Why Dolan lost
Her husband shoulders much of the blame
Does Jane Dolan feel any sense of relief now that her 30-plus years of service on the Butte County Board of Supervisors has an end in sight?
“No,” she answered without hesitation when recently asked.
“Before you decide to run for re-election,” she explained, “you always have to ask yourself: ‘Do I still care about what I’m doing? Do I still believe that I’m effective? Can I still ask people for their vote?’ The fact is I care deeply about what I’m doing, so I don’t feel any sense of relief at all.”
In a subdued voice, she added, “This is hard.”
On June 8 Dolan, who’s held the Second District seat since January 1979 after ousting the late Bernie Richter, was defeated in her ninth run for re-election by Chico City Councilman Larry Wahl. The final tally was close; less than 300 votes separated the two candidates. But as the old saying goes, close counts only in horseshoes and hand-grenades.
Four years ago, Dolan wasn’t even challenged, and in 2002 she carried 64 percent of the vote against challenger John Merrifield. That same year, there was a measure on the ballot to redraw Dolan’s district that, if implemented, would have greatly altered its demographics. The measure was based on a plan drawn up by fellow Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi and local conservative political operative and Richter son-in-law David Reade.
The scheme, an obvious attempt to dilute Dolan’s political base, was supported by Yamaguchi’s fellow conservative supervisors, Curt Josiassen and Bob Beeler. But the measure failed, with 60 percent of county voters saying no.
Dolan, who’s married to longtime state Democratic Party adviser Bob Mulholland and is viewed as the undisputed champion of Chico’s 28-year-old Greenline ag-protection boundary, seemed politically invincible.
Today, Mulholland shoulders much of the blame for his wife’s defeat.
For six to seven weeks during the spring campaign Mulholland was physically limited following an operation for an old injury. His doctors told him to stay on the couch and to be up no more than 20 minutes in any hour.
“Jane did everything right, and basically I didn’t come through for her,” he said. “She would have gotten re-elected had I been healthy and able to help her more. She had a lot of support. I just didn’t have enough time as I should have.”
He said a vast majority of the state’s Democrats stayed home because there were no “top of the ticket” races—i.e., for governor or senator—in the Democratic primary.
In the Second District, Mulholland said, 49 percent of Republicans turned out to vote, but only 32 percent of Democrats bothered. And there are 2,600 more Democrats than Republicans registered in the district.
“The turnout by Democrats was worse than anybody expected,” he said. “And as Jane found out when going door to door, people didn’t always connect it. People assured Jane she was doing well. ‘Jane, the county’s in good shape; good job Jane, everybody knows you’ll get re-elected.’
“And some of those people decided there was no need to vote.”
Three years ago Dolan got caught up in a political fracas with Bill Carter, a progressive real-estate broker who’s long counted himself a Dolan supporter. They attended Chico State together in the 1970s.
Carter was involved in a property transaction with the city of Chico. He and his partner owned about a half-acre in Chapman, the south-Chico neighborhood located in Dolan’s district.
Carter had purchased the property about a year earlier and cut it up into seven lots for seven low-income houses that would be built with help from either the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP) or Habitat for Humanity, both of which had expressed interest. The city would use redevelopment funds to pay Carter $495,000 for the land, which he had purchased for $365,000.
A subsequent City Council meeting visited the issue to, as Carter understood it, clean up some of the language in the pending deal. Dolan and County Counsel Bruce Alpert attended the meeting and told the council that it had failed to run the matter past the county for its consideration.
Councilwoman Ann Schwab joined conservative Councilmen Steve Bertagna, Wahl and Dan Herbert in nixing the project. Too expensive, the conservatives said. Scwhab said she needed more information. Dolan took Carter, his wife, Sally, and his business partner to court, and though the suit was eventually dismissed, the project was dead in the water.
Carter is convinced that incident caused Dolan to lose some support from her otherwise devoted constituents.
“I personally know a few people who didn’t vote for Larry, but did not vote for Jane, either,” Carter said. “Maybe it’s because of the way my wife and I were treated.”
Dolan, Carter said he later discovered, had an agreement with the city that said she would be notified of any redevelopment project that in any way affected Chapman.
One particularly jaded former Dolan supporter suggested the city had failed to “kiss Jane’s ring.”
“When she found out about it she felt slighted and came in with roaring guns,” Carter said. “I learned through all this that Jane was a very powerful person.
“The longtime Jane supporters are people my age,” he continued. “And now we’re getting older. Some of us are dying, some of us are moving away, and some of us are maybe alienated by now.
“Over 30 years you give somebody the cold shoulder or act kind of arrogant toward them or dismiss them, and it might catch up to you. I know I have my bad days; I can be arrogant. But you know, I’m not in the public eye.”
Professor Charles Turner chairs the Chico State Political Science Department. Though he pays attention mostly to state and national political matters, he says common patterns are seen at local levels as well.
“We know that there is an incumbency advantage, but we also know that it has limitations,” he said. “Different studies in Congress have tried to estimate what percent of the vote is based on just being an incumbent, and it’s always a positive number.”
He said there are three main reasons why, after time, incumbency loses its luster for the voters.
“The first is that there are just more negatives for opponents to exploit. The longer the track record you have, the more likely you are to have cast some vote or been associated with some issue that your opponent can use to paint a negative picture of you. And you are just bound to have alienated some folks over the years.”
The second reason is that incumbents can eventually take voters for granted.
“You just get to the point where you assume you are going to win because you’ve always won, and that can result in maybe not trying as hard and maybe just going through the motions.
“And I think either one of those could be relevant to what happened with Jane Dolan,” Turner said.
One difference between a county supervisor and a member of Congress is public awareness. Congress members do their business in Washington, D.C., and as a result can more readily hide their votes from the public, Turner said.
“That’s a lot harder to do in local issues, where you are looking at seven people casting votes and then reading about it the next day in the local paper.”
Dolan is not taking her pending political exit lightly.
“I care about the Greenline,” she said. “I care about neighborhoods, I care about Chapman, I care about improving traffic safety, I care about improving transit.
“We’re in the middle of [updating] the general plan. We’re in the middle of the landfill’s master plan. I look at all the things we’re doing, and there is not a one of them I don’t have an interest in, a passion for and a belief that I have a positive impact. So there you are.”
She said her incumbency may have played against her this time around.
“I did talk to people while going door to door who said, ‘I really like you, you’ve really done a great job, but I think we need to send a message. I asked, ‘A message to whom?’
“And they would stand there and look at me and say, ‘Well, you know, just throw everybody out.’ ”
“I am in the office until the end of December, so there are things that are happening and I will do my job to the very best of my ability. I really and truly have a passion for community service. I do. I’ve had it since I was a child. I will figure some way to continue to contribute to the benefit of Butte County.”