Fierce political fight breaks out at Food Co-op

They’re calling it “The Oycott.”  

For the last year-and-a-half, a group of pro-Palestine, activists have been trying to get the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op to get rid of the half-dozen or so Israeli-sourced products on their shelves.

In the process, they’ve run headlong into a cadre of experienced political professionals active in the popular natural grocery outlet, which has been around since 1973.
The president of the Co-op’s board is Steve Maviglio, a Democratic political consultant who’s held high-level positions with former Gov. Gray Davis and former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez.

Other political big shots among the Co-op’s 12,000 owner-members include Mayor Kevin Johnson, Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento; Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Eureka; and former Assemblyman Lloyd Levine. The Co-op board also includes Ann Richardson, an attorney for the state lottery. Several well-known political consultants and other Capitol types are members as well.

Now a freelance consultant with Forza Communications, Maviglio has been one of the leaders of the Pension Truth Squad, a travelling tour of people trying to defend public employee pensions from Republicans who are trying to pin budget shortfalls on state workers. But lately, he’s often been out in front of the Co-op for hours at a time, talking to customers about the divestment campaign and an upcoming Co-op board election.

In characteristic form, he doesn’t mince words when he talks about the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) campaign led by local activist Maggie Coulter. Besides appearances at board meetings, members of the group have held protests outside the store and also had numerous individuals out talking to members.

“She’s had a pattern of losing every fight she‘s in, so she tried to pick on the Co-op to win one,” Maviglio said of Coulter. “By the way, she spent $11 at the Co-op last year. That’s how dedicated she is to Co-op.”

Coulter tells a very different story — of the Maviglio-led board shutting down debate, unfairly promoting incumbents in the current rounds of board elections and violating their Co-op’s own bylaws by depriving Co-op members of a chance to vote on an initiative to take Israeli products off the shelf despite having plenty of member signatures.

After being thwarted in an attempt to get that measure on the current ballot, along with another stating that members have a right to put such measures on the ballot, Coulter and ally Robin Kristufek sued the Co-op board in May, claiming that the board is violating its own bylaws, which represent a contract with members.

They’re not seeking damages, Coulter said, but to force them to let the members vote on their initiatives. On July 29, a Superior Court judge ruled against their effort to seek an injunction to delay this year’s vote, noting they could put it on the Co-op ballot next year if they prevail in their case.

One of Coulter’s allies in the fight is David Mandel, a Co-op member since 1985 who is also active with Jewish Voices for Peace. He pointed to the elections section of the bylaws, which bars the use of Co-op money in campaigns, saying that Maviglio and others have been using the Co-op website and newsletter to argue their cause. He also pointed to sections saying that any petition with 100 member signatures must go on the ballot, a requirement Coulter said they easily satisfied.

Mandel said he wouldn’t even necessarily vote for a divest Israel initiative, but said members should have the right to vote. He also said he’s doesn’t trust the current election will be carried out fairly.

“I think they’ll cheat if they need to,” Mandel said. “They’re cheating in every other way.”

But Mavilgio said those same bylaws require the board to reject an initiative that violates other provisions of their code. The “Human Rights Initiative” filed by the BDS group runs afoul in two ways. For one, he said, the Co-op is supposed to be apolitical and open to everyone. He also said that it would likely be found discriminatory under U.S. law, which was one reason the Davis Co-op rejected a similar measure.

Coulter contends Maviglio has been lying about how much she shops there, though she admits that she and her partner often don’t present their membership card. She said she spent $100 on a trip there in May. Though, after some contentious board meetings last spring and a shouting match in the parking lot with Maviglio in May — or, as he describes it, her shouting at him — she’s not banned from board meetings and from the Co-op itself.

She’s also supporting a pair of candidates running in the current round of Co-op board elections, Susan Bush and Cody Potter.

“They’re running on a platform of allowing members’ opinions to be voiced,” Coulter said. “It’s not a fiefdom of the board.”

Neither candidate mentions Israeli products in their campaign statements included in the mail-in ballots, due back Sept. 10. But Potter said the current board is trying to thwart their campaigns by making it difficult to get times for “tabling,” that is, setting up a spot outside the store to talk to members.

“You would think Steve Maviglio would try to escape the politics he’s accustomed to at the Capitol,” Potter said. “But he and his main man Barry Broad are disrupting our easygoing, peaceful Sacramento Natural Foods Cooperative with their outrageous spin and junkyard dog power moves. The difference between the capitol and the Co-op is that there’s no checks and balances on Maviglio here and he’s able to make and break the rules at will.”

