A Venture into Politics
[by Ed Smith]
I imagine that, even though I have lived for 15 years on 43 acres of forest land off the grid 4 1/2 miles up a dirt road in rural northwest California, I am no longer in the running for the title of class hermit.† I woke up the day after election day in 2008 to find that I was an elected official of Humboldt County.† I was one of five candidates running for 2 positions on the 5-person Board of Directors of the Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District.† One of the incumbent candidates on the status quo slate came in first with 1844 votes.† I came in second with 1412 votes, beating out the second incumbent status quo slate candidate by 98 votes, a margin sufficient to avoid a recount.† Frankly, I didnít think I had met 1412 people in my entire life, much less during the period I have lived in Southern Humboldt.
The District includes a clinic and a hospital. The clinic sees 1000 patients per month. The hospital has 16 beds, 8 acute care and 8 skilled nursing facility. The hospital provides basic emergency room, in patient, laboratory, x-ray and physical therapy services. The District has about 75 employees.† I entered this race because our primary care physician asked me to.
The campaign generated a lot of controversy. It is interesting how local campaigns are only different from national, state and countywide campaigns in scale. The real issue in the Health Care District campaign was between maintenance of the status quo and minimal to non-existent oversight of the Administration of the District (the two-person status quo slate - them) vs. change and reasonable oversight of the Administration (the progressive slate - myself and my running mate.) Since I have never been in politics before, I needed a good political adviser. Our political adviser was the most famous and successful environmental activist in Humboldt County, Darryl Cherney. Since Pacific Lumber has gone bankrupt and their timber holdings have been sold to Humboldt Redwoods Company which is managing the land on a sustainable harvest basis, the timber wars are essentially over. Therefore, our adviser has moved on to health care. He is a good organizer and politician who generates more than his share of controversy.† We are great friends, but really strange bedfellows; the seventy-something former diplomat skilled at giving advice and negotiation and the forty-something political activist known for his fiery rhetoric. My running mate and I used endorsements, phone banking, posters, large lawn signs, letters to the editors of local newspapers and appearances on local radio shows to further our candidacy.† The campaign cost me little or nothing.† I doubt I spent over $50 for gas and lunches out of my own pocket.
I was the victim of several scurrilously untrue rumors during the campaign. The funniest one, which was started by a local retail store owner, is that I worked directly for Idi Amin in Uganda (Did he get this idea from the movie ďThe King of Scotland?Ē).† Idi Amin had passed into history by the end of the 1960ís.† I didnít arrive in Uganda until 1988. At that time Yoweri Museveni had already been President of the country for over three years.† I worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, not the Government of Uganda.† I had only one memorable encounter with President Museveni, rapping with him directly on agricultural loan policy at his ranch.
It turned out that the reason I won was hitherto unutilized abilities to provide spontaneous answers to questions asked by radio talk show hosts and write letters to the editor of local newspapers.† I am a bit of an introvert, so I did less well in direct contacts with the voters. Late in the evening on election day after returns from the two largest towns in the District, Garberville and Redway, were counted I was only ahead by two votes, since personal contact was more important in these towns.† By the next morning I was ahead by 45 votes and when the election was certified two weeks later I had won by 98 votes.† Votes from outlying areas and absentee ballots, where contact with me was mostly through the local radio station and newspapers, won the election for me.
Apparently, my joining the Board, together with the efforts of a new District CEO, have made a difference.† My political advisor, who is also a member of the Board, indicates that the new Board is more cohesive and able to move forward on a number of fronts without the acrimony characteristic of the previous Board.† I guess itís never too late to enter politics!