Farm Country Face-Off
Ed Mitchell’s crusade to unseat Lou Calcagno pits him against an incumbent who knows how to milk the system – and co-opt his opponents.
Thursday, June 3, 2010
Moon Glow Dairy lies at the end of a gravel road bisected by sweeping power lines from the Moss Landing Power Plant and rimmed with calla lilies. It’s home to 1,000 milk-producing cows, several mice-hunting tomcats and one of Monterey County’s most powerful men: Supervisor Lou Calcagno.
Calcagno’s foam-green home perches over Elkhorn Slough with a viewing deck and telescope for spotting the pristine waterway’s more than 340 species of birds. (Monterey Bay Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard owns the green hills across the slough, so Calcagno’s view won’t be obstructed anytime soon.)
Calcagno shifts the squirrelly gears of his giant International feed truck at around 6am on a recent drizzly Monday. He wears jeans, a brown jacket and a matching cowboy hat. The morning papers are on the floor. A musty manure smell flows inside the truck, which is filled with chopped wheat and barley mixed with leftovers from local processing facilities, including veggies from Mann Packing and green apples from Martinelli’s.
“¿Qué pasa?” he asks one of his workers after pulling to a stop. A short exchange in Calcagno’s pidgin Spanish proceeds: “What he’s telling me is that I have to go deliver a calf.”
But before attending to the breached baby cow, he feeds some steers next to a patch of eucalyptus trees where egrets roost. While methodically driving back and forth along the trough line, Calcagno says he fattens the steers up to 1,500 pounds before shipping them for slaughter.
His cows are astonishingly close to the protected sanctuary – he has a waste pond that collects all dirty runoff, blocking it off from the slough. About a dozen dairies once lined the slough, many run by Swiss and Italian immigrants, like Calcagno’s parents. “The whole valley was covered by cows,” he says. But now Moon Glow is the last dairy on the estuary and one of two in the whole county.
Over at a cow corral, a hook sticks out of the laboring cow’s birth canal. The cow, which is tied to a metal fence, has engorged udders. “Normally the nose and head open the birth canal,” Calcagno says. “If they have a breached birth, they can’t do it alone.”
The dairyman sticks his gloved arm inside the cow’s pelvis and straightens out the calf. Calcagno and his foreman attach chains to its feet and through ratcheting and pulling, deliver the slimy, lifeless-looking newborn bull.
Although he’s about to don a suit and head off to board meetings, the 73-year-old politician is a cowboy at heart. But Ed Mitchell, a cowboy hat-wearing land use activist, is trying to lasso the incumbent’s fourth term.
Calcagno is under attack, yet again, for his old-school style at a time when water politics are boiling over in North County. The two candidates are fighting over conflict of interest allegations and open government. Attorneys are involved on both sides.
Most observers say Mitchell doesn’t stand a chance at flipping over Calcagno’s milk truck. The veteran politican has all the established power brokers backing him, and even some normally critical watchdogs aren’t opposing him this time.
But Mitchell, who worked behind the scenes on Jane Parker’s successful 2008 campaign and plans to knock on 1,000 doors before the Tuesday, June 8 primary, is unfazed, saying that Calcagno’s incumbency is a liability in a political environment where many voters are fed up. “A lot of people misjudged our ability to run a campaign,” he says.
But the numbers tell the story. As of May 22, Mitchell has raised $74,319, largely from $60,050 in personal loans, compared to compared to Calcagno’s $33,962 in contributions. Calcagno has more donors and no loans, but Mitchell has enough cash to give him a run for his milk money (see box, p. 20).
• • •
Ed Mitchell waves a huge American flag as he stands in the Safeway shopping center in Salinas’ Creekbridge neighborhood. He wears his trademark straw cowboy hat, a brown suit jacket, Army pin and black Wranglers. His supporters station themselves on four corners of the busy intersection, holding blue-lettered “Working for Salinas and North County” campaign signs.
He says he’s knocked on 660 doors so far in the grassroots campaign: “They appreciate someone looking them in the eye. They just want a fair deal.”
Although District 2 is most associated with Castroville, Moss Landing, Prunedale and the windy network of rural roads north of the city, close to half the district’s voters live in north Salinas. “They need representation as much as the other people in the rural portion,” Mitchell says.
It’s not encouraging, however, that better-known Salinas City Councilwoman Jyl Lutes couldn’t defeat Calcagno in 2006, losing by 10 percent. Mitchell has been very active in county politics but has never held office.
He hopes to change that now.
His wife Jan, holding a handwritten sign – “Choice, Change, Common Sense” – explains that she and Ed started Prunedale Neighbors Group back in 1998 after subdivision Carlson Estates encroached on their horse ranch.
The Mitchells’ “Ranch Forgotten” in Prunedale is a satellite stable for neglected and abused horses from Redwings Horse Sanctuary. Like Calcagno’s house, Mitchell’s place requires detailed directions to find.
The possibility of development in their backyard and distrust of county officials led the Mitchells to become weekly subscribers to county documents, scrutinizing agenda items and making public records requests. “Everything we say can be substantiated by a county document,” says Jan, adding that her office is overflowing with the relentless paper trail. (The spirited spouse attended an editorial board endorsement meeting at the Weekly.)
But Mitchell scoffs at the notion that he’s just another gadfly, pointing to his campaigns on the two referendums against Rancho San Juan and the slow-growth General Plan Initiative. “We have affected public outcomes,” he says. “We’ve run referendums, won referendums. That’s not gadfly. That’s leadership.”
The biggest issue Mitchell has targeted recently is the Regional Water Project, a proposed desalination plant in Marina that supporters say could cost $400 million – opponents estimate the bill at up to double that – and will be operated by Marina Coast Water District. Citing his background as a high-tech systems analyst and aerospace engineer, he points to Section 4.2 of the settlement agreement, claiming there are no cost controls. Questions over who will shoulder the costs have been raised by other critics, including Jane Parker, the lone dissenting vote on the Board of Supervisors.
But Mitchell’s obstreperous ways at community meetings can leave him sounding like a conspiracy theorist.
At one recent candidate forum, he lit into Calcagno for “lying” about whether more fire suppression capacity was needed in Pesante Canyon water tanks. But his explanation afterward was so convoluted that even a League of Women Voters official attending the event said that she had no idea what he was talking about.
Cal Am ratepayers will get screwed on rates while Marina pays next to nothing for water, he says, adding that not a drop will reach North County’s dry and polluted wells. “District 2 has been excluded and blocked from getting access to the next source of water for 94 years,” Mitchell says.
Some North County residents are trucking water to their homes on Granite Ridge. An estimated 1,550 people are served by water systems that are approaching or exceeding maximum contaminant levels for nitrates and arsenic.
Mitchell hopes to gain political traction by combining questions about water policy with his advocacy for transparency, pledging to stop county items from being hidden on the consent agenda and accusing Calcagno of backroom deals. The Regional Water Project agreement is a telling example: The incumbent supervisor was among the county elites who worked out the details in closed meetings and then rushed the document through public channels to meet a state deadline.
Mitchell has also accused Calcagno of crossing the conflict-of-interest line by voting on a North County subdivision back in 2000. Calcagno used to own what became the Terra Linda subdivision, yet he voted for the nearby Grey Eagle development, which had the same water provider, ALCO. Calcagno paid for a legal opinion, which says he had no economic interest in Grey Eagle and didn’t violate any rules.
Mitchell, a 63-year-old mystery novel writer whose first in a trio of books, Gold Lust, recounts how a “ruthless international mining conglomerate stalks Desert Storm hero, Noel Martin, to steal the massive gold vein he discovers in Northern California,” advocates having staff write pros and cons for subdivisions and limiting developer presentations to 20 minutes, with 10-minute rebuttal time.
His major economic development plan is a Salinas Valley family field house with sports, arcade, rock climbing, roller derby and room for indoor concerts on land near a proposed soccer complex on Constitution Boulevard in Salinas. But it doesn’t help his case that the Salinas Sports Complex and the Community Center are serving some of these purposes.
