The People vs. Jerry Smith
Can any grass-roots candidate beat the man backed by the most powerful forces in Monterey County?
Thursday, February 19, 2004
Take a spin down Mescal Street along the ridge between Seaside and Fort Ord and you will find entire blocks picketed by signs supporting the city’s mayor, Jerry Smith, in his race for county supervisor. Rare is the street in Seaside so festooned with political placards. The fact that Smith lives on Mescal might have something to do with the proliferation of yard signs there.
But Smith shares Mescal with Helen Rucker, an old-time Seaside political heavyweight. Rucker is an outspoken African-American civil rights leader, and she doesn’t care for Jerry Smith, an African-American mayor who became a Republican two years ago.
“All of a sudden, here is this black man who doesn’t think like I do,” Rucker says, never afraid to be blunt.
It was a hard decision for her to make, she says, but for the first time she can recall, Rucker is backing a non-minority against a minority candidate. Several decisions Smith has made—most notably his enthusiasm for a new golf course on a piece of the city’s share of Fort Ord land—gets Rucker and others angry.
“He’s making friends and influencing people at the expense of the people of Seaside,” Rucker says. “I believe in helping the underdog and I believe in protecting the environment, all the things he doesn’t believe in.”
Race does not define the race for District 4, but the apparent strength of Jerry Smith does. The disctrict, which represents Seaside, Del Rey Oaks, Marina and south Salinas, has four candidates vying to fill Edith Johnsen’s seat. Smith is opposed by Jane Parker, a director for Planned Parenthood and former Monterey Peninsula College board president; Darlene Dunham, a Democratic political consultant and former president of the board of trustees of Hartnell College; and Lance McClair, a former mayor of Seaside, who’s now a self-employed insurance agent. Smith, Parker and McClair live in Seaside. Dunham lives in Salinas.
The main issues in Monterey County are well known. There is a dire need for affordable housing in an obscenely priced real estate market. Drinkable water remains in short supply. The famously fertile farmland of the Salinas Valley bears heavy pressure for housing development. Road projects like the Prunedale bypass skyrocket in cost, stifling more progressive transportation solutions. The county-funded hospital can barely afford to keep the lights on. The sheriff’s office provides chronic scandals. The population splits between the haves, the have-nots who would be haves anywhere but here, and the have-nothings. The county government faces a massive economic crisis on top of daunting state-level problems, etc. etc.
These four people, Smith, Parker, Dunham and McClair, have stepped forward to be the ones who supervise Monterey County, deeply troubled despite its natural bounty and reliable economy of tourism and agriculture. But rather than provide detailed plans of what they’d do from the Supervisor’s seat should they win, three of the four candidates offer vague slogans about being pro-active and looking for solutions outside the box.
Answers to questions like “How do you plan to create jobs and affordable housing?” or “What steps are needed to keep the county operating?” yield declarations about needing to study the facts, explore all the options and so on.
Although there are some differences between the candidates, those distinctions can be defined most clearly by looking at who has stepped up to support them. Thin on firm positions or bold statements, the race for the 4th District seat is a bit of a popularity contest. Figure out who to vote for by looking at the list of endorsements and see if you recognize anyone, anyone whose politics are close to yours.
Although the county race is supposed to be non-partisan, Smith clearly enjoys the backing of pro-development Republican interests like power attorney Jeff Gilles and Realtor Jeff Davi. His campaign finance records reveal two $10,000 donations from a political action committee run by Nick Lombardo, the noted local developer. Dunham has staked a claim on Salinas Valley interests, and has the support of Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero. Jane Parker has gathered the progressives on the Peninsula, with widespread grassroots support outside the 4th District, in Carmel and Monterey. Despite being a familiar face, Lance McClair remains a man of mystery.
Even if Helen Rucker doesn’t like Jerry Smith, he’s got a lot of friends nonetheless. His list of endorsements goes on and on. He’s got the endorsement of nearly every mayor in the county; Monterey, Marina, Del Rey Oaks, Pacific Grove, Carmel, Gonzales, Soledad, Sand City and King City. As chair of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority (FORA) board, Smith has served with many of the mayors. Likewise, sitting Supervisors Lou Calcagno and Butch Lindley back him, as does the outgoing 4th District Supe Edith Johnsen. He’s also got the endorsements of Assemblyman Abel Maldonado, former Sheriff Gordon Sonné and controversial former water board member Ron Chesshire.
