In this episode of Hometown California, our host, Paul A. Smith, speaks with Rich Gordon, President and CEO of the California Forestry Association (soon-to-be retired). Aside from being at the CA Forestry Association, Mr. Gordon has a long history service in California.
Back to the early days of his political career when he was elected to the San Mateo County Board of Education, what sparked his interest in getting involved with public education and public policy making?
After 13 years on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, find out why Rich still describes it as "the best electoral job in California." And, find out what motivated him to become President of the statewide association, a sister organization of RCRC, the California State Association of Counties (CSAC), and hear about highlights of his leadership years.
Listen to learn how Rich fell in love with rural California, went on to serve in the California State Assembly, and so much more. His fascinating journey, from his first elected position nearly 20 years ago to his current role, will give you a glimpse of how his experiences have impacted Rich Gordon's understanding of California’s rural counties.
Find out more about the California Forestry Association
On the Web: calforests.org
Follow on Twitter: @CalForests
Find on Facebook: @CalForestsCFA
INTRO: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hometown California, a production of the Rural County Representatives of California, advocating for California's rural counties for nearly 50 years. Hometown California tells the rural story through the eyes of those who live, work and play in the rural communities of the Golden State.
PAUL: [00:00:26] This is Hometown California. I'm your host, Paul Smith. Today, I'm joined by Rich Gordon, soon to be the former President and CEO of the California Forestry Association. But of course, Rich has worn many hats over his years of professional and political public policy service. Aside from him being at the California Forestry Association, Rich has done many stints in the role of public service and policy making. So, Rich, we are so glad you could spend a few moments here today and join us for what I know is going to be an interesting and fun conversation.
RICH: [00:00:59] Great Paul. Glad to be here.
PAUL: [00:01:00] Let's go back to the beginning days of your political career. You were elected in 1992 to the San Mateo County Board of Education, somewhat familiar with that in my previous professional role. But, what sparked you to get into both public education, but in general public policy making?
RICH: [00:01:18] Well, at that point in my life, I was the executive director of a nonprofit social service agency, and we had gotten a grant to do HIV education for high risk youth. And one of the places we wanted to do that education was in the Juvenile Hall. And the Juvenile Hall schools are run by the County Board of Education. I went in front of the county board and they denied us. They said we shouldn't be talking about that with young people, saying we should be talking about a deadly disease that could kill them. So a couple of months later, my good friend Floyd Gonella, who was then the County Superintendent of Schools, approached me and said, why don't you run for the school board, take out the woman who voted against you? So with his encouragement, decided, what the heck, nothing to lose. So my work had been with young people and youth, at risk youth. The County Board of Education seemed like a good place. I took on a 13 year incumbent and defeated her.
PAUL: [00:02:16] Wow. Yeah. You always remember those first elections, don't you? Who they were and the dynamics of it.
RICH: [00:02:21] And one of the things I learned though, Paul, was if you're going to run for School Board, there's a very simple message that the opponent can take against an incumbent. And that's they've been in office for X number of years. Are the schools any better?
PAUL: [00:02:35] Yeah.
RICH: [00:02:36] Because everybody thinks the schools can always be better.
PAUL: [00:02:39] Yep, very good. So you did that for several years. And then the opportunity to go on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors presented itself.
RICH: [00:02:47] Ted Lempert had been serving on the County Board of Supervisors and got elected to the State Assembly. And as you well know.
PAUL: [00:02:55] Yes.
RICH: [00:02:55] And I was encouraged by a bunch of folks to run in the special election and decided that at that point in my life, I understood electoral activity because I'd won a couple of elections and knew what it would take to run. And I also thought it was time for me to step up and do more in terms of public policy. You know, I had the work in the youth agency. I had the work on this County Board of Education, but now it seemed time to step up and do more.
PAUL: [00:03:22] Right. So you were on that board 13 years, if I'm correct?
RICH: [00:03:25] 13 years. And here at RCRC and Hometown California, that's what we do. We are an organization made up of members of County Board of Supervisors from throughout the state with the rural bent. So looking back on those 13 years, what did you find rewarding about being on the County Board of Supervisors? What were some of your accomplishments? What were some of your frustrations?
