Tom Fulks

Sharp left? Nah – just SLO County Democrats adopting a ‘sharp attitude’

Tom Fulks
Tom Fulks

There was a time in San Luis Obispo County when people who disagreed politically actually liked each other, when they greeted one another with heartfelt affection, when the internal goings on of one party were considered normal behavior by the other.

That can’t be said today by either side of the aisle. Calling Democrats communists, socialists and radicals is de rigueur among the right, as it is for the left to call Republicans fascists, Russian stooges and traitors.

When local four-term Assemblyman Eric Seastrand died in office in 1990, local Republicans were in a justifiable state of grief, shock and disarray.

For all his rigid political dogma and extreme ideas, I considered Seastrand a friend. He and I got along, treated each other respectfully, laughed at each other’s jokes.

He once invited me to go to Russia with him on some kind of religious junket that never materialized. I declined, of course, but the gesture was touching and genuine.

After Seastrand’s death, Republican Party players from our then-constituted Assembly district – San Luis Obispo County and parts of Santa Barbara and Kern counties –gathered one Saturday at SLO City Hall in what turned out to be a donnybrook, with partisans clamoring for their favored candidates to replace Seastrand. I was there as a newspaper reporter.

Then-Congressman Bill Thomas of Bakersfield stilled the waters with a deft hand, bringing order to chaos. I remember the local Democratic Party wanting that seat, but they didn’t accuse Republicans of conspiring to destroy America.

I’ll not forget Seastrand’s graciousness, nor that of his widow, Andrea Seastrand. Although she’s my “conservative” counterpart in this newspaper, and we disagree on much, I can’t say a negative word about her.

She may be politically misguided, but I’m quite fond of Andrea. She reminds me of my mom.

Just as local Republicans were in crisis upon Eric’s death, the SLO County Democratic Central Committee recently went through a less-serious crisis of philosophy – a challenge from new players to old ways. In this hyper-partisan era, some mistakenly interpret that to mean “radicals” seized control and turned the party “sharp left.”

Andrea and COLAB are pushing that canard, but it’s false. Rather, local Dems now have a “sharp” attitude, resulting from generational change.

Inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders, spurred by the rise of a president many Democrats consider a lawless gangster, a group of progressive activists has risen to numerical prominence within the local party. This has upset some committee traditionalists, causing a simmering rift that boiled over into a contentious battle for the committee’s chairmanship.

After months of infighting, progressive Rosemary Canfield of Shell Beach, a public school teacher, was elected by a comfortable margin over traditionalist Donna Kandel, Lucia Mar teachers’ union president, to helm the committee.

The election itself was civil, but hard feelings linger. Relationships between longtime friends and political allies are frayed. Hopefully, wounds will heal and the party will unite for the 2018 elections.

The ruckus reminds me of local Republicans 27 years ago, with the calming role of Congressman Thomas performed this time for Democrats by county Supervisor Bruce Gibson.

In four decades of observing SLO County politics up close – either in the media or participating as an accomplice – I’ve witnessed my share of local political drama, providing some perspective.

In 1979, for example, anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis told Cal Poly’s Mustang Daily that SLO County government was the most corrupt in California, creating a statewide sensation.

I was in the Daily newsroom when Republican Assemblywoman Carol Hallett came in with a blistering, on-the-record condemnation of Jarvis, challenging him to prove it. He didn’t.

That year, I interviewed Gov. Jerry Brown prior to an anti-nuclear rally at Cuesta College, attracting some 30,000 people.

In 1984, I watched Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale storm Mission Plaza, packed with 3,000 people, “Rocky” theme song blaring, hundreds of hard-hatted Diablo Canyon construction workers marching in line.

In 1986, I interviewed Jane Fonda, her brother Peter and a caravan of Hollywood stars campaigning in SLO for Prop. 65, requiring public disclosure of carcinogens. And there were governors George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Rep. Leon Panetta.

All were politically charged encounters – that’s not news. This is: I’ve never seen SLO County Democrats recruit 1,700 local activists in six months, all fired up and ready to have at a mid-term election.

The energy and enthusiasm of this entirely new crop of politically engaged locals is unique to my memory, portending a new chapter in the history of SLO County politics.

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks serves on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee. His column runs every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Andrea Seastrand.

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