Notes from the Big Empty


[This essay is excerpted from Dime’s Worth of Difference.]

Democrats in action? How about in Mendocino County, California, a great big rugged rural place with 85,000 people strewn over an area larger than Vermont.

The short history of the Democratic Party takeover of Mendocino County goes like this: Beginning in 1967, thousands of hippies drove north on Highway 101 from the Bay Area, headed “back to the land”. The land they were going back to was cheap, and got cheaper the farther north their used Volvos carried them. But when the urban refugees, themselves refugees from the suburbs and everything represented by suburbs, got back to the land, there was no hippie way to support themselves other than dope production, and dope’s a high stress enterprise given the cops, thieves and the IRS. So a lot of the hippies dusted off their diplomas, cleaned up and drove down out of the hills to get themselves public jobs, which in the perennially tight
economy of Mendocino County are the only jobs that pay college people the kind of money college people think they deserve.

The hippies were re-entering the society they’d spent their youths being contemptuous of. And being middle-class and civic-minded, they soon elected other hippies, or hip-symps, to a few low-level offices, then some mid-level offices, until Mendocino County’s public jobs were entirely dominated by the love generation.

And public policy in Mendocino County grew crueler by the year, in
direct proportion to the re-entry return of the formerly estranged. For $30,000 a year, a flower child would put the figurative, the programmatic boots to anybody a rung down the ladder.
Pay an old hippie with a law degree $140,000 a year with the full fringe package for him and Mrs. Lib and the kids, and he’ll kill, which is what Mendocino County’s seven liberal judges, all of them Up From Hippie, do five days a week every week in the Mendocino County Courthouse.

“Life without, punk, but I feel your pain”.

Congressman Mike Thompson picked up a Purple Heart in Vietnam. He said when he got home a hippie spit on him. Thompson runs unopposed for re-election. The Republicans don’t bother putting money into an opponent because they’ve got Thompson who’s just as good.

Thompson presides over an apparatus of career officeholders like himself who replace each other when one of them moves on to another public office.

If no public office is immediately available to a term-limited old boy, the Democrats park him or her on a state board of some kind at a hundred thousand a year for one meeting a week until another old boy leaves another safe seat open.

The electoral base camp for rotating offices consists almost entirely of
public employees, whose funding depends on Democrats at the state and federal levels. The edu-bloc votes as one for Democrats, the Democrats send money and promise to send more without raising taxes. People employed at various levels of government ­ and that’s a lot of people in Mendocino County, one third of everyone employed ­ vote Democratic because the Democrats can be depended on to make more government, especially of the kind that keeps on re-electing them. What the Democrats have managed to do on the North coast is create an old fashioned political machine that creates jobs for people who believe that Democrats are “progressive”. Maybe they are in some places, but not here. Here, in real life practice, Democrats are Bush Republicans. To use one of their favorite words, Democrats are “facilitators” of environmental and social destruction.

This is the county whose sheriff and district attorney, libertarian
Republicans, ran for office promising to decriminalize marijuana. Which they did, and both were re-elected by even greater margins the second time they ran. They’ve also passed out more concealed weapons permits than any DA and Sheriff in the state. They’re at odds with Democrats and Republicans on most issues, but you won’t hear a critical word from either of them ever on the deficiencies of the career officeholders of the Democratic machine.

We have a thriving Green Party that votes for Democrats and steadfastly avoids running candidates for local office. When the rare Green takes on the Democrats, he’s either stabbed by Democrats or denounced by Greens for not having been sanctioned by them. When Green guy Dave Severn took on a semi-psychotic Democrat for county supervisor, the Mendocino Green Party refused to endorse Severn. When an elected school board trustee and registered Green signed up for the Green Congressional primary this year hoping to oppose Congressman Thompson in the general election in November, a recreational candidate who runs for office on one minority party ballot or another every election, just happened to find $500 to register to run
against the viable Green in the Green primary. The recreational candidate, who is neither seen nor heard on any issue between elections, beat the legitimate Green in the primary because she’s a woman and she has a Mexican-sounding surname. The legit Green would have caused incumbent Thompson some serious anxiety in his re-election race against a token Republican because Thompson, like Gore and Kerry on the national level, inspires either zero enthusiasm or negative enthusiasm of the I’ll-vote-for-the-Greens-just-to-screw-things-up-for-the-two-party-dictatorship variety.

