I’ve gotten a fair amount of grief from some progressives over the fact that I’m supporting Paula Williams over Jane Rands of the Green Party for Fullerton City Council. (Esteemed OJB publisher Vern is a Jane Rands guy, too but he’s nice about it. We haven’t discussed it, but I expect that he might post his own pro-Jane response to this later — as he should!)
My friends insinuate that my support for Paula is all about my ties to my party, which I’m told is not what a non-partisan election should be about. Jane has done the work that one should do before running for Council, I’m told; she has studied the City’s issues, spoke in front of the Council, been part of the Kelly Thomas protests, etc. No one knows Paula, they tell me. “What has she done for Fullerton?”
This has started to irk me. She’s done plenty for Fullerton residents — but most of it is outside of the circles where my bourgeois political associates travel. What she hasn’t done is grandstand over it. I think that it’s way past time that I explain why I support Paula Williams for City Council.
The first thing I have to say is that my support for Paula is not at all about any objection to Jane Rands. I think that Jane would be a fine Council member; my hope is that 2013 will dawn with both Paula and Jane being on City Council. But I think that Paula brings things to the table that Jane does not — that, in fact, few Fullerton City Councilmembers ever have. She is well-placed to represent people who generally do not get represented. I think that that’s very important.
Many people judge qualifications for Council through a myopic lens, in which protesting and speaking to Council are actual qualifications rather than just admirable political advocacy (or sometimes calculated self-promotion. I’m not singling anyone out here.) It’s the same kind of view that judges legislators by their speeches, teachers by their lectures, doctors by their publications, rather than by the totality of the mostly invisible work they do, outside of the spotlight, to serve people well. Sure, I love having an activist on City Council. I also want someone who can best serve the public — all of the public.
Yes, Kiger and Levinson and Sebourn have all been appointed to City commissions (I believe all by Bruce Whitaker or maybe Sean Nelson.) In those seats, they roundly denounce city policies for the audience and the camera. So what? That’s not actual governing. It’s more like three-dimensional blogging.
Among the candidates whom I like best among those running, Jane Rands has the sort of intellect and analytic ability that you also see in Glenn Georgieff, Matt Rowe, and Doug Chaffee — as well as in some of the candidates whose possible policies most worry me, like Greg Sebourn, Travis Kiger, and Sean Paden. In terms of abilities and approaches, there’s a lot of redundancy there, even beyond the diversity of political opinions.
Paula is also plenty smart, as I’ll note below — that’s among the many things that those who criticize her for not being a fixture at Council meetings or an agitator on City Commissions don’t know about her. But she brings a background and experience that no one else on Council has.
- She has tremendous expertise in working with government codes and understanding budgets
- She has a different, valuable, and well-grounded perspective on the “war against public employees”
- As an African-American single mother, she represents the minority and working-class communities that are often overlooked in city and county politics
- She literally makes her living helping people in need navigate through government bureaucracies
It’s that last one that actually means the most to me. Paula Williams, who has worked for Orange County Social Services for more than two decades (yes, she did start young), helps desperate people for a living. She has to understand the complex interaction of local, state, and federal codes; she has to figure out who can best be helped in what ways. In these hard times — and yes, unlike those people with cushy political jobs, she knows that these are hard times because she sees it every day — she understands where poorer people are coming from; she understands what makes their lives better, longer, and more bearable. She understands aspects of life, at a visceral level, that other political candidates don’t.
She doesn’t protect people from crime, as police (ideally) do; she doesn’t protect people from fire. She protects people from the onslaughts of fate — losing medical coverage, losing a home — and from public indifference. By any reasonable definition of “public safety,” she is as much of a public safety employee as a copy or firefighter. After so many years on the job, her skills are probably harder to replace than a police officer or firefighter at her level — and she gets paid much, much less.
I’m not saying that Fullerton needs five people like Paula Williams on its City Council — but the City should snap up the chance to get at least one of them — someone who can understand the concerns of non-ideological citizens, as well as the language of mid-level and lower-level city employees.
As a party official, I recruited Paula to run this year — for Assembly District 65 against Chris Norby.
Yes, for AD-65. At the time, people did not think that Sharon Quirk-Silva, who was practically tailor-made for the district, was going to run — Sharon included. We needed a Democratic candidate. That picture above was from the California Democratic Party convention in mid-February, where as it happened Sharon was sitting nearby where I made one last push to try to get Paula to run.
Pretty much everyone in the Democratic Party, of course, knew that Sharon would be the perfect candidate for the district, capable of holding Norby to a near-draw in Fullerton while thumping him like a broom against a soggy cardboard box south of I-5. At the time, though, she had not yet been drafted into the race by the combined force of seemingly every Democrat in or near the district. Time was a-wastin’ back then — and we needed a candidate. I recruited Paula Williams because I thought that she would be a perfect person to challenge Norby’s obsession with wrecking public unions and destroying public pensions.
As a public employee within the Orange County Department of Social Services, Paula helps people get the medical, housing, and other social welfare benefits that, quite literally, keep them alive. (As I’ve told audiences over the past few months, it would not surprise me if she has saved more lives by doing her job well than Dr. Dick Jones has saved as a medical doctor.)
Among other things, to manage the enormous case load that she has and the maze of regulations that apply to each case, Paula has to be really smart — and she is. ( Someone slamming other people on a Council or a Commission may be smart, but they don’t have to be; they just have a learn a few facts and a few lines.) Beyond that, Paula has a completely different perspective on public employees than the one you hear about from Norby and his supporters. She has a better idea than they do of where there is actually waste in government bureaucracy — but she would also be much more careful about not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Paula’s work environment is not at the upper levels of a public department, where people rub shoulders with those making decisions on their pensions and get help — it is alleged — gaming the system. She’s an experienced mid-level employee, with expertise that the county could ill-afford to lose — and she was feeling the pinch. There are no special deals for those at her level; medical costs were going up, pensions — not lavish to begin with — were going down, and she was seeing many of the brightest people around her regretfully making a hard-nosed economic decision to leave.
Yes, that can lead to bad government. But this was not a matter of cops being poorly trained and too inclined to arrest and beat people who didn’t deserve it. This was the consequence of “starving the beast” of government — a matter of inadequate resources leading to a drain of expertise, which would mean more delays, worse service, more missed opportunities for valid placements, and ultimately possibly more suffering and death per year than all of the police departments in the county could inflict in a decade.
Deaths by neglect, by lack of care that a smart and driven bureaucrat like Paula can circumvent, don’t make the headlines — there’s no lurid video of someone dying of a stroke caused by hypertension for which free services were available but the employee charged to help them didn’t know about them — but they are deaths all the same, and deaths largely of precisely the same class of people to which homeless man Kelly Thomas belonged before he because a cause celebre.
It’s simple: take away people like Paula and more of the most vulnerable people in our county die — people in Fullerton included. And the “war on public employees,” justified by the self-serving and headline-grabbing abuses of people at the top of the heap, was doing most of its damage to people at Paula’s level and below — because there are so many more of them.
Yes, someone like Paula could be replaced by an ill-trained temporary contractor. We’d save a little money — and vulnerable people would die. Paula has the ability to give an battlefield-level look at the war on public employees — and to say who was actually being mowed down in the campaigns against them.
I really liked the idea of her taking on Chris Norby, for whom theoretical issues of shrinking government seem to be concrete — and the actual work of people at Paula’s level with people in need apparently seems abstract. But then people demanded that Sharon win the district rather than Paula just putting up a good fight. Paula switched to City Council — somewhat of a relief for her, I think, as she liked the idea of staying in town near her job and her youngest son.
She also understood something really important: the poorer residents of Fullerton — like those around her apartment where West Fullerton meets South Fullerton, far from the buzzing downtown and the well-manicured college lawns — don’t get a whole lot of support from the City Council. Paula didn’t just live in the neighborhood, she was of the neighborhood — and around her were the sorts of people who she has to help in her job every day. She was unusual in the neighborhood is that she was involved in politics — that photo shows her at her fourth state party convention — but she also understood the issues in ways that many other people do not.
Take the issue of the killing of Kelly Thomas. She was as disgusted as anyone by what happened, but she had a perspective that the loudest critics of the event don’t. She understood that what you see at the beginning of the video is a roust — and that rousts happen all the time. Many people seem to be shocked at Manuel Ramos swinging his baton at the beginning and ordering him around even before he was under arrest. Paula, having the advantage of living in a lower-income area, was not surprised by this: she knows that this is just how police act when they want to control a situation. (Can you imagine what would happen if an eighteen year old Black kid had talked back to a police officer and refused to obey orders the way that Kelly Thomas did? It might have been a much shorter video — but you would probably not have seen it.)
Paula gets stopped for “Driving While Black” sometimes — a stop without cause that might send a Dick Jones or a Bruce Whitaker around the bend with apoplexy — and she is committed to fighting racism and profiling. But when I asked her what her major problem was with the Fullerton police, she gave the answer that would probably be most common within her home area. It’s not the rousts; it’s not the stops without pretexts, as galling as they are. It is … well, first take a guess, Dear Reader.
