Some people were surprised by my choice to run for Fullerton City Council in 2010. I suppose I didn’t fit the stereotype of a City Council candidate. I was relatively young (30 at the time), I didn’t own a suit, I had long hair and a beard, and I was not wealthy.
My decision to run wasn’t motivated by a desire for money or status. Rather, I was motivated by the sincere belief that I could make a positive change in my community. So, in July, I paid the city clerk $25, filled out the appropriate forms, got 30 signatures, and voila, I was on the ballot.
Let me give a little back story. I have lived in Fulleton, CA for over 20 years. I teach English composition at Fullerton College and Cal State University, Fullerton. I live downtown on Wilshire Avenue above Mulberry St. Ristorante.
In 2008, some friends and I decided to open an art gallery downtown. At the time, the downtown area was dominated by bars, restaurants, and tattoo parlors. Our decision to open the gallery (which we decided to call Hibbleton) was motivated by a desire to shine a light on local creativity and to introduce something different to the downtown area—culture. Maybe that sounds snooty, and maybe it is. But if you lived in downtown Fullerton in 2008, you would know what I’m talking about.
The gallery turned out to be a huge success, not financially, but in other ways. Every month, crowds of people would come to our little gallery downtown for our art openings. We got some good press from OC Weekly and ended up receiving their award for Best Art Gallery in Orange County in 2009. After we opened, other galleries and coffee shops started popping up downtown.
Slowly, very slowly, I started to notice a positive change in me, like, personally. I had spent most of my 20s in a haze of depression. I was a pretty solitary, lonely person. I busied myself with school, painting, and writing (I was working on a novel that I thought might be the Great American Novel. It remains unfinished and unpublished).
But the work I was doing at the gallery (organizing art shows, poetry readings, music events, film screenings) was not just for me. I was becoming a part of something larger than myself. I started to care, to really care, about my community. I was a catalyst of something that just felt good.
In early 2010, I got the idea to try to start a Downtown Fullerton Art Walk. I started walking around downtown with a clipboard and a pen, talking to local business owners (not just galleries, but coffee shops, retails stores, etc.) about the idea of putting art on their walls once a month. The response was overwhelmingly positive and confirmed a growing conviction in me—that people were hungry for this, for what a local art walk represents: community, creativity, and dialogue. I got about 20 venues to be a part of the art walk, and in the Spring of 2010, it debuted. It was a big success. For the first time in years, there were families walking around downtown Fullerton on a Friday night. I walked around that night in a haze of euphoria. I helped do this.
With the success of the art walk, some friends suggested, half-jokingly, that I should run for City Council. I thought—maybe someday. But things happened that greatly accelerated my decision to actually run that year—2010.
The first thing was the local community newspaper, The Fullerton Observer, a family owned and operated publication that had existed since the 1970s. I was aware of the Fullerton Observer—it was free to pick up at a variety of businesses and locations in Fullerton. As I became more involved in the community with the art walk, I started to actually read The Observer. I wanted to understand the goings-on of my city and to learn about the city council.
What I discovered shocked and angered me. I discovered that the Fullerton City Council, with the exception of its two female members, had values that were antithetical to my values and what I had come to love about Fullerton.
Two of the City Council members (Don Bankhead and Dick Jones) had been in office for over 20 years (there were no term limits at the time), and they were these really old, conservative dudes who clearly did not share my vision or that of the growing art community I was a part of.
Let me give an example. One of the last, large, natural open spaces in north Orange County is Coyote Hills—a 510-acre patch of land in Fullerton. It is currently owned by Chevron, because they used to drill oil there. They stopped drilling years ago, and have spent the last 20-30 years trying to get Fullerton City Council to approve a massive housing/retail development.
Having lived in Fullerton for most of my life, I have watched as development companies (often subsidiaries of big oil) have developed nearly every inch of natural open space. The story of Orange County land use in the past 50 years is one of massive development of open space.
Anyhow, Chevron wanted to develop Coyote Hills, and there was a community group, Friends of Coyote Hills, that was trying to protect it from development, to preserve it as a natural open space. I began following this issue in the Fullerton Observer. I began attending City Council meetings, listening to Chevron’s proposals, listening to the Friends of Coyote Hills, listening to Don Bankhead and Dick Jones, who presided over those meetings with a kind of Godfather-esque condescending attitude that was, frankly, repellent to me. They did not seem sympathetic to the Friends of Coyote Hills.
And so, when the meeting came when the City Council was to vote on the Coyote Hills development, I invited my friends to show up in support of the Friends of Coyote Hills. I prepared a speech. As part of my preparation, I visited the city clerk’s office to look at who had made large campaign contributions to the city council members’ campaigns. I found what I expected. Every member of City Council had taken large campaign contributions from development companies.
