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Uncivil Discourse

Politics in Santa Cruz needs to rise above bickering and feuding--a news editor looks back on two years in the trenches

By John Yewell

I'M SITTING in a Pacific Avenue cafe getting high on latte fumes, when suddenly, a middle-aged man with a full head of gray hair careens between the close rows of tables like a whirling dervish, narrowly avoiding customers as he spins to the music in his headphones. He makes a turn at the far end of the cafe, negotiates his way to the next aisle, spinning all the while, then plunges back out the door. Not a drop of coffee is spilled. A few minutes later, he repeats the stunt. Nobody seems to notice.

There are things about Santa Cruz that endear the place to us, quirky things that, in combination with the social isolation and physical beauty, make this little corner of the earth so irresistible that many devoted residents, no matter how high the rents and how low the pay, would never--indeed could never--live anywhere else. During 20 years of wandering the globe, between the time I graduated from UCSC and the time I returned over two years ago, this almost mythic and at the very least strange Santa Cruz was never far from my imagination.

Santa Cruz is a small town, although it is not as small as it used to be. But in the minds of many longtime residents, Santa Cruz is immutable, more idea than place, more symbol than reality. When I arrived in June 1998 to become news editor at Metro Santa Cruz, cell phones downtown were rare, old Volkswagens outnumbered BMWs and the cost of buying a condo in Capitola was still within reach of a journalist with a small-down-payment.

None of that is even remotely true anymore. With the changes have come problems that have gotten so big they seem to defy solution. Growth issues--traffic, housing, well-paying jobs--have taken on such a regional quality that we now argue over how the Cisco development in Coyote Valley could make things worse. Not Aptos, not even Boulder Creek. Coyote Valley.

This has lead to a kind of political paralysis, an atmosphere in which local activists already used to years of fighting over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin are left with no solutions at all. They have been reduced to political cannibalism, a kind of Donner Party culture where there is so little hope left of fixing the problems, so little actual political fat to chew on, that old grudges and personality conflicts have taken the place of policy debate. It is leftist against leftist, people who in almost any other part of the country would be so constrained by policy differences with genuine conservative political elements that they would be thrown together without hesitation over common causes.

The problem plagues many small towns, but talk to anyone who follows local politics--they all say the same thing: Politics in Santa Cruz have gotten unbelievably personal and ugly.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I worked as a reporter for a small daily newspaper in St. Paul, Minn., called the Legal Ledger. Covering state government, the LL was modeled after the Washington, D.C., paper Roll Call, which is read religiously in the capital for its day-to-day grip on the pulse of the Beltway.

My office was in the press room in the Capitol basement, two floors directly below the governor's office, and my neighbors were the crème de la crème of Minnesota's political reporters. With 201 members of the Legislature, an extensive bureaucracy and a governor who despised the press (this was pre-Jesse Ventura), there was always plenty of news to report. Competition among reporters was respectful but fierce. To someone like myself, previous stints as a political columnist and reporter for a Minneapolis weekly were no comparison. This was spike-in-the-arm political mainlining.

Reporters develop their own style of source maintenance. Some--especially daily newspaper folks--scrupulously maintain a professional distance from the people they write about. My style has always been to get as close to politicians as they will let me, while reminding them continually that my responsibilities as a reporter are to my readers, and not to their political self-interest.

Generally, it has worked for me. It has meant that I get to know the politicians and bureaucrats for whom openness comes naturally, and in Minnesota there were some surprising results, because the politician with whom I probably developed my closest relationship was a state representative from the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington named Kevin Knight.

Most people, on both sides of the political aisle, thought Knight was the most conservative guy in the state Legislature, and nobody could figure us out. We were about as different as night (or Knight ... ) and day, and agreed on almost nothing policy-wise.

What we liked about each other was that we could be completely honest, discuss issues openly, and in the end agreed to disagree. Knight and his aides would often meet me after work at local watering holes. I kind of became their pet progressive, and we could enjoy each other's company. Every once in a while, I still get emails from a member of that gang, asking me when I'm coming back to cover Minnesota politics.

It is a relationship that in today's Santa Cruz is difficult to imagine. Making it work starts with a major concession on both sides: you have to give credence to another person's opinion, even if you disagree with them. You have to understand and believe that other people hold different views for honestly held reasons, not because they are evilly motivated. It is an honest point of view, for example, when conservatives question whether the taxpayers should pay for various social programs--however important you might believe the program to be.

But to the different political factions in Santa Cruz (roughly divided into Scott Kennedy and Bruce Bratton camps over the City Council for instance), everything has become personal. Activists no longer stop to think about what is good or bad, what will work or not. It is much easier to choose sides, after all, based on who lines up on the other side. With the problems so intractable, there is little else to fight over. It is the politics of revenge.

In my 124 issues as news editor for this paper (in which role I had no influence over Bruce Bratton's column), we have taken on a crusade or two, and in the process have made some unexpected friends as well as unpredicted enemies. We have tried to carve an evenhanded if progressive niche, and to improve the quality of political discourse.

When people lose touch with true diversity (which includes very conservative points of view), when their physical and cultural isolation creates a family feud-type atmosphere, their views become fragile and parochial, and they become isolated politically. The political Santa Cruz is like that today.

But it is changing. For better or worse, the migration from over the hill is unstoppable, and those newcomers aren't just bringing money: they're bringing ideas. And those ideas will change Santa Cruz. Whether they will have the effect of teaching people to stop their carping at each other and try honest debate instead remains to be seen.

I, for one, hope so. Civility in political discourse is a wonderful thing. And you'd be surprised at the friends that can be made even among people who disagree.

John Yewell has just been named the editor of The Independent Weekly in Durham, N.C.

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From the October 25-November 1, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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