RICH: [00:03:45] Well, first, I would tell you that I think being on a County Board of Supervisors is the best electoral job in California. I loved being on the County Board of Supervisors, and if it hadn't been for term limits in my county, I might still be there if the voters would have let me. But what I liked about being on the Board of Supervisors, one, you're at home, you're with your constituents all the time. You can work on issues. You only need to get two other votes to make something happen. And I was able to accomplish some things that I still remain very proud of. There was a coastal bluff in Half Moon Bay, part of my district, and it was zoned to build 49 homes. And I knew that as a developer was starting to put his plans together, that this is going to be a decades long controversy. There would be lawsuits, there'd be conflict. And so I approached the developer and said, what would it take to buy this land from you? And he gave me a figure of six million dollars at the time. I went to the Trust for Public Land and said, can you guys come up with three million? And then I went to my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors said, I only need three million more and we're going to spend a heck of a lot more than that in the lawsuits that will generate. My colleagues agreed. And for the first time in 20 years, a brand new county park was created. It's now part of the coastal trail and permanently saved as open space along the coast. And that's something I'm really proud of doing.
PAUL: [00:05:09] Yeah, and maybe some of your frustrations or things that just didn't quite pan out?
RICH: [00:05:14] Well, I think the frustrations tended to be more in the area of some of the arenas of criminal justice activity. Having an elected county sheriff is both a blessing and a curse. And so trying to deal with that individual to make sure that what I thought were appropriate approaches to our policing and to our enforcement activity and to our jail, and I would say more often than not, we were able to resolve something, but it was an area that sometimes took a little bit of a challenge. And I think the other thing, too, Paul, would be that when you are on a small board, five people, personalities play a huge role. And some of the bigger challenges, candidly, we're dealing with the personalities, my colleagues.
PAUL: [00:05:59] Yeah, we hear that a lot, and probably a very transitionary time with respect to how we approach politics in our society going on at that time as well. For those listeners that don't know where San Mateo County is, it's a beautiful county just south of San Francisco. It's nestled between Santa Clara County and San Francisco. Like you said, it's got a stunning coastline both on the Pacific side as well as a coastline on the Bay side. It's a beautiful area of the state. So not only did you serve on the County Board of Supervisors in that role as Supervisor, but you decided also to participate in the statewide association, are one of our sister organizations, the California State Association of Counties. And you rose to be president of that organization. What motivated you to do that?
RICH: [00:06:45] Well, first of all, I decided that I wanted to be our county's representative to CSAC because I felt that so much of what we do in county government is directed and impacted by decisions made in the state capital. Whether we have enough money to run our welfare programs, whether we have enough money for various activities, including perhaps our juvenile justice system, child support, child care, a lot of that depends on what happens in that building here in Sacramento. And so I wanted to be engaged, wanted to be involved. And so I was able to become our county's representative to CSAC. And then I've always been one who kind of was willing to rise up into leadership, take leadership positions, leadership roles. And so I sought the option to move up the ladder at CSAC and did end up being president of the organization. It was a great experience being able to work with supervisors from across the state. CSAC includes all 58 counties, including the counties that are part of RCRC.
PAUL: [00:07:44] Right. It is a great organization and we work closely with them to make sure all counties, not just rural counties, can deliver the services and meet the mandates that the state asks of us, as well as to respond to voters and constituents in their respective counties. Any notable accomplishments there when you're an officer in CSAC? You kind of get four years. Anything of highlight in those leadership years?
RICH: [00:08:07] I was President at a time when the state government was facing a fiscal crisis and Governor Schwarzenegger had proposed reducing the amount of property tax being sent back to counties from the state. And it would have had a very negative impact not only on counties, but also cities. And so we formed a coalition with the League of Cities. And I remember a meeting at the Sheraton Hotel here in Sacramento and we're talking about the state. And somebody stood up and said, let's go get pitchforks and go after them right now. And I thought, well, wait a minute, we need cooler heads need to prevail here. We need to negotiate this. And we were able to actually have an impact and influence. The local government committees in the legislature supported us. And it was very difficult then for the governor to move forward with the plan. We didn't get everything, but we certainly saved county government in so many ways during that period of time. That was an amazing experience, both in terms of the extent of the interest, excitement and fervor that existed among the county governments, but also the ability to form the partnership with the League of Cities and work with them on this issue.
PAUL: [00:09:18] Those were interesting times. So, as noted, San Mateo County is not a member of RCRC. It's about seven hundred fifty eight hundred thousand people. I think currently today. At CSAC, where you first got to become more familiar with rural counties, or had you already known about the state's rural counties before becoming either a supervisor or getting involved in CSAC?
RICH: [00:09:39] I decided when I became Chair of the Board at CSAC that I needed to know something about all of the counties. So I made a commitment to myself that I was going to visit as many counties as I could during my year as President of the Board. And I made 60 percent of the counties. The ones I chose were the ones I knew the least about. So they were the rural counties. I would go and spend half a day meet with members of the Board of Supervisors, meet with county staff. I would always ask them to show me something they were very proud of and something that was a challenge to them. And out of that process, I developed an incredible respect for the diversity of our state, for the challenges that are both common and different in the various regions and in the various counties, and I I actually fell in love with rural California. And I think what it did for me was to expose a guy who had lived his entire life in places where there's only sidewalks to a world that is different than the one that I had grown up in and lived in and helped me understand the great complexity of California. It was just a great experience and a great opportunity to develop relationships with so many folks in the rural counties.