When my turn came to give my speech, I was shaking like a leaf. But I stood up and read what I had prepared. I pointed out that the only folks who seemed to support the development were those with a vested financial interest, including City Council. I pointed out the obvious—that the vast majority of those present at the meeting were opposed to the development, ordinary residents of Fullerton who cared enough about their community to show up in protest. I urged the council to do what was best for Fullerton, and not for the developers. I closed with this question, “Will the fact that you have taken large campaign contributions from developers affect your decision on this issue?” There was an awkward silence, which Don Bankhead finally broke with, “We’re not here to answer your questions.” When I finished my speech, the crowd cheered. I felt a calling.
I was pleasantly shocked when the City Council voted down the development proposal 3-2.
About a week later, after an Art Walk meeting, I was talking too Mike Magoski, a fellow gallery owner, and he said, “A lot of people want you to run for City Council.”
The next day, I went to City Hall and filed my papers. I felt ill-prepared, ill-equipped, but I was compelled by a passion I could not deny.
There have been a few times in my life when I made bold decisions like that one, common sense be damned. In graduate school, when I decided to be a teacher, despite the fact that I was painfully shy, I was afraid, but resolved. When we decided to open the art gallery, I was afraid, yet inspired. When I decided to take a cross-country train trip by myself for a month, I was afraid yet eager. And when I decided to run for City Council, it was the same. I was afraid yet resolved. I have learned, in my life, not to be motivated by fear. Instead, I have tried to follow my heart.
I’d never run for public office before, I was not wealthy, and I was not “well-connected” with local politics. But I had passion, I had creativity, I had a community of supporters, and I had conviction that I could make a positive difference, even if I lost. I was inspired by figures like Harvey Milk, who showed me that, with passion and persistence, you can change the world.
I was actually on unemployment when I filed my paperwork to run for City Council. Such is life for adjunct (part-time) faculty in California—you rarely get health benefits, and often don’t get paid over the summer, so many of us go on unemployment for a few months, so we can pay our bills. Suffice it to say that I did not have a big budget for my campaign. I figured I could afford to spend $1000 on my campaign. A typical City Council candidate in Fullerton spends between $15,000 and $50,000, most of which comes from contributions.
I decided not to take campaign contributions from corporations because I was disgusted with the shady relationship between big business and politics, even at the local level. I wanted to be a true independent, in nobody’s pocket, beholden to no one except my conscience and my constituents.
At first, I didn’t want to take any contributions, but when some of my friends offered to kick in a hundred bucks here, fifty bucks there, I took it. I needed it.
Because I did not have much money, I had to get creative with my campaigning. My friend Brian Prince designed me a web site and taught me how to manage it. My friend Casey McCann silkscreened t-shirts for me that my friend Christie Noh, a local artist, designed. The shirts were a hit. I wanted to make t-shirts that people would actually want to wear, even after the election. Christie did a line drawing of my face with my big beard. Inside the beard, it read “Jesse La Tour Fullerton City Council.” I probably gave away 200 shirts. I also drew inspiration from street artists like Shepard Fairey (who designed the Obama poster) and Banksy. I hosted poster-making parties at Hibbleton where I invited people to make their own posters from stencils, markers, whatever. I knew that if I was going to stand any kind of chance, I was going to have to get lots of people to help me, and they did.
Like Obama, I used Facebook as a free campaigning tool. I made videos of campaign events, of my friends and I making posters. I made little infomercials and posted them online. It was a lot of work, but it was fun. I enlisted photographer friends to document my campaign and post the pictures online.
After a month or so, people started stopping on the street and saying things like, “Hey, you’re running for City Council.” People I barely knew would see me and say, “I’m voting for you.” It felt like a true, grassoots-type thing. This made me really happy because I felt like I was making people of my generation care about local politics. Young people don’t usually pay much attention to a City Council election, but they were starting to pay attention. Some of my friends who had never voted in a national election, let alone a local one, began to get excited about the Fullerton City Council race.
Again, I felt like a part of something larger than myself. It was scary and exhilarating. No longer was I the bookish loner. I was a part, a leader, in a growing community movement.
Through my campaign, I met a lot of other community leaders. I attended “Meet and Greets.” I met the Friends of Coyote Hills, the airport manager, the City Council and other city staff. I met groups like Neighbors United for Fullerton (NUFF), The Chamber of Commerce, etc. At these meetings, I always felt like a bit of an oddball, with my beard and thrift store clothes. The other candidates were clean-cut guys in suits, usually decades older than me. But there I was. I showed up and talked to people about the art walk, about Coyote Hills, about affordable housing, about my vision for downtown. For the most part, people were receptive to my ideas. I loved talking to people and breaking down generational and cultural barriers, exchanging ideas. For me, that is the heart of democracy—people from different walks of life sharing ideas, concerns, hopes, and dreams.
I took part in candidate forums, which were informative and fun. A candidate forum is sort of like a debate at City Hall, where each candidate is given the chance to answer questions form the community. These forums were great because I was given the same amount of time as everyone, including Don Bankhead, to voice my ideas. I did my homework on local issues, and presented my ideas in a way that I thought made sense, and people seemed to respond well.
I also had the chance, at these forums, to call out Bankhead on some bad decisions he made. For example, I pointed out that, in 2009, he voted to spend six million dollars of Redevelopment funds (taxpayer dollars) to move a McDonalds 150 east. I also called him out on his vote for the Coyote Hills development, pointing out the negative environmental impact it would have on Fullerton. I was also able to hi-light the issue of campaign contributions. I was the only candidate who could claim he hadn’t taken contributions from corporations. At the end of one of the forums, I overheard an elderly woman say, “Let’s give the young guy a chance.”
In the weeks leading up to the election, my mailbox was flooded with glossy mass mailers from the other candidates—physical evidence of their big bucks. One of the other candidates even bought commercial time on Fox News, during the Glenn Beck Show.
Signs for my opponents sprouted like flowers all over Fullerton. What my friends and I lacked in mailers and number of signs, we tried to make up with creativity. My hand-painted signs stood out, and were physical evidence that my campaign was not corporate-funded, but grassroots.
The Fullerton Observer did a good job of following and publicizing the City Council race, including campaign contributions, which every candidate is required by law to file with the city clerk and the state. One of the lessons I learned from this experience is that an informed voter must pay attention not only to a candidate’s professed views (talk is cheap), but to who is bankrolling their campaign, as this will likely influence the decisions they make in office. The issue of campaign contributions doesn’t get discussed as much as it deserves. In my view, it should be at the forefront of every voter’s mind, and every candidate debate.
As expected, Chevron and other developers contributed thousands to Bankhead and the other front-runner, another former police chief in his mid to late 70s named Pat McKinley.
I was also shocked and disappointed to learn that Political Action Committees (PACs) were spending thousands of dollars on negative attack ads and mailers against the only other “liberal” candidate, Doug Chaffee. I learned that politics, even at the local level, can be a dirty business, especially with the involvement of some of the more aggressive PACs.
Before running for City Council, I did not know what a Political Action Committee was. Shortly after I filed my papers to run, I received a succession of e-mails and letters from various PACs. These usually contained a questionnaire meant to determine if my political views matched with their financial interests, and if they would give me money/endorsement or if they would vilify me. Thankfully, I was enough of an unknown that I sort of flew under the radar of the PACs. Doug Chaffee, however, did not. He was ruthlessly attached with mud-slinging mailers and robo-calls.
I did not receive any money or endorsements from PACs. In Orange County, they are, for the most part, frighteningly conservative entities. However, the PAC questionnaires gave me insight into their values, and consequently into the values of the candidates they endorsed and contributed to.
Here’s a good question: If local politicians like Don Bankhead and Pat McKinley take thousands of dollars from PACs and corporations, whose interests will they represent in office: their constituents or the corporations and PACs? (That is a rhetorical question). It is an established fact that there is a direct correlation between campaign contributions and how these men have voted on issues in Fullerton.
My intention here is not to vilify Don Bankhead or Dick Jones or Pat McKinley, but to shine a light on the (frankly) fucked up way politics works in Fullerton. And I don’t think this situation is unique. In fact, I know it’s not. This is, I think, basically how politics works in America. Money talks.
This is another reason I chose to run for office. I chose to put my faith in the ordinary voters of Fullerton and not in the corporations and PACs. I chose to still believe in democracy, in government of, by, and for the people, not the highest bidder. I chose to view the job of a city council member as a public servant, and not as a status symbol or a cash machine. I chose, despite everything, to believe in the people of Fullerton, in the community I had grown to love.
On the day of the election, I recruited a group of volunteers to stand at the busy intersection of Harbor and Chapman downtown, waving signs and wearing t-shirts.
On election night, I hosted a party at Mulberry St. to follow the election online at www.ocvote.com. I had put together a few “Thank You” videos for my supporters. It was a nice culmination of a great community effort.
When the results came in, I had not won the election. The usually suspects won: Don Bankhead and Pat McKinley. However, I did receive almost 5,000 votes.
The Orange County Register ran a story on money spent per vote. The winners spent almost six dollars per vote. I had spent about 20 cents.
I was not disheartened by my loss. Rather, I was inspired. I had made a statement. You don’t need corporate bankrollers or PACs or high-level endorsements to make a good showing in a local election. You just need good ideas, passion, and community support. If I could get 5,000 votes with so little money and resources, what could I do with more planning and organization and resources?
There is another City Council election in two years. I will be on the ballot.
--Jesse La Tour