Bucolic Battleground : Tranquil Chico Is Caught in Bitter Political Cross-Fire
This community doesn’t look like a hotbed of extremist politics.
It’s a quiet college town, the kind of place that Norman Rockwell could have painted.
Slices of Rockwell-style Americana abound. Kids trail fishing poles behind them as they pedal their bikes along tree-lined streets. People still know their paperboy by his first name, and call out greetings when they hear the thud of the newspaper on the front porch. A creek meanders through the center of town, turning into a community swimming hole during the hot summer months.
A Clone of UCLA
Centerpiece of the town is the bucolic campus of California State University, Chico, which could pass as a clone of UCLA with its towering shade trees, green lawns and old red brick buildings. The university is Chico’s largest employer, and, with 14,000 students, dominates much of the economic life of the city of nearly 30,000.
The college has a quintessentially Northern California touch: Chico Creek, a tributary to the Sacramento River, runs right through the middle of the campus. In the fall students can sit by the creek between classes and watch salmon run upstream to spawn.
Yet, despite all its surface tranquility, the city, about 90 miles north of Sacramento in rural Butte County, becomes a battleground of far left and far right politics at election time.
Four years ago, a group of liberal candidates, with support from the left-of-center Santa Monica-based Campaign for Economic Democracy, defeated four conservatives and took control of the seven-member City Council.
Then, in municipal elections several weeks ago, a conservative faction backed by ultra-right Sacramento legislators swept four incumbents, including the mayor and three council members, out of office.
Local residents say the last campaign divided the city into two bitterly warring camps.
“There was absolutely no middle ground,” said Republican activist Karen Vercruse, a city planning commissioner and campaign manager for one of the conservative candidates. “It was like the community grabbed their dogs and children, ran indoors and left the two gunfighters out on the street to battle it out. I’ve never seen such an intense campaign. We beat their socks off.”
While the city elections are still mostly local affairs, outside political forces have figured prominently in local voting, a development with statewide implications.
On one side is the Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), a group founded in 1977 by then political activist and now Democratic Assemblyman Tom Hayden of Santa Monica with the help of his actress-wife, Jane Fonda, to promote tenants’ rights, rent control, energy conservation and other issues.
Bid for Respectability
Hayden, who helped organize the militant Students for a Democratic Society into a political force in the 1960s, hoped to establish CED’s respectability by winning elections in college towns like Chico.
On the other side are conservatives, who say the fight here is one that will be repeated in other parts of the state.
“Chico represents the middle ground in California. That’s what we are fighting for, the left and the right. If we can beat them in Chico, then we can probably beat them in every other part of the state,” said John Feliz, a Sacramento-based legislative aide to conservative Sen. John Doolittle (R-Citrus Heights) and one-time director of the Law and Order Campaign Committee.
Feliz, who owns a political consulting firm called Communications Consulting Group, coordinated activities of the conservative slate.
Also involved in the election was the Sacramento-based Free Market Political Action Committee, a group that channels thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to conservative candidates. It put out a mailer for the conservative slate.
The chairman of the committee is freshman Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), a retired Marine Corps officer and head of the Free Market Political Action Committee, who said: “Until now, there has been nobody effectively countering CED. Everyone has been assuming it will fall of its own dead weight. Not only don’t I think it will fall of its own dead weight, I think there should be opposing forces in our society. We’ll be challenging them elsewhere.”
Conservatives say the election results point to a decline in the effectiveness of CED, locally as well as statewide.
But Hayden downplays the importance of Chico politically, although in days gone by victories here, as well as in Santa Monica, Santa Cruz, Arcata and Berkeley, led to rejoicing by CED.
Hayden said the price CED paid for winning local elections and then holding onto the offices was too high, so they have been backing away.
“We took it as far down the road as we could,” Hayden said in an interview in his Capitol office. “You take three or five seats, then the other side forms a conservative coalition and they make a comeback, then we make a comeback, and pretty soon you’re an old man and you’re still fighting over these same five or six college towns. So we decided to do statewide stuff, like voter registration for the Democratic Party.”
