Political Complexities and Contradictions in California’s Mendocino County
A GeoCurrents post last week highlighted the left-wing orientation of Anderson Valley in California’s Mendocino County, while noting that not all residents lean to the left. The same observation holds for Mendocino County as a whole. Recent election returns show roughly one-third of Mendocino voters selecting Republican candidates, including John McCain in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. As the election map posted here shows—in Dave Leip’s reverse color scheme*—Barack Obama’s 69 percent of the local vote was lower than what he received in counties to the south. Marin County gave 78 percent of its votes to Obama, and San Francisco 84 percent.
But as recent posts in the GeoNotes section of this blog have emphasized, maps that depict only most important patterns can miss significant secondary configurations. Unnoted in the first map is the fact that the county’s Democratic-voting block skews farther leftward than those elsewhere in the state. This tendency can be seen in the returns of the 2000 presidential election, although again it is not evident in the map. The second image posted here makes it seem as if Democratic candidate Al Gore barely won the county. Hidden are the votes gathered by far-left challenger Ralph Nader—which I have therefore added for Mendocino and several nearby counties. As can be seen, Nader’s fifteen percent take in Mendocino was double what he gathered in Marin and San Francisco, and five-times what he received in the Silicon Valley counties of Santa Clara and San Mateo.
The strongly left-leaning orientation of the Mendocino electorate has been evident in other recent elections. The county was the first in the United States to ban genetically modified crops, which it did by a popular vote of 57 percent in 2004. Subsequently, three other California counties, Marin, Santa Cruz, and Trinity, followed suit. But in both Sonoma County to the south of Mendocino and Humboldt County to the north, similar ballot measures failed. Note also that a number of counties in California’s Central Valley have passed resolutions expressly endorsing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
But as is often the case, local political coloration turns out to be more complex the more carefully it is examined. Mendocino’s anti-GMO resolution received strong backing from the wine industry, which wanted to maintain its environmentally responsible reputation, especially in export markets. Environmental proposals that would harm or inconvenience local vintners often have a different outcome. On one issue in particular, Mendocino County maintains a starkly anti-environmental stance: it is the only county in the state without a grading ordinance. In Mendocino, landowners can do almost anything they want with bulldozers, leveling their properties as they see fit. Grading has long been a hot topic, as environmentalists, concerned about erosion and endangered salmon-runs, push for regulation, while wine producers, ranchers, and others tend to lobby against it.
The lack of a grading ordinance shows that Mendocino’s leftist proclivities bend in a libertarian direction. Not surprisingly, marijuana-growers tend to advocate a “government hands-off” approach to issues that affect their own operations. But there has also been a broader libertarian left-right convergence on several local issues. Outsiders are often astounded at how rural property owners in Mendocino flout building-permit requirement. The county government largely ignores such violations in rural areas. To compensate for the resulting revenue loss, it has come to assess property taxes by aerial surveys, which reveal unregistered recent construction.
Beyond grading issues, Mendocino County’s environmental record leaves much to be desired. Both wine and marijuana have a sizable water demand, and although total precipitation is heavy, summers are bone-dry. As a result of expanding cultivation, the summer flow of the Navarro River and other local streams is diminishing. The biggest environmental failing, however, is the electricity consumption of the marijuana industry. Although most growing in the county occurs outdoors, indoor cultivation is increasingly common, as prices are higher, seclusion is easier, and harvests occur year-round. The carbon-footprint of the practice, however, is extraordinarily large, as the necessary high-intensity lighting, ventilation, and de-humidification all have a major power draw. According to the New York Times, for California as a whole, “indoor [cannabis] cultivation is responsible for a whopping 8 percent of household electricity usage, costing about $3 billion yearly and producing the annual carbon emission of a million average cars.”
*The colors are reversed because Leip began his superb atlas before the New York Times published its famous “Red America/Blue America” map in which Republican-voting states and counties are depicted in red, and Democratic-voting ones in blue.