Thursday, October 31, 2002
Photos by Randy Tunnell
Sam Farr has just taken the podium at a panel discussion on Iraq when two silver-haired women in the fifth row stand up. One holds up a sign for the congressman to see.
"Thank you, Sam, for your vote!" she calls out. The packed house in the auditorium at the Monterey Institute for International Studies erupts into whoops and applause.
The outpouring of enthusiasm is due to a crucial yet typical Farr vote. On October 10, Farr and 132 other members of the House of Representatives voted against the resolution authorizing the president to use force against Iraq. The vote resonated with the liberal 17th district and is clearly popular with the foreign policy-educated crowd in the audience.
Farr barely acknowledges the accolades. This is not so much from arrogance as from habit. He is deep in friendly territory, at an academic institution in the heart of a district whose love for Sam has returned him to public office for 27 years and confirmed his presence in Congress five times. Many of these voters still cherish fond memories of his father''s benevolent 11-year reign as state senator. This is the way things are.
Farr thanks the audience for coming and launches into an account of the debate leading up to the vote.
"We had three votes before the final vote that you probably didn''t hear about, which presented some alternatives about what we could have done," he says. "The first was [Oakland representative] Barbara Lee''s-this is what I supported-that we resolve to send in inspectors and rely on the UN to get them in there and that''s where it should stop."
As always, Farr speaks in a monotone stream of rapid run-on sentences. He often sounds like he is just getting over a sinus infection (and he may well be-after nine years of weekly air travel to and from Washington, he is of the opinion that many health problems begin in the dryness of an airline cabin). His speech is informative, not inspiring; matter-of-fact, not charismatic. Farr is not a showman.
Yet the audience gets the point: that Farr was one of 72 representatives out of 435 who voted for the diplomatic alternative, the most radically peacenik solution proposed. This vote is news to most folks in the MIIS auditorium. In the 13 months since Barbara Lee cast the sole "no" vote on the use-of-force resolution that led to the bombing of Afghanistan, she has evolved in public opinion from California wacko to courageous progressive. Now she is a talisman to the anti-war cause; allying with her is as much a declaration of ideology as a statement of position.
Farr''s vote for Lee''s resolution, combined with his recent vehement insistence on affordable housing at Fort Ord, have fueled hopes that the congressman is stepping up and sticking his neck out in a way he has not done before. It may be that Sam Farr, who became a grandfather two weeks ago, is entering a new phase. If that''s true, fans and critics alike couldn''t be more pleased. What they have is someone they can trust. What they want is someone they can cheer.
Everything about Farr-his distracted air, his habit of speaking as if he were talking to himself, the way he leaps from subject to subject expecting the listener to follow-suggests an inner absentminded professor. He seems always to be working over a problem, like someone privately constructing a master theory.
"Sam''s strengths in the Assembly were the same ones he has in Congress," says Fred Keeley, who was Farr''s chief of staff from 1984-1988. "He''s essentially a decent person who is much more concerned about policy than anything else. He''s a policy wonk, and I like that about him. He never gets tired of that."
Farr also appreciates aesthetics. Driving through Seaside and Fort Ord, he points out a gnarled oak next to the Seaside Post Office that his father insisted be preserved, a field he says gets knee-deep in yellow flowers every spring, a children''s center he''s especially proud of. "What they do here is they give love," he says, looking at the cheery red-and-white building on the converted base. "It''s a center full of love."
This is the side of Farr that inspires the same opinion from almost everyone interviewed for this story: He''s a nice guy. His heart''s in the right place.
Fort Ord is Farr''s biggest problem right now. This summer he had a short but tense showdown with the Fort Ord Reuse Authority in which he threatened to squelch the transfer of thousands of acres of land to Seaside and Marina unless the agency promised to ensure a high proportion of affordable housing on the abandoned base.
Ultimately Farr relented in exchange for an ill-defined promise of cooperation. Today he speaks of Seaside and Marina, the two cities with the most to gain-and lose-from the redevelopment of Fort Ord, in sympathetic terms. He understands that they view Fort Ord lands as valuable real estate, and imagine upscale neighborhoods like those in nearby Monterey or Carmel.
"There''s no intentional evil, but 10 years ago [when the base closed down] there wasn''t the housing crisis there is now," he says. "So they said, ''This is our chance to reinvent ourselves.''"
Still, Farr is frustrated. It''s very clear to him which side is the right one. The cities are getting the land, which once bore a $70 million price tag, for free. Same with the buildings. And that''s not good enough?