Referendum on CED
Hayden’s opponents aren’t buying that.
A pre-election analysis in the Chico News & Review said that “this year’s election has become as much a referendum on the CED as anything else.”
Those close to CED locally say the campaigns this year varied little from past campaigns in terms of money spent and volunteer efforts. What did change was the effort put together by the conservative side, which CED partisans say outspent their candidates 3 to 1. Final campaign reports have not yet been filed.
Republican activist Vercruse, who organized last-minute precinct walks for the conservative candidates, said CED-backed candidates wanted to win as badly as conservatives and described the campaign as “an out-and-out war.”
Karl Ory, a CED member who has been on the council two terms and served as mayor between 1983 and 1985, said he was surprised by the election outcome.
He is one of three former students at Cal State Chico who were elected to local office under the CED banner. He ran fifth. Less than 700 votes separated the top finisher from the city councilman who finished eighth.
“We expected at worst to split,” said Ory, an official with a nonprofit housing corporation that has a ‘60s flavor to it. A notice on the agency’s bulletin board promotes a 10-day tour of public housing projects in war-ravaged Nicaragua, another advertises a lecture by Navajo Indian elders on problems of Native Americans.
Other CED-supported City Council incumbents who lost were David Guzzetti, Mardi Worley and Anne Longazo. Worley and Longazo are not CED members, although both were considered CED allies on the council.
“It was an amazing effort on their part,” said two-term Butte County Supervisor Jane Dolan, another CED member. Dolan, a one-time Cal State Chico student body president and anti-war protest organizer, credited the success of the challengers to the organizational abilities of groups not traditionally influential in municipal elections, the New Right politicians, like Doolittle, the religious right, anti-pornography activists and opponents of abortion.
Others disagree. They say the election was a case of local residents being fed up with the CED. A group of local citizens banded together under the name Committee for a Free Chico and sent out a letter saying, “The longer the CED prospers in our city, the more our city will become the battleground of outside political interests.”
Just where it will all end is unclear. For years, city government was dominated by agricultural and business interests reflecting the conservative values of rural Butte County, called by some the “Orange County of the north.”
The conservative winners say their victory reverses the liberal trend of the last seven years. They point to signs of more moderation.
The new generation of students at Cal State Chico is said to be more conservative than the last one.
An example of the change is Annie Nock, the outgoing student body president at Cal State Chico. She is Republican, conservative, a member of a local ranching family.
Nock helped organize the Students Political Action Committee (S-Pac), which developed almost overnight into an effective group with a stated membership of 600, hosting several well-attended forums on the Cal State Chico campus. The group opposed the incumbents.
Although some are saying that the election marks a change in student voting behavior, the two dozen students who stayed up the night before the election working for the conservative candidates deliberately avoided student precincts, concentrating instead on middle-class residential districts.
Another sign of moderation is that the candidate polling the most votes was the one most strongly identified as an independent, Cal State Chico chemistry professor Karl Kumli.
Kumli, who describes himself as a Harry Truman Democrat, started out as a member of the conservative slate, but backed away from the other three because he said “they voiced more and more conservative views.” He did, however, join the conservatives in the end to help finance a poll of Chico residents that is said to have played a key role in the election.
Other members of the winning conservative slate are clergyman Bud Lang, real estate agent Mary Andrews, and businessman Ted Hubert.
“There was a big segment of the electorate that perceived the incumbents as being much, much too liberal,” he said.
But he predicted no major changes in the way Chico is run.
“My intent is to get involved in city issues, not get carried away debating the nuclear freeze,” said Kumli, who will be sworn in May 7.
He was referring to a city ordinance making Chico a nuclear-free zone. A tougher version of the ordinance got national attention, the joke being that the City Council was going to make it a misdemeanor to nuke Chico, the “use a bomb, go to jail” ordinance.
Liberals do not think Chico is reverting to its rural past. They say they have not lost their base of support among young professionals and students, just that many of their supporters stayed home. They claim the conservatives did the best they could, but only a few hundred votes separated the winners from the losers.