of candidates. The idea is to create a recognizable group “so that we don’t have too many candidates.” An excess of candidates can result in votes being pulled from the favored ones, he explained.

Most likely, he said, the other two candidates in the progressive “field” will be Mary Flynn, who announced her candidacy on July 10, and Tom Nickell, who announced his candidacy on Monday (July 31). Nickell is a 23-year California Highway Patrol veteran and an 11-year Chico resident.

Gruendl believes having Flynn in the group gives them an advantage. “Our slate is more progressive,” he said, “because we have a woman among our candidates.”

Flynn confirmed that the trio had had “informal discussions” together, though she added, “I certainly don’t consider ourselves a slate of candidates.” She said she agreed with Gruendl’s use of the term “field” of candidates. “We didn’t announce [our candidacies] on the same day, but our values and approaches are aligned,” she explained.

In a press release, Nickell emphasized the importance of planning carefully “to protect Chico’s quality of life, our open spaces, foothills, and infrastructure.” He also wants to protect “high quality neighborhoods” and “address our community problems now before Chico becomes undesirable due to congestion, deteriorating infrastructure, and dwindling open spaces.”

It’s a position statement that Gruendl and Flynn both could have written. Their “field” can be expected to emphasize so-called “smart growth,” protection of the environment, support for the arts and other such causes.

Nickell could not be reached for comment, but he’s reportedly said that he considers himself an independent candidate and not part of any organized group. That of course doesn’t mean that he won’t be perceived that way by voters, who like the candidates themselves tend to lump candidates into alignment groups.

This tendency of council candidates to split—and to be split—into polarized slates is a reflection of Chico’s weak-mayor, council-manager form of government. With such a mayor, policy power rests entirely with the seven members of the council—and thus with whichever group holds a majority of the seats.

Right now those who identify themselves as “liberal” or “progressive” enjoy a slim 4-3 majority. They include Gruendl, Kirk, Ann Schwab and Andy Holcombe. Herbert, Larry Wahl and Steve Bertagna constitute the minority.

The progressives need to elect two of their three candidates to hang onto the majority, while the conservatives need to elect two to take it away from the progressives.

There’s a wild card, however. Kirk’s opponent in the supervisor race is Bertagna, who has two years left in his term. If he wins, his seat will be empty, at which point the council will either appoint a replacement or call for a special election.

If either group still holds a majority following the election, it will undoubtedly opt to select a new member. But if the council is tied 3-3 at that point, war could break out—as it has in the past under similar circumstances—and an expensive special election may result.