"We''ve had a lot of agencies turn away buildings. They say, ''We can''t afford this,''" Farr says incredulously. "They get them for free, and now they think someone''s gonna give ''em a wad of cash to retrofit ''em."
If Farr''s interference with FORA was unpopular with the mayors and city councils, it was greeted with cheers by the people of the Peninsula who can''t afford $600,000 homes or $1,800-a-month rent. Yet Farr doesn''t see their plight in individual terms. He sees it in the macro-in the brain drain from his district as educated people leave, in the roads that will have to be widened as teachers and hospitality workers commute from the cheaper towns in the Salinas Valley. This is the work of politicians.
Farr came to politics reluctantly. He was a bashful freshman at Carmel High nursing a broken hand from football when they made him class president.
"Nobody else wanted the job, so they elected me while I was out of the room," he says. "I was so shy I would''ve declined the nomination. But I realized how much say you could have in the school."
He went on to major in biology at Willamette University, then signed up with the Peace Corps in Colombia. On his return he joined the Democratic Central Committee-this time at the behest of former county Supervisor Sam Karas-which in 1969 led to a stint in Sacramento working for the legislative analyst''s office. A policy wonk''s dream come true.
In 1975, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Farr to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors when Robert Bolman resigned from office. Five years later he ran for the state Assembly and stayed there for 12 years, honing an agenda that remains with him still: education, environment and the economy.
In the Assembly, Farr took up genteel liberal California causes. He brought computers to classrooms, encouraged foreign language and arts requirements, led the fight against oil drilling in the Bay (which eventually led to its designation as a marine sanctuary), wrote the state''s organic foods labeling act, sponsored the first parks bond and worked on women''s issues.
In Congress he''s continued in much the same vein. Most significantly, perhaps, he authored the original version of the Oceans Act, which will lead to the nation''s first comprehensive national ocean policy by June 2003.
Since the closure of Fort Ord, Farr has obtained $65 million for CSUMB, has added land to Pinnacles National Monument and is working to get 57,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest designated wilderness. That last, along with a bill to recover depleted fisheries, is stuck in committee-an everyday occurrence on Capitol Hill these days.
Farr is frustrated, but not so aggravated he can''t joke about it. "I build things so I can feel like I''ve done something," he says by way of explaining the truckbox in the back of his four-wheel-drive pickup as I climb in for a tour of Fort Ord.
Farr complains that the 107th Congress is gridlocked. "The US Congress has broken down," he says. "It''s not doing its job. It''s locked in an internal Republican debate on the House side. The conservatives, the ultra conservatives, don''t want to bring more bills to the floor that are gonna cost money. The moderates don''t want anything that brings cuts to services in an election year. We''re going to have to hold a landmark session after the election just to get some appropriations." Since Congress failed to pass a budget in July, the government is now operating in a holding pattern, allocated one-twelfth of last year''s budget each month.
As a member of the appropriations committee, Farr is acutely aware of what projects are thwarted by the failure to pass a budget. Without money, policy decisions are just nice ideas. Farr''s two subcommittees are very district-oriented: agriculture and military construction. He is a strong champion of bringing home the bacon.
"You''ve got to have someone in Congress who understands that federal investment is one of the largest economic engines in the county," he says, and ticks off the area''s impressive list of federal institutions: the Presidio, Fort Hunter Liggett, Los Padres, the marine sanctuary.
"What I''ve been trying to do is build the marine institutions because the sanctuary creates a region of academic excellence. People want to steal the success of some other place and bring it to their town. But if you want to get into the economic development game you''ve got to build something no one can take away. If we get jobs dependent on soil and sea then no one can take it away. You gotta do something no one else is doing, according to your strength."
In the four elections that have followed since Farr squeaked into national office in June 1993 to fill a seat vacated by the towering figure of Leon Panetta, the voters have rewarded him with steadily increasing margins of victory. They''ll probably continue that trend on Tuesday.
Farr''s voting record has been, for the most part, unimpeachably progressive. Besides the votes his constituents might expect-no on the flag-burning amendment, yes on preserving ANWR, yes on making SUVs more fuel-efficient-he has in the last year taken stands that have landed him in a distinguished minority. He was one of only 79 House members to vote no on the PATRIOT Act, which is widely derided as a blow to civil rights. His was one of 58 votes against the $383 billion defense bill.
But a perception lingers among those who watch him closely that Farr has been, in the words of one political junkie, a "ho-hum leader"-a representative who votes correctly (with a few exceptions) but has failed to advance a strong agenda that goes beyond mainstream liberal concerns. It''s not that he''s bad, they say. It''s just that he could be better.