PAUL: [00:10:58] Is there any one county that has stood out in your mind all these years later? Did you make it to Modoc, by any chance, or Lassen, or those really, really remote counties?
RICH: [00:11:07] I didn't make Siskiyou or Lassen. I do remember the great conversation in Calaveras County about a really interesting dynamic at that time, that there were a lot of folks from the San Francisco Bay Area who were moving into the Sierra foothills. And we talked a little bit about the dynamic of that change, newcomers coming in their retirement years to a rural community and the challenge of delivering health care, because many of these folks, as they aged, had health care needs that couldn't be met by the traditional efforts of the rural county. And so trying to figure out what would happen and the fact that many of those folks and ended up moving back to the Bay Area because they had severe health problems that couldn't be met and the impact that then had on a small rural county, it was just a fascinating concept that migration of folks from urban areas to places they're not used to and may not understand isn't always the best thing.
PAUL: [00:12:07] That's very well put, very astute. So following your career, you decided in 2010 to run for the State Assembly. I think you hinted that maybe term limits were at play back home on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. But I'll ask you, why did you make the jump from what is a very comfortable, enjoyable public policy making job to get into the rough and tumble of California politics in the State Assembly?
RICH: [00:12:31] Well, as you said, I was at a point where term limits were coming up and I was going to be leaving office and I had a number of folks, particularly folks in CSAC, who approached me and said, "you know, you ought to run for the Assembly seats opening up. Timing is right." They caused me to think about it because, as I said, part of my work at CSAC and as a county supervisor was in opposition to the state government in kind of railing against the state for not doing what we needed them to do to help us make counties work better. So my initial thought was, "why would I want to go to a place like that?" And what happened for me was that I candidly looked around, I saw who else was running, and I said, I don't want any of those people representing me. And so I decided to run. It was a spur of the moment kind of thing in that I made a decision fairly quickly, kind of in a sense of I have nothing to lose if I don't win this seat. I have other things to go do in life. And I ran I won the primary and then moved on and was easily a victor in the general election.
PAUL: [00:13:35] Right. And just to be clear for our listeners, that is a pretty heavily democratic area of the state. You ran as a Democrat, you won as a Democrat, obviously, but you had to go through the notion of the significant partisanship dynamic where on the County Board of Supervisors, people may be conservative, may be liberal, but they're not identified as Republican and Democrat.
RICH: [00:13:55] I think that was the biggest change in my life. I had not been very active in the Democratic Party. I had a D behind my name and I probably voted along policy lines that would be congruent with the Democratic Party. But I wasn't a member of the Central Committee. I hadn't been involved in some of those local county political issues. So I was not that familiar, candidly, with the partisanship that exists. When you move away from a local government setting into a setting where you're elected because of party and with party affiliation being very prominent. So initially developing relationships with the key leaders in the local Democratic Party, understanding how the party would function, what role they could play was something that I had to learn about, something I had to engage in. So that, probably, Paul, was the biggest shift. And the biggest challenge was understanding that in the Assembly, where I served for those six years, when the Democrats caucus, it's to align votes and to vote outside of that alignment is possible, but could be risky in terms of career, in terms of placement in the legislature. And so one of the things that I did was to make sure that whenever I felt I needed to step outside of the partisanship, I had conversations with leadership. People knew what I was doing and that there were no surprises.
PAUL: [00:15:23] Yeah. Now, you also hinted that there were some relationships you already had with some folks in the legislature via CSAC, I assume a lot of that paid dividends. Talk about the importance of those relationships, both Republicans and Democrats, because of your work on the county board of Supervisors and in the statewide association like CSAC.
