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Not A Mad Tea Party

Driving up Lambert Lane in Boonville Saturday afternoon I wondered whether we’d encounter any “angry old white people” dressed in colonial costume and waving hand lettered misspelled signs. We were arriving for what was advertized as “A Community Meeting and Tea Party.” It was actually going to be a chance to meet state assemblyman Jared Huffman, the San Raphael-based Democratic candidate for our reconfigured congressional district. But given the ideological framing of “Tea Party” in recent years, some overzealous ultra-righters may have hastily scanned the advert’s title and been motivated to show up.
When we entered the pleasantly rustic, comfortable home of Linda McLure and Jen Burnstead, we encountered instead more than 20 well-informed, issue-oriented, locally active old white people. Most were from the Valley, with a few who had driven over from the coast.

Indeed, except for two women and a cute four or five-year-old brunette pixie in a summer dress who flitted through the rooms before the meeting started, Mr. Huffman (48, with a fair, boyish face) looked to be the youngest among us.

While socializing near a long table well laid out with liquid refreshments and natural treats (I didn’t notice anyone sipping tea) several people I spoke with said they hadn’t voted for Mr. Huffman in the primary and were there to size him up  and hear his positions on their key concerns.

We all went outside and sat in a large garden veranda for what we were told would be a “circle talk “ but turned out to be a Q&A session with the candidate more than an open discussion.

The gathering was organized and hosted by seaweed entrepreneur and Philo resident John Lewallen, with his wife Barbara. Mr. Lewallen had been a tenth-hour, shoestring, avowedly anti-business-as-usual candidate for the congressional seat in the June primary. He said in his introduction that during the primary campaign’s forums and debates he came to know, like and respect Mr. Huffman, and found they were in agreement on a number of critical issues; hence his support.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Huffman said he believes his experience dealing with the fiscal crisis facing the state when he first got into office, and since, has prepared him for the huge, similar challenge facing Congress. He also briefly outlined some of his policy positions (see below). He emphasized his intention to push for change in “a Congress that no longer seems interested in solving problems.” (I could psychically hear those of us with a cynical streak thinking: “good luck...”)

When the questioning began it was clear there would be few softballs tossed that afternoon. Most were articulate, educated, and pointed.

Mr. Huffman, projecting calmness and confidence, answered respectfully, without a trace of patronization. He seemed thoughtful, with a tendency to sprinkle some of his answers with pre-packaged slogans that can be read verbatim on his website. (He is, after all, a politician in campaign mode.) I was impressed that a couple of times, rather than cover with buzzword obfuscations (BS), he admitted he didn’t know very much about a particular issue and seemed to listen intently to the questioners’ elucidations.

He received the warmest applause after replying to questions about coastal and ocean protection, genetically engineered ingredients in food (GMOs), and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

On ocean and coast protection, he vowed to oppose offshore drilling, naval weapons testing, and said he would investigate PG&E’s plans to use powerful underwater sonic cannons for seismic mapping.

He segued into green energy and burnished his anti-nuclear credentials by indicating he would call upon the administration to phase out all nuclear plants within a decade and replace them with renewable generation and greater energy efficiency.

He said he has been opposed to GMOs in food since he first got into office and will continue to be so in Congress. He highlighted his authorship in 2008 of a bill, subsequently passed, that protects farmers whose crops have been contaminated by GMO pollen drift from any liability  (AB541).

On Citizens United, he “absolutely” supports a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision and declare corporations are not people, money is not speech.

On military spending, he will support a significant downsizing of the military, elimination of unnecessary weapons, and pulling back Cold War era “forward positioning.” I suppose that could be stretched to mean dismantling the military empire abroad, but that’s a long stretch.

A questioner asked how he could reconcile “regrowing” the economy when the “unlimited growth” economic model itself has brought the planet to the edge of ecological catastrophe. He replied the key is “smart investment” in education, critical infrastructure repair, green technologies, broadband access and other programs that that don’t necessarily involve massive natural resource depletion. He added that he would support an increase in the federal minimum wage.

He acknowledged that public education is under ideological attack and said he opposes voucher programs and “any strategies to privatize education.” He said he would fight for more investment in education, student loan “reform,” and to make higher education more affordable.

On illegal immigration, he noted what he said was the “success” of California’s Dream Act, and said he would work to create a federal “statutory framework,” modeled on California’s, whereby illegals could “earn” eventual citizenship.

On marijuana (of course), he expressed mild displeasure with the federal justice department’s recent heavy-handedness in California, and added that current trends indicate eventual decriminalization, which he would support. He said he supports medical marijuana and would work for legislation that allows the states to have greater independent control over its use.

Near the end of the hour a couple of questions intensified the atmosphere.

On prosecuting previous administration officials for war crimes and torture, he was quick out of the gate to say: “No. I agree with the President that we should look forward, not backward,” and added he doesn’t support “show trials.”

Cool silence. Several frowns.

On lockstep, uncritical support of Israeli policies, he said he was not interested in being “indoctrinated,” referring to congressional junkets to Israel usually paid for by domestic Israel support groups. He doesn’t support the increasing Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories, he said, and favors a two-state solution.

There was agreeable nodding by most of the group, then a palpable chill  descended after he referred to missiles “raining down” on Israel every month, and said “both sides are equally responsible” for the breakdown of peace negotiations.

Judging by their expressions some of the listeners were itching to challenge those statements, but time was running out and Mr. Lewallen firmly but politely moved the session to a wrap.

The final questioner asked Mr. Huffman how he intends to keep open a “broad pipeline” of communication and contact with his local constituents, considering there are now 33,000 paid lobbyists in Washington. He replied that he plans to have a frequent presence in the district by “being around a lot,” and will be certain that his local staff people are “available and approachable.” (Regarding local staff: Heidi Dickerson, Congressman Thompson’s long time county liaison, was at the meeting and told me she intends to go to work for Mr. Huffman in the same capacity should he be elected.)

When the meeting ended several folks left immediately, a few headed back to the refreshment table, while others congregated in small groups indoors and out to discuss their impressions. There was smiling and nodding among some, frowning and head shaking among others. Politics.

The garden “Tea Party” had provided an intimate, unscripted, unchoreographed view of the candidate — refreshing, considering the insufferable political spectacles we’ve been bombarded by during the past several months.

I was slightly disappointed, however, that no one in the group challenged Mr. Huffman with the question: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

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