Farr got off to a bad start with the progressives in his district. The left wing of the local Democratic party had run its own candidate, MIIS instructor Bill Monning, in a very close April primary race for the special election to replace Panetta, who had been tapped to lead Clinton''s Office of Management and Budget. Farr arrived in Washington fresh off a narrow June victory over Republican Bill McCampbell, one aided in no small part by Monterey and Santa Cruz labor. With a vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement looming, the unions had asked for and received Farr''s word that he would vote against it. In the fall of 1993, the pro-NAFTA powerhouses on Capitol Hill pounced on him.
"He showed up in Congress as the most junior member, under all kinds of pressure from the leadership," recalls Keith Vandevere, who managed Monning''s campaign. "I understand pressure, but he didn''t say to the unions, ''Hey, I''m under a lot of pressure.'' He was saying up to the day before the vote not to waste their time lobbying him because his vote was safe."
The pressure, in fact, was phenomenal. President Clinton called. Cabinet members called. Farr understood the implied threat: Fort Ord had just been closed. If Farr wanted the administration and his colleagues in the House to help him with a crumbling pillar of his district''s economy, he would need to cooperate.
On Nov. 17, he cast his vote in favor of the bill. NAFTA passed by 17 votes. He took an immediate hit.
"When the labor unions in Washington held their press conferences, they said, ''People are going to pay for it,''" says Vandevere. "The press said, ''Who?'' They said, ''Sam Farr.''"
"We had very serious issues about it. We were really angry," says Mike Johnston, a business representative for the Teamsters in Salinas.
By now that''s ancient history. "Since that time, on further issues-particularly trade issues-Sam has been very solid," Johnston says. Farr''s votes against normalizing trade relations with China, against expanding NAFTA''s reach via the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement and against granting the president fast-track authority have played well with labor, as the AFL-CIO''s 2002 endorsement of him attests.
More recently, Farr disappointed local progressives when he voted in support of a plan to send $380 million to be used in military assistance to the government of Colombia for what the Bush administration has labeled part of the war on terrorism. To these activists and scholars, Colombia is the newest Nicaragua or El Salvador, and US aid to the government represents the latest chapter in a history of backing repressive regimes.
Colombia is a subject close to Farr''s heart. When he was in the Peace Corps there-an experience that left an indelible impression on him-his mother died of cancer. When the rest of the family came to visit Farr afterward, his youngest sister, who was 17 at the time, was thrown from a horse and sustained a fatal cerebral hematoma.
"She died because they just didn''t have the technology to deal with it," says Farr. "They didn''t have the x-ray equipment that could determine what it was and what to do about it. It was a heroic all-night effort to try to get planes from Bogota and Medellin."
Since then, it has been Farr''s conviction that what the people of Colombia need is the peace and security to build their infrastructure and develop basic services, and that the Andean Regional Initiative, as Bush''s plan is called, is a step toward establishing that security.
Most progressives disagree.
"My own view of Colombia is it''s complex and there needs to be an understanding that pouring in weaponry is not a new concept," says Bill Monning. "They''ve been doing it for 40 years and it hasn''t helped."
Yet there runs a strong vein of respect for Farr even among the activists disgruntled with his Colombia vote. Former Santa Cruz mayor Bert Muhly is an avowed Farr supporter who passionately objects to Plan Colombia. "I think his vote is sincere," he says.
"He is not a strong-willed person in the sense of being willing to go against the stream and stand up," says David Sweet, a Santa Cruz activist and retired history professor. "And for that reason there are a lot of people disappointed in him in this town.
"My impression of him is that he is a very honest, hardworking, generally liberal congressman who is more interested in being effective, which in Congress means maintaining relationships with people and not doing any grandstanding and so forth."
Farr won points with his critics on the Colombia vote when he organized a panel discussion at MIIS in early September that included the ambassador to Colombia and several local panelists, among them Sweet.
"One test of a good representative is, when people start pushing them, are they responsive to being pushed?" says Monning. "And on the Colombia issue Sam could have flown under the radar, but he pulled this group together and faced the music. I thought it was a very healthy process."
What happens in Colombia is not, at least for now, critical to the well-being of Central Coast residents. But immigration is, and here again Farr sustains some criticism-not for voting poorly, but for not taking the initiative.
With the Bush administration having shut down amnesty talks with Mexico
and fortified the border post-9/11, immigration reform has entered an uneasy limbo.
Paul Johnston, director for the Citizenship Project in Salinas, asserts that Farr could be more actively engaged.