RICH: [00:15:43] Well, one of the things that being involved in CSAC did for me was it did give me a set of folks who were in the legislature. You mentioned Connie Conway for one. She was there when I arrived and it gave me a set of people that I knew that I could deal with. Roger Dickenson from Sacramento County was elected to the State Assembly the same time I was here and I had worked together in the Executive Committee at CSAC. So I had folks that I knew immediately. And I also, because of the traveling I'd done as President of CISAC, I had relationships that existed in counties with people that weren't in the legislature, but that I could better understand some of what they needed. But at the end of the day, I think there's really nothing more important than relationships, and it really is about how we get along with each other and work with each other, particularly in the State Assembly. I developed a friendship with Chad Mays, who was the Republican leader at the time, and Chad is now an Independent in the Legislature, the only one in many, many years. And when Chad was Republican leader, I had a bill that I was presenting on the floor and it had been tagged by the Republican Party for death star status, like kill this bill, whatever you do. And in the State Assembly, you don't necessarily have to be at your desk when the vote occurs. The vote occurred and I looked up and only one Republican had voted for my bill and it was Chad Mayes. And I went to I said, Chad, what did you just do? I said, you're the Republican leader and this is a Deathstar bill for you guys. He said, you know, I have to tell you, I was just in the back of the chamber. I looked up, I saw it was you and your bill. I said, well, then it's going to be fine. I said, well, maybe you should go change your vote. He said, no. He said, it's your bill. I trust you. So relationships really make a difference in, you know, how our politics work and are very, very important.
PAUL: [00:17:43] Yeah, absolutely. Couldn't agree with you more. So talking about, again, that jump between those two. County Board of Supervisors and the State Assembly. Obviously the policy work and the scope of that work is greater. You're touching a lot of public policy areas. How was that transition for you? And when you got to Sacramento as a member of the Assembly, what was your primary policy focus?
RICH: [00:18:06] Well, when I got to the State Assembly, there were a lot of things I was interested in. One of them that I spent a fair amount of time working on was the issue of sea level rise. As you noted earlier, I come from San Mateo County that has two coastal sites. And so sea level rise is a problem both on the Pacific Ocean, but even more so on our bay side, where another foot of sea level rise would inundate the San Francisco International Airport. So I got very engaged in working on sea level rise, carried some legislation in that regard and actually set up the first state policy relative to assuring that sea level rise is taking into account when planning occurs. I also got involved in recycling issues and involved in local government issues and served on the local government committee. As you said, you know, one of the things about the State Assembly is the range of issues is so large that it's very difficult. You can't do it all. You just don't. You have to focus on a few areas, take a few pieces of interest, work on those, and then rely on your staff and your colleagues to understand some of the other bills you're going to vote on. So I had the opportunity to, as I said, serve in the local government committee. That was a very positive place for me to be based on my county government experience.
PAUL: [00:19:29] So what were some of the things that you felt that were your biggest accomplishment in those six years? I think you alluded to a bill dealing with sea level rise. Anything else comes to mind, or were you one of those lawmakers that really wanted to make it work? You were obviously chair of the Rules Committee, which is a very administrative committee in the Assembly where you focused just making politics work and making the House function by building those relationships and and just being aware and sensitive to what other perspectives are up and down the state.
RICH: [00:20:00] I think what I tried to do was to make sure that I worked on bills and on initiatives that would have some impact, that would have some meaning. About 70 percent of the bills that I carried during my tenure get signed into law, a pretty high percentage. But part of that was because I selected what I was going to work on. I worked with my staff to develop a good solid. Approach to our legislation and we were able to, I think, achieve some really positive things. I did some work around recycled water and the opportunity for more people to be exposed to the purity of recycled water, which as we again look at a potential drought in California and knowing that we're in a climate where we're going to have drought, having an alternative for water is a very positive thing. I also carried some legislation to improve practices at the Fair Political Practices Commission and worked on that. And as you said, I think a lot of my efforts were in the area of trying to make government work better, certainly as chair of the Rules Committee, working on the internal policy of how things moved through the House and how things were considered was a large part of that role. So I think I was oftentimes more concerned and interested in the process than in the policy.
PAUL: [00:21:25] So term limits comes to haunt you again, because in California you have a six year-- or in those days you only had six years- three terms. So it's 2016 and turbulence is going to force you out. And to some surprise, you become President and the Executive Officer of the California Forestry Association talk to us about that.
