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October 11-17, 2006

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Pete McHugh

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Is a vote for open space a vote against open space? Supervisor Pete McHugh is one of the Measure A opponents who say the ballot initiative threatens the future of South Bay farms. The organizers of the Measure A opposition have hired San Diego consultant Tom Shepard to emphasize the issue.

Buying the Farm

The opposition to Measure A has hired a San Diego power player to put its farmer-friendly spin on the debate. He's done it before—and won. Here's how.

By Najeeb Hasan

MEASURE A, the land conservation initiative on the Nov. 7 Santa Clara County ballot, is the latest showdown in one of the classic ongoing battles in local politics: developers vs. environmentalists. But whether or not it passes may hinge on another group of stakeholders—Santa Clara County farmers.

The measure is complicated enough to take up several pages in the county voter guide, but basically it would affect 400,000 acres in the county by requiring that development on that land adhere to slow-growth rules. It increases rural parcel sizes and decreases the number of new homes that can be built on those parcels. Much of the land in question lies from south of San Jose to the San Benito County line. It also provides environmental protections throughout rural Santa Clara County and prohibits large-scale industrial and commercial use on the protected land.

As part of a strategy against Measure A that is sure to intensify in the coming weeks, county Supervisors Don Gage and Pete McHugh rallied against it three weeks ago in San Jose. The supervisors—whose statements were distributed to the press with the headline "Farmers, Ranchers Rally in San Jose; Measure A Risks County's Future"—were joined at the rally by Jenny Derry, the executive director of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau, who spoke of how the measure would devastate family farms in the county.

While Measure A will certainly affect the county's rural farm and ranch land, the question of how is still up for debate. What is certain is that despite the anti-A focus on farmers and ranchers, it is business and development interests that have the most to lose should it pass on Nov. 7.

Indeed, Measure A's opponents, a group that calls itself a coalition of farmers, ranchers, local businesses, homeowners, Realtors and anti-tax activists, have hired San Diego-based Tom Shepard, a prominent pro-business political consultant, to help craft their campaign. Shepard has been called a "kingmaker" in San Diego, and his most recent high profile victory—one that catapulted him back from the murky shadows of alleged political malfeasance into the limelight—was his orchestration of San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders' victory over insurgent progressive candidate Donna Frye in the city's last election. Shepard's current and former clients in San Diego include the current mayor, the entire board of supervisors, the sheriff and two City Council members.

The initiative's supporters say he's the reason the anti-farmer angle is being played up in the campaign against Measure A—it's a strategy they say is straight out of the Shepard playbook.

Peter Drekmeier, who has been coordinating the efforts to pass Measure A (his conservation group, People for Land and Nature, raised $300,000 to gather the signatures necessary to put the measure on the ballot), says that his group's polling currently has the measure winning by a 2-to-1 margin. However, he remembers the fate of a 2000 Sonoma County slow-growth campaign, Measure I, that had similar polling numbers before the election, with it leading 2 to 1.

That was when Tom Shepard stepped in to the Sonoma County campaign.

"They did what they call a pre-emptive strike," says Drekmeier. "They create confusion and talk about 'unintended consequences'—so if people are uniformed or if they have any doubt, they tend to vote no. Another strategy is that they use the farmer by downplaying the role for the Realtors and developers and pointing out the farmers. Even in the press conference they had in San Jose [that highlighted the plight of the county's farmers]—that was in the parking lot of a Realtor."

On Shepard's website, he lays out the Sonoma County campaign as a case study of his past successes, noting that polls showed the Sonoma measure leading at 46 percent to 28 percent, and support went even higher, to 55 percent to 24 percent, when voters were informed of the measure's provisions and arguments in its favor.

After Shepard was retained by the opponents of the Sonoma measure, he made three key strategic decisions to turn the tide. "First," reveals the case study on Shepard's website, "polling showed farmers to be the most credible advocates for preservation of the county's rural lands. ... Second, builders and other development-related interests were discouraged from playing a high-profile role in the campaign because their involvement would have created an easy target for initiative proponents. ... Third, ... [the campaign began] describing Measure I's unintended consequences that threatened the future of agriculture in Sonoma County."

With Shepard's help, the campaign against the Sonoma measure rebounded and defeated the measure by a 15 point margin, "a remarkable 46 point turnaround from initial public attitudes," Shepard's website notes.

Drekmeier fears that Shepard's involvement in Santa Clara County's measure could result in the same outcome.

Indeed, when Andre Charles, a coordinator for the coalition against Measure A, is questioned about what he feels are his campaign's most important objectives in the lead-up to the election, he echoes Shepard's Sonoma County talking points, farmers and the idea of highlighting "unintended consequences."

"I think our challenge is to let people know about some of the potential unintended consequences of the measure," says Charles, "on agriculture and on the survivability of farms by down-zoning and devaluing property. Our challenge is to let people know the problems with Measure A and let people hear about some of these dangerous consequences. If you have the three largest farmer and agricultural associations against the measure, clearly the farmers recognize that it's a serious threat."

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