"I think he could take a much more aggressive role on immigration reform issues without antagonizing agribusiness," he says. "He could bring labor and Latino and big agribusiness interests together and we would come up with a surprising amount of agreement on the need for new kinds of institutions that would treat the people who work in the fields with more respect."
Alec Arago, Farr''s district chief of staff, spends most of his time in Farr''s Salinas office. He points out that half of the district office''s workload consists of prompting an inefficient Immigration and Naturalization Service to attend to constituents'' cases. And two members of the 32-member California Democratic delegation, which has twice chosen Farr as its chair, are on the committee that handles immigration reform. "So it''s like being on a team," Arago says. "Not everybody has to be a quarterback."
And in fact, Johnston says, when Latino activists told Farr that the chisme, or gossip, among immigrants in the 2000 election was that Bush was pro-immigrant, whereas Farr wasn''t being talked about at all, Farr responded well. He co-sponsored the Bracero Justice Act earlier this year and has pulled together quarterly meetings that examine how specific local laws and institutions affect immigrants.
"Sam''s style-he''s a very cautious leader," says Johnston. "I wish we had someone who was a more aggressive leader because I think that''s what these times require. But he''s one of the best. He votes very well on most issues."
That''s the prevailing opinion among the cognoscenti.
"Frankly, in the climate we''re in today, Sam''s pretty good by most standards," says Amy Newell, business manager for the Central Coast Labor Council. "He''s joined the Progressive Caucus and it seems to me it''s not just a question of voting safe but that he''s pushing himself to give more leadership on these issues. We''ve been very pleased with his leadership in the fight for affordable housing, specifically by the opportunity presented by Fort Ord."
Ultimately, the jury''s still out on whether Farr''s tête-a-tête with FORA this summer worked as planned. After threatening to eliminate the land transfer altogether unless FORA guaranteed half the housing would be priced under $300,000, Farr backed down in a series of steps until he relented and allowed the transfer to proceed. In exchange, he got promises of cooperation from FORA, but few specifics.
Since then, Marina Mayor Jim Perrine has worked to ensure high numbers of affordable homes on Fort Ord. But the passage two weeks ago of a new housing development called Marina Heights points to a problem.
Of 1,050 housing units in the proposed plan, only 85 are to be below-market rate. And with no enforcement mechanism to back him up and a tough fight for his seat coming up on Tuesday, Perrine may not have the wherewithal to implement his good intentions.
This, critics say, rests at Farr''s door. Some say he should have intervened years ago. Some say he should have strategized better before this summer''s showdown. One local elected official says Farr''s Washington office wasn''t prepared for the fight.
"They fired a shot but they didn''t think beyond that," he observes.
At the end of our Fort Ord tour, Farr drives to Wild Thyme Deli for a quick bite of lunch. Inside the small storefront, people turn to look at him. He''s probably the only guy in Marina wearing a suit on this Saturday afternoon.
Farr orders his lunch, a small portion of tuna casserole, and heads for the cash register. On the way there he pauses in front of the gourmet potato chips, weighing a nagging set of pros and cons. Farr is neither a young man nor a small man. At 61, these sorts of decisions acquire significance. He opts for a cookie instead.
Once seated, he slides effortlessly into conversation about one of his earliest lessons in public service.
"When I got to the Peace Corps, we looked at the town and said, ''By God, we gotta start with the sewers.'' But the people didn''t care about sewers-what they wanted was a soccer field. So we said, ''OK, we''ll do that. And if we have a success then we''ll eventually get to the sewers.'' So we started with the soccer field, and then eventually we built a school."
And this is perhaps instructive about who Sam Farr is: a regular guy who enjoys the small comforts in life and whose job happens to be trying to do good things for a lot of people.
You can''t please all the people all the time. But if you try and you''re lucky, you can please most of them most of the time.
After lunch a woman comes out with a miniature pumpkin cheesecake on a styrofoam plate and two forks.
"This is from all of us. Thank you for all your hard work, Mr. Farr," she says.
Farr thanks her and gets to work on the cheesecake. "This is good," he says. It is. Afterward he reaches absently for a crumpled napkin on a stack of used paper plates. It''s my napkin, or was, but Farr''s not used to second-guessing himself, and before I have the chance to stop him the deed is done. Sam Farr is thinking about other things. He''s thinking about war and peace, about the families who struggle to pay the rent, and about the mysterious depths that lie off the coast a half-mile away. Lately he seems to be thinking about these things more critically than he ever has. Maybe. We''ll see.