On the cover North Coast Journal


May 18, 2006

Supes on: Incumbents and contenders in the 4th & 5th


Supes debate with Jill Geist, Patrick Higgins, Daniel Pierce and Jeffrey Lytle

DANIEL PIERCE SAT IN HIS car in the parking lot outside the KEET-TV studios, his long black hair pulled back tight in a ponytail revealing temples gone silver, fiddling with an old accordion file large enough to hold several reams of paper. At a glance it seemed he had been brushing up on his homework in advance of that evening's League of Women Voters' candidate's forum.

"Are you ready to have some fun?" he asked a pair of arriving journalists, as if having fun was the reason he was in the race for the 5th District Supervisor seat. He hinted he had some surprises prepared that would inject levity into the usually staid affair. As it turned out, the accordion file was not full of papers; it disguised props Pierce would roll out (literally) while delivering his opening statement.

Inside, when the cameras were rolling, he began his introductory remarks by noting that this was his second run for supervisor. Declaring, "I can fix anything, drive anything, build anything" he launched into a screed about how we're "getting screwed by the oil companies," punctuating his observations with a finger pointed at the camera.

That's when he pulled out the stops (and the props), first opening an umbrella, which he threw off the edge of the platform to represent turbines that might capture energy from ocean waves. Then a radio-controlled car zoomed off the edge of the table and landed in the umbrella, apparently a visualization of his "energy efficient dream." He concluded saying, "I'm trying to be a bit of a showman here — and show people the truth."

In the 2002 primary for the 5th District seat, Pierce came in last in a field of six. Jill Geist came in first, and then went on to win the November runoff election, beating the more conservative Ben Shepherd with help from Paul Gallegos' former campaign manager, Richard Salzman. Geist parted ways with Salzman not long after the election when the recall campaign against Gallegos was brewing and she refused to take a stand against it. "He was playing weird games; there was weirdness all around," she said of Salzman.

At the LWV forum, Geist described herself as "one who does her homework, a fiscal conservative who seeks community input." She then went on to claim that her first term as supervisor showed that she "strives to ensure strong representation and equal distribution of county resources" — an assertion that would soon be challenged by her opponents. Geist's near legendary tendency to speak too fast was in evidence, as was her wonk-like penchant for acronyms and bureaucratic jargon.

Wearing a brown coat almost identical to Geist's, fisheries biologist Patrick Higgins (who is perhaps equally wonkish) delivered his opening statement in a measured voice, initially rolling out familiar progressive themes: living wage jobs and affordable housing, but also explaining that he was running because he sees "the prospect of sprawl" coming to McKinleyville. Over the course of the evening he would contend that the district lacks "assertive leadership," presenting himself as "a populist" and a more progressive alternative to Geist.

Jeffrey Lytle, the only candidate sporting a tie, jabbed at Geist from the right. Describing himself as a soccer referee and a builder, "well adapted and well versed to how the process works," he seemed uncomfortable on camera, or perhaps unused to extemporaneous speaking. With suppressed anger he declared that, "people are nor being included" and that "communication is lacking." While he also lashed out at the county planning department, his primary complaint seemed to be that "people are not getting their phone calls returned" by Geist. (In rebuttal, the quick-talking supervisor claimed the problem stemmed from people who "talk too fast when they leave their number.")

Opponents on the left contend that Geist moved to the center-right after taking office, abandoning her progressive base. Higgins, who supported Geist in 2002, faults her lack of leadership, in particular in the area of planning. He pointed out that a revision of the McKinleyville General Plan was passed a month before she took office, "and since then nothing has happened. We haven't gotten the visionary planning that was promised. I don't think she has the capacity to stop the building juggernaut that looks like it's going to overrun McKinleyville." Higgins is calling for the promised establishment of a Municipal Advisory Committee to ensure that planning decisions follow guidelines established under the revised plan.

Candidates from both sides complain that Geist straddles the fence on issues, refusing to state her opinion one way or another. At the forum she seemed to waffle on the campaign finance initiative, Measure T, which was strongly supported by Higgins and Pierce and attacked by Lytle. Geist also refused to take a solid position on the proposed redevelopment plan, saying she is "remaining objective." (Lytle and Pierce both strongly attacked redevelopment citing the impact on fire districts; Higgins described it as "essential," but had reservations about the inclusion of Samoa.)

In a later interview, Geist defended her fence straddling. "People contact me and say, `Can you take a position on this?' I explain that it's important that you don't weigh in with an opinion until a project has gone through the process. That would show you have made a prejudgment outside of the public process. People [need to] understand why elected officials seem hesitant to render an opinion on something that is still being considered for a decision," she said.

