Sunday Commentary II: The Thin Line Between Skepticism and Paranoia

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Recently I revisited a book I had read about 20 years ago by one of my favorite contemporary American essayists, Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

With a few slight modifications, I think the book could have been written today – only the names and the groups would have to change.

Mr. Hofstadter presciently writes, “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years, we have seen angry minds at work, mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated, in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But, behind this, I believe, there is a style of mind that is far from new, and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style, simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Take out the Goldwater movement and you could very adequately be describing contemporary American politics.

At the same time, this is not going to be a column about American politics, but rather Davis politics.

This is a time of change.  I noted earlier this week that we have addressed a number of major issues in the last few months – for better or for worse, but I’m not going to judge that part just now.  The city voters approved (narrowly) the surface water project, we dealt with fire staffing, we have dealt finally with roads, we have sent the Fifth Street redesign to bid, we are dealing with wastewater, we are dealing with impasse, we are fixing the compensation system, we are fixing the budget – this is a lot of work.

We may not all agree with the solutions that came forward, but the point is we have dealt with some longstanding issues.

Still, I think there is a big challenge that the city is going to have, which is going to be on the economic development front.  City staff and the business community need to really understand that there are going to be some real tensions between development and preservation of agricultural land, slow growth and other policies.

On the one hand comes the view from the community of those who argue that the Chamber types are fighting the obvious, that this is a company town, that company is UC Davis and “their wages spent in town by local residents hugely support us.  We barely need anything else.”

The notion is we are not the Research Triangle (referring to North Carolina), we are not Silicon Valley and “we never will be.”

Against that backdrop comes the idea, “The reality is if we don’t have somewhere for these companies to establish and grow, they are far more likely to go to San Francisco or Silicon Valley than Natomas, Roseville or West Sacramento.”

“Proximity to like businesses and close proximity to a major research institution such as Stanford, UCD or UC, SF is more important to most of these businesses than low cost real estate…  The economic health of the entire region is highly dependent on UCD and its host community to be the primary incubator of high skill jobs for the region.”

Against that backdrop is the massive budget deficits that the city faces into the future.  A business park that puts considerable dollars into the General Fund can make a big difference in the services that the city can provide in the future.

At the same time, everyone understands that if we allow commercial growth, it needs to be on our terms and be a significant net contributor to the city coffers.  A business park would have to break established molds and be sympathetic to Davis values.

It will need to have good bike and transit connections, consume very little energy and be aesthetically pleasing, and will need to fully mitigate all environmental impacts.

Can we bridge that nexus?  That is going to hinge on the patience and understanding of some of the newer arrivals who need to understand the history of Davis to appreciate the skepticism that sometimes manages to manifest itself as paranoia.

There is a reason people want to know what businesses are behind the hiring of a city official who is being paid, in part, through private money.

You have a history of contentious battles over growth, such as Mace Ranch where the city of Davis turned down a development by Frank Ramos only to have the county force its hand.

You have the duplicity of the 2004 city council elections where a developer spent $20,000 to encourage voters to support various candidates.  The candidates were actually harmed by the effort and there was criticism that his efforts were actually meant to sabotage the campaigns.

There was the contentious battle of Covell Village in 2005 that led to a number of competing claims by the developers there, as well as including charges of dirty campaigning there.  The Vanguard reported in June of 2009 (three and a half years after the election), that the Covell Village Campaign had failed to disclose hundreds of thousands in campaign expenditures.

On April 3, 2008, three amended statements using the Fair Political Practice Commission (FPPC) California Form 460 were filed with the Davis City Clerk – two and a half years after the termination of campaign papers were filed on January 31, 2006 claiming a zero balance and a final expenditure of $385,274.75 for the campaign that lasted from July 28, 2005 until December 31, 2005.

These additional filings, made on April 3, 2008, revealed for the first time an additional $215,930.39 being spent on that campaign which now brings the total cost of that campaign to $601,205.14.

So when Rob White writes, as he did this morning, “I am puzzled why there is so much discussion from the actions of a set of local businesspeople in the technology sector… they are working on behalf of the community to create better outcomes by assisting the City in paying for the resources that many agreed were lacking. And the funding mechanism described by techDAVIS and reported on by David Greenwald in this article shows that much forethought went in to how to structure the financial aspect of the partnership to ensure that no one entity or sector would dominate the donation pool.” – he needs to understand that there is a history here.

That history is that sometimes monied interests, especially in conjunction with land development, have not been above the boards.

That is why the Vanguard pushed Mr. White and the city for transparency here.  It is important to restore public trust.

We believe that the system that techDavis has developed in terms of limiting influence and disclosure will serve the public well and we agree that this was importantly considered.

However, at the same time, I think it is important for the city to understand that it was not very long ago in a far off galaxy that the things people are concerned about once happened.

A poster on the Vanguard during cap-to-cap noted that in the past such trips were used almost as junkets, where staffers would take their family for vacations on the public’s dime.  The fact that this is now changed does not change the fact that these things occurred, and did so not that long ago.

We have a lot work to do and the city has a lot of work to do in order to restore the public trust before we can even consider massive changes to this community.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary II: The Thin Line Between Skepticism and Paranoia”

  1. Rob White

    Thanks for the post David.

    One slight modifier… I do not need to be “pushed” for info. I welcome discourse and discussion.

    I just ask that we do it in a rational method and that we stray away from real or perceived accusations. That usually breaks down communication pretty fast. Facts are facts… but each person in the community has a view on those facts and should be encouraged to share them openly and support why. Even if it is as simple as “I just think so”.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to use the Vanguard as a platform for engagement.

