by Judy Hodgson

Former Humboldt County Supervisors Wesley Chesbro and Danny Walsh were back in town last month -- the weekend of the Headwaters Forest demonstration. But they weren't here to march or make speeches or even to hear Bonnie Raitt sing.

Walsh, 50, a consultant and lobbyist, brought some friends from Sacramento to join him and his father and uncle on their annual fly-fishing expedition on the Klamath River.

"We scratch and spit and drink beer together once a year," Walsh said with a laugh. "I wouldn't miss it!"

Chesbro, however, had more serious items on his agenda. As one of seven members on the state Solid Waste Management Board, he had come to tour the homeless encampment on the South Spit of Humboldt Bay with county health officials to see if his agency could help with eventual cleanup that will be required.

Chesbro, 47, was also preparing to reenter the political arena. He is running for the state Senate seat of Mike Thompson, D-Napa, who is running for Congress against incumbent Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Windsor. Sonoma County Supervisor Tim Smith, a potential Democratic rival of Chesbro's, unexpectedly dropped out of the race last month leaving Chesbro with a clearer shot at his party's nomination. Assemblywoman Valerie Brown had dropped out of the race earlier this summer.

Few who lived through those tumultuous years of the early 1980s in Humboldt County could forget the fiery clashes between Walsh and Chesbro. Never were two politicians more alike and yet such opposites.

"Every Tuesday night on the local evening news it was the Wesley and Danny show," said Chesbro, whose constituency in those days was the 3rd District, the liberal enclave that encompasses Arcata and Humboldt State University.

Walsh, on the other hand, a born-again Republican and fourth generation Humboldter, represented the no-nonsense, pro-business 4th District of Eureka.

The similarities of the two, however, go far beyond their twin walrus mustaches. They both came of age in the late 1960s. Both were decidedly anti-Vietnam War. Chesbro once worked as a bouncer for the Jambalaya, a bar in Arcata. Walsh was owner/bartender for a spell at the Ivanhoe in Ferndale ( "Where I got my post-graduate education!").

Both were in their late 20s when they were elected to the Board of Supervisors. Both served two terms. Both married in their 30s and each has two children.

The families of Wesley Chesbro and Danny Walsh


Walsh left the board and headed to Sacramento after being appointed to the State Water Resource Control Board by Gov. Deukmejian in 1985 and saw his salary jump from $26,000 to $85,000. Chesbro left for Sacramento in 1990 when he was appointed to the solid waste board, a move that boosted his salary from $35,000 to $91,000. Both continue to make their living from politics.

Both Chesbro and Walsh own homes in Humboldt County and return frequently. In separate interviews last month, both said they've matured over the years. They also say that about each other and consider each other a friend.

In 1967, his junior year of high school in South Pasadena, Wesley Chesbro dropped out of school and saw America first hand by hitchhiking around the country. One of the places he passed through was Arcata where he spent one night.

"But I came to my senses and went back, went to night school, worked my little rear end off my senior year and graduated with my class in 1969," said Chesbro, whose father and brother are ministers.

He entered Humboldt State College that year and spent the next five years often more active in the community than in the classrooms on the hill.

He was executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center from 1971-74, founder and director of the Arcata Recycling Center, campaign manager for the successful campaign to stop the Butler Valley Dam, and was co-chair of the Yes on Proposition 20 in 1972 which established the California Coastal Commission.

Wesley Chesbro was founder of the Arcata Recycling Center and executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center.

Then in 1974, when he was elected to the Arcata City Council, he left college and didn't return for 20 years. (He received his degree in organizational behavior last year from the University of San Francisco's branch campus in Sacramento.)

Concerning his years on the council, Chesbro admitted he was not as tolerant as he should have been toward the viewpoints of others.

"When I was elected, I felt that I had the right ideas and people should listen to me. I began to realize that my job was to represent people, not just lecture them. I began to understand why people whose families have lived in this town for multiple generations might resent the growth of the college and the increasing political influence represented by my election.

"It didn't happen overnight. It was a gradual process."

From 1974 through 1981, Chesbro supported himself with various jobs including one as a garment worker sewing sleeping bags for Kokotat, called Blue Puma in those days.

In the meantime, Walsh cut his political teeth in a more conventional way.

Son of physician Jack Walsh (who at age 80 still practices in Eureka), Danny Walsh attended St. Bernard High School, College of the Redwoods, HSU, where he graduated with a degree in history and earned a teaching credential.