What decision will the voters of the Fifth make come Election Day? The race is Geist's to lose. It remains to be seen whether avoiding stands on issues that divide voters will prove a politically expedient strategy.

Higgins remains confident that he can win, but his professorial tone may put some voters off, and Lytle may seem too green, something that a couple of terms on the MCSD might solve. There is certainly a chance that candidates from the right and the left could siphon off enough votes to prevent Geist from winning approval of a clear majority, thus forcing a November run-off.

And don't completely discount the Pierce factor. One 5th District voter polled over the weekend said she would vote for him because of his off-the-wall performance on the televised forum. "He was wild," she said with enthusiasm. "I'm voting for him!"



The endorsements, please
4th District Supervisor candidates gather their friends



Some voters like a parade — they pay attention to where you are in the procession, who's on your float, or even whose float you're directly behind. Others will vote strictly along party lines. And lots of folks will actually listen to what you say you're going to do if you get elected.

And then there are those who form their impression of the candidates — in this instance, the three running for 4th District Supervisor, incumbent Bonnie Neely and challengers Richard Marks and Nancy Flemming — by checking out their endorsements.

Debate with Richard Marks, Bonnie Neely and nancy Flemming


Richard Marks, 48

Car decorated with Marks political signs and banners, driving in parade in paradeMarks, a homeboy with tidy brown long hair and close-cropped mustache and beard, is the underdog. Unlike his two opponents, he hasn't held political office, and his list of endorsements doesn't pop and sizzle with names from the ranks of big-money, big-land, or big-politico fame. He's the only Democrat running in the 4th District race — and while that shouldn't matter because it's a non-partisan race, it sort of does. His Democrat-ness was made all too apparent at a Eureka Republican Women-sponsored debate last month, in which he was pointedly not invited to perform. (He was in the audience, though).

In the Rhododendron Parade last month, Marks' entourage fell in behind the towering "Women of the Moose" float (balloons, moose head) near the tail end of the procession. Marks walked the whole way, handing out ice-cold Otter Pops to the kids and then, when those ran out, candy. Beside him trundled one of his campaign managers, Rich Mostranski, in a red-white-and-blue-ribbon bedecked gray convertible VW Rabbit. The Marks camp looked low-key and scrappy — as befits a guy who refuses corporate cash, plans to knock on 10,000 doors (he and his crew have done 4,000 so far) and backs Measure T (which would ban contributions to local campaigns from outside corporations).

Marks is selling himself as a middle class dad, husband and millworker — a chip systems operator, certified weigh master, to be specific — who has held down a job at the pulp mill in Samoa for 26 years. He says he wants to bring more manufacturing jobs to the county as a way to provide more people with the living wages they can use to buy a house. And he says he'd like to see Humboldt County's natural resources developed in the county instead of being packed off raw to boost someone else's economy. "If a tree is cut down in Humboldt County, it shouldn't leave this county without being a finished product," he says. And that includes the pulp, which currently gets shipped off to China to be made into paper products.

A union member since 1973, Marks has made his mark as an organizer. In 2002, for instance, he led a successful drive to organize about 700 workers at Dart Container, a Styrofoam cup manufacturing facility in Corona, Calif. "It was the biggest union victory in the manufacturing sector in years on the West Coast," Marks says.

Oddly, he hasn't received any union endorsements to speak of — some unions have kept their leanings to themselves, many others have thrown their caps into the ring of the incumbent Neely. He does have the support of two individuals with union connections: Dave Wiseman, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council; and Steve Harris, district representative for the Operating Engineers Union Local 3.

"It's just a personal endorsement," says Harris. The union, he says, is waiting until after the primary to take sides. Harris says he likes Marks' living-wage stance, his "local-hire" agenda, "and the fact that he comes from labor, and that he knows what it's like to fight the good fight for people in Humboldt County. As a like-minded person, it would be a shame for me not to support him."

The rest of the list contains only a few semi-household names. There's Shane Brinton, 19 and co-chair of Marks' campaign, who, last year, won a seat on the Northern Humboldt Union High School District Board, beating a couple of other contenders including local builder Dan Johnson of DANCO Builders. "I do like that he's talking about jobs, because I'm a young person, and it is hard to find a job in Humboldt County — something that pays more than $8 an hour," says Brinton.

Brinton's mom, Susan, also is a Marks supporter. The Eureka Greens are on the list. And so is Les Rastorfer, a case manager with the Mobile Medical Office, which brings health care to the street. There are three members of Marks' family, and a number of other individuals of every stripe, Green, Democrat, Republican.

At Brinton's urging, Marks has taken his campaign onto myspace.com, that free-wheelin', bare-all domain of young people. The 46 friends he's acquired there are a range of 20- and 30-somethings. There's 20-year-old Cali (whose latest blog entries are titled "fuck," "why," "fucking bronchitis," "tired," and "life in general") and 32-year-old Clinton, whose introductory blurb starts like this: "I'm pissed off about the future energy plan in this country and I am going to do something about it. I'm sick of hipocritical (sic) mega-consumers that preach the evils of capitalism." There's Glory, Poison Kandy, Tom, Colt the Man, Dale and Dylan, Young Democrats of America, Wanna Fuck, among others. One suspects this myspace strategy comes with its perks and, um, challenges.


Nancy Flemming, 57

store balcony with Flemming political signShe was Eureka's mayor from 1990 to 2002, during which the city charged into its General Plan update. Flemming credits her tenure as chairman of the city of Eureka's Redevelopment Board during those years with the cleaning up of Eureka's waterfront and the re-invigoration of Old Town. She also served on the California Coastal Commission for a number of years while she was mayor.

Flemming's campaign style exudes an almost giddy youthfulness: In debates she wears a long-sleeved black T-shirt with her campaign website printed on it in white letters, a glittery cross pendant around her neck. With her short blonde pixie haircut and the nervous body wiggle that she does when she speaks, she comes across as girlish. She is an artist — you can find her landscape and floral paintings in local art shows — and lives off-the-grid on Indian Island with her tugboat-captain husband. She talks in a high, slightly wavery voice about how, under her leadership, Eureka started recognizing all the multi-faceted assets of its waterfront: "The inner reach, so good for recreation; the outer reach, our deep water port." She'll tell you how she arrived in Eureka in 1972, "a 20-something mother of two" who, as her website puts it, "brought with her an irrepressibly sunny disposition, a style of dress that can only be described as '50s New York ... and the gentle southern manner of a home-grown Arkansas girl." She started a coffee roasting business in Old Town before coffee roasting, or Old Town, was cool. She's against Measure T, and doesn't fear Rob and Cherie Arkley's retail plans for Eureka's former rail yard, the Balloon Track, even though they include a Home Depot. She says when detractors of the project say "No Growth," it means "no affordable housing" and "no jobs." The Arkleys' proposal, she says, "is the best, smart growth proposal that this community has seen in a long time." She says she wants to do something about child abuse, drug abuse, affordable housing, and acquiring cheap or free broadband access for all.

Her endorsements? Well, right away, you can see she's got the money-men, and women, in her camp; a goodly number of them are Ingomar Club members. There are four Arnots (law), four Harpers (autos), a couple of Arkleys (you know), a Lazio (fish), a couple Grushkins, some Kramers, a Crawford — a veritable Who's Who of Humboldt County. But note: Flemming says she has put a $500 cap on campaign contributions.

She's also recruited some big names from the local resource industry: George Schmidbauer of Schmidbauer Lumber, as well as fisherman, horseman and Clam Beach access proponent Dennis Mayo. Stanwood Murphy, whose family started Pacific Lumber, also endorses her.

Murphy runs a deep-water dock in Fields Landing, handling in-bound logs for sawmills and "hog fuel" (wood waste for the power plant), and shipping wood chips to British Columbia. He says he was impressed with Flemming when she was mayor, and that she really helped him deal with the Coastal Commission. "I had things in front of the Coastal Commission, and Nancy took the effort to pick up the phone and call me and say, `Woody, this is the way to deal with this and you'll have no problem.'" Neely, he says, doesn't take the time for him. "To get on their agenda takes weeks, sometimes maybe a year." He says, for example, after the 9/11 attacks he put up a security fence around his business because part of it is in the foreign trade zone. A neighbor complained to the Coastal Commission, and a months-long argument ensued.

There also are some former city council colleagues in Flemming's camp, including Connie Miller and Jack McKellar — who both supported Neely back in 1998.

On the phone, Jack and Miriam McKellar suffer almost a duet of a conniption talking about Flemming's opponent Neely. "She's a turncoat, a goddamn traitor!" shouts Jack. "She was going to back me for mayor, and then she turned around and backed the other guy!" Miriam, taking the phone from Jack, says more calmly that the reason they once supported Neely, years ago, was "that she was the best we could do at the time. And now we have Nancy. She did an excellent job when she was mayor of Eureka. And politically, we see eye to eye with her."

