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Surviving Election Night

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Desperate businessman portraitNational elections always leave me feeling blue — not in a Democratic way, but in a depressed way. And that’s how everybody expects the Dems to be feeling after the polls close late today. Depressed.

To believe the polls and prognosticators, the Republicans — who have become simply the party of guns and loathing everything our twice-elected president has ever done — will win a bigger majority in the House and take a slim majority in the Senate.

Of course, a savvy survivor of midterm elections, in which sitting presidents always lose allies in Congress, knows that GOP control of Congress will change absolutely nothing. Republicans have held a House majority for the past two years, and the GOP exercised de facto control of the Senate for six years through a system of 60 percent majorities and anonymous holds on presidential appointees.

This is easily forgotten, even by a Utah Republican congressman who demanded a week or two ago that the U.S. Surgeon General take the lead in the existential fight against Ebola. He completely overlooked that Republicans have blocked the president’s nominee for the top doctor’s post for nearly a year because the National Rifle Association, that leading health care group, ordered it.

The knowledge that nothing will change, except new dance steps among hopefuls for president in 2016, eases my national election blues. As further protection, I will avoid all cable news coverage of the election tonight and any blog coverage chronicling how early returns showing how key races in lots of states other than California are shaping up. I say, to bend a quote by the English rock band Traffic, “See what tomorrow may bring.”

I would rather spend Election Night watching old Marx Brothers movies, reading year-old magazines or playing with our two young cats before they lose all interest in running after any of the 47 cat toys spread around the house like fallen autumn leaves.

Looking more closely at local races, I admit I have an interest in the anti-fracking measure in San Benito County, the Monterey County sheriff’s race, the District 2 supervisor race and the fate of a passel of local tax measures.

But again I can wait until Wednesday to find out the winners and losers. And it will probably be a longer wait to declare the winner in the Seaside mayoral contest, given the past two narrow duels between Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bachofner.

I don’t see a lot of drama in any of the other cities with council and mayoral races, where voters will probably decide to keep the bums in. The outlier, of course, is the Marina Coast Water District, which could undergo another of its periodic, violent mood swings.

When I used to cover elections in a newsroom, one of my methods to survive the hollowed-out feelings at the end of the campaigns was to make a few $1 bets with colleagues on some races. Sometimes I would raise it to $5 if my foe was being both boneheaded and profligate. I won far more often that I lost.

That would take the sting out of knowing that voters in Texas once again returned the stupidest House member, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Inhishead, to Washington D.C. I firmly believe they do this with Gohmert to either get him out of town or as a Texas-style Dada art piece.

But sadly, I no longer have folks sitting at nearby desks who are easy marks for Election Night bets. So tonight will be a tad more melancholy than usual.

What’s especially depressing, however, is that none of the $4 billion or so being spent in an orgy of political advertising, polling, consulting and go-fering this election will find its way into my pockets.

The real winners tonight — and you don’t want to bet against this — are the owners of local television chains, cable companies, web sites and other media that gleefully carried all the insane and infuriating video ads for the past few months.

They aren’t getting more gridlock, but “greenlock,” and happy days were here again, indeed, for them.

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County supervisors in California are responsible for lots of things, from health care to jails to the potholes on your street. But few people pay much attention to the supes until a big land-use issue comes along.

Even something as relatively small as the Corral de Tierra shopping center proposal last year pulled the citizenry away from the TV and caused neighbors to argue over open space vs. private property rights. Suddenly the five supervisors were receiving the attention they should have been receiving day to day—attention of the sort that detects patterns. It turns out that when the issue is land use and the stakes are high, our supervisors are following a script written years ago.

I bring this up now because an important supervisorial contest is on the November ballot. It’s Ed Mitchell against John Phillips in District 2. It’s about who will represent the north end of the county but it should matter to you no matter where you live, because the script impacts land-used decisions countywide.

Will the script be followed when the supervisors vote on the upcoming Ferrini Ranch development along Highway 68? It depends on who wins in November.

Here’s how it goes:

For most significant development projects, the script gives the developer two votes from the start. Supervisor Fernando Armenta of District 1 and Supervisor Simon Salinas of District 4 are almost guaranteed yes votes. That’s partly because most of the larger development projects are on the Peninsula, a place that doesn’t matter to Armenta and Salinas. They represent parts of the Salinas Valley, so they have nothing to lose by voting for projects and plenty to lose when they vote against. Such as campaign contributions. Lose those and you lose cushy jobs.