Smith also has supporters among developers and real estate interests, including John Anderson, Nader Agha, Davi and pro-development water board member Larry Foy.
Golf course developer, former Carmel mayor and movie hero Clint Eastwood can be found on Smith’s list, too.
Campaign disclosure forms show that Agha, a major developer in the county, who lobbied to build housing on Fort Ord, has given Smith $5,000. Don Chapin, a North County developer, gave Smith $2,500. Melvin Fortes, a Napa-based landlord representative (who made headlines in this newspaper when his company raised the rent dramatically on local low-income residents) gave Smith $1,000.
Danny Bakewell Jr., the developer of the Seaside Highlands project, gave Smith $1,000 but that money was returned because of Bakewell’s business in the city, according to Smith. (Smith says he returned over $10,000 in campaign donations because of such conflicts.) David Armanasco, who owns a local public relations company, gave Smith $250.
Besides the development interests, he’s also got the support of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union. Mark Weller, a spokesman for the local, says the relationship goes way back with Smith, whose mother was a union member.
“When we’ve called upon him, he’s shown up at rallies,” Weller says. “When HERE members have needed him, he’s been there.”
As mayor, Jerry Smith gets credit almost universally for cleaning up Seaside and its city hall.
Once upon a time, crime, drugs and prostitution made the former Army town notorious on the Central Coast. After Fort Ord closed in 1994, the town still had its troubles. In 1998, Jerry Smith unseated former Mayor Don Jordan on a reform platform which, by almost all accounts, he delivered on.
Meanwhile, Smith has served 22 years as an official at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, where he began as a prison guard, but now works as a community resources manager. Smith describes his job as “saving taxpayer dollars” by using “prison resources” (prisoners) around the county to paint firehouses, plant bushes, and even re-upholster the chairs used by the Carmel City Council.
Smith’s family arrived in the Peninsula in 1889, he says, although he’s not sure why his ancestors came here. Smith served with the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam, working as an accountant at the camp store. He’s 58 years old and just had his prostate gland removed, putting him on temporary medical leave.
He thinks that his experience working as a liaison between the state prison and local communities, as well as his terms as mayor (he ran unopposed in 2000 and 2002) and chairmanship of the FORA board qualify him to be a county supervisor.
“In terms of me wanting to improve the quality-of-life in the county of Monterey, that’s what I’d like to do,” he says. “I think I have the experience that’s been demonstrated.”
Smith identifies the problems, but offers few specific solutions. When asked to respond to a e-mailed list of questions addressing major issues facing the county, Smith replied that he did not have the time to articulate answers. These were questions about top-of-mind topics such as affordable housing, Natividad Medical Center, the development of farmland, Carmel Valley incorporation, transportation and the General Plan.
In person, he ticks off the list of things that could be done to help Natividad Medical Center, for example: a joint powers agreement or special district or more specialized care. One thing he says can’t get axed is emergency care for the uninsured.
“I would certainly say that cannot be cut,” he says. “I’d want to look at everything.”
Smith believes that the largest employers in the area—hospitality and agriculture—can be called on to contribute more to the health care of workers.
“I think both industries could look at more assistance,” he says. “I think the agriculture industry could provide more. I think everybody could do more.” Smith says he has spoken with representatives of the agriculture companies who say they could expand coverage, but remain unable to do so.
“I think they need help to work out providing more coverage,” he says. “I think it’s a dual problem. It’s not only the nature of their workers, but a challenge for the companies to provide better health coverage for their employers.”
But when pressed for specifics on the issues, Smith says he needs more information to form answers.
Smith has been criticized lately for two controversial Seaside projects that consume the city’s Fort Ord land. The youth golf-program-cum-executive-length golf course known as the First Tee project has drawn heavy criticism at Seaside City Council meetings, has ended up in court, and now may become the subject of a public vote. Critics complain that it was approved by the City Council over local opposition, creates only a handful of jobs, and does little for the local economy.
Smith believes teaching Seaside kids to play golf will help solve youth violence issues, while hosting the Monterey Peninsula Foundation at the essentially rent-free golf course will prompt the charity to invest more in the community.
