The Good Old Days: Sanders supporters at Colton Hall in Monterey | Joe Livernois
By Joe Livernois
Last year about this time, progressives throughout the Central Coast were inspired, like others around the world, by their collective revulsion over the election of Donald J. Trump.
They took to the streets en masse, the day after Inauguration Day, with pussy hats and steely resolve. Up to 16,000 marched down Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, while more than 4,000 people marched through CSU Monterey Bay.
The Indivisible movement took hold, and folks in Monterey County tripped over one another getting Indivisible groups up and running in their communities. There were at least 14 of them registered as Indivisibles in the congressional district representing the Central Coast, including a group in Lockwood (a rural outreach 70 miles south of Salinas with a population of about 400) called the Per-Sisters.
Indivisible is a national grassroots movement created in reaction to the Trump election. It offers a no-nonsense guide for the organization of local chapters, with tactics for action gleaned from the Tea Party movement.
Early on, the sheer volume of local Indivisible organizations and the local activists who wanted to get involved resulted in confusion and miscommunication. There were disagreements about the priority of issues, about tactics, about who should be in charge. Some eager political newcomers who had been enthusiastic about rolling up their sleeves felt like they weren’t fully appreciated or utilized by grizzled and overwhelmed political operatives who had never dealt with so many volunteers showing up at one place at one time.
A year later, local leaders insist that the energy of the resistance movement remains strong, despite the fits and starts. They say the local groups are now better organized and their missions are better defined. Many of the Indivisible groups consolidated with others.
And down in Lockwood, the Per-Sisters persist. “We are active and we meet weekly.” said Jenine Davison.
Gary Karnes, a longtime Democratic leader in Monterey County, said local activists are proud of their accomplishments during the past year. “Collective action is the antidote to despair, as the saying goes,” he said, adding that the local efforts generated significant interest among new and younger activists who “are planning to run for office, manage campaigns, work for a better world and have fun in the process.”
Paving the way for the involvement of younger activists was the transition, soon after Trump’s election, of the county’s Democratic Central Committee from old-school Democrats to the more aggressively progressive Bernie Sanders wing.
That transition was relatively painless, according to Alan Haffa, chairman of the Central Committee and a Monterey city councilman. Haffa was a delegate for Sanders at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, and had introduced Sanders during his campaign appearance in front of Monterey City Hall.
Haffa said the new face of local party leadership is not an outright rejection of the old guard. Rather, he said, it signifies an awareness by the old guard, at least locally, that the party must change if it has any chance of surviving in the coming years.
To be clear, the Central Coast is inarguably a bastion of liberal tendencies. And it has been for at least the past five decades. In Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, Hillary Clinton won more than 184,000 votes in the 2016 general election, compared to only 57,333 for Trump. Chances are you wouldn’t be able to name the Republican candidates who challenged Sen. Bill Monning and Assemblyman Mark Stone during that same election.
Practically speaking, the local Republican organizations exist only to offer “expert” campaign assistance to candidates for rural school boards, for cemetery districts and for councils of trifling little cities.
A year ago, Alexis Garcia was a 19-year-old Monterey native and CSU Monterey Bay student with ambitions of being a journalist. He was working internships with KRKC radio in King City and with Univision in Monterey. “I was covering the 2016 elections and the rallies that were going on all over the county,” he said. “I interviewed people who were afraid of what was happening, who were being impacted. Immigration, student debt, DACA. I had a sense that something needs to be done. And as a journalist, I couldn’t really do that much.”
Last Saturday at CSUMB, Garcia was registering voters at the Women’s March rally. He’s not doing journalism anymore, and he’s motivated by political solutions to national and local issues. In the year since Trump’s inauguration, he applied for and completed a five-month congressional internship, earned through the Panetta Institute, with Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-El Monte. His ambitions include immediate leadership positions within the CSU system, a run for city council in Seaside (where he now lives) and … who knows after that?
“I have really seen a surge of activity with people my age,” Garcia said. “Everyone I know is motivated and everyone wants to learn how they can get more involved.”
He said local political veterans and organizations have been accommodating, helpful and eager to groom new blood into the progressive fold. “I think everyone understands how important it is to have fresh new faces,” he said.
While the Central Coast is overwhelmingly Democrat, the practical reality is that the fabric of local Democratic politics is stitched together with brittle threads of uneasy truces, back-stabbing politics, personal agendas, frantic ambitions — and very honest differences about housing, the environment and land use on the Central Coast.
Progressives in the Salinas Valley tend to be practical social-justice warriors who believe that affordable housing — and the lack thereof — is killing the deal for their Salinas Valley constituents. Liberals on the Monterey Peninsula are, generally, resolutely environmental protectionists. The two sides might share contempt for the president and might even rally together in support of DACA, but they tend to disagree, often bitterly, on fundamental local issues.
“Development is not a dirty word in my district,” said Supervisor Simon Salinas, who has represented Salinas and the Salinas Valley in various capacities for about two decades. He said he would never apologize for his support of proposals to create new housing in his district, a region of the county with strong Latino representation dependent on Salinas Valley agriculture.