Congressman Thompson, Wine Country representative all the way and the industry’s main man in Washington, was instrumental in getting the ban on methyl bromide delayed for five more years on behalf of his industry padrones. Thompson, not deigning to take out the necessary permits, bulldozed a parcel of land he owns in nearby Lake County so he could put in his own little vineyard, rightly assuming the authorities would pretend not to know he did it.

The wine people are heavily Democratic because Democrats, they seem to think, have panache; Republicans don’t. It is hard to imagine John Ashcroft at a wine tasting, not hard to imagine Bill and Hillary at one, the crazed AG is not a likely white wine and brie guy. But a rhetorically liberal upscale couple would be right at home in a setting of the superficial and the silly.

Pumped down into the soil to depths of 12 feet, methyl bromide sterilizes the earth as grape vine site prep. Immigrant Mexicans, dressed in protective moonsuits, apply the lethal stuff, and often die in industry accidents involving ag or industrial wine chemicals, especially nitrogen, because the wine people, thanks to Democrats, are basically exempt from industrial safety standards.

The wine industry, heavy consumers of pesticides and herbicides, is
environmentally devastating and socially indifferent; they clearcut large swaths of land with a thoroughness the most demented logger can only dream of doing, then lay on the chemicals year round. Socially, the industry provides little to no worker housing for the immigrant labor upon which depends. The wine industry, which seldom pays better than minimum wages for seasonal work, rises up as one to crush UFW organizing attempts like so many grapes, and fires any worker who complains without so much as promising anything resembling a fair hearing. Congressman Thompson, a Democrat who’sinterchangeable with Republicans on most votes, is the wine industry’s national go-to guy.

One spring morning back in the 1970s, as a clusters of little hippie
kids waited for the big yellow school bus to carry them to classrooms as dull and reactionary as the ones their alienated parents had fled for
California’s backwoods, a Louisiana-Pacific helicopter, spraying the
freshly-logged hills with herbicides to prevent non-commercial
re-vegetation, heedlessly sprayed the little Rainbows and Karmas as they waited for their school buses. The hippies mobilized and passed an aerial spray ban. Within months, state Democrats, including those elected from this area, led by Willie Brown, all of their pockets stuffed with corporate ag cash, passed legislation that decreed that individual counties couldn’t regulate herbicides and pesticides ­ only the state could decide on the big ticket stuff like who could poison the kids and who couldn’t. You don’t like Garlon dropped on your kid? Take it up with Sacramento.

Among the re-entry hippies who dominate Mendocino County’s public
institutions are too many lawyers. Law degreed hippies were quick to note that Mendocino County’s far-flung communities were served by one-day-a-week justice courts whose judges were “lay persons”, i.e., non-lawyers. Nobody in Mendocino County was unhappy with the lay judges in any organized sense of unhappiness; lay judges were a non-issue. People living in the deep outback liked their judges and their courts the way they were, but the lawyers scented opportunity. The lawyers, especially the under-employed ones barely able to earn enough to support the hepatitis lifestyle they’d moved to the country to pursue, began to say, “The quality of justice is likely to be inferior if the person dispensing it isn’t properly trained. We really should have lawyers sitting as judges in these justice courts”. The law was changed, and the lay judges, who had dispensed Mendocino County justice for a hundred years, were gone. Trained legal professionals, fresh from the big naked solstice piles up in the hills, took over Mendocino County’s justice courts.

