Stirring it up
Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi is fast becoming the most powerful elected Republican in the county. So why do so many people in his own party dislike him?
On a rainy spring morning last year, Kim Yamaguchi spoke to an appreciative, standing-room-only crowd at the Paradise Senior Center. He was campaigning for the Butte County Board of Supervisors seat he now holds, and his political aspirations were readily apparent. He was confident and smiley and shook close to every hand in the room. While he’d never held—or even campaigned for—public office before, his voice was practiced and perfectly pitched. He dressed then as he almost always dresses now, in a neat suit and tie, and he looked like a seasoned pro that day, telling the people what they wanted to hear.
“The Ridge has been ignored long enough,” he told the crowd, to a smattering of applause. “We’ve been up here, watching for years as Chico has managed to get funding for this and funding for that … even Oroville. But what about Paradise? What about Magalia? … Vote for me and you’ll see a change, a supervisor dedicated to representing the Ridge full time.”
Yamaguchi’s campaign was full of that kind of we’re-not-going-to-take-it-anymore rhetoric. He portrayed himself as a blue-collar fighter for common sense, and it played well with voters. He was running against two veteran local politicos, former county Supervisor Len Fulton, who’d served three terms, and Paradise Irrigation District Director Rick Hall. While they criticized his lack of experience, he managed somehow to turn that around on them and portray himself as an independent-minded maverick.
Not that he was entirely independent, or even much of an outsider. Behind the scenes, he had longtime political consultant David Reade working as his campaign manager, along with Sheriff Scott Mackenzie endorsing him. Reade is the late Assemblyman Bernie Richter’s son-in-law, a former chairman of the county’s Republican Central Committee, and about as well-entrenched politically as one can get. Yamaguchi was well funded by his supporters and managed to amass upward of $45,000 in his campaign war chest. In November, he won election handily.
In just the 10 months he’s held office, Yamaguchi has been busy. He’s helped orchestrate the building of a massive firebreak on the Upper Ridge, worked to widen the two-lane road that crosses the Magalia Dam and pushed for the alternate fire escape route that so many Ridge residents want. There have been smaller things, too—stop light installation and road work approvals, grant applications and lunch time speeches to supportive Ridge groups.
None of these things has gotten much press outside of the Paradise area. But Yamaguchi did raise red flags to the rest of the county this spring, when he led a successful effort to give exclusive trash hauling rights in unincorporated Butte County to two haulers—Norcal Waste Systems and Waste Management, Inc.
While it was a controversial proposal in and of itself (it essentially locked smaller haulers right out of the market), Yamaguchi received considerable flak from those who pointed out that Reade, who was still on his payroll, had just been hired as a consultant for Norcal.
Yamaguchi insisted that the two actions weren’t related, but that hasn’t stopped criticism about a pretty clear conflict of interest. Think about it—if Reade is working for Norcal and Yamaguchi while Yamaguchi is heading up the county’s effort to overhaul its trash hauling rules, and the Norcal executives decide they want more hauling rights, isn’t it a pretty fair assessment that those executives would have only to whisper the plan to Reade, who in turn would propose it to Yamaguchi?
In fact, Supervisor Jane Dolan was so inflamed about the deal that she’s threatened a lawsuit over it.
But what really got Yamaguchi noticed was his controversial plan for redistricting supervisorial districts, called Plan 5, introduced in July. Indeed, it’s stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition that threatens to sting Yamaguchi himself.
The plan has infuriated lots of people—from Supervisors Jane Dolan and Mary Ann Houx and residents of the Chapmantown neighborhood in Chico to local progressives, who have mounted a major referendum effort to overturn it. Even a growing number of big-name local Republicans are now saying that Yamaguchi is bad P.R. for the party.
That’s quite a feat, given that Plan 5 would probably make it easier to elect conservative candidates to the board—especially in the usually moderate-to-liberal oasis of Chico. But as Josh Cook, chairman of the county Republican Central Committee put it, “we’re not putting our names on this one. … I want people to know that this is not a Republican plan, and we had nothing to do with it.”
Enjoying a seemingly staunch alliance with fellow Supervisors Curt Josiassen and Bob Beeler (who, with Yamaguchi, form a majority on the board), along with close ties with Sheriff Mackenzie, Yamaguchi has become a political force to be reckoned with. In fact, he is fast becoming one of the most—if not the most—powerful elected Republican in the county. So why do so many Republicans dislike him so much?
It’s 7 a.m. on a late-summer Friday, but the early hour doesn’t seem to be slowing Yamaguchi down at all. He is, as the saying goes, “bright eyed and bushy tailed” and has even brought sweet rolls, orange juice and coffee for this early morning interview.