It’s the lack of police presence in her community and the lack of adequate and timely police response.
The police don’t show up soon enough to combat crime. They aren’t around when needed; they have tended to stay within the safety of their cars as they drive past. So, people are often left to fend for themselves, often to be victimized, with often terrible results. This situation is getting better, as I’ll note below — but first let me ask you a question.
Have you heard that identified as a problem over the past year, in all of the attacks that you hear on the FPD? If you haven’t, it’s because you’re getting your information from too narrow a swath of experience within the city — from a whiter, wealthier, more privileged, more sheltered segment of the community.
Shouldn’t there be one person on the City Council, at least, who gets it?
Here’s something else that galls Paula — the snide attacks made on Community Policing. Community Policing — getting cops integrated into the community, on the streets, winning the trust and cooperation of the residents rather than treating them like residents in an occupied territory — is exactly what can help address the problems of inadequate police response in rougher neighborhoods. Say what you will about anything else he’s done, but this has been a major initiative and priority for Interim Chief Dan Hughes.
When Doug Chaffee — who does understand this despite his more privileged perspective — talked about Community Policing in the Fullerton Observer as a needed reform for the FPD, cackling critics sawed off his butt and shoved it into his face. How dare he not see that the issue with the Fullerton police was Kelly Thomas and more Kelly Thomas? Well, actually, there is another issue for the critics — the police are unionized and collect large pensions. So maybe we need to outsource policing to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, to save money.
You may have heard that suggestion made. But let me ask you this: when you’ve heard it made, has anyone asked what such a change would mean for neighborhoods like the one Paula Williams lives in? Is the OCSD going to engage in community policing — or will they just drive by?
Don’t we need at least one person on City Council who will think to ask that sort of question first?
Jane Rands is a good person with good values — but she is a comfortable professional. I expect that if and when (as I hope) she is on the City Council with Paula Williams, she will be sympathetic to the sorts of concerns that Paula brings up — but I don’t think that she will be as likely to bring them up on her own, because she does not come from the same sort of life experience as Paula. (We should have both on City Council, but at least one will have to wait until November.)
I also know Paula to be a person of excellent character. I’ll give two examples — actually, pretty much the same example twice, applied to different people — of why that is. In the past month, a longtime blogger associate of mine and a newer associate from Occupy Orange County have both faced serious medical problems — the sorts of problems that, combined with unemployment, gets people killed — and have needed help. They could not navigate their way through the terrain of the bureaucracy; without a competent guide, they might well end up pulling off the trail to die. The explanations they got about where they stood and why help was not available to them did not make sense. I referred them to state legislators’ offices; they got no relief and eventually got onto a “we’ll take a message and not get back to you” list.
In both cases, I called Paula. “Paula, my friend is having trouble — can’t get medical insurance, can’t get medical care, can’t (in one case) get housing. My friend is getting the runaround. Can you help?”
At her level, Paula doesn’t see people in her office anymore — she sees files. (Because of staff cuts, she and her colleagues see twice as many files as she used to — and yes, people do die needlessly as a result.) But she agreed to see my friends casually; they came to the campaign office that she and I share with Jay Chen.
My friends both came away dazzled. They understood it now; each was visibly relieved. Paula knows her stuff. She knows if there is a way to get something done within the system — and if there isn’t a way to get it done, she has plenty of experience with gently telling people the truth. I caught just bits of each conversation, but in both cases what I saw from Paula was the virtuosity of true expertise. She cared; in both cases, she followed up.
“What has Paula done for Fullerton?” My office is in Fullerton. She helps people. She does it without grandstanding; she does it in a spirit of charity and caring. She’s a quick study and she has a finely honed BS detector and the grace to wield it gently when possible. Are there issues she may not know about? Sure — just like everyone else. But she’s a quick study, she’s not ideological, and she’s willing to make her decisions on the merits.
Why do I support Paula Williams? Because these are hard times and people need help — and by temperament and training, she is the sort of person who helps. Once elected, I predict that she’ll be among the most popular City Councilmembers in recent memory, because she will be the one that citizens can go to. And, particularly for the minority and working-class or lower members of the community, she will be especially cherished, because she will be the one who gets it.
No, Fullerton does not need five copies of Paula Williams on its City Council. But I think it sure does need one of them — and she’s the only one like her who’s running. That’s why I hope that she wins.
Disclosure: beyond our being friends and renting space in the same campaign office, Paula and I share a campaign treasurer, for whom my daughter works; among her responsibilities are doing the financial reports for Paula’s campaign.