There’s been a dramatic change in the quality of justice. Not only are
more people than ever going to jail, a new lawyer judge fell in love with an armed robber defendant and, time and again, tossed the charges against his boy friend until people said, “Hey! If this guy would rob people over the hill we wouldn’t mind you sleeping with him, your honor. But we live here!”

The lawyer judge went, but the judge who replaced him, an exhibitionist, kept flashing his court’s female staffers. He finally went off for “counseling”, but came back after a few months of working as a judge an hour away; his judicial pals said privately they’d told him to be sure to wear clothes under his robes, and keep his gonads off the scales of justice.

Lay judges made $300 a month for one-day-a-week. The lawyer judges make $140,000 a year plus fringes for themselves and their families. They can work or not work, as they please; they can stay home and draw their base pay or travel around the state at public expense to sit as visiting judges.

We’ve got more of these $140,000 judges than any population our size in the state. And the justice courts? They’re gone, centralized so the judges don’t have to travel much. The elevation of hippie judges to superior court status was sold as “reorganization” and “increased efficiency”. The Democrat-dominated state legislature sold us that one.

The quality of justice now that long-time pot smokers are presiding? If you can afford a well-connected lawyer you get off; if you can’t you go to the state pen, and the people sending you are all NPR listeners,
Democrats, liberals, Clintonians.

A 19-year-old kid recently got sent off on, as they say, on an L-WOP, life without the possibility of parole. He got a one-day jury trial during
which his public defender called no witnesses on his behalf, assigned no investigators to look at the facts of the case, wrapped up by denouncing the kid as a very bad person who’d committed a very bad murder. Her defense? The boy hadn’t been properly read his rights. The jury was back within minutes with a unanimous guilty verdict. Even the cops were stomping indignantly around the Courthouse at the Public Defender’s grotesquely inept defense.

The L-WOP boy’s two accomplices, one of whom did the crime, murder, got 15 and 19 years respectively. Everyone involved in the case’s second murder, the judicial murder of this L-WOP kid now buried for life at Soledad, is a registered Democrat. The sentencing judge is an active Democrat whose wife works in the local Democrat Assemblyperson’s office.

We even have an “alternate public defender’s” office, a jobs program for under-employed but hip-lib lawyers. The way this works, and it works at enormous additional expense to taxpayers, is when one of the regular public defenders claims “a conflict of interest”, the “alternate” is summoned. The conflict can be as vague as a remote commercial association from, say, five years ago when the defendant attended the same wedding as one of the attorneys in the public defender’s office. The faux scrupulousness is really just a way to spread the legal work around the Democrats who, of course, delude themselves into thinking they’re fighters for the underdog.

We also have a family court magistrate; and two court administrators;
and privatized court reporters (two of whom are girlfriends of sitting
judges), and family court mediators, invariably ex-hippies whose own lives are hopelessly fucked up but drawing nice pay to help other fucked up people with their marital woes, usually making them worse, and we have victim witness coordinators; and a triple-sized probation department; and family court advocates; and on and on ­ at least a thousand ‘helping professionals’, and not a Republican in the bunch, and the whole mob of them committed Democrats of the type who write letters to the editor denouncing Ralph Nader.

Mendocino County, having gone big time for Dean, later went big time for Kerry. Our local public radio station, partially funded by WalMart and the local wine industry, both of which are entirely dependent on grotesquely exploited labor, bills itself as “Free Speech Radio, Mendocino County”. It’s dominated by Democrats, and there are exactly two hours a month of aggressively vetted semi-free speech. Pacifica Network-type Stalinists answer the phones, and if you aren’t talking Kucinich or Kerry or Mumia or their local surrogates, you don’t get to talk. No dissent is allowed on air. Ever. But the Democrats get all the air time they want, and since there are no Republicans who either tune in or call in during the two whole hours a month any old body can reach right out and audio touch a tax-paid censor, it’s all Democrats all the time.

