Given the level of contention on the issue of Nishi, it is perhaps somewhat surprising on the surface that there would be no opponents to Nishi on the ballot running for council. All four candidates indicated levels of support for the project.
The closest any candidate came to opposition was Matt Williams, with his nuanced and at times muddled explanation of why he opposed the project being on the June ballot but supports the project. In fact, I would argue he probably did himself more harm than good in this approach, but that’s neither here nor there.
The interesting thing is that this is really not a new phenomenon in Davis politics. Two years ago, while Measure P was winning to repeal the water rates, only one of the five candidates favored it and finished third, and therefore was not elected.
We can trace this phenomenon back to the early days of Measure J. In 2005, the Davis City Council put Covell Village on the ballot with a 4-1 vote. The voters of Davis promptly voted down that project with an overwhelming 60-40 vote.
However, the voters apparently saw no problem with that vote to put the matter on the ballot. While Ted Puntillo decided not to seek a second term on the council and was replaced with a slower-growth official, Lamar Heystek, the other three were reelected in their next term overwhelmingly.
In fact, Ruth Asmundson (2006) and Don Saylor (2008) were top vote-getters while Stephen Souza, in 2008, finished a strong second.
In other words, despite being misaligned with the voters on Measure X, all three candidates who chose to seek reelection did as well as they possibly could.
I recall a conversation I had with Sue Greenwald in 2006 after the election, who said that Measure J was a barrier to a progressive council because now the voters could elect whomever they liked without worrying about their position on peripheral growth.
While there is some truth to that, history suggests an alternative explanation. For a brief time in 2000 there was a progressive majority as Ken Wagstaff, Sue Greenwald and Michael Harrington were all elected to council – but if you look before and since, the progressives have largely been out of power.
Measure J was enacted by the voters in 2000 by a very narrow margin. It was a progressive innovation that gained popular support in response to the large peripheral subdivisions the council were approving in the 1990s and it effectively closed the door to new peripheral development.
But while Measure J was renewed by a near 3 to 1 margin in 2010, the voters were electing more moderate councilmembers.
In 2009, a divided council with a strange coalition of Ruth Asmundson, Don Saylor and Lamar Heystek, put Measure P on the ballot with Sue Greenwald and Stephen Souza dissenting. Measure P
was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls by nearly a 3 to 1 margin.
Unlike Covell Village, none of these candidates would win reelection. Ruth Asmundson and Lamar Heystek declined to run in 2010. Don Saylor moved to the county Board of Supervisors. Sue Greenwald and Stephen Souza, the dissenters, were defeated for reelection, likely for other reasons, in 2012.
In 2013, the non-Measure R project, Cannery, was approved by council on a 3-2 vote with Dan Wolk, Rochelle Swanson and Lucas Frerichs voting yes and Brett Lee and Joe Krovoza voting no.
In 2015, the same three pushed through the Cannery CFD over the objections of Brett Lee and newly-elected Councilmember Robb Davis.
Now in 2016, a unanimous council voted to put Nishi on the ballot. Perhaps a surprise supporter of that is Brett Lee. Brett Lee was elected with strong support from the slow growth community. While he canvassed for signatures to put the water project on the ballot, he ultimately supported the water project. He then voted against Cannery and the Cannery CFD.
In his response on Friday, he writes, “I was skeptical that I would end up supporting the Nishi Project.”
He said, “I met with the developer and expressed my concerns, which were basically ‘Traffic is bad enough already, why would we want to make it worse? We need the new access point to the university and also the redesigned freeway interchange in order to improve the traffic flow before we talk about a new project. I think those things are years off.’”
A few days later the developer asked “what if we agreed to not move onto the site until both pieces of infrastructure are complete? Both the grade separated access point to the University and the I-80 interchange?”
“And that agreement changed my mind,” he said.
While there are some who feel that Brett Lee has disappointed the constituency that helped put him into office on the issues of growth and water, the problem that they ultimately have is “and replace him with whom?”
That ends up being the strange variable in all of this. From a strategic standpoint, it seems like Matt Williams should have taken a stronger negative position against Nishi – but, clearly, that’s not where his views align.
Unlike in 2014, the anti-Nishi side did not find a candidate that could have coalesced the anti-Nishi votes. This is surprising, given the alignment of the electorate and possibility that Nishi would not pass.
In 2014, the Measure P campaign put John Munn on the ballot. He came close to getting elected. Had he been more progressive overall or willing to engage on non-fiscal issues, he might have been elected and the composition of the current council would be markedly different.
But it remains a bit of a puzzle that the no or at least slow growth side has enough numbers to block projects at the ballot, but lacks the organization and personalities to compete for council.
—David M. Greenwald reporting