From checkmate to stalemate

In Nevada County, where left and right are constantly at one another’s throats, a supervisor’s resignation creates a deadlock

Robin Sutherland, chairwoman of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, presided over the conservative majority. Now she just presides.

Robin Sutherland, chairwoman of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, presided over the conservative majority. Now she just presides.

Photo By Jeff Kearns

Many of those wrapped up in Nevada County’s bitterly divided political scene know the exact margin of victory Drew Bedwell had in his November 2002 bid for supervisor. The number, 19 more than incumbent District 3 Supervisor Bruce Conklin, seems to be burned into everyone’s brain. Bedwell, a conservative property-rights advocate, had triumphed over Conklin, an environmentally friendly liberal. The same thing happened in District 4, where progressive incumbent Izzy Martin lost to conservative Robin Sutherland. And with that, one of the most acrimonious elections in recent memory ended with conservatives taking a 3-2 majority on the board. Environmentalists, liberals and progressives suddenly were out of power, helpless to do anything but grumble and watch in horror as the new board charted a new course on land use and other policies.

Until last week.

Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a treatable form of cancer, Bedwell left office June 2 to begin treatment.

Though county government is officially nonpartisan, the remaining two members on each side of the ideological divide were left essentially deadlocked.

“Everything has been turned into partisan politics,” said Mary Longmore, the county’s Democratic Party chairwoman. “The far left and the far right seem to have drawn a line. There is no negotiation or dialogue.”

Now, supervisors can’t act on anything unless at least one member agrees to join the other side—like prison enemies making a daring escape while shackled together. The awkward situation already has given the board’s liberal members, Peter Van Zant and Barbara Green, one victory to celebrate.

Last week, Bedwell’s absence caused the board to deadlock on the appointment of Republican former Supervisor Fran Freedle to run the county’s elections department. After two committees rounded up a half-dozen qualified candidates, Bedwell instead backed Freedle to run the county elections office, in spite of what opponents saw as a near total lack of experience. But Bedwell was gone before the board could formally appoint her. When opponents of Freedle packed the chambers at last week’s meeting to denounce the nomination, conservative Supervisor Sue Horne tearfully changed her mind.

Now, supervisors must agree on another nominee, and fast. The county’s current elections chief leaves office in three weeks, and the office is preparing to oversee an election in just five months.

Meanwhile, political discourse in the county seems one step away from open warfare.

“It’s a tinderbox, waiting to explode,” said county Superintendent of Schools Terry McAteer, who recently found himself vilified by both left-and right-wing factions.

Last month, a day before a Quaker peace group was scheduled to use one of the public meeting rooms available at the superintendent’s office, McAteer’s phone started ringing off the hook. “I got a huge number of calls from ultra-conservatives threatening me and my staff … calling me a communist,” McAteer said. He later learned that Republican Central Committee Chairman Tony Gilchrease had alerted other Republicans in an e-mail that referred to the Quakers as anti-American Al-Qaeda supporters and urged residents to call McAteer and express their outrage that the group would be plotting at the school office. Concerned about the potential for violence, McAteer asked the group to meet elsewhere. “I’m appalled by my central committee. It’s an embarrassment,” said McAteer, who described himself as a moderate Republican and assured SN&R that he is not, in fact, an Al Qaeda supporter. But that wasn’t the end. McAteer then got an earful from local lefties, who called him an Ashcroft supporter who hates free speech. Last week, Richard Somerville, the editor of Nevada County’s local daily, The Union, wrote that he’d received hateful calls and letters from liberals who were elated at the news of Bedwell’s departure, in spite of the life-threatening circumstances. “Bedwell’s death. That would be a nice headline,” read one letter cited by Somerville.

In all the confusion, no one knows how the stalemate will be resolved.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger may appoint an interim supervisor to the post but so far has given no indication of when—or if—he’ll name someone. If the governor doesn’t appoint anyone, the seat will remain empty until November, when voters will elect someone to serve the last two years of Bedwell’s term.

Sutherland has begun lobbying the governor’s office to name someone quickly, top county officials said last week. She and the other conservative supervisor, Sue Horne, did not return calls.

Republicans are backing John Spencer, a conservative planning commissioner appointed by Bedwell. Spencer said he is interested in being appointed and that he plans to run for the seat in November.

Also angling for the vacant seat is Conklin, who argues that he knows the job and has the support of nearly half of those who voted in the last election. Conklin also plans to run for the seat in November. After all, as everyone knows, he lost by just 19 votes.

Nevada County’s rural landscape—the very thing at the center of so much political strife there—stretches from the edge of Yuba County to the Nevada state line, taking in the cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City. Just about everyone, it seems, is one of the Bay Area transplants who have helped swell the county’s population to nearly 100,000 in recent years. The new residents also have brought demographic shifts that set the stage for the deep divisions among residents. The county is solidly Republican, and, according to state demographic data, its residents are among California’s whitest and oldest. But Bay Area liberals have brought new attitudes, especially on environmental issues.

