Mike Brown has one ear tuned to a government meeting squeaking through on his laptop as he shuffles an assortment of documents, including three-inch-thick budgets and planning laws. He is explaining to a reporter how government has gone awry.
Brown is pretty agile at this stuff, as you might expect of a man who spent more than four decades toiling at local governments. He knows just which page to turn to on a given document and which columns of figures to compare and contrast.
As he explains his new gig — director of governmental affairs for the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business in San Luis Obispo County — the gray-haired, avuncular retired county administrator does not seem the sinister figure that has emerged in recent news stories.
Nor does the group, which describes itself as an organization that seeks to put a crimp in what it sees as overregulation, seem worrisome, at least on the surface.
The San Luis Obispo County group’s former treasurer, land-use consultant Jamie Kirk, says there have long been disparate groups in the county trying to get a handle on land-use regulations — the Farm Bureau, the Cattlemen’s Association and others.
COLAB, she said, would be sort of an umbrella organization that could meld them into a more focused voice to “monitor the regulatory environment.”
And yet the leaders of this self-described benign organization have been criticized in recent months as having a dark and occasionally racist history.
County Supervisor Adam Hill generated headlines last month when he shot off an email to state Sen. Sam Blakeslee warning the Central Coast Republican against attending a fundraiser that included the participation of Andy Caldwell, the longtime Santa Barbara County COLAB spokesman.
In language he later conceded was strident, Hill accused the organization of being “hostile, secretive, and racist.”
Hill told Blakeslee his carefully crafted image as a moderate was imperiled by attending the fundraiser. Blakeslee canceled but now plans to reschedule the event.
What was Hill’s evidence for such strong criticism?
His initial exhibit — he later provided more ammunition — was the appearance at an earlier COLAB function of Steve Bridges, a white comedian who impersonates presidents, including Barack Obama. Since Bridges uses makeup to darken his skin, Hill implied that his Obama impersonation is akin to minstrel shows during which white performers used exaggerated makeup, speech and gestures that caricatured black Americans.
Many observers praised Hill for standing up to racism. However, COLAB and its backers, most particularly Caldwell, reacted with outrage.
Bridges is just a performer, they said. Caldwell shredded his thesaurus seeking ever more irate adjectives to describe Hill’s comments, eventually including but not limited to “malicious,” “slanderous,” “libelous” and “uncalled for.” He demanded an apology.
Clearly, Hill had taken an ax to a hornet’s nest.
So where does the truth lie? Is COLAB just another group seeking to slow what it sees as government excesses in San Luis Obispo County? Or does it have a dark history?
The answers are yes and yes.
At the center of this apparent contradiction are Caldwell and, to a lesser extent, Brown and their respective histories in Santa Barbara County.
COLAB, Brown and especially Caldwell do have a 20-year history in Santa Barbara County. Hill believes that background is not a felicitous one and that it augurs ill for San Luis Obispo County.
Hill wants county agriculture leaders whom he considers moderate and reasonable to understand COLAB’s history, and he has been working hard for six months to cast doubt in their minds about the organization.
The email to Blakeslee was part of that, but it is far from the only alarm that Hill has sounded about COLAB.
Emails released to The Tribune under a Public Records Act request show Hill dispensing both advice about COLAB and articles by and about Caldwell and Brown during their respective tenures.
The articles are startling:
An advertisement written by Caldwell for a local political campaign carried the headline “Ignorant Mexican Activists?”
Brown was forced to take two weeks of unpaid leave and had to apologize for anti-Islam remarks after the attacks of Sept, 11, 2001.
Caldwell called Rep. Lois Capps, law enforcement and others who supported a Hate Crimes Prevention Act friends of pederasts.
There are other examples.
Hovering over the COLAB story like a fetid cloud is Caldwell.
The chief of the Santa Barbara version of COLAB, Caldwell also has a local radio show that is unapologetically conservative. He routinely attacks Capps and others he considers too liberal, and he does so in the incendiary tone and language so commonplace in talk radio.
He has taken that same style to Board of Supervisors meetings in both counties.
Not surprisingly, Caldwell has offended people along the way and, in some cases — as with Hill — alarmed them.
Caldwell seems to understand he is a divisive figure. He turned down a request to be interviewed for this article, sending an email in which he wrote that he does “not want SLO COLAB baby dipped and rinsed in the Santa Barbara County bathwater.”
He added that “any and all political issues in Santa Barbara County are comprised of, in essence, a blood sport.” Mike Brown, he added, “is NOT Andy Caldwell. He has his own style, intellect and experience.”
Caldwell’s attempts to distance the San Luis Obispo County COLAB from the Santa Barbara County COLAB may or may not succeed. Hill’s warnings clearly show that he, at least, views Brown with the same skepticism with which he regards Caldwell.
There is one more ingredient in this COLAB-Hill stew: Hill’s attempts to control the public debate.
In an email about a county ordinance released under the Public Records Act request, for example, he scolded agriculture leaders, telling them that “hyperbole runs rampant with many of your speakers.”
“I would ask you to resist from action alerts that lead to a lot of political grandstanding,” he wrote.
Hill has caught flak for being too controlling on other issues as well, but he may simply be doing what Caldwell does from the other side of the political spectrum — getting down with local politics. Hill is, as he often remarks, from Brooklyn, where politics is, to use Caldwell’s phrase, a blood sport.
So where does this leave COLAB and the county? Hill has vowed to move on, and Brown says he just wants a discussion about the issues. Each has asked the other to tone it down.
Do they mean what they say?
At last Tuesday’s meeting, Brown ambled to the podium to warn Hill and his colleagues about a bill pending in Sacramento that he said would damage the county. Hill thanked him and asked him the number on the bill.
There was nary a word about minstrel shows.