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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

Voters Reject Attempt to Recall North Coast D.A.

A timber company bankrolled the effort to remove the Humboldt County official.

March 03, 2004|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Humboldt County voters rallied behind their district attorney Tuesday, rejecting a campaign bankrolled by Pacific Lumber Co. to recall the prosecutor who had accused the powerful timber company of fraud.

With all precincts reporting, voters decided to retain Dist. Atty. Paul Gallegos, 61% to 39%, despite an intensive campaign of radio, television and direct mail advertisements that portrayed Gallegos as soft on crime and a friend of illegal tree-sitters, rapists and pot growers.

"It's a triumph of the people over the influence of money and lies in politics," said a jubilant Gallegos, 41, a former Southern Californian who moved to Eureka a decade ago. "This recall election wasn't about me, it's about a corporation trying to control politics here in Humboldt County."

"This is about a defendant getting rid of the prosecutor," he said. "If this was the will of the people, they [Pacific Lumber] wouldn't have had to spend a quarter of a million dollars to get this on the ballot and convince people I was no good."

The recall election, the most expensive race of any kind in Humboldt County history, generated an unusually high turnout on a day when voters elsewhere in the state largely stayed home.

The race emerged as a test of the century-old political dominance of timber interests in a county of 130,000 people that has seen a sharp drop in logging jobs and a surge in environmentally concerned newcomers who work in the tourism and service industries.

The debate over Gallegos cleaved the county along familiar battle lines in the North Coast timber wars: Whether redwoods should be considered a draw for tourists and a subject of poetry or a source of lucrative lumber and abundant jobs. Passions flared to the bitter end, with allegations of improper electioneering.

Richard Salzman, Gallegos' campaign manager, joined volunteers on a busy intersection to wave "No Recall" signs for the early morning commuters -- most of them in pickup trucks.

"We got many more thumbs up than we got middle fingers," he said. "For these guys who gave us the finger, it's not the way Paul [Gallegos] handled a particular case, it's that they fear that their job's at stake."

Last year, Pacific Lumber and its corporate parent, Maxxam Inc., based in Houston, paid $8 a signature to help fill out petitions needed to qualify the recall for the ballot.

Then the timber company and its contractors donated more than 80% of the money -- $266,000 disclosed so far -- to the campaign to persuade voters that Gallegos should be bounced from the job as the county's top prosecutor.

Pacific Lumber denied that its contributions had anything to do with the civil fraud case that Gallegos and his top assistant, Timothy O. Stoen, filed in March 2003, accusing the company of lying to state regulators during the 1999 Headwaters Forest deal. The deal capped a decade-long battle to save the state's remaining stands of giant redwoods not already protected in parks or preserves.

Prosecutors contend that the fraud has allowed Pacific Lumber to harvest about $40 million worth of trees each year on 211,000 acres that were supposed to be protected under logging restrictions as part of the deal, which cost taxpayers $480 million.

Company spokeswoman Erin Dunn said the firm joined the recall out of a duty to help protect public safety from a prosecutor with a "miserable" record.

Supporters of Gallegos raised $180,000 and put together teams of volunteers to counteract the ad campaign against him. They phoned thousands of supporters in places such as Arcata, a liberal college town, to urge them to the polls.

"We're doing a booming business," said Lindsey McWilliams, Humboldt County's election manager, who predicted a turnout of about 65%. The county issued about 18,000 absentee ballots, about 6,000 more than usual, and he fears it will take weeks to sort through the final 1,500 to 2,000 or so ballots which were smudged, adorned with write-in candidates, or turned in at polling places.

Although these ballots will not change the outcome of the recall election, McWilliams said, "It's going to take us a lot of time to clean this up."

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