I love coming to California’s northwest coast for its seemingly pristine setting and in order to get away from it all, but it’s a nice bonus that I feel in sync with the region’s cultural life and politics.
Most mornings you’ll find me hanging out at the Beachcomber Café in Trinidad, a few miles away from our cabin in Big Lagoon. Here I catch up on my email, succumb to fresh pastries, and start to slow down. The environmentally conscious owners frown upon ordering to go and make you feel guilty if you use more than one paper napkin. But they know what you like to drink even if you’ve not been around for a while. “Here’s Tony from Berkeley, medium coffee with foam.”
Trinidad was once a center of the Yurok universe, then an entry point for gold rush speculators, later a whaling port. Now it’s mostly a stop for tourists heading north or for folks looking for a second or retirement home. But it’s also a place for locals to shop, drop off their kids at school, and hang out at the Beachcomber.
In 2004, voters here delivered Kerry by 188 to 69 votes, a landslide. In the February 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton won handily by almost ten points throughout the state, but her fortunes were reversed in Humboldt county, where Barack Obama trounced her by15 points (53 to 38 percent). Obama did even better in Trinidad, winning by a whopping 27 points (59 to 32 percent).
On Saturdays you’ll usually find me at the weekly market in the Arcata plaza, buying the sweetest of tomatoes in the summer and organic squashes and chestnuts in the fall. I’ll get a sandwich at Brio’s and, on a sunny day, hang out in the plaza, watching the hula-hoopers, jugglers, and tie-dyed hopheads swaying trance-like to Grateful Dead wannabes. The People’s Republic of Arcata is a bastion of progressive activism, a 60’s town for the 21st century. In 2004, Bush-the-Clear-Cutter received only 16 percent of the presidential vote. In 2008, Clinton was no match for Obama, losing by two to one (31 to 62 percent) in the primary.
If gambling is your thing – it’s not mine – you can drive inland a few miles to the booming Indian casino in Blue Lake, which lacks a lake of any color. Here in 2004, Kerry drubbed The Decider almost two-to-one. In 2008, Obama cruised to a 22-point victory.
Or if you’re interested in Victoriana, there’s a day outing to cutesy Ferndale – where 56 percent of voters supported tax breaks for the oligarchy in 2004. Even here, Obama had no trouble out-polling Clinton 54 to 37 percent.
A few miles north of Ferndale and south of Arcata is Humboldt’s largest city, Eureka, once made prosperous by the lumber industry. During the 1950s, about one of every two working people in the county were involved in lumber production, and families were better off than most folks in the country. As the job market expanded with the housing boom, the local population doubled. But by the 1960s, as lumber-based jobs declined, Eureka began its steep descent to hard times. And by the 1990s, more people were leaving than moving to Humboldt.
In recent years, prior to the mortgage crisis, there were some signs of economic revival in Eureka. There’s an expanding, charmless mall at the city’s southern funky edge, and the old downtown has been reborn as a lively, mixed-use destination. I like to browse its bookstores, get lunch at multicultural Los Bagels, and look for quirky bargains at the original Restoration Hardware. But Eureka is still a hardscrabble place, with one out of five people living below the poverty line. And like the rest of the county, it’s overwhelmingly white.
Yet – bucking expectations of poor, white, semi-rural counties – Humboldt tends to vote Democratic in decisive numbers. You have to go back to Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1984 to find a plurality for Republicans (52 to 47 percent). Since Reagan’s victory, Democrats have won all five presidential races in Humboldt.
You would think that Eureka embodies the perfect demographics for Hillary Clinton. That’s why her campaign orchestrated a rock-star appearance by Bill Clinton in Eureka a few weeks before the 2008 primary, hoping to mobilize his wife’s supposedly bread-and-butter base of working class, salt-of-the-earth white folks. But, surprisingly, she still lost by four points (43 to 47 percent) to Obama in Eureka.
Big Lagoon’s peace and quiet may lure me to the northwest, but I also like Humboldt’s receptivity to quirky and noisy politics, and that it challenges the expectations of pollsters who like to divide up the country into neatly separated red and blue regions. Here on northern California’s coast, the country’s political polarization seems more blurred than clear-cut, the mainstream edging closer to the fringe.