RICH: [00:21:46] So I need to back up and share one story, which is a kind of a prelude to my accepting this position that I'm in now. And soon retiring from this goes back to a piece of legislation that Brian and I carried you referenced earlier. Brian is someone that I had worked with when I was in county government and certainly welcomed him when he came to the State Assembly and was pleased to be able to call him my friend, even to today. In 2018, we'd had a-- 2016----major fire. Brian came to me at the end of session and said, I've got an idea for a fire prevention, forest thinning piece of legislation, but there's only a month left. And I'm a Republican, so all my bills have been killed, but I looked around and it looks to me like you have a bill that would fit within the natural resources code that maybe you're not going to use. I said, I don't plan to use that bill, and he said, well, can I have it? As well, first of all, tell me what you want to do. So he sat down, explained it to me, and I looked at him and I said, you know, Brian, we're connected, what happens in the Sierra Nevada, particularly around forests and fire fire prevention, are critical in terms of the watersheds and the water that comes to my community. And the Rim Fire in Yosemite threatened our water supply. I said, so you want to do forest thinning? That's important to me. I said, so I'm not going to give you the bill. He said, if it's important to you, why aren't you going to give me the bill? I said, Because we're going to do it together. We're going to make it a joint bill, and at the end of session, we moved a piece of legislation in a week that only got one negative vote in the entire process. And so that was my only venture into forestry legislation in my entire six years in the State Assembly. And yet the folks in the industry saw that and saw the bipartisanship that had occurred, and they approached me and said, would you come talk to us about being our CEO? I was thinking about retiring at that point fully and officially, but also felt if there was the right thing came along and there was an opportunity to do something, I jump at it. And so I came to Sacramento and met with the folks from the timber industry. And I said, you know, I'm a member of the Sierra Club and you guys cut trees. They said, we know. I also told him, I said, you do good environmental work, but nobody knows about it. You don't talk about it. You fought the timber wars, the environmental community. California won that battle. You've got to embrace the environmental community and environmental values of California. You do that with your work, but you don't tell anybody. I went home and told my husband what I had said at the interview and his comment was, well, you're not getting that job. And I said, well, you know, good, I can retire. Then they called me back and said, "come change us." And that was an offer. I thought I couldn't refuse the opportunity to work with an industry to help it demonstrate to the Administration, to the Legislature, to the general public that it is an industry that does good environmental work and very importantly, creates good rural jobs and helps rural economies that need it desperately.
PAUL: [00:25:17] Yeah, well, we are so glad that those wise timber industry leaders chose you because the last four years there has been a partnership with industry and county government, rural county government, particularly those members of RCRC that have a lot of forested lands and good forest management is top of the the policy agendas in those counties. So we're so glad that you took that. What's that four years been like? Have you been able to kind of fulfill those promises of making folks aware that the California Forestry Association is a responsible steward of the land and does timber harvesting in an appropriate manner?
RICH: [00:25:52] I think so. I think we've made great progress. Part of the dynamic that we face in California is that our fires in the last several years have also caused Californians have to ask what's going on in the forest. That's been a great opportunity for us to be able to tell the story of overgrown force that had not been managed, that needed thinning, and that that work will create a healthier forest that will sequester more carbon. And so it's been a great opportunity in the last four years to help spread that message.
PAUL: [00:26:26] So in the minutes that we have left here, Rich, where do you go from here? You indicated that you were going to be departing the California Forestry Association probably by the summertime, as we discussed here, what's next? And you're, kind of, lasting thoughts about being involved in public policy for nearly 30 years. What are you most fond of? And how will you remember all these interesting endeavors
RICH: [00:26:48] I mentioned earlier about relationships and something I said in my last floor speech on the State Assembly I think holds true even today. And that was I referenced an interview that I had seen on ESPN, the sports channel, and they were interviewing a former pro athlete. He'd been out of the game for five years and they said, what do you miss? And the pro athlete said, well, I don't miss the game. But I miss the locker room. The people I played with, and that's what I'll remember. What I'll remember the most are the people that I worked with, the opportunities I had to to get to know people up and down the state, to truly understand the the great diversity. I think it helped me to build a respect for the people who are in elected office in our various counties and in the state legislature. And so what I'll remember the most is not some policy that passed or some piece of legislation. That will fade. But what I will remember is the great people that I had the opportunity to work with, who became friends and who became, for me, symbols of what makes California such a magnificent place.
PAUL: [00:28:10] Those are really important words. And in this time of very polarized politics, it's nice to see that there are folks in public policymaking who step back and want to make sure that those relationships and dear and that see the wisdom in developing them so that we can move a public policy agenda forward and do it in a responsible manner. Well, you've been a great friend to RCRC through all these years. You're obviously very well respected among members of our Board and you have been for many, many years. And that said,there are many times that the Association has not always agreed, but the differences have always been minimal and the respect has always been high. So we are really, really glad you could spend a few moments with us to talk about some amazing work over the last 30 years in the world of public policy, both at home and here in Sacramento. And I know it's a little bit premature, but I know I think even all of our listeners I know members of the board of RCRC wish you Godspeed and have developed a deep appreciation for the work you've done.
RICH: [00:29:09] Well, thank you very much. It's been my pleasure.
PAUL: [00:29:12] You've been listening to Hometown California production of the Rural County Representatives of California. Subscribe now so you don't miss an episode, and be sure to rate and review this podcast. I'm your host, Paul Smith, and thanks for listening.