Armenta once told a jarring story about how he sees development issues.

It was at a Monterey Herald editorial board meeting. I asked Armenta whether he had ever taken a stand against development interests. He chuckled and said that he had. He explained that it was during the debate over the current Monterey County general plan. Developer types and property owners who hope to develop their land some day were pushing a development-friendly version of the plan while environmentalist types were pushing a new, slower-growth version.

It had turned into a chess game, and the development forces and their buddies on the board thought they saw an opening. They decided to try to pass the development-friendly plan on a surprise vote before the opposition could figure out what was happening.

So at one Tuesday board meeting, then-Supervisor Jerry Smith introduced a surprise motion to approve the developers’ plan. Everyone then looked at Armenta.

Armenta said everyone assumed he would second the motion. Others on the board were ready to vote in favor but didn’t want to second the motion because it would become too obvious that the fix was in.

“I just sat there,” Armenta said, grinning.

I asked him why.

He said it was simply because everyone expected him to second the motion because he was such a pro-development guy. He said he needed to teach “them” a lesson about taking him for granted. In other words, he wanted people to know that if they wanted him to vote for their project, they’d better ask nicely. His support wasn’t automatic. There were conditions. By the way, Armenta did not seem at all embarrassed by what he was saying.

The script continues. Though her vote is not nearly as automatic as those of Armenta and Salinas, Supervisor Jane Parker is a good bet to vote against large development projects of the sort that create traffic and water problems and upset environmentalists. Most developments.

So it’s now 2-1. What about Dave Potter, the cagey one?

If you were to go back through his land-use votes over the years, you might not detect a pattern. Like I said, he’s cagey.

If the development is in his district—maybe in Carmel Valley, Corral de Tierra or the southern coast–and if there is considerable opposition, the script calls for Potter to vote no, but only after making a deal with his co-star, Supervisor Lou Calcagno.

Now it appears to be a 2-2 tie. But remember. Calcagno and Potter have already made a deal. The vote is actually 3-2 in favor of the project. Potter can tell the neighborhood opposition that he did his best to stop it and he can tell the developer about how he and Lou made it happen.

There can be deviations from the script, occasional ad libs. Which is OK with the players as long as the story turns out right.

So why does it matter who wins in November? Calcagno is retiring from the board.

His District 2 replacement will be either Ed Mitchell or John Phillips. If Mitchell wins, they’ll have to write a new script.

Mitchell is the feisty land-use activist, a fixture at board meetings, a longtime neighborhood organizer in Prunedale. He’s the troublemaker in the white cowboy hat. Mitchell worked for years as a contract compliance officer and he’s a detail guy. He has watched as the county for years has made empty promises about providing water to the dry parts of his district. Whenever a land-use proposal goes to the board, he wants to know where the water is coming from.

Phillips is the more polished of the two. He is a retired Superior Court judge who has won great admiration for his work developing and operating the Rancho Cielo youth ranch, which has provided vocational and educational alternatives for hundreds of at-risk youngsters. He’s also much more of a behind-the-scenes guy than Mitchell. For years now, he has played an informal but key role in helping to select local lawyers for judicial appointments.

Phillips is well known and well liked within the upper crust but no so well known to the general public. While Mitchell’s motivations are fairly clear—he wants to solve problems in his district and disrupt the script on land-use issues—Phillips’ intentions are less clear. So are his views on development and land-use issues.

Which brings us back to the point of this missive. This runoff election is important well beyond the confines of North County. While people living in Pacific Grove and Carmel and King City won’t have a vote in November, they still have an important stake. That’s why they should go to campaign forums and ask questions. How would you have voted on the last general plan, Judge Phillips? Have you received campaign contributions from developers? Mr. Mitchell, can you see yourself supporting a large residential development anywhere? How about on farmland? What defines a good project?

The people of PG and Carmel and King City also should make it clear to the media that those kinds of questions need to be asked, and answered.

Voters in Pacific Grove and Carmel and King City who already know which candidate they prefer also should do one more thing. Campaigns, unfortunately, run on money. Voters with strong feelings about the future of Monterey County should be making campaign contributions now if they want a say on how this plot turns out.

If you think the 255-home Ferrini Ranch subdivision would be a good thing to add along Highway 68, you should consider sending a campaign contribution to Phillips, or volunteering to help in his campaign. If you worry about traffic along Highway 68 or other ramifications of what amounts to leap-frog development, you’d be better off helping the Mitchell campaign instead.

No matter where you live.

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