Mitchell, a Democrat, has endorsements from the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Salinas Valley Democratic Club, the county’s Green Party and Councilwoman Lutes.
Calcagno ticked off Lutes for arranging a land swap with the City of Salinas, in which the county traded the soccer complex property for a downtown parking lot and the City Council’s blessing of a new jail site.
“[Calcagno will] negotiate backroom deals for any property but he’ll do nothing for the kids here,” Lutes says. “He has not and never has been an advocate for Salinas.”
Democratic Club President Teri Short says Mitchell’s work ethic and honesty is impressive. “He literally cracked crab at my fundraiser,” Short says.
When first considering whether to back the Prunedale activist, she says, others asked, “Why are you going to support this guy that can’t win?” Her response: “Calcagno has been the developers’ best friend.”
But has he, really?
• • •
Calcagno has carefully skirted the line between siding with environmentalists and developers. On one hand, he helped preserve 3,600 acres of wetland by co-founding the Elkhorn Slough Foundation and was instrumental in forming the Ag Land Trust. He says he got into local politics, starting with Planning Commission in 1981, to help preserve farmland and protect the environment. At the same time, he has sold property to developers and enraged neighborhood activists by voting for controversial subdivisions.
Supervisor Parker respects Calcagno’s encyclopedic knowledge of the county and his dedication to preserving agricultural land. But she says some of his friends in the ag business don’t support this principle, which puts him in a pickle when they propose projects. “One of the reasons that some other people in his district are not very happy with him is that they would like to see them base his decisions on principles rather than on friendships,” Parker says.
After the election draw in 2007, in which voters rejected both Measure A, the General Plan Initiative, and the county’s growth document, GPU4, Calcagno helped broker a settlement with LandWatch and the Rancho San Juan Opposition Coalition.
For the most part, the general plan that emerged, GP2010, has pleased both enviros and Salinas Valley growers. Development in North County is proposed to be limited to existing lots of record and, after a legal settlement, Butterfly Village now includes open space instead of a golf course and a higher percentage of affordable housing.
“I’m grateful in that he has made some decisions recently to not allow further subdivisions,” says Julie Engell, former Rancho San Juan Opposition chairwoman. “I’m glad he is supportive of the policy that we are not going to subdivide farmland unless it’s for farming purposes. That’s progress. I regret that it has taken us more than a decade to get there.”
Assuming the general plan replacing the 1982 document is finally adopted, Engell notes that it doesn’t stop the supes from approving amendments that suit developers.
Land-use progressives like Engell, Parker, and Cathy Chavez Miller, spokeswoman for Aromas Citizens for Planned Growth, aren’t endorsing either candidate this time out.
Calcagno says that’s a sign he’s done a good job, or at least pleased some of his former foes enough; he says he lost support from local Republicans because of his general plan compromises.
“The Republicans don’t claim me, and the Democrats don’t want me,” he says. (That’s not entirely true: The Monterey County Republic Party website puts him on the second row of GOP elected officials.)
His biggest test, a development on his home turf, will come after the election. Heritage Oaks developer Wayne Holman wants to build 35 homes in an area already in water overdraft. The supes, with Calcagno and Parker dissenting, voted to delay Holman’s appeal until June 15.
“I’m hoping that he stays true to his North Monterey County roots,” Miller says, “and serves his constituents with meeting their water needs before adding any other new subdivisions and large projects in North Monterey County.”
Calcagno won’t say how he’ll vote, but says he won’t approve any more subdivisions in North County without a comprehensive water plan.
That plan, which will focus on water solutions for the Highland South and Granite Ridge areas, is tentatively scheduled to go before the supes at the end of June.
Don Rochester is chairman of the North County Ad Hoc Water Committee, a group of residents and officials who developed the water plan. “This water thing can be solved, and we are on the right track to doing that,” Rochester says, crediting Calcagno for forming the committee about two years ago.