While Chesbro was setting up the recycling center, Walsh was doing "football, track, honors, all conference, Camellia Bowl -- all that stuff."

After graduation, Walsh ran the Ivanhoe for a few years, then sold it and spent a few years in the Bay Area working in public relations and sales. "It was a great job for someone that age. I had season tickets to the Raiders, the Warriors and the A's."

It was during that time his interest turned to politics.

Danny Walsh, from a campaign brochure when he ran for state Assembly against Dan Houser in 1984.

"One of my politically molding experiences was a piece of property I owned in the coastal zone. The Coastal Commission wouldn't let me do anything with it and virtually took the property. It was tied up for years.

"I came back from the Bay Area and ran for supervisor," Walsh said.

Walsh succeeded O.H. Bass in 1978 while Chesbro was still an Arcata City Council member. Then when Chesbro succeeded Supervisor Sara Parsons two years later, the head butting began.

Chesbro didn't realize at the time that those first two years were sort of a honeymoon. Eric Hedlund, a moderate Democrat who represented the diverse 5th District, had two more years left until the conservative Republican Anna Sparks defeated him. Chesbro and Hedlund often were on the same side of an issue, searching for a third vote.

After Hedlund was defeated, Chesbro said, "I went across the bay every day and faced a pretty hostile board.

"A lot of people in Arcata wanted me to be absolutely true to the values I had been elected on even if I got voted down all day 4-to-1.

"But it gradually changed. Danny and Anna never really did much compromising, but the thing that changed was I got to know Erv Renner and Harry Pritchard better (supervisors from 1st and 2nd Districts) and found that they were really much more moderate and open to working with different sectors."

Walsh attributes some of the acrimony on the board of those early years to age.

Those sitting on the Board of Supervisors today are "older. They've mellowed. Let's face it, Eric Hedlund and Wesley and I ... we had very high energy levels and probably were not as skilled as we could have been in dealing with people. We pissed people off."

The issues of the day were many: aerial spraying of herbicides, offshore oil drilling, timber clearcuts, protection of agricultural land, public vs. private ownership of the railroad and government regulation at all levels.

According to one article in The Union newspaper in Arcata, there was a good chance Chesbro and Walsh would be travelling on the same plane back to Washington, D.C., to testify on pending wilderness legislation -- Walsh, speaking for the board majority, against and Chesbro, in favor.

They were also on opposite sides on the reopening of the Humboldt Bay nuclear power plant that had been shut down for repairs -- at least they were for a while.

A feisty young college student named Tracy Buck, representing Redwood Alliance, came before the board to testify. The plant was old, leaking, prone to earthquake accidents and should stay closed, she said.

Supervisor Walsh at the time lectured her about the real world -- and the $300,000 revenue that the county received each year from the plant.

After the hearing, however, he called her up for a date. She told him to get lost.

"Then a year later she called me back and asked me out, at which point all her environmental friends disowned her," he said.

They were married in 1985. Tracy Buck-Walsh went on to law school and today is the No. 3 attorney in the state's Attorney General office. She is the lead negotiator for the state's pending settlement with the tobacco companies.

Walsh and Chesbro went from high media visibility in Humboldt County to the greater obscurity of Sacramento.

On the state solid waste board -- which regulates landfills and transfer stations -- Chesbro found himself again in a minority.

"There's two Democrats, legislative appointees, on a seven-member board in the middle of the Wilson Administration.

"We're surrounded by people advancing his agenda, which frequently is not the same as mine," Chesbro said. But it was again a learning experience.

"I think both Danny and I have learned how to make things happen in a large fishbowl and it's not easy," Chesbro said. "We've both been knocked down a few times.... Along with aging comes the ability to have more respect for different points of view."

Chesbro has held his appointive post since 1990. Walsh served a partial and a full term on the state water board before founding his private consulting firm in 1990.

During Walsh's tenure on the board, the state took the first action to force the city of Los Angeles to return water to Mono Lake. "And we completed the second bay delta process to allocate flows and address the environmental problems of the (Sacramento) delta.

Today, Walsh is a lobbyist. "It's not a bad word. I'm proud of it. I work the legislature. Government is just too big and too complicated. We help lots of people, public and private entities, accomplish their goals.

"And because of my background in water- and resource-related issues, I also do consulting with people who have matters like permits and penalties before the state regulatory entities, like Wesley's board," Walsh said.

Today in Sacramento the two former foes are more likely cooperating than fighting. One of Walsh's clients, for instance, has a unique use for used tires -- bailing them up to build shooting range targets to catch bullets. Chesbro likes the idea because tires are a significant landfill problem throughout the state.