As in the rest of America, the Democrats stay in office here in Ecotopia by routing funding to public employees. School people and public employees vote as a bloc for Democrats because Democrats fund them. Local food banks estimate that a minimum of 20% of Mendocino County children under the age of five don’t get enough to eat, and many Mendocino County schools fail to meet prevailing educational standards, low as they are. The Mendocino County Jail, because it has had to take over the care and feeding of the ill because Mendocino County’s helping professionals, many of them active Democrats, and all of them Democratic voters although occasionally registered Green, aren’t equal to the task; the jail is so overcrowded it regularly releases its least violent inmates after they’ve served a third to half their sentences.

The proprietor of a fancy, ocean view inn is “environmental chair” of
California’s Democratic Party. During grassroots demonstrations against the possibility that the Pacific off the Mendocino Coast might eventually be drilled for oil, Democrats like Gray Davis, known locally as Eraser Head, showed up in chauffeur-driven gas guzzlers for environmental photo-ops. The inn owner, previously unengaged in the agitation to keep oil rigs out of her viewshed, inserted herself into the turmoil, sedate as it was, and was soon appearing in the New York Times as the lady who’s saving the sea from Chevron. Her inn became a regular pit stop for bigwig Democrats, and she became the person who kept the derricks off the North coast. The grassroots people, who’d hoped for a permanent ban on offshore drilling, were shoved
aside, and the safety of sea creatures has been in the well-oiled,
well-funded hands of Democrats ever since.

So have the forests, what’s left of them. When the North coast grassroots drew national attention to the grim fact that outside timber corporations were cashing in Mendocino and Humboldt county trees for short-term profit and long-term environmental and employment devastation, the grassroots turned to their Democratic officeholders for help. The Democrats, always ready to oblige, helped the corporations mop up what was left of both the private and public trees, and then, with public money freed up by Clinton, bought up untouched acres of forest at twice their already inflated value from Charles Hurwitz, a junk bond tycoon based in Texas who does big business deals with Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband.

The Democrats and their local gofers also negotiated a set aside of thousands of acres of land at Big River, just south of tourist ground zero, Mendocino Village. The newest set aside was dedicated to two active Democrats who’d always been among the missing when environmental push had come to environmental shove. It’s as if long time environmentalists like Ron Guenther, who literally risked his neck to take on the timber corporations and was the first local person to protest timber harvest plans on their merits, was ignored as Democrats and their officeholders held a self-congratulatory hand-over ceremony at Big River beach.

The New York Times-owned Santa Rosa Press Democrat serves as major media
stenographer for local Democrats. The paper was distraught at Gray Davis’s recall as California’s governor. “We just can’t allow voters to monkeywrench things like this”, the paper wailed editorially. “What if the mob goes after Wes or Patti or Mike and the rest of our progressive friends? It’s too terrible to contemplate”.

The Davis recall lost in Mendocino County. The Democrats managed to
convince the minority of eligible voters who bothered with the recall
election that Davis was better than the alternative. The alternative was, of course, a lateral move, electorally considered, and here we are again with the Democrats telling us that it’s Kerry or another four years of Bush.

In Mendocino County, it’s another four years of Thompson as methyl
bromide’s national advocate, while here with the home folks, Thompson’s in-county rep, long ago secretly anointed by the Thompson Democrats to become a supervisor and thus begin her climb upwards to the imported brie, easily defeated an unblessed male Democrat to get the job.

In November, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors will consist of five Democrats: a gay woman; a recovering alcoholic; a retired rock and roll musician; a trust fund hippie; and a Bly Guy who changed his name to Wildman: rural multiculturalism, Democrat style.

BRUCE ANDERSON was editor of The Anderson Valey Advertiser, headquartered in Boonville, Mendocino County, northern California. After 23 years, in August of this year he and his wife Ling headed for Eugene, OR, craving rain and that brand of blood-thirsty self-righteousness that Oregonian liberals have successfully patented to alternate with the vindictive barbarism of the local Republicanism. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book Dime’s Worth of Difference. His new paper, AVA Oregon, will be launched in November. You can reach him at: