Framing Democracy: How We Defeated a Corporate Recall in Humboldt County
by Michael Shellenberger, Breakthrough Institute
You’ve heard of corporations sponsoring political candidates, athletes, stadiums, and even schools. But did you hear about the corporation that paid for a special election to recall a District Attorney who had sued it for fraud?
That’s exactly what happened in Humboldt County, California, home to giant redwoods, endangered salmon, and a timber company called Pacific Lumber (PL).
Fortunately, on March 2, 2004 we beat back the Houston-owned company’s attempt to recall Paul Gallegos, the county’s new DA. The margin of our victory—61 to 39—gave Humboldt County activists new hope that they could create an economic future free of control by big corporations. This is their story.
The Headwaters Forest Deal
In 1996 I was hired by activists in Humboldt County (population: 130,000) to help increase environmental protections for the Headwaters redwood forest. That work resulted in the Headwaters deal, finalized in 1999, in which the US and California governments paid an astounding $480 million for about 7,500 acres of PL’s old-growth redwood forest. In addition to the money, the Headwaters deal granted PL a “Habitat Conservation Plan” (HCP)—a provision in the Endangered Species Act that allows private landowners to destroy habitat critical for endangered species (in this case, other old-growth redwoods).
One person who understood the complexities of the Headwaters deal inside and out was my friend, Dr. Ken Miller, a retired emergency room doctor who moved to Humboldt from the Bay Area in 1997. He and several other north coast activists founded the Humboldt Watershed Council to organize property owners whose homes had flooded due to PL’s logging.
Along with the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), the Humboldt Watershed Council filed lawsuit after lawsuit against PL. In 2003 a judge ruled in EPIC’s favor against the timber giant, invalidating a major component of the Headwaters Deal—the “Sustained Yield Plan” —but rather mysteriously refused to penalize the company or slow the logging.
Just when local environmentalists were beginning to despair, Paul Gallegos was elected District Attorney in March, 2002, in an upset victory over a 20-year incumbent. Gallegos took office in January, 2003. Within weeks he had discovered evidence that PL committed fraud as part of the Headwaters deal. Miller paid the 41 year-old DA a visit and became a key expert for the case.
The DA’s lawsuit alleges that PL lied about the science so it could cut far more trees than is possible before Humboldt’s steep hillsides collapse—setting off mudslides and destroying watersheds that are critical habitat for endangered salmon and other animals.
Gallegos’ deputies warned him that crossing PL would end his career. An avid surfer of Humboldt’s big waves, Gallegos told a local reporter about the time he realized a shark was circling him in the ocean, “Sometimes when you get afraid and you try to paddle out of danger, you paddle into worse danger. So you can’t let fear dictate your conduct.”
Two months into office, Gallegos sued the company for fraud and deceptive concealment, seeking $250 million in damages.
Gallegos’ lawsuit hit like a tidal wave in provincial Humboldt County. Overnight Gallegos became a hero to some and a villain to others. A week after filing the suit a self-appointed representative of the “good old boy network” announced he would pay to gather signatures for a recall.
Paul responded with an op-ed for the local paper titled, “Nobody is above the law.”
Richard Salzman, a recent Bay Area transplant to Humboldt who had helped Gallegos raise money and run TV ads for his 2002 campaign, rushed to Gallegos’ defense. Salzman hired me to help start the Alliance for Ethical Business and defend Gallegos. We did a poll and discovered that while most people opposed the idea of a recall, the community was evenly divided about PL—about 40 percent were pro-PL and 40 percent were anti-PL. (Gallegos, who has a portrait of his hero Abe Lincoln hanging in his office, often referred to Humboldt as “a house divided.”)
To avoid the traditional fault lines we focused our attention on the fraud—not the company’s environmental track record—and put forward a former PL logger to drive home the point that you can be pro-timber and anti-PL. We created special bumper stickers and ended each TV, radio and print ad with our new slogan: “Timber Yes, Fraud No.” (TV ads are extraordinarily cheap in Humboldt—$40 buys you a 30-second spot on Wheel of Fortune; $150 gets you on the local news).
After a three month quiet period—just as people were wondering whether the recall would happen at all—Salzman discovered aggressive signature gatherers in front of the local supermarkets. He found out they were being paid a record-breaking $8 per signature to get the signatures in on time.
Richard called the media and the local press played the story big. Not only was the recall election on, it was being financed almost entirely by Pacific Lumber.
Competing Frames: “F is for Fraud” vs. “Soft on Crime”
In late November Salzman become campaign manager for the anti-recall committee. We held a strategy retreat and invited a large group of supporters.
Inspired by the documentary, “The War Room”, I encouraged Salzman to emulate Clinton campaign manager James Carville’s relatively open meetings to get everyone on message. During that campaign, Carville held strategy sessions in large rooms and invited literally dozens of campaign volunteers to attend, trusting that the benefit of energizing campaign volunteers outweighed the risks of secrets leaking out.
During the final three weeks of the campaign, Salzman held daily 6:15 PM war room meetings and conference calls so that activists from across the sprawling, rural county could participate. After the 15-minute meeting, volunteers would start phone banking. Tied to the volunteer effort, these War Room meetings dramatically expanded the number of people who felt like they were part of a movement.
Realizing that PL would pull out all the stops, my wife and son and I moved up to Humboldt—about five hours from the Bay Area by car—for the final three weeks of the campaign. Shortly after we arrived, PL struck with a barrage of attacks: glossy, three-page direct mail pieces; full-page newspaper ads; wall-to-wall radio and TV ads; and calls from paid, out-of-state phone bankers to voters.
The most disturbing aspect of the campaign was the way the local police unions jumped on board the recall bandwagon. They persuaded a veteran deputy DA to run against his boss. And they attacked Gallegos for having liberalized medical marijuana enforcement guidelines and for emphasizing the need for crime prevention. Gallegos was, they said, “soft on crime.”
The label troubled me. I had seen how such a tag could hurt progressive politicians, from San Francisco District Attorney Terrence Hallinan to Michael Dukakis.
The opportunity for our opponents was that plea bargains—which are a routine part of the DA’s work—sound like ways to let criminals off the hook. The truth is that every DA, however “tough” makes plea bargains based on the strength of the evidence and the circumstances of the crime. It’s easy sport for political consultants to dig up a plea bargain and blow it up into a major scandal.
Our strategy was to frame the recall as PL vs. the DA whereas PL’s strategy was to frame it as Cops vs. the DA
Aiming to get PL into the news as much as possible, our campaign filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission saying that because PL was funding more than 90 percent of the recall they had to change the name of the committee from “Safety Yes” to “The Pacific Lumber Committee to Recall Paul Gallegos.” We got no action out of the commission but the complaint generated headlines and reminded voters that this recall was all about PL.
As expected, Pacific Lumber brought in top political professionals to create its TV ads. Its first ad was beautifully shot in a sun-lit warehouse.
The ad started with a couple saying that “drive-by shooters” (teenagers who hadn’t injured a soul) had fired at their house and that “Paul” (they always referred to him by his first name) “did nothing.” The camera then cut to a mayor from a local timber town saying that cops arrested marijuana dealers in a safe-school zone and “Paul didn’t even file charges.” The next shot was of the head of the Eureka Police Officers Association saying that Gallegos had let a child rapist off the hook. In its closing seconds the ad had the spokespersons repeat, mantra-like, “We can’t wait. We can’t wait. We can’t wait.”
The ad sent chills up my spine. As the father of a four-year old boy, if I had no other information than the ad, I would have voted to “recall Paul” right then and there. (Always good for a metaphor, Gallegos said this part of the campaign was “like a knife fight in a phone booth.”)
Their ads got more and more gruesome. Towards the end they unleashed a series of rough attacks that focused on a Mexican immigrant father who had molested his daughter. The TV, newspaper, ads and direct mail pieces put the Latino man’s face underneath headlines that read, “This man raped a little girl 1,900 times and Paul let him off with one count.”
The truth was that Gallegos prosecuted the particular individual with “one continuous count” so that, if the case went to trial, the eight year old girl in question wouldn’t have to be ripped apart by a defense attorney seeking verification of each count.
Because the family members were Mexican immigrants in the country illegally, the DA’s office considered the victim child and her witness mother a flight risk. If the mother and daughter fled (fearing deportation) before trial, Gallegos would have had no case––and the molester would have gone free for lack of evidence. Gallegos actually got the toughest sentence possible for the man––16 years in prison.
The challenge for us was, how do you answer such charges without allowing the frame to shift to whether or not Gallegos is “soft on child rapists”?
For the year before the campaign I had been studying “strategic framing” with George Lakoff, a University of California linguistics professor introduced to me by Peter Teague of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. One of Lakoff’s axioms is that “negating a frame elevates the frame.” By going into the media to deny that Gallegos was soft on child rapists we would be elevating the frame “soft on child rapists” ––and thus perpetuate a discussion we simply could not win.
We did two things. First, we emphasized that Gallegos has three young children and has their protection at the top of his mind at all times. We emphasized the Gallegos children at every opportunity.
Second, we bracketed our defense of Gallegos by starting and ending our ads with, “This recall is a fraud” and “PL is lying about the DA.” It helped that the recall was listed as “Measure F.” In all of our ads we said, “F is a Fraud” and “Vote No On Fraud.” Within the ad we had a local judge say that PL was lying about the child molester case.
Amazingly, the more we were attacked, the more the grassroots responded. The campaign was flooded with volunteers asking to help phone bank and walk precincts. The money flooded in. Copying MoveOn.org’s email style, we raised about $28,000 on-line––over $3,000 per day toward the end of the campaign. We raised $240,000 in total––an unprecedented sum of money for a county with only 130,000 residents.
There were a few scary moments. In the final two weeks of the campaign the Gallegos home was broken into twice. Nothing was stolen either time, but in the first instance the perpetrators raised the thermostat to 90 degrees––literally “turning up the heat” on the DA. PL was also sending private investigators to dig up dirt on all of our campaign spokespersons.
A poll taken a week and half before election day showed we had lost 15 points since June and were in a statistical dead heat. The soft-on-crime attacks appeared to be working.
Victory and Beyond
On Election Day my stomach was tied in knots. If we lost I would share much of the blame with Salzman and Miller (all three of us had become public figures). But I was scared less of the finger-pointing and more of the possibility that Maxxam-PL would get away with it—and set a precedent. That afternoon I went for a long run along the Mad River and practiced what to say if we lost.
The results were expected to come in between 8 and 9 PM. Hungry but unable to eat, we joined about three hundred other Gallegos supporters at the Eureka’s Lost Coast Brewery starting at 7 PM.
At 8:15 PM I called the Elections office. Only the absentee ballots had been counted so far – and we were losing. I was upset, but I kept in mind that conservatives vote absentee in higher numbers than progressives.
At 8:30 PM I called back. We were up—but just slightly.
By 8:45 PM we were up by 60 percent. Other people were calling too, and a cautious whoop went through the crowd.
Finally, at 9 PM, all the votes were counted and a supporter shouted from the balcony, “The recall has been defeated, 61-39!”
The Brewery erupted. People jumped up and down, and literally started pounding the rafters. The building shook. The floor wobbled. People were screaming, laughing and crying—in some cases all at the same time. Flashbulbs were everywhere and people mobbed those of us in the campaign leadership. For about 15 minutes we felt like rock stars.
It was time for Paul to make a victory speech. The whole brewery quieted down. From the balcony Gallegos thanked the crowd and said he was going to read a quote from Gandhi:
“There are seven sins in the world: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality”…
—at this last sin the crowd interrupted with applause and hoots before Gallegos finished—
— “science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, and politics without principle."
It may have been the first time any American politician had ever quoted Gandhi in a victory speech.
Maintaining the Momentum
We took almost no time to savor our win. The next day the campaign leadership met to figure out what to do with the grassroots energy the attempted recall had generated. (One astounding fact was that, thanks to the intensity of the campaign, over 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in Humboldt—twice the percentage that voted in the Bay Area).
At the top of everyone’s list was stopping energy giant Calpine’s liquid natural gas plant—proposed to be built right on Humboldt Bay—which would have had a devastating impact on the marine environment. Rather than attack it on environmental grounds we decided to frame the proposed facility as unsafe and as a job-killer because of its expected impact on the fishing economy.
Again our team came together. Five days before the Council meeting, Richard emailed his 2,000 person list asking them to call and fax Council members and show up at the March 16 meeting. Salzman’s email read: “Stop the Dangerous, Job-Killing LNG Plant.” And we released to the media a copy of a poll that found that six out of ten Eureka residents opposed the plant.
Still high from our victory against the recall, over 1,500 Humboldt citizens turned out to the city council meeting to oppose the plant. The front page of the next day’s Eureka Times-Standard showed a picture of a man holding up a sign reading, “Cal-Pine’s LNG Plant = Job Killer.” Within hours of the paper hitting the newsstands, Calpine sent a letter saying it was dropping the project because of the public opposition.
In the end, defeating PL and Calpine were small steps for corporate responsibility but giant leaps for Humboldt County. What we learned in Humboldt went beyond technical campaign skills. We learned that building a movement and framing a political debate require a moral imperative. By making a moral argument around justice, democracy and freedom, we both mobilized our base and appealed to swing voters.
As Humboldt’s progressive community looks ahead, Salzman and other campaign leaders are fleshing out a Humboldt-specific strategy for sustainable economic development and crime prevention—the intellectual ground on which Gallegos and other politicians can stand to articulate a new politics grounded in old values.
Michael Shellenberger is the president of Lumina Strategies (www.luminastrategies.com) and is executive eirector of the nonprofit Breakthrough Institute (www.thebreakthrough.org). He can be contacted at Michael@thebreakthrough.org.
Also read Paul V. Gallegos: Courage Under Pressure: