By GAYE LeBARON
PRESS DEMOCRAT COLUMNIST
It’s been a week of what we might call national news in honor of the nation’s birthday.
Lynn Woolsey has announced that she will retire next year at the end of her 20th year in Congress, a major change in our connections to the nation’s capitol. And, in practically the same breath, the lucky lottery winners whose names were drawn for membership on the California Redistricting Commission have issued a revised tentative map of Woolsey’s district as well as that of her neighboring representative Mike Thompson.
This second try at divvying up the coastal regions of Northern California constitutes a dramatic departure from the first map.
If the first boundaries brought the second-guessers out of the woodwork, the second one is a topic custom-built for the entire spectrum of wonks and political junkies (you know who you are) that inhabit the region.
It is, in fact, a conundrum that might have been created especially for my old friend Sam the Shark.
Some of you may remember Sam. He used to drop by regularly in the days when I went to the newspaper office. When I retired (retreated may be the better term), he deserted me for the editorial director, Pete Golis. I haven’t heard a word from him since Pete retired. Until now.
The redistricting has Sam in a veritable swivet. He showed up on my front porch last week, his derby askew, his omnipresent cigar aquiver. I don’t think I invited him in, but he came anyway, plunking himself down at my family room table with a cup of coffee he snagged on his way through the kitchen. The years have not improved his manners.
“Have you seen what they’re doing?” he demanded. I didn’t bother to answer because I knew it wasn’t really a question, it was an introduction to a diatribe.
“Santa Rosa seems to be the soccer ball in this match,” he said. “First it goes east in a bulge — shaped something like a hernia — into a cross-state district that includes Colusa, Sutter and Yuba counties. That was odd enough to squeeze screams of protest from the urban populous about taking the county seat out of the county. So now it bounces back into the North Coast district in a narrow arrow that looks like a stab wound.
“And here’s a novel idea,” he intoned, “It marries Marin and Lake counties — for richer or for poorer.”
With Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Sonoma and Napa County in between, I reminded him, and a little bit of San Francisco thrown in. Some would call it progress.
“Some might,” said Sam, “depending on their home address. It puts Woolsey (Petaluma) and all three candidates to succeed her in the same district with Thompson. And who does that leave in the North Coast District? Noreen Evans? I dunno. That district goes way up north and Noreen, who squawked and tweeted about losing her state Legislature travel allowance, probably wouldn’t want to drive that far.”
“Can’t you just see it,” said Sam, with an evil chuckle. “Here’s Evans, standing at the gas pump with her cell phone, saying, ‘OK, send me your credit card number to fill ‘er up and I’ll come to Eureka.’ ”
You’re vicious, I said.
“I only know what I read in the newspapers,” said Sam. “And what I remember. So let’s talk about the history of these quirky districts.”
LET’S DO THAT. Talking about the past is a lot safer than speculating where the next map will take us.
Woolsey’s 20 years in Washington is not a record, but it’s pretty close. It puts her even with Don Clausen, a Del Norte County supervisor, now a Santa Rosa resident, who spent 20 years in Congress in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s.
But neither of them can hold a candle to Clarence Lea, whose 16 terms as representative from the old First District makes him the champ — and likely to remain so.
The current controversy over boundaries raises the question: When we talk of the tenures of Woolsey, Clausen and Lea, are we talking about the same district?
The answer is: Yeah. Kinda. Maybe. Sort of. No, not really.
LEA’S 32 YEARS were, shall we say, epic.
The popular young Sonoma County District Attorney was elected in 1916, on the eve of World War I, and served until 1949. That’s six presidents, two world wars, the worst Depression the country has ever known and a dozen years of Prohibition which was at best wild and wooly, at worst, a criminal offense.
“Six presidents!” said Sam, “Like handling a team of oxen.”
Yeah, yeah, I said. This is serious history now. Be quiet.
Lea “owned” the First District, from the Golden Gate to the Oregon border — the stretch of Highway 101 designated about six years into his service as the Redwood Empire.
A conservative Democrat in an area where ranchers and timber barons held the political cards, Lea brought legislative stability to the region in a tumultuous time. What was then known as cross-filing (today called “open primary”) allowed him to enter both the Democratic and Republican primaries. He was opposed in the general election by a Republican just twice in the 16 terms — and a couple of times, in the contentious 1930s, by the token local Communist.
THERE WAS A RUN of Santa Rosa Congressmen before Lea, including Democrats Barclay Henley, whose father had been Speaker of the House; Thomas Thompson, publisher of The Sonoma Democrat; and Thomas Geary, who rose to national prominence as a leader in the Chinese Exclusion movement of the 1890s. The Republicans were attorney John Barham and paint storeowner Duncan McKinlay. Two other notable Republican reps were Frank Coombs of Napa and William Kent, the noted Marin County conservationist and friend of John Muir.
Earlier, in the first 14 years of California’s statehood, the population was so sparse — and mostly in the north — that there were only two Congressmen from the state and they were elected at-large.
After 1864, districts formed and, if I read the records right, the lines were redrawn every two years.
“Boundaries are like socks,” said Sam. “You have to change them regularly.”
I’m ignoring you, I said.
The result of all the changes was that the North Coast counties were represented, not necessarily in this order, by Congressmen from San Francisco, Marysville, Sacramento, Weaverville, Nevada City, Quincy, Chico (this was the notable pioneer John Bidwell), Downieville and Suisun City.
AFTER LEA, INTO the 1950s, Sebastopol insurance man Hubert Scudder served 10 years and retired.
Clem Miller of Marin County took the seat in 1958. Miller, arguably our most intellectual representative, gained national recognition quickly, authored a book about being a Congressman, “Member of the House,” and died tragically in a plane crash on a campaign trip to the north part of the district.
Miller was elected posthumously over Clausen, but Clausen won the special election two months later and served until he was defeated in 1982 by Democratic state legislator Doug Bosco.
By this time the district had been redrawn again – with former Marin supervisor Barbara Boxer representing not only Marin and a portion of San Francisco but part of southern Sonoma County.
That became Woolsey’s district in 1992 when Boxer advanced to the Senate and Petaluma councilwoman Woolsey won the primary over several surprised male opponents.
Bosco’s northern district went Republican in 1990 when a Sonoma County deputy sheriff, Frank Riggs, aided by a large third party defection from the Democrats, won the seat only to lose it in ’92 to liberal Mendocino County supervisor Dan Hamburg and then win it back again in ’94 and ’96.
Mike Thompson, a state legislator from Napa County beat Riggs in 1998.
“And here we are,” said Sam, looking around for an ash tray and finding none, using his coffee cup to extinguish his cigar.
Goodbye, I said, as I opened the front door (and turned on the fan!)
“Who knows where the wandering map-maker will land,” he said, on his way out. “It’s like the weather. We don’t know how it used to be, so we think it’s never been before.”
“Nothing is constant but change,” he said, making it sound like a farewell speech.
I’ve heard that before, I said. And closed the door.