“I am extremely enthusiastic,” he says. “It’s a wonderful program, not only for Seaside but the county as a whole.”
He denies that the course has any connection to the proposed conversion of the city-owned Bayonet/Blackhorse to a fancy resort. Critics say residents who now enjoy affordable golf at the public course will be priced out when the resort is built. They contend that “executive-length” First Tee will serve as an inexpensive substitute if the resort is built.
Asked if that’s true, Smith silently shakes his head.
Another issue Smith has taken heat for has been the lack of affordable housing at the Seaside Highlands development, a growing settlement on land conveyed to the city from the Army, then sold by the city to developers at what one lawsuit contends is a fraction of its worth.
Smith consistently points out that the Seaside Highlands deal was inked before he came into office. For that reason, he says, he was unable to compel the developers to provide more affordable homes. He maintains that the matter was out of his hands. However, minutes later, he boasts that he did manage to convince the developers to change the plan to reduce the number of houses in the project.
“Is there still a need for affordable housing? Yes there’s still a need for affordable housing,” he says. He says he tried to get the developers, led by Danny Bakewell, to include 20 percent affordable homes, but got nowhere.
“The city really had no authorization to demand or enforce the demand to comply with that request,” he says.
When asked why there are no records of these meetings, Smith says his requests were delivered in private.
“I made the appeal to the developer several times,” he says. “It was never in a City Council meeting. It was in meetings with the developer and other sources.”
Smith says these meetings were open to the public, but not advertised through the normal process of public notice.
Smith’s claim that he was unable to change the development plan has been loudly challenged as untrue. In fact, word has gotten back to former mayor Don Jordan, who says he’s tired of Smith blaming problems on him. Jordan said at press time that he planned on attending the Feb. 19 City Council meeting to confront Smith.
Marina’s growing reputation for forward-thinking citizens is apparent by its thick spread of Jane Parker campaign signs now lining some streets on the hill above city hall. With major developments in the works in that growing city, land-use critics have become a persistent and vocal group, and the leaders, like City Councilman Ken Gray stand with Parker.
In contrast to the GOP forces backing Jerry Smith, the list of locals supporting Jane Parker is a who’s who of the progressive and conservation-minded.
The batting order behind Parker boasts some familiar local political players: Bill Monning, MIIS professor and local politico; Carl Pohlhammer, chair of the Monterey County Central Committee; Chris Fitz of the Marina Planning Commission; former Assemblyman and progressive voice Fred Keeley; Edie Karas, widow of late County Supervisor Sam Karas; Grace Silva-Santella, former Marina Planning Commissioner and tireless critic of Marina growth decisions; and Zad Leavy, former director of the Big Sur Land Trust.
The race has even divided the Peninsula’s most famous couple: Dina Eastwood, wife of Clint, journalist and activist is a Jane Parker supporter.
Zan Henson, former water board commissioner and local environmental lawyer also backs Parker.
“Jane Parker’s approach is more even-handed than any of the other candidates,” Henson says. “By even-handed, I don’t think she’s in the development camp, and that said, I don’t think she’s in the environmentalist camp either.”
Maybe, but she does have the backing of the local chapter of the Sierra Club as well as Vote the Coast, a grassroots environmental organization founded in 1996 and dedicated to protection of California’s coast.
And even Helen Rucker backs Parker. Rucker knows Parker and she knew Parker’s father, a local newspaper reporter.
“We need to have some balance on there and she will certainly bring some balance on there,” Rucker says.
Whereas Smith has a handful of large multi-thousand dollar contributions from several land-use interests, Parker’s campaign financing is dominated by $100 checks and sprinkled with larger sums. But while she would represent Seaside and she lives in Seaside, the majority of her donors come from Carmel, Monterey and Carmel Valley.
Jane Parker grew up in Monterey without a lot of money, she says. She graduated from the Monterey Institute in 1977 with a degree in international relations. She set off for Paris, learned to cook and came back to the States to run prepared food shops in Los Angeles. She returned to the Peninsula in 1991 to run a prepared food for seniors program until 1996 when she started work at Planned Parenthood, where she’s a vice president for development. She served on the county social services commission and four years on the Monterey Peninsula College Board of Trustees, serving as president of the board.