Maviglio’s “main man,” of course, is a well-known labor lobbyist around the Capitol. Broad is also the chair of the local Jewish Community Relations Council. He’s put in a lot of hours lobbying members against the boycott effort, on top of his 60-hour work weeks and novel-writing, having published the thriller “Eve of Destruction” in 2008.

Broad said he is troubled by the anti-Semitism he’s seen in the campaign, including a comment made in a board meeting by one supporter talking about Jews controlling the media. In March, Levine, who is also Jewish, posted an article on the California Majority Report detailing some pretty shocking anti-Semitic comments he said were made online by local activist Dan Bacher, though Coulter and Bacher both said he has had no direct involvement with her efforts.

Broad makes no apologies for his efforts, noting that the Holocaust itself started with a series of anti-Jewish boycotts.

Instead, members of the board have placed something on the ballot called Measure 2, which states that the Co-op shall not discriminate based on race, sexual orientation, political beliefs and numerous other factors. Coulter and others say the ballot arguments for Measure 2 are biased.

“The Co-op’s role should be to promote peace,” Broad said. “The Palestinians have legitimate issues,” but added that Israelis do too. Both sides have committed terrible acts, he said, but Coulter and her allies are taking one side in a violent conflict. He also added that is seemed strange that no one was objecting to products from China or Russia, two countries he said have far worse human rights records than Israel. Broad said he got tipped off when the same group unsuccessfully pushed a similar effort at the Davis Co-op starting in 2009 and early 2010.

He also said that members do have a right to vote on these products – with their pocketbooks. According to Maviglio, the Co-op has seen a sharp rise i
n membership, with 400 members added in recent weeks. And sales of Israeli-sourced products have gone up since the boycott effort began, he said.

Not that there are many. Maviglio said there are only seven Israel-sourced products: two types of matzo, a brand of Kosher ice cream cones, and four types of Dead Sea bath salts packaged by a non-Jewish mother and daughter who live in Elk Grove.

According Co-op General Manager Paul Cultrera, quoted in the Sacramento Press, Israeli products make up around $13,000 in annual sales at the Co-op, or 0.05 percent of the Co-op’s $26 million in sales. They also sometimes stock a few Israeli wines around Passover.

“It’s sad when people believe that not carrying seven products has anything to do with world peace,” Maviglio said. “It would have everything to do with killing our store.”

The board secretary is Michelle Reynolds, a former Sacramento Bee employee who is now an information officer at CalPERS. She said they brought their campaign to CalPERS earlier this year, trying to get the multi-billion dollar public employee retirement fund to divest from Israeli products. Coulter and her allies came to a board meeting and made their presentation.

“The board members were just like, ‘Okay, thanks for your comment,’ and that was it,” she said.

Coulter also wrote five stories in the Sacramento News & Review about a visit to Israel/Palestine, in the wake of Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere, but hasn’t appeared there since. She’s also published several pieces online in the Sacramento Press, though in recent weeks Maviglio and Sac Press publisher David Watts Barton have editorialized strongly against the BDS on the site.

Reynolds said that she recently had her home phone disconnected, partly due to the harassing phone calls from BDS members. Though she received other calls as well.

“I was getting calls from little old grandmas saying they didn’t like to take the medication for rheumatoid arthritis and this [the bath salts] is the only thing that works,” Reynolds said.

Maviglio pointed to what happened to the Berkeley Co-op. The story was told in a 1992 book, “What Happened to the Berkeley Co-op.” That organization started out way back in the 1930s. At its height, it had 12 locations, 100,000 members and $84 million in annual sales. But between the 1960s and 1980s, a series of battles over removing products ranging from non-union grapes to Coors beer led to increasing hostility among board members, eventually causing the Co-op to go out of business.

The goal, Maviglio said, is the need to keep the politics out of the Co-op – particularly when it comes to very divisive political issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“The one place where I went to just shop for groceries has become a political dogfight,” he said. “I’d much rather be talking about heirloom tomatoes and preserving farmland than Palestinian politics.”

Coulter said the Berkeley Co-op died because of overexpansion, basically bankrupted by those 12 outlets. The Sacramento Co-op, she said, took on a bunch of debt in opening an Elk Grove location in mid 2005, only to close it in early 2007. Meanwhile, the Co-op in Olympia, Wash., has banned Israeli products without major incidents.

Disclosure: The author has been a member of the Co-op for about four years, but has had no personal involvement in the divestment fight.

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