On Feb. 10, the peace and quiet of Morro Bay, an idyllic beach town and state park along the central coast, was swept away by the tide of coastal conservation politics. The town’s community center was flooded with activists fighting the California Coastal Commission’s move to terminate its executive director, Charles Lester. After hours of passionate testimony, almost exclusively in support of the beleaguered bureaucrat, the commission eventually voted 7-5 to fire him.
Four months later and 600 miles to the north, the aftershocks of the Commission’s political earthquake are still being felt.
On June 7, Martha McClure, a commissioner who voted to fire Lester, lost the Del Norte County supervisor seat that she has held for the past 20 years.
It emerged that McClure was one of the leaders in the movement to fire Lester — a rumor that did not bode well among the coastal conservation activists in her district.
McClure is a Democrat, but even with the county’s typically conservative leanings, the election results were remarkably lopsided: Lori Cowan, McClure’s Republican challenger, took 64 percent of the vote, McClure received just 35 percent.
Many environmentalists in the area believe McClure’s vote on Lester was a key factor in her election loss.
“Her relationship with Del Norte County environmentalists was already strained,” said Jennifer Savage, the California policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal protection advocacy group. “A lot of people saw this as the final blow.”
Many of McClure’s supporters in her home district, which lies along the scenic coast of Del Norte County, had expressed their support of Charles Lester before she voted to oust him, said Jennifer Kalt, director of Humboldt Baykeeper. After the fact, it emerged that McClure was one of the leaders in the movement to fire Lester, Kalt said, a rumor that did not bode well among the coastal conservation activists residing in her district.
Don Gillespie, president of Friends of Del Norte, said that it was the loss of that support, rather than any concerted effort against McClure retaining her seat, that sealed her fate.
“People who were normally out campaigning for and raising money for Martha were not there this year,” Gillespie said.
Though there was no highly visible effort on the part of environmentalists to vote McClure out of her supervisor position in Del Norte County, many lobbied Gov. Jerry Brown to remove her as his Coastal Commission appointee.
“Over the years, she’s done a lot of good things in this community…I’ve been amazed by Martha, that she could weather some of the storms she’s taken in Del Norte County” — Don Gillespie
But the Brown administration remained quiet about the Lester controversy, and as the June 7 primary election approached, it was clear to many environmentalists that the only way to keep McClure from another four-year term on the board would be to vote her out of office entirely. She was originally appointed to the commission by Brown in 2011 to fill the slot for a North Coast local elected official
The electoral effort against McClure was, and remains, quiet.
She will represent the small coastal neighborhood on the county board of supervisors for another six months. Kalt said that those who campaigned against her do not wish to be public due to the tension that might arise in such a small community if those who led the charge against her become known publicly towards the end of her term.
Before McClure secured her position on the commission, however, Del Norte County environmentalists sang her praises.
According to Gillespie, she spent much of her 20 years serving on the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors protecting wetlands and coastal areas for her constituents.
“Over the years, she’s done a lot of good things in this community…I’ve been amazed by Martha, that she could weather some of the storms she’s taken in Del Norte County,” Gillespie said of the conservation work McClure has done in such a right-leaning region. “I think her heart and mind have always been in the right place.”
As negative press followed McClure from the February hearing in Morro Bay back to her home district, it didn’t help her bid for re-election.
But Savage says that those values didn’t come through in McClure’s voting record on the Coastal Commission. The Surfrider Foundation partners with WILDCOAST and Environment California to produce monthly charts which rate each commissioner on the environmentalism of their votes. In its 2015 summary, the coalition said McClure and Gregory Cox were tied for the least environmental voting records of the 12 commissioners.
“I have heard [McClure] articulate the different concerns that people in a sparsely populated, rural location have,” Savage said. “It’s a shame that she didn’t vote in a way that would theoretically better protect the interests of the people she was serving.”
The district McClure serves is small — just over 1,000 votes were cast in total. But the Democrat’s past success in winning re-elections handily made the drubbing she took on the June 7 election all the more unexpected. While her Coastal Commission voting record may have played a part in it, it is unlikely that every voter was aware of the minutiae of the state agency.
“Maybe a dozen or two dozen people in the entire county were aware of her record of voting on the Coastal Commission,” Gillespie said.
But as negative press followed McClure from the February hearing in Morro Bay back to her home district, it didn’t help her bid for re-election.
In particular, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez was critical of McClure and other commissioners’ allegedly cozy relationships with lobbyists and developers. The tension between various Lopez and McClure reached a peak when Lopez called McClure and she responded with some vulgarity. Lopez published a column recounting the insults she hurled at him.
“Her response to that [criticism] was really fairly arrogant,” Kalt said. “She attacked [Lopez], said he was a liar and on a witch hunt.”
“Her foul mouth i think probably turned people off to her,” Gillespie added. “That’s what got her in trouble more than her vote [against Lester].”