She’s known as a “quick study” who has educated herself on the critical land-use policy at play in the county. Parker stands out from the other supervisor candidates by pledging to take a pay cut if she’s elected.
At the top of her list is affordable housing. As a supervisor she would push for the county to take charge of what’s become a polarizing issue. The pledges to enforce a 20 percent below-market rate per development rule in some communities does not go far enough, she says.
Parker’s first order of business is to define the terms, then mandate high percentages of 40-to-60 percent per development. Her path parallels Rep. Sam Farr’s (D-Carmel) demands for Fort Ord land and runs in contrast to the currently accepted 20-percent level.
Parker takes an aggressive attitude toward land use. She insists on city-centered growth of the type often described as “Smart Growth.”
Pressure on the county to allow housing development in rural areas concerns Parker because it conflicts with proven models stressing more efficient growth in population centers. Also, far-flung settlements burden an already stretched county service system, especially the sheriff’s patrol, she says.
“It’s irresponsible to not be firm on some of these issues,” she says. “It’s going to make people mad but that’s part of our responsibility.”
In order to get more specific information from the candidates, the Monterey County Weekly followed up its candidate interviews with requests for detailed answers on the critical topics facing the county. Only Parker responded with a sheaf of specific answers. She provided five typed pages with bullet points. In her position papers, she says she wants to focus on efficient mass transit systems, protect county services that provide revenue, preserve the clear demarcation between cities and rural areas, and protect the county’s valuable natural resources, among other points.
For one, she addresses the transportation woes facing the county by taking a hard line against “new subdivision in unincorporated areas of the county,” an issue that’s been at the forefront in the county’s General Plan update.
When it comes to the county’s budget crisis, she advocates “trimming from the top,” “eliminating costly consulting contracts of peripheral importance,” and keeping a tighter watch on finances by examining the budget regularly.
She offers a number of solutions to shore up Natividad Medical Center, including new revenue sources like specialized trauma care.
Like others in Seaside, Parker dings Smith for his positions on the troubled Seaside Highlands and First Tee projects.
“Jerry Smith has responsibility in both of these decisions. I don’t think that kind of decision-making is good for the county. I think voters need another option,” she says.
Darlene Dunham’s campaign office sits on Main Street in Salinas, on the moribund edge of Oldtown. Despite the empty storefronts scattered up and down the street, her office swirls with campaign-style enthusiasm.
Dunham, 55, was born in Carmel, the seventh generation of Spanish settlers. Her family’s ancestral home in Old Monterey is now a men’s club she’s prohibited from entering because she’s female.
“My roots are deep,” she says. “And my connection to the land is profound.”
Although she was born here, Dunham grew up in Santa Cruz, lived in Hawaii, returned to the Peninsula in 1983 and moved to Salinas in 1990. In fact, she held the same job at Planned Parenthood as her opponent Jane Parker before getting into political and workplace consulting. Four years ago she did a stint on Assemblyman Simon Salinas’ campaign. Dunham’s husband works as a manager at Coronet Foods, in a produce processing plant. She was the president of the Hartnell College Board of Trustees.
Dunham sees her role on the Board of Supervisors three-fold: Balancing the natural gifts of the region; sustaining its economic viability and strength; and taking care of the people who live and work here. Her roots in the area extend to working for the Center for Community Advocacy which helps farmworkers with heath and housing issues. Her experience there enabled her to make allies among the county’s most disadvantaged population.
“It made me realize we need leadership on the board that would put the community’s priorities in order,” she says.
Like other locals she looks at Fort Ord and complains that after 10 years it has produced so little affordable housing despite acres of public land. As county supervisor she says she would bring heads together and bang them together if need be.
“To me the issue at stake is where is the political will, the leadership that brings these people together and asks, ‘Do you understand the magnitude of the crisis we are in? Do you understand we have families living in garages?’” she says.
As for specific issues like Natividad Medical Center, she offers a vision but no blueprint beyond forming “partnerships” and not gathering new taxes.
“I have a commitment to save it. That’s a given,” she says. “What form would that take? I haven’t looked into it in too much detail but I have some ideas.”
Dunham wants to apply the concept of partnerships to the county’s severe budget problems. She has been attending Board of Supervisor meetings and heard the sheriff complain that he doesn’t know if he can protect the public, that the district attorney can’t prosecute cases, and that the animal control department can’t scoop up roadside carcasses.
“My response is not to dwell on how bad things are but what can I do to work on this? Can I talk to Simon Salinas, who has endorsed me and is the only assemblyman who lives in Monterey County? Can I work with Simon Salinas?” she asks. “I think we need to form a partnership like we never have before. How can we collectively use our clout with the legislative members like Simon Salinas to work on fundraising mechanisms in the California budget?”
Further, Dunham would thin management ranks in county government and end expensive contracts.
“My biggest goal in an era of declining resources for us all is: Is there a way to maximize resource sharing like we’ve never done before? Is there any way public works could come out and pick up dead animals since they are out on the streets?” she says. “Maybe this is the time.”
Finally, Dunham wants to institute a citizens’ advisory board that would help the Supervisors.
Among the community leaders endorsing Dunham are Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero, Supervisor Fernando Armenta, Assemblyman Simon Salinas, Soledad Mayor Richard Ortiz, Greenfield Mayor John Huerta, Hartnell College Board President Valerie Golden, and Filipino community leader Connie Sonico.
Lancelot McClair, 61, moved here from Arkansas, the son of a Fort Ord drill sergeant. He is not in good health, had a troubled tenure as mayor of Seaside from 1982 to 1994, and has few apparent supporters. He does have a seat on the county mental health commission and a candor that’s refreshing if nothing else in a politician.
When talking about what he terms his “so-called drunk-driving” charge he says, “I was not convicted. I won the case. I was with other drunks, uh, other public officials.”
The same goes for his dubious distinction of the being the only public official in the history of the state to be accused of violating the Brown Act. (The case went to trial, and ended in a hung jury.) He says he was set up, and knew so when he walked out of a meeting with other council people and saw his city hall “nemesis” and a newspaper reporter asking about public notices.
“Did they have clairvoyance or something?” he asks.
When talking about his term as mayor he went into great detail about alleged sexual harassment charges against one of his managers (now deceased) and takes credit for “cleaning out the boulevard” when Seaside was at its notorious low, by among other things, getting the Embassy Suites hotel built.
His three main issues are affordable housing, jobs and health care.
And he wants to turn the Fort Ord Reuse Authority upside down.
“You’ve got to get outside the box. How do you do that? You do a legal review of FORA and if you’re going to keep FORA, you change FORA so the public has an even playing field and it isn’t an even playing field,” he says. “I used to serve on it. It was right in those days and it isn’t right now. They’re treating the public’s land like it’s their land. I have no problem with developers—if they’re dealing with their own land.”
As supporter of Natividad Medical Center, he’s ready to take drastic steps like raising taxes.
“When a politician says ‘no taxes’ it’s a lie. It’s going to take an extraordinary effort to save Natividad, incredible public relations with the business community. It’s going to take considering looking at taxes because you need revenue. If a politician sits up and says they’re going to fix something and you’re not going to have to do anything, it’s just not going to happen.”
The one thing McClair does not have that the other politicians have is complete campaign finance forms filed with the county elections office. A clerk told the Monterey County Weekly that the district attorney’s office has been notified of his failure to file correctly.
When informed of this, McClair was grateful.
“Oh, thanks for telling me,” he says.
McClair, whether he’s elected or not, promises to be honest.
“As long as you know me, I will tell the truth,” he says. “I don’t need to lie about anything.”
With less than a month to go before the election, this is Mayor Jerry Smith’s race to lose. According to the latest campaign finance reports he’s raised the most money. Compared to Parker, who has raised $50,300 and Dunham who has gathered $41,000, Smith has pulled in $72,500 so far, including two $10,000 checks from a business political action committee.
His broad and varied suport ranges from the Mayor of Carmel to the hotel workers union. While he doesn’t offer much in the way of specifics, and some of his fellow Seaside residents grumble about his new Republican ways, he’s towering above the race with big ads and a long list of high-profile endorsements. And he’s ambitious.
“The only aspiration I have is to continue to serve the county of Monterey as a supervisor. I have never even thought about running for Congress.” However, he says, “I have heard people say I’d make a great president.”