Saturday, June 03, 2006

Wherein the obligations of citizenship generate unexpected rewards

I went to Fort Bragg yesterday to give a talk about Clean Money, and Steve kindly offered to come along and be my chauffeur. I think it was a good thing for both of us to get out of town. We took Highway 128 from Cloverdale to the coast through Boonville.

I'd forgotten what the real California looked like. Not the endless traffic, strip malls, cheap cookie-cutter commercial buildings, gas stations and junk food stops. Not the bland suburbs and prettified downtown revivals. Not the big box "plazas" and miniature golf fantasylands.

Instead, miles without a house in sight, wooded ridges and tawny valleys below a crystalline sky, all so pure and clean. We rose through evergreens and oaks and coasted into the Andersen Valley, golden in the early summer, and best of all, uncluttered with our faux civilization.

The old world has its medieval abbeys and castles. We have our ancient oaks and redwoods.

Then through more redwoods to the coast--with its cooling fog and coastal drizzle--in the late afternoon and north to Fort Bragg. Stopped for a bite to eat at the Seal Internet Cafe on Main Street, where several wireless networks were available for our use. The mist was heavy enough to be called light rain, but it was humid and warm and invigorating.

The dear people of Fort Bragg (population 6,000 plus) have a Town Hall meeting on Friday nights, of all nights, at the Town Hall. (This is different from City Hall, a bigger and more imposing building, but nevertheless it appears that City Council meetings are actually at the Town Hall.)

But first, dinner with seven members of the local Alliance for Democracy--sponsors of the Town Hall meeting--who invited us into their circle of friendship.

The circus was in town. Several music festivals. A monthly Friday night reception at local galleries. Yet 44 of the citizens turned out for a serious political discussion. (I think the count was actually closer to 50; the room looked full when I was at the podium.)

The talk was well received, and afterward, 7 representatives of local groups (Greens, Democrats, Sierra Club, nurses, Unitarians, League of Women Voters and AFD) each took a few minutes to tell why they supported Clean Money. The Clean Money video was projected on the high-ceilinged wall behind the council seats, the largest I'd ever seen it--it was like going to the movies.

I managed to complete the talk and field numerous questions without too many faux pas, though I was aware of saying "um" far too many times, and the microphone was such that I practically had to swallow it to be heard.

After the meeting I talked with a candidate for county supervisor. Despite spending almost no money on the campaign, she was in a dead heat with the incumbent. Because of the small size of the town, she was counting on visiting every house in town and explaining her position. Yet the Press Democrat--the major journalism player, even in Fort Bragg--proclaimed she was not a serious candidate because she refused to solicit money.

Not that there was anything wrong with the incumbent--he was a progressive, like most people involved in Fort Bragg politics today--but she felt he had been in office long enough. She thought it was time for a change, so she was running for his seat.

We spent the night at the intriguing home of Meg Courtney, member of the Fort Bragg planning commission and soon-to-announce city council candidate. (She also had her ceramics and paintings on display at the art gallery across the street from the Town Hall.) Her home's original 1913 fir-paneled walls and ceilings are intact, so you notice the comfortable smell of old wood when you enter the building.

In our guest bedroom I found works by two old friends: John McPhee and Eric Sloan, part of the collection of Meg's partner Kevin. The next morning Meg took us to Kevin's workshop. He is a talented woodworker who designs and hand-makes ergonomically friendly hand tools that are so in demand he spends long hours at the shop--causing Meg to worry about his health. Searching the world over for a machine shop to make the metal portions of his tool designs, Kevin found just the shop he was looking for in the nearby small town of Comptche.

Fort Bragg made both of us yearn for life in a smaller town. It struck me that, going back to the ancient Greeks, democracy was designed with a certain size political unit in mind, and the 6,000-plus citizens of Fort Bragg are probably the outer limit for a functioning true democracy. Small enough that you can reach the majority by means of your own efforts and those of your supporters. Such towns may not need publicly funded election campaigns because it's possible to reach all the citizens without them.

For the rest of us, the corrupting influence of outside money sets in when a candidate can't possibly reach all his/her constituents without spending lots of money on mailings and TV ads.

Yes, small towns are easier for a very few big interests to buy up and control, but strong grass-roots movements can and do take such towns back from those interests. Democracy is a great thing. It's just that we haven't figured out how to make it work on a large scale. That's why we need Clean Money publicly funded election campaigns for most California towns.

On Saturday we fooled around in Fort Bragg until noon, then ambled back along 128, stopping in Mendocino to visit Lark in the Morning and their incredible collection of folk instruments from around the world. Then back to Boonville for an iced latte (me) and a chocolate mint milkshake (Steve) as well as a roadside guitar and flute sale by a Boonville oldtimer who knew Lark in the Morning's Beth and Mickey Zekley. Steve had to try several of the guitars and show the proprietor his own funky depression-era guitar.

While we were there, an old man in a white Cadillac pulled up and announced that he was a Grand Ol' Opry musician who once turned down a quarter-million-dollar offer to leave Nashville and record with a major record company. This guy seemed just quirky enough to be telling the truth. We left the old man to spin his tales about Nashville's good old days.

We passed up Boonville's Wild Iris Music Festival with Utah Phillips because the $40 day-pass price was a little too steep for us. I took the wheel and Steve entertained me with music that was probably just as good as anything at the $40 festival.

Back to civilization: Descending into Cloverdale, my cell phone began announcing messages that had come in while we were out of range.


Post a Comment

<< Home