"Wesley and I are on the same side of another issue this year," Walsh said. Sonoma County, a Walsh client, and others want higher payments from PG&E for methane gas produced from old dump sites. The measure failed to get through the Legislature this year but will be resurrected in 1998.

Walsh still rails on about the evils of government -- the trial lawyers association and the power of public unions, especially teachers and state workers.

"If the public had any idea at all how their money was being spent -- misspent -- there would be anarchy in the streets."

He also spoke freely about the North Coast and the senate district Chesbro wants to represent.

"It's the wildest, craziest, most diverse collection of constituencies in the state," Walsh laughed. "Two state colleges, a huge gay community in the Russian River area, the wine industry, the fishing industry, all of the Indian and reservation-related issues like Indian gaming, offshore fishing, marijuana, national forests, national parks, wild and scenic rivers, coastal commission....

"People are myopic. They have one issue and could care less about the people in the rest of the world," Walsh said, then quickly added:

"Also -- I'm proud to consider myself a native of this -- collage!"

When told of Walsh's remark, Chesbro replied, "You can tell who's running for office and who isn't!

"I agree with him about the diversity, but I think it's in transition and what he's talking about is more true of the past than the future.

"Take the timber issue. Most people I know are exhausted by the polarization over it and want some resolution," he said.

Chesbro backs the Headwaters deal brokered by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, "but standing by itself without adequate protection of the surrounding lands isn't enough....

"I'm not criticizing Diane Feinstein for not doing enough. I think she is, from a practical standpoint, doing the best she can.

"The other criticism I have of focusing on Headwaters is, as important a stand of trees as it is, it's just one stand of trees, and it has deflected attention away from the broader issue of forest management.... There is a much bigger issue of how we are going to have a timber economy while having sustained yield (harvesting) and protecting the wildlife habitat."

Regarding Earth First!, which has used methods of civil disobedience such as trespassing and tree-sitting to call attention to Headwaters -- Chesbro said he has "extreme mixed emotions.

"On one hand, I think it's been terribly destructive of the culture in Humboldt County. It's created this environment where people have been hateful and angry with each other," he said. "On the other hand, it's clear that they have successfully elevated it into a national issue" that allowed the Feinstein compromise to go forward.

"But Earth First! didn't start the polarization. Charles Hurwitz did with the takeover (of Pacific Lumber Co.) and the radical increase in cuts."

There are three Republicans, all from the southern, more populous half of the district, running for the state Senate seat so far: Mendocino County Supervisor John Pinches, John Jordan of the Jordan winery family and Bob Sanchez, a Napa banker who was in Eureka last month. Jordan is considered the frontrunner and will be a formidable opponent for any Democrat especially with the new campaign financing rules instituted by Proposition 208.

"John Jordan is reputed to be personally very wealthy," Chesbro said. "I'm spending my own money between now and December," he added, when he can begin to raise funds for the June primary. He said he will accept the voluntary spending limit of $350,000 which will qualify him for matching funds.

"The inequity of Proposition 208 is that it does not restrict how much a private individual can spend on himself," Chesbro said.

Walsh said this is going to be an interesting race in the district where the Democrats have the voter edge and the Republicans have the money.

When he left Humboldt County for Sacramento, Walsh hinted that he, too, might seek public office again someday. But no time in the near future.

"I wouldn't do that to my family," he said, commenting on the financial and personal sacrifices it takes to run a campaign. "Oh, if I become extremely wealthy some day, which I would love to do, I might."

In the meantime, Walsh said, "Jordan will be a very good candidate for this district for his constituencies ... just like Wesley will be for his."

Quoted from Wes Chesbro:

"We both felt passionately about what we represented and were young and not tempered by the school of hard knocks.

"Part of the growing-up process was the realization of how Arcata looked from the point of view of the rest of the county.

"I got to know people who worked in the woods and ... it was a lot harder for me to stereotype those people as not being concerned about the environment.

"Danny's really matured. He's a different guy."

Quoted from Danny Walsh:

"In those days neither of us were married. Thank God! I would never do it again having been married with kids.

"Did we have a different constituency? Wesley wanted to spend money and I wanted to save it.

"(In Sacramento) we yell and fight all the time, but on the next issue I may be on the same side. Most legislators, some whose politics I disagree with, are pretty decent people.

"Wesley and I have a good relationship. Wesley and I disagree on a lot of political issues. "

The North Coast Journal Table of Contents