The other rookie

Holcombe makes the mayorship his own, perhaps to his political detriment

Andy Holcombe

Andy Holcombe

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

In the same election that brought Mary Flynn and Tom Nickell onto the Chico City Council, Scott Gruendl won a second term. He campaigned as the city’s sitting mayor, which gave him added opportunities to impress the electorate: ribbon-cuttings, proclamations, running the show in council chambers.

The mayorship rotates, so he passed the gavel to Andy Holcombe. Like Gruendl, Holcombe will seek re-election from the mayoral seat. The two fall on the same side of the political spectrum, and once again the balance of power will be up for grabs.

Holcombe is a different breed of mayor, though. He’s a lawyer by trade, and that carries over to the dais. He doesn’t speak in sound bites, but in thoughtful exposition. He runs meetings the way judges run trials, focused on due process for every party involved. He embraces his place in the spotlight but doesn’t push his personal agenda.

“Andy has done, I think, a great job,” said Councilman Larry Wahl, who may be Holcombe’s most ideologically opposite colleague yet echoed the sentiment of others who regularly deal with him. CN&R readers think enough of Holcombe to put him on par with Supervisor Jane Dolan as Chico’s best public servant.

Whether that will be enough next November …

“I certainly hope people on the whole support me,” Holcombe said, “and I must say one of the perks of the job is when people who I have no idea who they are come up to me out of the blue and say, ‘Hey, you’re really doing a nice job.’ I like that. It’s anecdotal, but it happens more often than I get calls from friends reaming me for ‘voting the wrong way.’

“I do plan to run for re-election, and my approach is that it’s not going to change the way I vote. At least I hope it doesn’t. I don’t want to be stupid—I’m sensitive to the electorate, what people want and what they need. What’s important to me is not changing who I am in terms of balance.

“In my initial campaign, I was a ‘problem solver and consensus builder.’ I like to say my election campaign is going to be ‘still a problem solver, still a consensus builder.’ I want people to feel like they’re heard and listened to…. There’s a difference between not being heard and not getting what you want.”

Even being heard won’t necessarily stop people from holding decisions against him. Holcombe knew he’d upset members of his base by voting for the Mountain View/Sycamore Glen project, and others for supporting metered parking downtown on evenings and Saturdays.

“I don’t like aggravating or, shall I say, pissing off my support group,” Holcombe said, “but it’s always been part of me to look at both sides of an issue. I’m always open to pros and cons on both sides, but I rarely go into an issue with my mind made up.

“I don’t look at it as sleeping with the enemy. We’re all members of Chico, and I’m always trying to find a balance if not a consensus. I think as part of my job, as mayor and as a representative of the entire city, I have to sometimes leave some of my personal views and cherished values and look at other people’s views and cherished values.”

Vice Mayor Ann Schwab, who sits to Holcombe’s left on the dais, sees this balancing act up close. “It’s customary for the mayor not to make a motion,” she said. “That’s probably a challenge for Andy and something Scott enjoys now that he can do that again.” Still, Holcombe sets the agenda and the tone—"Andy is sure we always know what the issue is that we’re talking about and we don’t stray from that.”

Process, procedure, precedent.

“I think Andy runs a great meeting,” Flynn said. “I think disharmony had begun to permeate the council meetings and bring them down. I don’t think he’s done anything differently per se; I think it’s his personality, his make-up, his wiring. He’s a very patient person, and he’s very respectful.

“And he’s very equitable. There have been a few times when there’s been another elected official there who’s asked for more time at the podium or asked to be heard out of order, and he’s very clear that we have process here and we follow that process. In that way, meetings are productive, harmonious, and I don’t see a lot of disrespect shown.”

Holcombe appreciates such compliments, but he’s quick to point out another contributing factor. “There’s a whole different dynamic with the 5-2 split, if you want to call it that,” he said, “because it’s much less of a 5-2 split than I thought it would be. There’s a lot more form than substance to that. As a council, we agree 90 percent more of the time than we disagree; that 10 percent is where the action is.”

The campaign trail, of course, is where “the action” is even more graphic. The build-up will start sometime after the New Year, and in some ways the sitting mayor is a sitting duck.

“I think what’s tended to be true for everyone who’s ever been mayor, wherever they are in the political spectrum, the role of mayor moves them to the middle,” said Jim Goodwin, chairman of the Chico Chamber of Commerce. “The mayor has to take a step back and move things forward.” And while he or she may enjoy the goodwill engendered by the ceremonial duties, “what they give up is the opportunity to make a direct statement to their constituents.”

Four seats will be up for grabs in the next election: Holcombe’s, Schwab’s, Wahl’s and Steve Bertagna’s. Barring a sweep by conservatives, Holcombe’s progressive allies will keep the majority whether he’s there or not.

In any case, he’ll hand off the gavel, the way Gruendl did last November.

“If she’s re-elected, I’m all for the vice mayor,” Holcombe said. “I haven’t missed any meetings yet, so in terms of running the council, she hasn’t really done it. But Ann is running the Sustainability Task Force—that’s a good process—and I didn’t have any experience as mayor going in. …

“To me, Ann Schwab would be the obvious next choice when she’s re-elected. You’re going to be re-elected, right, Ann?”

She hopes so: “I would be honored to be the mayor of the city of Chico.”Evan Tuchinsky