I entered political office in a town of 3,500, soon after the 1971 oil spill that devastated beaches and wildlife north of San Francisco Bay. Serendipitously, it was a time when the town had been discovered by a younger, more adventurous constituency that, for better and worse, was politically na´ve, and unsophisticated on many subjects?such as how to bridge the gap with many old-time residents.
The town couldn't help but notice that it was releasing raw sewage into Bolinas Lagoon and Bay, and that polluted waters were not just the fault of a tipsy oil-tanker captain steering in the fog. Many of the old-timers had spent years trying to resolve the sewage problem, and had, as was customary at the time, given the responsibility over to a large engineering consultant firm more interested in its own profits than in appropriate solutions. President Nixon had just signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which required a document called an "Environmental Impact Statement" that no one had previously heard of or written. Local, state, regional, and national policies were in flux, allowing for experimentation and surprises that caught the engineering firms and entrenched bureaucracy off-guard.
The point is that "left" and "right" had little meaning to this local politics. There were, as usual, those who wanted to connect everything they liked to everything else they liked, so that a sewage controversy became somehow associated with the Symbionese Liberation Army. But as an elected official, you learn to avoid clustering too many projects under one set of ideals or ideology. My cauldron for melding constituencies was "environmental health" (although the phrase did not exist at the time); and voters trusted that my love of water and non-human phenomena (birds and the ocean) would dictate my decisions. Oddly, this freed me from too tight an association with any one lobbying group. Water and watersheds, as taught by Lao Tse and John Wesley Powell, became my framework. Viewing the human dilemma "sideways," through waterflows, still seems to generate a more transcendent and inclusive politics.
Voters who watched the 1971 oil spill?surfers and fisherfolk, middle-class professionals who walked the beach, artists, poets, local biologists and naturalists, "self-sufficiency" advocates, concerned moms, and old-timers who were more at ease with change?grew into a tight voting block. But equally important was the initiation of a "shadow government," a citizen future-studies group who acted as the leadership (though still out of power), and kept the votership informed about problems and alternatives. It was this volunteer group that eventually took over the town administration and persuaded the town to vote for bonds to build a total-recycling (zero-discharge) sewage system. It became the centerpiece of a greenbelt and bird sanctuary that (with a host of other activities) would frame many town land-use decisions for a quarter century. I was part of this group.
"Shadow governments," a kind of limbo between virtual politics and realpolitik, are important first steps, for the everyday citizen, into the mire of constituency politics. They remain (under many names) more important than contacting media or policy wonking. As part of the shadow government, I started talking to skeptical surfers (about 5 percent of the voting block) who quickly taught me to drop what I'd recently been rewarded for in the Ivy League: big and fancy words. Phrasing, simple statements, humor, and a charismatic heart?the essential theater connecting populist politics to power?can only be learned by being tried.
The irrelevance of left or right, conservative or progressive, became even more apparent when the town divided over moving the schoolhouse. Were you "leftist" if you wanted to preserve the historic site and its buildings? Were you "rightist" if you felt that new buildings in a new location were part and parcel of raising educational skills? Ultimately, I decided to vote to keep the school in place because of personal feelings?about traffic on the winding road to the proposed new school location, and my naturalist bent that liked the old school near the town's only perennial stream. Perhaps I intuited that the move was a first step toward gentrification and the exclusion of the less wealthy. I conservatively favored small tax burdens, and the school move required a questionable bond issue. The skills required of an elected official sometimes include the ability NOT to state your thoughts or reasons. Citizen emotions are too deep and their rationales unclear. Keep quiet, vote, and breathe a sigh of relief.
Navigational skills can lead to rueful ironies. During my sojourn, Gov. Ronald Reagan vetoed plans to construct a dam on the Eel River. He said it was an unfair expropriation of private (ranchers') property. He "saved" the Eel even after the legislature had voted for funding. Later, Gov. Jerry Brown lost his fight to stop the New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River, in part because he focused the controversy on environmental damages and frightened the California ag-biz forces, who turned the dam into a symbolic win-or-lose proposition. One river saved by a property-rights advocate; another lost by an environmental sympathizer. The overriding force: navigational skills among constituencies. There are longer-term ironies: FDR's "leftist" public funding of dams on the Columbia River ("your power will bring our darkness to dawn"), for instance, had devastating impacts on fishermen and salmon a half century later. How "progressive" was his advocacy? During my tenure in elected politics, Richard Nixon signed more pro-environmental laws than any Democrat who followed him. There is really no interesting writing on how political ironies can be anticipated, or what is the most effective strategic voting in a democracy. None of my friends would ever have voted for Ronald Reagan in order to save the Eel River!
Political irony does not mean all politically engaged citizens are Don Quixotes jousting with windmills. Recently, American pragmatism has blossomed into nightmare coalitions. For instance, white, upper-middle-class, pro-choice Washington lawyers work with poor, black Mississippi "cancer alley" citizens who are religious and very anti-abortion. They come together on issues of environmental health and toxins (water again). They agree never to discuss their abortion views?which allows the temporary alliance. They will fight each other passionately on abortion legislation at a later date. Nightmare coalitions render ethereal any media or academic pigeonholing of community social activism. Left and right are many times simply the "sports form" of journalism. The soundbite needs two sides at the 50-yard line. Anything else is considered too complex (mostly for the TV commentator).
For those readers who prefer the poker-faced strategic to the anecdotal, here's my two cents' worth. Take any position and ask: What do we want and love? Dream the dream of the perfect (not practical) results so you can see the vision clearly and with full passion. This is harder than it sounds, and most citizens' desires are filtered through "what is reasonably possible." Asking deeply what you really want may even lead to a change in direction. Then ask, What do we know? Put together the knowledge about the situation and what facts may be missing both about the actual topic and the players and power relationships involved. Finally, What will we accept? You don't have to go public with your acceptance strategy, but it should be thought through; then, during negotiations, you can peel off cards, as from a stacked deck, without feeling defeat.
inal words. A bit preachy, but entering public life, after all, erupts from love and from an anxiety that something is definitely not right. Biodiversity is my "litmus test" of Big Heart politics and a fine way to judge a politician. When moved by trees, fish, or an orchid in a marsh, an individual's self-image extends into the world at large. Christian conservers of the creation, environmental activists, academic taxonomists, capitalist herbalists, die-hard deer hunters, elite bankers, indigenous defenders of cultivars, high-school teachers, Hollywood storytellers?can this nightmare coalition become the "radical conservatives," stewarding something of the planet's past into its future? To keep the whooping crane flying requires a left wing and a right wing as well as a body politic between. For long life, the crane needs wetlands from Canada to Texas, and caring humans with deep desires, patience, persistence, and a talent for poker playing.