Beverly Bean, who is active in land-use issues on the Monterey Peninsula, said the issues are similar on both sides of the county divide. “They don’t care about the environment, except as it affects their bottom lines,” she said. “The power players on either side of the Lettuce Curtain may join together with each other, but I don’t think they will do anything willingly for my issues unless they can see a profit in it.”
The friction surfaced last week, after social-media sites for local Democratic organizations were suddenly filled with a last-minute call to mobilize against a fellow Monterey County Democrat, Luis Alejo, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.
Peninsula Democrats were livid that Alejo, from Salinas, was pulling two Peninsula representatives on the Board of Supervisors (both women) off two key commissions. In the end, fewer than a half-dozen people showed up at the Board of Supervisors meeting to complain, and the issue lost a lot of steam after Alejo announced he had decided not to remove Supervisor Jane Parker from the Local Agency Formation Commission after all. What’s more, Alejo and other supervisors reminded everyone that they had been removed from some important commissions a year earlier by last year’s chairwoman, Supervisor Mary Adams, but they didn’t complain because they understood that the chair has the prerogative to make any committee assignment he or she chooses.
Still, the episode exposed the deep-rooted suspicions that Democrats on the two sides of Monterey County have for one another.
“It continues to be a hard thing to pull together the Peninsula/Coastal Santa Cruz County part of the Monterey Bay and the Watsonville/Salinas Valley/San Benito County part,” said Michael Johnston, a former labor organizer. “Even though both tend to be progressive, they are culturally and politically quite different and seem to have very different ideas about what progressive leadership and leaders look like.”
Alan Hicks, a co-founder of South County Indivisible, said his organization recognized early that they’d have to address the divides between the wealthy, mostly white residents of Aptos, where his group first took root, and the mostly Latino working-class residents of Watsonville.
So far, Hicks feels the attempts have been successful.
“We had our first meeting in Aptos, an overflow crowd,” Hicks said. “I was introducing them to everybody in Watsonville.” By everybody, Hicks means people like Mayor Oscar Rios and Consuelo Alba, co-founder of the Watsonville Film Festival.
“The women from Aptos were wanting to know how to work with people in Watsonville,” Hicks said. And so Alba soon led a “very frank and open and honest” discussion on cultural differences.
One of the group’s earliest efforts was helping develop a “rapid response” network to alert and inform immigrant residents of their rights “if ICE comes to town,” Hicks said.
The group has also led workshops on how to work with elected officials. “That’s one of the biggest things, because grassroots people and systems people, there’s a gulf there, I think, a lack of trust,” he said.
One of the tools the group uses to break down divides is what’s known as the World Café method of group discussion and decision making. Hicks said Rios and Rep. Jimmy Panetta both loved the idea, and around 50-60 people attended the group’s last World Café meeting. “People thought it was different than anything they’ve experienced. So that’s one of our tools,” Hicks said. “The question is how do we start governing ourselves rather than relying on leaders to do everything for us?”
Further north, when Santa Cruz Indivisible first formed, executive director Carson Kelly said nearly 1,000 people attended the early organizing meetings. In fact, there were several Santa Cruz “Indivisibles” with standing-room only crowds, but the groups eventually morphed into one.
Activities since have included workshops, phone call and postcard-writing meet-ups and other actions “from close to 3,500 affiliated members of the organization,” according to Kelly’s blog.
Protesting and marching continue to be principal activities — including a Highway 1 overpass “bridge brigade” — but this year, the group is “going on a war-footing to support progressive candidates for 2018,” and plans to work with Swing Left and Sister District, national groups working to flip Republican districts and legislative bodies to the left.
Putting aside tense local issues in Monterey County, local leaders believe they’ve been able to channel the energy of activists in efforts to change the national conversation. A memo sent to left-leaning activists late last year listed dozens of accomplishments in Monterey County alone, ranging from the standard Window-on-the-Bay rallies to hard-boiled lobbying efforts to create sanctuary cities and to push other progressive values. Local progressives remain heavily involved in parochial issues, including water and the anti-fracking effort.
“I don’t think you measure ‘resistance’ by how many street protests you have,” said Haffa. Visible protests don’t make that much difference, he said, so he has joined other locals to mobilize Democrats on the Central Coast to help campaigns in other congressional districts.
In fact, representatives at Indivisible Monterey County are recommending that local activists join Swing Left Monterey, which is devoted to working in districts outside the area. “It is difficult to be the Resistance in a Blue county in a Blue state unless you’re willing to cross district and state borders to unseat Republicans who won their elections by thin margins,” said Susan Meister, in a recent message to local Indivisible members.
“What we cannot accomplish on the Central Coast, because we don’t have to, we can do for districts that need us,” Meister said.
Karnes said local Democrats will certainly send help “over the Pacheco Pass” in an effort to flip congressional districts from Red to Blue. But he also said that local Democrats will target local races, including traditional non-partisan seats such as the county sheriff and city council seats.
Royal Calkins and Julie Reynolds Martinez contributed to this story.
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.