Last Saturday afternoon, friends, family and associates of Liz Murguia gathered at the Humboldt Botanical Garden near College of the Redwoods to honor her years of work and to wish her well in retirement. Among them were her two past bosses: former California State Assemblyman and Senator Barry Keene, who represented the 2nd District from 1973 to 1992, and Rep. Mike Thompson, who hired Murguia when Keene left office. She worked for both as "district representative" for Humboldt and Del Norte counties, a position she held for a combined 35 years.
On the Friday morning before the party, we sat down with Murguia in the comfortable living room of her Eureka home to talk about what being a district representative was like.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Mendocino County - Laytonville and Branscom. My family moved there after the War; my dad was a logger. It was a great place to grow up. Then I went to college at Sonoma State, graduated in English.
In 1972, the year I graduated, Barry Keene was running for the State Assembly. He was the young buck taking on Frank Belotti, who'd been in for 25 years. I knew Barry; my family was involved in Democratic politics. When he won, he asked me to move to Sacramento and work for him. I was a single mom; somehow it didn't seem right to move my child into that urban setting. I didn't do that. Instead I ended up going to Washington, D.C., where I had friends. What an education - they hired me as shipping clerk for Zero Population Growth. Interesting times. I remember discussions on the Hill about the Hyde Amendment, talking about women's reproductive rights ...
So you'd turned down a job with Barry Keene, but then you ended up working for him.
After that year adventure in Washington, I talked with Barry and said I would be interested in working for him if something became available. When I got back to the West Coast he hired me to run his district office in Humboldt. That was in '75.
What exactly does the job of district representative entail?
You are the eyes and ears for the person who is absent. You're the person responsible for translating the issues that affect or are of concern to people.
You serve as the interface, the listener?
Yes. And you do a lot of casework. People call their elected representative typically because they want help with something. They don't usually call to say, ‘Golly, everything is going really great, thanks.' They call because they need help, they need an advocate. You help them deal with agencies, help solve very individual problems. That's a lot of what you do.
Working for Mike it could be anything from a passport or immigration question to a veteran who is having difficulty achieving veteran's benefits - you know, there's some lag, papers haven't gotten where they need to go. You try to figure out what's going on. It could be Social Security or Medicare issues for people. We make sure that people get what they're looking for when they're dealing with a federal agency. You help facilitate that. You get on the phone and act as a liaison.
Again, it's interface work, in this case for people who need something from their government.
Because it's their government.
It seems like, particularly lately, there's a tendency to question what the government does for us. Those are the day-to-day things in people's lives, what about the big issues?
In our region, there's always this concern about economic growth. And you want policies in place that promote growth, but you also balance that with environmental protection. In our district we've worked through big issues of public land use and public access. We've done a lot over the years. You might call it super-case work - working on the bigger issues. Mike is such a problem solver, such a doer.
You think about the issues in the fishing industry for example, all the ways we've worked over the years to make that better. Or the gravel operators - you really are a voice for them when you have literally six or seven county, state, federal agencies that regulate them and they have this narrow window when they can get on the river and mine gravel. The clock is ticking and there are conflicting messages. You might bring everyone to the table to see what needs to happen.
In a case like that, I assume you need to understand the complexities of some intricate rules.
It helps to have a broad understanding. I don't think we're required to understand all the technicalities in everything. You can't. I often say, by necessity we're generalists. I know a little bit about a whole lot and not a whole lot about any one thing. Certainly after 35 years you gain a broad understanding of how things work.
How do they work?
Boy, is it complex. It really is. Mike and I talked a lot about that. There's easy stuff, low-hanging fruit that's taken care of, but the issues are very complex. Another thing you do, you help advocate to make sure government is working the way it issupposed to work, that it's not a hindrance. But also that government is there to do the job it should, to help out.
Of course there are many who don't like what the government does or has done. An obvious example locally would be government's relationship with the timber industry.
The expansion of Redwood National Park was certainly wrenching in terms of job loss. The listing of the spotted owl in the early '90s was huge, too. That has been a complicated one ...
As we talked about the particulars of National Forest timber sales in terms of millions of board feet, it became clear that this is one area where she has more than general knowledge.
You grew up in timber country ...
Absolutely. I'm proud to say I'm a logger's daughter. I understand what were excesses - I get that part, too; I think I'm balanced about it. But I think the industry still has a lot to contribute here.
Returning to the question ‘What do you do?': You just turned over your job to [former Times-Standard reporter] John Driscoll. What did you tell him about the work?
So much of what we do is natural resource based, and that's John's area. There are these big issues that are complex and contentious, and conservation of productive land for timber and fishing matters a lot to Mike. When ... I was clearing out all these files I'd kept over the years - files on the Klamath, the Trinity, the Eel River, salmon, the fish kill - every one I'd open, as I looked through it, there'd be some story in there written by John Driscoll. When you think about this job, bringing someone on who didn't know the landscape and the issues, it would really be pushing a rock up a hill, a big boulder. I think he'll do just fine.