Mindful of the sprawl they left behind in places like San Jose, Fremont and Concord, transplanted eco-friendly liberals want to preserve the county’s rural feel. Conservatives see those attitudes as an affront to their own pro-business, pro-property-rights values, and conflicts over land use, conservation efforts and environmental controls have erupted into one big countywide brawl.

Property-rights advocate Drew Bedwell’s slim 2002 victory over a liberal incumbent tilted power to conservatives. His sudden departure left the board equally divided.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Conklin and Martin both were elected on preservation platforms, but both got the boot from voters after just one term, during which they championed a controversial natural-resources study that Bedwell and other conservative property-rights activists demonized as a left-wing land grab.

“Some extremists played on that,” Conklin said ruefully. “Any kind of smart growth or smart planning would be an impediment to their property rights.”

Empowered by their new majority, the trio of conservative supervisors outraged environmentalists by approving new homes in rural areas and adopting development rules that allow secondary units on ridges and steep slopes.

“They’re destroying the rural, pastoral quality of [the county] by doing that,” fumed Supervisor Green, who blames right-wing property-rights activists for the county’s deep divisions.

One of the board majority’s last official acts looked, to some on the liberal side, like Bedwell extending one last middle finger at Martin. Last month, at Bedwell’s urging, the board formally opposed bills pending in the Legislature that would create a Sierra Nevada Conservancy. Since she left office, Martin has been working as a lobbyist for the Sierra Fund, a Nevada County-based environmental group, and has dedicated most of her time to creation of the conservancy—a priority she shares with the governor.

Given the governor’s enviro-friendly positions and bipartisan spirit, Conklin said, it would seem unlikely that the administration would name someone on the far right on conservation issues. “I think the governor is going to appoint me and I’m going to win the election,” Conklin said, citing the governor’s support for the conservancy and smart growth. “I think he would be looking for a moderate.”

Assemblyman Rick Keene, a Republican whose district includes Nevada County, met with Spencer last week and plans to recommend his appointment to Schwarzenegger, Keene’s top aide said.

“It’s fair to say the governor is probably more interested in finding someone who is a problem solver rather than fitting into any niche politically,” said Cliff Wagner, Keene’s chief of staff.

Spencer fits that bill, Wagner said. “I believe he’s a pragmatic conservative. He’s not going to be a Drew Bedwell-style activist,” he said. The Nevada County Republican Party also supports Spencer, Wagner said.

Spencer, who once worked in the county’s public-works department and is now in business as a land surveyor, said his background gives him an advantage because he already knows how local government works. Spencer added that he gets along with the remaining supervisors and that he has “a different personality” from that of the combative Bedwell.

“I like people,” Spencer said. “I don’t have an agenda.”

Liberals see Spencer differently, as a right-winger who will pick up where Bedwell left off. Green said the governor’s office should know the politics of who’s being recommended. “They should take a look at who’s behind [Spencer] because he’s one of the really, really right-wing-temper people.”

In any case, it could be a while before Schwarzenegger appoints anyone, if history is any indication. The governor took office in November with two counties awaiting his appointments for empty supervisor seats. It took Schwarzenegger until April to fill an empty seat on the Trinity County board, and another seat in Alpine County remains vacant.

“We’ve received some preliminary indications that the governor isn’t certain if he wants to make a recommendation or allow it to go to November,” Wagner said.

Schwarzenegger’s office won’t say anything about if or when or by whom the empty seat may be filled. A spokesperson said the entire appointment process is confidential until an announcement is made.

While everyone waits to find out the fate of the board, November races are shaping up already. Grass Valley Councilwoman Linda Stevens, a Democrat, also has pulled papers to run in District 3, where she’ll face Spencer and Conklin.

With a second supervisor seat up for grabs also, the board could tilt either way on Election Day.

Meanwhile, supervisors are faced with cooperating on some big tasks that will require them to avoid deadlock votes if they want to pass anything—including the county budget, which must be approved this month.

But while others see paralysis, one observer sees a great opportunity to heal the county’s deep divisions.

Susan Levitz, the publisher of YubaNet (, a left-leaning Web site dedicated to local news and opinion, said the best possible outcome may be for the governor not to appoint anyone. “I say do nothing. It would have a healing effect,” she said. “It would be a perfect opportunity for the board to get together and do what the overwhelming majority of people want them to do, and that’s to get together and compromise. It’s not a bad thing, in a sense, to put aside partisan differences and work together. That’s what [Schwarzenegger] has been asking people in Sacramento to do.”

There are already signs of accord in the supervisory sandbox. Rick Haffey, the county’s chief executive, said that board members were able to compromise on a few things during a budget hearing last week, including funding for a county social-services department. “They were able to come to agreement on a number of issues,” said a surprised-sounding Haffey. “It was all pretty logical.”