  2. Don Shor

    Rob:
    [quote]“I am puzzled why there is so much discussion from the actions of a set of local businesspeople in the technology sector[/quote]
    From the last article:
    [quote]To date, the donors include: First Northern Bank, DLA Piper, Davis ACE, Davis Waste Removal, Hallmark Inn, and a “prominent Davis tech entrepreneur that wishes to remain anonymous.”[/quote]

    I think it’s inaccurate to refer to the local businesspeople as being “in the technology sector.”

    It is simple. We have a past history in Davis of outside groups trying to affect growth and development policies by subterfuge. So to prevent any hint of that, and to prevent the appearance of any conflict of interest, I urge that al the donors be publicly identified — even if that is not legally necessary. If “[i]the City Council and City Manager are well aware of who the techDAVIS officers are, who the prospective officers are[/i] then it should be easy to inform the public as well.
    You’re not doing anything wrong. In fact, you’re doing everything right — you’re doing extensive outreach, engaging people on this blog, writing for the Enterprise, meeting any number of interest groups (you might want to talk to the members of the Planning Commission and the Natural Resource Commission as well). It’s just that this sets a significant precedent, and so it is important to do it right.

  3. JustSaying

    [quote]“It’s just that this sets a significant precedent, and so it is important to do it right.”[/quote]Don’s got this right.

    Also, it doesn’t take much purposeful secrecy to damage such an initiative, its goals and its unquestioning supporters’ reputations?

    I don’t mean to paranoid, but what if the anonymous, “prominent Davis tech entrepreneur” turns out to be one of our Davis firefighters?! Or, Paul Petrovich? Or…?

    Not to be paranoid, but is there some problem with your site today? Having trouble loading it in the first place and posting a comment.

  4. David M. Greenwald

    Seems to be working alright.

    In terms of the anonymous, it seems they have taken some steps to prevent that from being a problem. I mean, what are the firefighters going to do with economic development anyway but even if that were a problem, they have spread the influence out fairly broadly. That’s really the opposite of what happened with the firefighters who bundled their contributions to dominate a small field.

  5. JustSaying

    Well, you know how rich the Davis firefighters are and about their unsavory efforts to influence the council. Now that their old ways no longer are successful, maybe they’ve changed tactics. (Maybe they want more houses and other development in order to have more fire danger in order to have more fire stations in order to have more union members.)

    On the other hand, maybe the anonymous person who obviously is trying to change things in Davis is just something less complicated, like a developer. Some day the donor will be revealed (maybe by the [i]Vanguard[/i]). Will we be surprised? Upset or pleased?

    In any case, I think anonymity is problematic in this case where civic good is the obvious objective. And, there just no legitimate purpose served.

  6. Davis Progressive

    i think it’s fine what rob white’s doing right now, anonymity issue aside. however this point by don’s critical: “We have a past history in Davis of outside groups trying to affect growth and development policies by subterfuge.” we’ve got to embrace that to build trust.

  7. Steve Hayes

    JustSaying 06/02/13 – 12:52 PM”Not to be paranoid, but is there some problem with your site today? Having trouble loading it in the first place and posting a comment. “

    I was unable to access the 06-02-13 Davis Vanguard this AM also.

  8. Frankly

    Sure those right-wingers are paranoid. And then there is the IRS scandal and the API scandal to justify it.. To the blind and igorant, the enlightened will always appear paranoid. Those labeling them as paranoid are often just stubborn deniers.

    In terms of Davis economic development, are the no-growthers enlightened? Do they know things that the rest of don’t and are they just working for the greater good? Or, are they blind and ignorant or just being stubborn deniers?

    I think the latter.

  9. Davis Progressive

    i wonder how closely you read the column because it appears he’s suggesting that slow-growthers (no-growthers?) look paranoid but have reasons for being paranoid. i read this as an admonishment of slow-growthers not a viewpoint of them being enlightened?

  10. Frankly

    I did read the column, but I think there is a claim of paranoia coming from both sides (no-growth, pro-growth). I don’t know what “slow-growth” is except no-growth because it requires resistance to growth and often manifests as absolute resistance to growth.

    The no-growth crowd is paranoid that growth will cause them damage. The pro-growth crowd is paranoid that no-growth will cause us damage.

    From my perspective the no-growth folks are not so much paranoid as they are selfish in protection of their personal interests. Those that support growth certainly also can be pursuing their own selfish interests, but many, like myself, are driven by a bigger picture of the general good. Basically, we need more jobs in this state and in this country, and I think we all are responsible for helping top provide them. We should be responsible for carrying our weight in terms of developing economic activity that supports a commensurate number of jobs to support our population.

  11. Davis Progressive

    No versus Slow: i’m not against all growth. i think there is a difference between those who voted against covell village and those voting against target and there are some who voted against covell but for whr, etc. i’m not against all growth, i’m against bad growth. there some who are against all growth. there is a difference however.

    second, selfish issue is overblown. unless you are going to call desire for a good community selfish, i think you need to drop that for the most part. i’m not against growth because of my monetary interest with my property values, i’m against it when it conflicts with good planning principles (Covell Village =)

  12. Don Shor

    [quote] I don’t know what “slow-growth” is except no-growth because it requires resistance to growth and often manifests as absolute resistance to growth. [/quote]
    No, slow-growth means growing slowly. No-growth means not growing at all. Seems obvious to me.
    Slow-growth usually means planning carefully and growing at the rate a community can absorb the growth without adverse effects.

    [quote]From my perspective the no-growth folks are not so much paranoid as they are selfish in protection of their personal interests. Those that support growth certainly also can be pursuing their own selfish interests, but many, like myself, are driven by a bigger picture of the general good.[/quote]
    I think it is reasonable to assume that most people are driven by a bigger picture of the general good, and just have a different vision of what the general good is. People with a direct financial stake in the outcome are probably acting out of personal interests.

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