As for Granite Ridge’s water outlook, Calcagno recently helped strike a deal to potentially have Aromas Water District annex the Via Del Sol Drive and Oak Hills areas of Granite Ridge, serving more than 60 residents. This decision is still pending signoff from the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency while environmental and annexation work moves forward.
An EIR is being developed for a water supply project for the rest of Granite Ridge. The project would take well water from a new and existing well along Castroville Boulevard and pump it up the ridge at an estimated cost of $26.5 million. The county’s best guess for water delivery: at least two years.
But Mitchell questions why Calcagno didn’t make progress on these projects in his last three terms.
“I wouldn’t be running if [he] had stepped up and taken care of our neighborhoods,” he says.
It’s complicated, Calcagno responds. Some North County homeowners have dependable wells; others are bone dry. Getting both parties to agree to assessments to pay for a pipeline takes consensus building, his specialty.
And up until a few weeks ago, the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency and Pajaro-Sunny Mesa Community Services District, two key District 2 water brokers, were entwined in lawsuits. The county couldn’t enter into an agreement for water service with Pajaro-Sunny Mesa because the financial stability wasn’t there, Calcagno says. The supervisor helped play referee in the groundwater fee fight, and PVWMA agreed to pay Pajaro-Sunny Mesa about $290,000.
Why isn’t North County getting a cut of the desal water from the Regional Water Project? Calcagno says that water is too expensive. The water is projected to cost at least $4,000 per acre-foot versus $147 says, per acre-foot for well water. He’s counting on freshwater from the so-called rubber dam on the Salinas River. Although the water is now only going to irrigate Castroville agricultural fields, county officials say the water will eventually replenish aquifers in the Salinas Valley water basin, freeing up water for the future wells serving Granite Ridge.
Calcagno also defends the confidential talks that led to the Regional Water Project agreements, saying that the decisions still go before the supervisors for approval. “Anything that I’ve done has been wide open,” he says. That may come as a surprise to critics of a March clandestine breakfast meeting on the subject, which his office organized to drum up support for the agreements, inviting supportive local officials but not skeptics or media.
• • •
Back at Calcagno’s home, his wife Carol pours pancake batter on a griddle and “Louie” sits in his newly remodeled kitchen. She shows a campaign ad that she cut and pasted by hand that will run in newspapers this week. A high-speed Internet installation truck idles outside. Yes, Calcagno’s house still runs on dial-up.
Although he says he doesn’t want to talk trash about Mitchell, he questions how transparent his opponent is, pulling out a letter from Mitchell’s attorney, Michael Stamp, which threatens legal action if Calcagno used a recording of candidate’s endorsement meeting with the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. “That’s transparency,” he says.
He also says Mitchell loses his cool too easily and would have a difficult time working with people as a supervisor: “No matter what, you have to be considerate to people.”
Mitchell passionately says the Chamber of Commerce endorsement meeting was not public and Calcagno should know better that it’s against the law to record someone without their consent. “I don’t find it considerate that he thinks he can break the law.”
Mitchell also rips into Calcagno for sending out mailers putting his mug under both a Republican slate of candidates and similar flyer targeting Democratic voters.
“He’s trying to mislead people and trying to get Democrats to vote for him while he’s not a Democrat and he’s not even endorsed by his own party,” he says.
Calcagno, it seems, is the master of suiting his politics both ways.
It’s difficult to predict whether any of these thorny topics will affect the outcome of Tuesday’s election, expected to have a low turnout. Calcagno’s cow-colored signs are familiar to voters. While his deal making and lukewarm positions irritate some, others say his negotiating tactics get things done, and if anyone can build consensus and solve the water mess, it’s him.
Mitchell has stirred up legitimate issues, and voters may be looking for a new face at the supes’ dais. Some of his claims are definitely wonky, and his explanations so complicated, that they may hurt his chances.
But Mitchell insists he’s in it to win it: “It’s time for a change. It’s time for a new supervisor.”
Calcagno isn’t worried about his chances, despite the political climate. Mitchell can attack him until the cows come home, but he’s got his reelection campaign as dialed in as his dairy’s milking machines.