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Bucolic Battleground : Tranquil Chico Is Caught in Bitter Political Cross-Fire

April 28, 1985|DOUGLAS SHUIT | Times Staff Writer

CHICO — This community doesn't look like a hotbed of extremist politics.

It's a quiet college town, the kind of place that Norman Rockwell could have painted.

Slices of Rockwell-style Americana abound. Kids trail fishing poles behind them as they pedal their bikes along tree-lined streets. People still know their paperboy by his first name, and call out greetings when they hear the thud of the newspaper on the front porch. A creek meanders through the center of town, turning into a community swimming hole during the hot summer months.

A Clone of UCLA

Centerpiece of the town is the bucolic campus of California State University, Chico, which could pass as a clone of UCLA with its towering shade trees, green lawns and old red brick buildings. The university is Chico's largest employer, and, with 14,000 students, dominates much of the economic life of the city of nearly 30,000.

The college has a quintessentially Northern California touch: Chico Creek, a tributary to the Sacramento River, runs right through the middle of the campus. In the fall students can sit by the creek between classes and watch salmon run upstream to spawn.

Yet, despite all its surface tranquility, the city, about 90 miles north of Sacramento in rural Butte County, becomes a battleground of far left and far right politics at election time.

Four years ago, a group of liberal candidates, with support from the left-of-center Santa Monica-based Campaign for Economic Democracy, defeated four conservatives and took control of the seven-member City Council.

Then, in municipal elections several weeks ago, a conservative faction backed by ultra-right Sacramento legislators swept four incumbents, including the mayor and three council members, out of office.

Local residents say the last campaign divided the city into two bitterly warring camps.

"There was absolutely no middle ground," said Republican activist Karen Vercruse, a city planning commissioner and campaign manager for one of the conservative candidates. "It was like the community grabbed their dogs and children, ran indoors and left the two gunfighters out on the street to battle it out. I've never seen such an intense campaign. We beat their socks off."

While the city elections are still mostly local affairs, outside political forces have figured prominently in local voting, a development with statewide implications.

On one side is the Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), a group founded in 1977 by then political activist and now Democratic Assemblyman Tom Hayden of Santa Monica with the help of his actress-wife, Jane Fonda, to promote tenants' rights, rent control, energy conservation and other issues.

Bid for Respectability

Hayden, who helped organize the militant Students for a Democratic Society into a political force in the 1960s, hoped to establish CED's respectability by winning elections in college towns like Chico.

On the other side are conservatives, who say the fight here is one that will be repeated in other parts of the state.

"Chico represents the middle ground in California. That's what we are fighting for, the left and the right. If we can beat them in Chico, then we can probably beat them in every other part of the state," said John Feliz, a Sacramento-based legislative aide to conservative Sen. John Doolittle (R-Citrus Heights) and one-time director of the Law and Order Campaign Committee.

Feliz, who owns a political consulting firm called Communications Consulting Group, coordinated activities of the conservative slate.

Also involved in the election was the Sacramento-based Free Market Political Action Committee, a group that channels thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to conservative candidates. It put out a mailer for the conservative slate.

The chairman of the committee is freshman Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), a retired Marine Corps officer and head of the Free Market Political Action Committee, who said: "Until now, there has been nobody effectively countering CED. Everyone has been assuming it will fall of its own dead weight. Not only don't I think it will fall of its own dead weight, I think there should be opposing forces in our society. We'll be challenging them elsewhere."

Conservatives say the election results point to a decline in the effectiveness of CED, locally as well as statewide.

But Hayden downplays the importance of Chico politically, although in days gone by victories here, as well as in Santa Monica, Santa Cruz, Arcata and Berkeley, led to rejoicing by CED.

Hayden said the price CED paid for winning local elections and then holding onto the offices was too high, so they have been backing away.

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