His office is immaculate and decorated sparingly, as is Yamaguchi himself. Behind his desk are several framed political cartoons that lambaste him ("I’m proud of those,” he explained. “It means they’re noticing me"), along with a framed and signed picture of Yamaguchi with Beeler, Josiassen and Mackenzie in the supervisors’ meeting room.
Sitting down, Yamaguchi asks if we can pray before we start. I don’t object, so Yamaguchi takes my hand, bows his head, and offers thanks for the morning and thanks for the day and asks that “everyone gets what they’re dreaming about today.”
“Amen,” he says, looking up. He leans back, sips a cup of coffee and launches into a short diatribe about his redistricting plan. He doesn’t believe that he’s getting a fair shake from the media about it, and he isn’t shy about saying so. In fact, he points out, this is the first one-on-one interview he’s granted on the subject.
“Everyone just reports what [Supervisor Jane Dolan says],” he complains, pointing at the stack of maps in front of him. “No one looks at the maps. Look at these maps. Anyone who saw these maps would see my plan is far more fair than the gerrymandered plan we got in 1991.”
Indeed, the districts in Plan 5 are far more even—geographically—than those in both the 1981 and 1991 plans. But there are good reasons why the landmass of District 2 (which is made up mostly of Chico’s urban area) is miniscule compared with Districts 3 and 4: Those districts are extremely sparsely populated. I point this out, but Yamaguchi shrugs it off.
“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “District 2 is made up of downtown Chico, and that’s not right. My plan corrects it. Why don’t people get that?”
What Yamaguchi doesn’t seem to get is the massively negative response he’s received from the public about his plan. He doesn’t understand why more people don’t support it, and his disbelief seems sincere, if naíve. He’s wide-eyed and plaintitive when he talks about his contempt for all the negative campaigning surrounding him.
Indeed, the public’s response has been overwhelmingly negative—because of both the content of the plan and the context in which it was written and proposed. It would split much of the urban voting bloc of Chico—which are currently represented by Dolan and Houx—and put thousands of Chico voters into the more-rural district represented by Josiassen. That would dilute the power of Chico’s voters and potentially make it far more difficult for liberal, or even moderate, candidates to get elected in Districts 2 and 3.
Yamaguchi, who asked to chair the board’s subcommittee on redistricting this spring, bypassed that group entirely when he brought Plan 5 to the board on July 24. That was a full two weeks after the public-comment period ended on the four subcommittee-created plans the board was considering at the time.
The proposal caused a major stir at the meeting. County Clerk Candace Grubbs, who helped write the four other plans and who normally maintains a meticulously professional profile, practically yelled into her microphone that she was “pissed” about being “purposely kept out of the loop” in Plan 5. Dolan and Houx loudly denounced Yamaguchi for not bringing the plan forward before the public-comment period ended.
“This feels pretty sneaky to me,” Houx said at the meeting. “I wouldn’t put it past you if this redistricted us right out of our own districts.”
Beeler and Josiassen were far more positive. Beeler said that while they hadn’t seen the plan before the meeting (although Josiassen admitted that Yamaguchi had shown him a copy the day before), he liked what he saw and was ready to vote on the plan.
But even while Dolan, Houx and Grubbs denounced Yamaguchi’s motivations, Yamaguchi asked repeatedly that there be a vote on the plan—as in immediately, that day. It was a move that infuriated the opponents even more—and with Beeler and Josiassen’s probable yes votes, it probably would have passed that day, had County Counsel Bruce Alpert not advised that such a vote would violate public-meetings laws.
Clearly aggravated, Yamaguchi demanded that the vote be noticed on the board’s next meeting. “Is that clear?” he asked the lawyer, removing his glasses and scowling.
Yamaguchi denies that he “in any way” tried to ramrod his plan though that day, despite the fact that he was clearly disappointed that the board couldn’t take a vote on it the day it was presented, without public notice or comment.
“We didn’t vote on it that day,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that I wanted to. … It didn’t actually happen, and that’s what matters. The public had three weeks to see it before we voted on it.”
Yamaguchi is openly defensive when he discusses opposition to his redistricting plan. Much of that opposition, he acknowledges, stems from the public’s (and yes, the media’s) mistrust of David Reade, who has been on Yamaguchi’s payroll since almost the day the supervisor announced he was running for office.
Reade, who was Richter’s chief of staff as well as his son-in-law, was Yamaguchi’s campaign manager and has worked as a consultant to Yamaguchi since he’s been in office. He has a long history of political handiwork in Butte County and is a former chairman of the Butte County Republican Central Committee, although he is, by all accounts, rather on the outs with that organization right now.
Yamaguchi acknowledges that Reade “consulted” with him as far back as April about redistricting but denies that Reade himself ghostwrote the plan. Allegations to the contrary, Yamaguchi said, are plainly false.
“Do I look like a puppet?” he asked rhetorically. “I know the morals and ethics that I have, and when you get into office you can’t let that change. I haven’t let mine change. I wrote the plan that best represents Butte County, and that’s all. This is all just smoke and mirrors to take the spotlight off the gerrymandering of 1991.”
But Yamaguchi hasn’t always been so forthcoming about his relationship with Reade. The day he presented Plan 5, he flatly denied that Reade had anything to do with it. But within a couple of days, Reade himself did a guest spot on conservative radio talk show host Bruce Sessions’ show to defend it. (Sessions, by the way, has been a fervent supporter of the plan.)
The next day, Yamaguchi admitted that Reade “consulted” on the plan.
For his part, Reade acknowledges that he has worked with Yamaguchi—as well as Mackenzie and Josiassen—but says that all the fuss about it is much ado about nothing.
“This is all very interesting,” Reade said. “I work as a consultant, and they paid me for my services. There’s nothing immoral or illegal about that.”
Yamaguchi also unapologetically admits that he purposely didn’t allow County Clerk Grubbs—or any other of the county staffers who had put together the other, more moderate redistricting plans—to see his plan before he was finished with it.
He said he did so because he believes that county staff “was out to protect the gerrymandered plan of 1991.” As proof, he points to the staff-produced redistricting proposals, which more or less maintain the supervisorial boundaries set then.
Plus, he says, he isn’t required by law to share it with them, and he says he doesn’t regret it. Sitting behind a pile of redistricting maps and memos in his office, he isn’t shy about saying so.
“There is no law that says I have to show county staff what I’m doing while I’m doing it,” he said flatly. “They’re supposed to work for us, not the other way around.”
Yamaguchi has taken a circuitous route to politics. He grew up in San Lorenzo, near San Francisco, the son of a Japanese-American immigrant who fought for the Allies in World War II and a Caucasian mother. His grandparents were farmers in the Bay Area long before it became a concrete jungle, and he seems particularly proud of that.
As a child, he says, he was “quiet, kind of bashful, yet rebellious.” He has four stepsisters who were born during his mother’s first marriage. He’s 46 years old.
Yamaguchi has always been a bit of a risk taker. He worked in a radiator shop in high school, and when he was 25 years old he opened his own radiator shop in Calaveras County, having no business or management experience. What he did have was a single-minded determination to succeed—a characteristic that’s been with him all his life.
Yamaguchi moved to Paradise in the early 1980s, when his parents retired there. He left briefly to attend college at San Jose State, where he earned a degree in industrial arts. Since then, he’s worked as a real estate agent—a job he left when he was elected to the supervisors. He married his wife, Lorraine, nine years ago. They don’t have children.
Yamaguchi’s parents were staunchly Democratic, as was he until he “started working for myself and saw how much money I had to pay in taxes.” That, he said, turned him “right around.” He registered as a Republican in Butte County in 1989.
He’s a bit of a workaholic, something he’s clearly proud of. Generally, he’s in his office by 7:30 a.m. and stays until “almost dark,” he said. He estimates he attends evening meetings of board subcommittees three to four time a week.
All the work leaves little room for play, Yamaguchi acknowledges. He enjoys reading (he says his wife stocks up on used paperbacks for him, and his tastes range from philosophy to historical novels to biographies), but says he has little time for it these days. He wasn’t able to name any hobbies.
“All I seem to read since I got on the board are manuals,” he said with a laugh.
When asked how holding office is different than he imagined, he was quiet for a moment before he responded.
“I guess I came in with the rosy idea that I could just come in and do what I think is best for the community,” he said. “I didn’t expect all the personal attacks. I didn’t think there would be so many people out there who disagree so strongly with me.”
Yamaguchi’s opponents have described him as sneaky, dishonest and even “a little off,” but he describes himself as “a little to the right of center, but not far right … curious and community minded.” He says he’s been surprised by what he calls the “personal attacks” he’s suffered since introducing Plan 5, but said that he’s developed a thick skin from enduring years of racism.
He says he can recall thousands of instances of racism he’s experienced and that he’s been aware since he was very young of the color of his skin. He recalled one instance, 11 years ago, of standing in line at an Oregon supermarket with his wife (although they weren’t married then), when the cashier refused to wait on him.
“She just waited on everyone in front of me and then moved on to the people behind me,” he said. “I didn’t say a word. I just stood my ground, looked at her until she had to take me. She didn’t have a choice.”
Indeed, it’s a tactic that seems to have worked well for him, this unhesitating ability to stand his ground. “I’ve never been the kind of person to back away from a fight,” he said. “And there’s no way I’m going to start now.”
In the end, this debate over redistricting is, of course, about which voters will vote for which supervisor, but at its heart it’s really a power struggle.
And at the core of that power struggle is an all-out war between Yamaguchi and Jane Dolan. A supervisor for 23 years, Dolan has been on the board far longer than any of her colleagues and has built up a formidable power base. She’s married to state Democratic Party powerhouse Bob Mulholland, who has thrown his considerable political weight behind her referendum effort.
Politically and socially, Yamaguchi is almost Dolan’s opposite. While she’s politically about as experienced as a county supervisor can be, Yamaguchi is a novice. While Dolan tends to be subtle, Yamaguchi tends toward the overt. Dolan has built up her support in part by playing up county environmental issues and controlling development, while Yamaguchi has said that streamlining the development process for developers is the fastest way to boost the county’s flagging economy.
This philosophical divide is clear on the board, even to outsiders. At meetings, Dolan and Houx rarely address friendly comments or body language to Josiassen, Beeler or Yamaguchi, and the same goes for that triumvirate to Dolan and Houx. Behind the scenes, Yamaguchi acknowledges, the split is even deeper.
“They never talk to me,” Yamaguchi says. “From the first day I walked in there, not a word.” He also acknowledges, though, that he hasn’t made an effort to extend an olive branch to Dolan or Houx.
But while it’s not surprising that Yamaguchi has managed to infuriate his progressive colleagues, it is surprising that he’s managed to raise the considerable ire of many Republican insiders—starting with Houx. For years, Houx has been a loyal Republican and efficient local politician. Appointed to office in 1991 by then-Governor Pete Wilson, she’s a dignified old-school Republican who believes in good, but prudent, government and has a huge network of connections locally and in Sacramento. She’s popular in both Republican and more-liberal circles. Like Dolan, Plan 5 would place many of her District 3 constituents into District 4, which could make her vulnerable in an election.
With Plan 5, Yamaguchi seems to have broken the Republicans’ 11th Commandment—he’s put a (very popular) member of his own party in his redistricting crosshairs. And he did it in a backdoor way that seemed to brook no dissent.
This taboo against targeting a fellow Republican is something that Josh Cook, chair of the county’s powerful Republican Central Committee, points out. While he admits that Plan 5 would probably make it easier for conservative candidates to be elected out of Chico, he’s on a campaign to distance his organization from it. Why? Because, he said, the plan is becoming bad press for Republicans.
“People should know that [Plan 5] is not a Republican issue,” Cook said. “This is not the way our party does things, and you can quote me on that. … It was handled poorly. It needed more input than it got. This kind of stuff makes us look bad.”
In the past, he said, the committee has always worked with elected officials in endorsements and so forth, Cook said. The alliance worked the way it should, he said, when the committee agreed to push Measure A and oppose the utility tax, for example.
Cook, who works as a public-relations agent for the state Republican Party, added that he invited Josiassen to speak to the committee about redistricting, but Josiassen didn’t return his call. (Josiassen didn’t return phone calls for this story, either.) Cook said that while he remains loyal to all elected Republicans—as does the committee—he acknowledged that there is a faction on the committee whose members are increasingly displeased with Yamaguchi’s increasingly powerful alliance on the board.
“I guess we feel a little snubbed,” Cook said. “How could we not? We were totally out of the loop—and they still haven’t come to talk to us, even now.”
Republican Central Committee member Jim Ledgerwood was even less measured in his criticism. Ledgerwood, who was a close friend of Richter and has been a loyal Republican all his life, called the behind-the-scenes methodology of Plan 5 “deplorable.”
“I’m not really against the plan itself … but we can’t win the hearts and minds of the people if our party does things like that,” he said. “This is not Red China. This is not Cuba. The best way to hide things is in the open. If this is what they want to do, they should be open about it.”
While he seems to relish the opportunity to criticize his Republican colleagues, Ledgerwood admits that all the smoke surrounding his party these days can’t be good for its image.
“Once you get to be a majority party, you start fighting amongst yourself,” he said. “I think that’s what’s happening here. I just hope the good guys win.”
To his credit, Kim Yamaguchi has done something that his fellow board members couldn’t accomplish: He’s made voters sit up and take notice of redistricting, which is without doubt the most important action the supervisors will take this year. And by sheer force of his personality, love it or hate it, he’s made the board’s bi-weekly meetings entertaining, at least.
In the process, though, he’s stirred up a firestorm of controversy and opposition that threatens not only to derail his redistricting plan—nobody doubts that the referendum petition drive will succeed—but also to further fracture the Republican Party in Butte County.
For all his apparent smoothness, his glad-handing and meticulous manner, Kim Yamaguchi is a remarkably naíve politician. Thus far, anyway, he seems not to realize that politics is the art of compromise, that your opponent of today may be your ally of tomorrow, and that just because you’ve been elected to office doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want to do.