October 12, 2006
Welcome, my son
by HANK SIMS
Over the past few weeks, representa-tives from each of the region's multifarious news media content providers have been marched into the Eureka offices of outgoing state Sen. Wes Chesbro one by one, summoned there to receive an exit briefing from the man in the flesh. Last week it was my turn. Off I went -- dutifully, feeling a bit like a fattened hog called to its rendezvous at the abattoir.
In truth, I was looking forward to it. The bulk of the time would be taken up by a boilerplate recitation of his accomplishments, I knew, but I felt hopeful that the face-to-face format would allow us to get past the typical press conference-style put-on. A moment alone, I thought, without the distraction of Channel 3's news cameras, could prove enlightening. Well, it was, and damned if the old fox didn't surprise me. Somewhat.
The Chezz is a curious creature, as anyone who has spent time in his presence knows full well. He started out his career as an HSU radical, a leader of the longhairs and an enemy of the Vietnam War. He was involved in some sort of underground literary magazine. (Photos of him from this period are still in semi-circulation -- John Jordan, the pampered Sonoma County rich kid who ran against him as a Republican in 1998, made use of them in his ridiculous campaign.) From HSU, he became an integral component of the clique that took over Arcata government in the early '70s, and that still holds a surprising amount of sway today.
He later moved up to the Board of Supervisors and on to a Sacramento sinecure in the waste management field. He ran for Senate and won, and might have stayed there forever, in his natural element, were it not for term limits. He ingratiated himself with the big-city boys that run the state -- the John Burtons, the Don Peratas. His hair got shorter and his mien got slicker. "Wes Cheesebreath," a former Sacramento reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle once dubbed him. Bruce Anderson of the Anderson Valley Advertiser called him a "disco pimp." Harsh words, but even his most ardent admirers have to admit that there is a kernel of truth in them. I once watched him work the Senate floor, literally jingling the change in his pocket, while one of his colleagues was giving an impassioned speech about something-or-another.
These days, it's not at all hard to find people in the know who will rave for hours about the work being done by his counterpart in the state assembly, Patty Berg, but who will just grimace at the mention of Chesbro's name. The consensus: He's a Sacramento politician, loyal first of all to number one and to the machine he's hooked up with. (If you watch the best television show ever -- HBO's The Wire -- picture Sen. Clay Davis.) These people have resigned themselves to the fact that they have to keep dealing with him for a while now -- Chesbro has already announced that he'll be running for the assembly when Berg is termed out in 2008, and they know he'll win. They don't relish the fact, but they relish the thought of a Republican in that seat even less. There it is. A fact of life.
I was early to the meeting. Chesbro's local aide, Zuretti Goodsy -- a very nice guy who already has a job lined up with Pat Wiggins, Chesbro's presumed successor -- showed me into the conference room. Chesbro came in moments later, a half a smile on his face. I had three things I wanted to put to him. One: Why was his recent bill to provide relief for local salmon fishermen killed by the leadership of his own party? Two: When, if ever, will he and the rest of the establishment finally give up the futile, counterproductive fight to rebuild the Northwestern Pacific Railroad? Three: Why is there never a Democratic primary -- a contest of ideas -- for any statewide or federal offices in this district?
His answers were progressively more interesting. First, though, he gave the expected stump speech, an account of which can be found in Monday's Times-Standard. To that report I will add that Chesbro made a special point of his work to get mandatory minimum funding for rural counties added to a variety of legislation and bond issues, giving rural counties a greater cut of environmental, educational and law enforcement funds than they otherwise would have gotten.
On the fishing relief bill, Chesbro first blamed the federal government. It was its responsibility to mitigate the disaster on the Klamath River, he said, but the feds didn't act. That's why the state legislation didn't make it to the table until late in the game. Then he blamed the Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a supporter of the bill, for not fighting the Democratic legislative leadership for the funding. Only lastly did he place the blame on those leaders -- and then, only because they assumed the bill was Schwarzenegger's baby! "In retrospect, it seems like having the governor's support hurt me with the Speaker," he said. In the last-minute horse-trading that preceded the end of the legislative session, Klamath fishery relief somehow got tagged as a Republican proposal, he said. (Only later did I remember that members of Chesbro's own office had told me that Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer had personally lobbied Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez for the funding.)
Chesbro still defended railroad revitalization. One alternative -- pulling up the tracks that run along the peanut-butter walls of the Eel River Canyon -- would be more costly, he said. The other -- letting them slide into the river -- would be more environmentally damaging. Since the public buy-out of the line in the '90s, the ultimate responsibility for the railroad belonged to the state of California, and the state might as well continue to try to make a go of the dead line. However, he did concede that the railroad becomes less and less likely as time passes, and allowed that people who would rather have a trail along a portion of the railroad right-of-way do have a point. "I think that's a real, competing need, and it's a legitimate need," he said. He didn't give any timetable on when he might be willing to throw in the towel.
It was when we moved to Democratic party politics, or the lack thereof, that Chesbro became most interesting. He had read a lament for the lack of vigorous debate in this space, and he was ready to take issue. He had become progressively more engaging -- more human -- as time had passed, and when I agreed to go off-the-record with him, he was downright persuasive. Off-the-record or not, I don't think he'd mind me telling you that he thought I was completely out to lunch when I imagined that there was any sort of machine politics involved -- that candidates for office are first anointed in Sacramento. The problem, he said -- the reason why there aren't Democratic primaries on the North Coast, was that the district is so damn big, and you have to represent all of it, and campaign in all of it. "I know from personal experience, having driven 50,000 miles per year, that it's a difficult job," he said (on the record). His version -- not many people want to do it.
On the last two points, especially, Chesbro's eyes lit up while he spoke. He seemed to thrive in the face of pure, honest debate. Blame geography or blame politics, but we're not likely to see much of that Chesbro in 2008. What we'll get is the fund-raising Chesbro, the wine-and-cheese Chesbro, the hand-shaking Chesbro. It's a shame.
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