"Turncoat!" yells Jack, again, in the background. He gets back on the phone to say why he likes Flemming. "She's got a lot of guts." He figures she can stand up to the "goddamn environmentalists [who] have run everyone off. There's no jobs now. The college — it educates 'em up here, and then they just sit around, a bunch of dummies." Miriam gets back on, says Neely's been on the board too long. "I think she's become too closely aligned with liberals." Like the current Eureka mayor, she says — grrrr. "He's embarrassing," says Miriam. "He shows up [to functions] in Birkenstocks and shorts, and late."


Bonnie Neely, 57

store with Neeley political sign in windowFor two decades, homegirl Neely — of the Neely Automotive family — has been the 4th District's supervisor, and within that time frame she's served a total of about eight years on the Coastal Commission. While her opponents have touted their fresh perspective, Neely doesn't actually come across as stale, at least in debates. During her 20 years, plus six preceding ones when she was administrative assistant to the board of supervisors, she seems to have acquired an intricate bureaucratic know-how and a level of insider wonkery that can slowly crush an opponent. When Neely takes the mic during a debate, she answers the questions in a voice that is confident and informed — though slightly sharp, even punishing. After her opponents finish speeches filled with generalities about affordable housing, better jobs and infrastructure improvements, she casually raps out her accomplishments in those categories and then projects them into the future.

Neely talks about smart growth, and touts improving infrastructure, creating affordable housing, preserving open space, and promoting "sensible economic development" as her priorities. Noting that the county is in the midst of hammering out a redevelopment plan, focusing on rural and semi-rural, so-called "blighted" communities, Neely sees redevelopment as the key to affordable housing. She recently announced that she would work to increase the amount of tax-increment redevelopment money that Eureka can set aside for affordable housing from the required 20 percent to 30 percent. She describes herself as industry friendly. "Our economic development strategy is to grow our industries," she says. For example, she says, Humboldt County secured a half-million dollar grant to convert a dairy in Miranda to organic. "As a result, we now have 13 organic dairies." She says she's a fiscal conservative and a social and environmental moderate.

Neely's list of endorsements is wide-ranging: fellow supervisors Roger Rodoni, John Woolley and Jimmy Smith; Assemblymember Patty Berg; Congressman Mike Thompson; Senator Wesley Chesbro; 10 of her fellow coastal commissioners; fashion-slayer Eureka Mayor Peter La Vallee; Eureka City Councilmember Chris Kerrigan; Humboldt School District Superintendent Garry Eagles; Sun Valley Floral Farms president Lane DeVries; developer Dan Johnson; the Blue Lake Rancheria (a first-ever endorsement for the tribe); forester Gary Rynearson; the Humboldt Fisherman's Marketing Association; Leonardo & Son Dairy. Five unions have endorsed her: the carpenters and joiners, pile drivers, plumbers and steamfitters, food and commercial workers, and electrical workers. Sheriff Gary Philp, ranchers Joe and Karen Russ, Denver and Judy Nelson and Tim McKay of the Northcoast Environmental Center are on the list.

"You always ride the horse you know the best," says Supervisor Roger Rodoni. "I've worked with Bonnie since 1997. She knows the county government inside and out, and sometimes it's amazing, her recall. She's a virtual encyclopedia of county functions, history and political institutions." Rodoni doesn't agree with Neely on everything, he says. "My opinion of the planning director is probably 180 degrees from hers. Bonnie's probably a little further to the left than I'm always comfortable with. But, like I said, you go with what you're familiar with. Someone you can count on."

Wayne Sohrakoff, who serves on the board of directors for the Humboldt Fisherman's Marketing Association, says Neely has been most helpful in dealing with the Coastal Commission. He believes it was her presence on the commission that helped get a Humboldt Bay harbor dredging program passed despite opposition from people worried about the dredge spoils being dumped on a Samoa beach. "I just feel like she's been here a long time, and she understands our needs. The most important thing is for us to be able to move our boats. I couldn't move my boat this morning to paint the other side, because of the sediment in the boat basin."

Of course, Neely herself wouldn't claim to have been an advocate for the fishermen in her role as a Coastal Commissioner. At the Eureka Republican Women's debate, she listened to Flemming claim that the county needs "an advocate" on the commission. "It's a quasi-judicial role," she scolded. "That would be entirely inappropriate." So there.




Comments? Write a letter!

North Coast Journal banner

© Copyright 2006, North Coast Journal, Inc.