Warren Harding looks to make history— as county supervisor
It just isn’t done, not around here. You have to go back over a generation to find the last time it happened. It was 1970; the country was in the middle of an energy crisis, an economic crisis and a deeply unpopular war being prosecuted by a deeply unpopular president.
That year, in what was the local equivalent of a political revolution, Pat Melarky beat incumbent Leslie Wood to win a seat on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. His colleague, Ted Sheedy, also beat incumbent Frank O’Brien that year.
It hasn’t happened since. For the most part, incumbents only leave office when they die or retire. (SN&R wants to thank Brad Buyse and his colleagues at the County Elections office for digging up the info on the board’s history.)
“We live in such a politically staid culture,” said Jude Lamare, an environmental activist and sprawl fighter with the group Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk. “This is a town where people don’t challenge incumbents. It’s shocking how monocultural it is.”
That’s part of the reason why she is working for Warren Harding, who is hoping to upset the well-heeled and well-funded incumbent supervisor Susan Peters on June 3.
No, not that Warren Harding. This Warren Harding is from Arden Arcade. He’s served for 29 years as an elected commissioner on the Arden Manor Recreation and Park District board. He was a county employee for 31 years in the data processing department.
Two county supervisors are up for re-election this year. But only Peters faces a challenger. The district includes Arden Arcade, Carmichael, North Highlands and parts of the city of Sacramento, including a portion of East Sacramento and the neighborhoods near Sacramento State.
While supervisor would be a much higher-profile office for Harding, he’s no stranger to local politics. In the early 1990s, while serving as parks director, he and his fellow board members were targeted with a nasty recall campaign—for having the audacity to approve a $27-per-year parcel tax for new parks in district.
The coup was initiated by Ted Costa, a Republican activist who would later become well-known as one of the main architects of the successful effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis and install Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unlike Davis, Harding survived the recall effort. District homeowners even ratified the tax two years later.
He’s not just running to break the incumbents’ generation-long grip on power in Sacramento.
“We’ve got a problem on this board. It’s a developer-controlled board,” said Harding, who jokes that about four-and-a-half out of five board members are pro-developer.
None, he claims, are deeper in the pockets of developers than his opponent Peters, who is, after all, a developer. Her late husband, Peter McCuen, founded McCuen Properties, one of the leading commercial developers in the region, whose projects included the ziggurat office building in West Sacramento, the Mather Commerce Center, the U.S. Bank building and the Central Library downtown. On paper, Peters is worth millions, thanks to partnerships related to McCuen Properties.
Harding says the pro-developer bias of board members is obvious in their recent decision to approve construction of new mansions in the American River Parkway, just a few feet from the bluff. Peters’ “yes” vote on that project, Harding said, “benefited not one person in this community except for the developer.”
As a longtime county employee, Harding has a detailed understanding of how the county works. And he says always relying on new development to finance county operations is a mistake.
“It’s like a Ponzi scheme. They’re just taking money from the future,” Harding said, explaining that there’s plenty of room for the county to build “up and in,” to encourage infill development and grow more efficiently.
He also faults the board decisions against forming a needle-exchange program (“We’re talking about stopping the spread of disease here.”). More recently, he was disappointed that the board chose against issuing medical-marijuana ID cards, which he says puts the county at odds with the medical-marijuana law Proposition 215, overwhelmingly passed by California voters 12 years ago. Peters was among the 3-2 board majority that rejected the medical IDs.
In case you were wondering, yes, Warren Harding is related to that Warren Harding, the 29th U.S. president who wore a size 14 shoe and whose administration was troubled by the Teapot Dome scandal. Way, way back in the Revolutionary War times, there were two Harding brothers. The line of Abraham Harding produced Warren G. Harding, Republican from Ohio. Decades later, the line of Steven Harding eventually produced Warren Harding, Democrat from Sacramento.
Despite Harding’s prominent lineage, it is Peters who commands the dead presidents. According to her last campaign statement, Peters had about $150,000 cash on hand. Her campaign-finance statement from the beginning of the year is a book, boasting thousands of dollars from regional developer Angelo Tsakopoulos and his family, along with other area developers. Dan Lungren has given money. And, of course, so has Ted Costa.
Peters has much of the county’s political machinery behind her as well. Sheriff John McGinness, District Attorney Jan Scully and fellow supervisors Jimmie Yee and Roberta McGlashan have endorsed her re-election.
By contrast, Harding has raised only $16,000 so far, the biggest contributors being unions affiliated with the Central Labor Council and $1,000 checks from the Stonewall Democrats and the Sacramento County Young Democrats. And many prominent environmentalists, hoping they can shift the balance of power on the board, have been writing $500 checks.
He’s also got the backing of the popular former supervisor Illa Collin, who is quoted in his campaign materials saying, “Warren Harding will give much more than lip service to the protection of the American River Parkway. He’s been protecting parks for 29 years.”
This is ostensibly a nonpartisan race, but party politics could help the Harding campaign. The district has always sent conservative Republicans to the board, but recently, Harding says, Democratic registration moved slightly ahead of the GOP, 45 to 43 percent. Coupled with the endorsements of the area’s major Democrat organizations—including the Sacramento County Democratic Party—that can contribute money and volunteer labor, this can boost Harding’s chances.
He says he is not daunted by the fact that no challenger has beaten an incumbent in 38 years.
“No, no. It’s very exciting to me. I’d like to see it happen again.”