How the Alt-Right Put Heidi Harmon in the Mayor’s Seat and Other Mysteries

Marilyn Rossa
Marilyn Rossa

No one needs to tell you how the world has changed in the three months since November 8. The election cycle itself was beyond surreal. It often shifted to unreal. Small towns and cities became microcosms for the twisted alliances made at the national level. Populists aligned with Greens and with conservatives alike. Moderates in both major parties aligned with each other against the extremists of their own parties.

And, then we have a new phenomenon. The “new progressives” shunned the Democrats and often aligned with Republicans. They were angry (and still are) that Bernie lost the primary. The DNC be damned! Liberals be damned! We saw that phenomenon here in SLO.

The SLO far-right Republicans voted for Heidi Harmon instead of Jan Marx. They wanted the Democrat out of office at any cost. “Drain the swamp”—the empty battle cry of Trump—is repeating itself in politics everywhere. But, seeing that microcosm of SLO in correlation to the rest of the country is fairly stunning. The voters fell blindly in lock step with Trump. And, with Harmon. Based on what, I ask?

THEN

Heidi Harmon would not have squeaked by in her bid for SLO mayor had it not been for the far-right of our county. Conservatives had to vote for someone, so Harmon got the new progressive vote and the Republican vote. Marx’s base was hardcore Democrats. So, you have these progressives and the far right voting for the same candidate. It is not only bizarre. It is very, very dangerous.

Integrity SLO, an online blog run by ultra-conservative Kevin Rice, advertised for Harmon online and on local conservative radio. He ran ads in which he urged voters to vote for Harmon and for hard-line Republican, Dan Carpenter, who unsuccessfully ran for District 3 Supervisor. Rice also sent Harmon a hefty campaign donation. After Harmon accepted the donation, many local progressives told her she needed to return it, that she shouldn’t be accepting money from those so antithetical to progressive values. Harmon said she would return it, and she may have; according to Rice’s postings, however, she never did. According to bank records, the donation was returned.

Heidi Harmon and Kevin Rice
Heidi Harmon (left) and Kevin Rice

Why was it that the right wanted Jan Marx out of office? After all, there were two “liberals” running. It was because she was a true progressive with a quite remarkable list of Democratic accomplishments, including those pertaining to the environment, land use, and the homeless. After all, why would Rice and his ilk be afraid of a candidate who ran on allowing hiking after dark and making tiny houses the first priority, as Harmon did. Not particularly frightening to the conservative right. They voted for Harmon, it seems, because they saw her as ineffective and a bit, well, too warm and fuzzy to get things done.

Harmon’s big ticket, though, was her opposition to the Rental Housing Inspection Program (RHIP). Rice and Carpenter were opposed to it as well; in fact, both Carpenter and Harmon, made it the mainstay of their campaigns. Marx had said that the Council was going to revisit RHIP in March 2017. Harmon’s supporters called foul. The new City Council has put the RHIP on the agenda—for March. Difference? No.

NOW

Have you noticed that Harmon’s words changed after being elected? She won because she was opposed to the RHIP and said she would repeal it. Voters voted for her primarily because of that position. But, since then, have you noticed she stopped saying “repeal,” but rather something along the lines of “review” and “reform”—quite a big leap from her campaign promise. Now, she is saying “repeal and “replace.” Flip flop much? Again, sorry to say, she sounds like Trump. Many of the empty promises on the campaign trail that he made regarding “repeal” have softened into “revise.” It’s happening in SLO now as well. A politician is a politician, I guess—progressive or not.

However, at the community meeting held on February 16 to discuss the issue, the Council voted to immediately suspend the RHIP and to work to repeal it. She changed once again. The Council also suggested some exceedingly weak non-replacements for the RHIP, such as informational mailers, a checklist that landlords and tenants “could” mutually agree to and sign (unenforceable), and a policy to prevent retaliation against tenants for filing a complaint against the landlord.

These are no replacements at all for the RHIP. California already has a statute prohibiting landlords from retaliating against tenants for making complaints for repairs. Didn’t the Council know this? It clearly should have. The inspection program surely could have certainly used some tweaking, but to repeal it, if the Council acts to actually do so, fails entirely to address problems that caused the implementation of the RHIP in the first place. And, as a side, but important, note, rental inspection programs have been implemented and supported by progressive lawmakers in various cities in California. Generally, conservatives are the ones to oppose it.

As an example: I own a large house that I rent. Several years ago, I rented it to 4 people, students at Cuesta and Cal Poly. Being a college instructor, I like working with students on all levels so I have always been happy to rent to students. However, those 4 students turned into 11—Eleven people that were living in the house and the unfinished garage! As we know, landlords cannot enter an inhabited dwelling unless for repairs or an emergency. So, my situation lasted for over a year until circumstances caused me to enter.

The above situation cost me $13,000 in repairs. This was bad enough, of course, but if the student living in an unpermitted garage was injured in that garage, I, as landlord, would have been liable. In the Council’s let’s-throw-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater approach, what protection is there for me and for other landlords? None. I’m pleased that Carlyn Christianson expressed her strong reservations against a full repeal.

We don’t know what the Council’s final decision will be, but if last week’s meeting was any indication, once again we have nothing but nice-sounding words and no results. By all indications, Harmon got the student vote in the last election. Her campaign appeal was often made directly to students. What about the rest of SLO citizens? This governing by the seat of the pants because it sounds good is no way to govern.

An unimpeachable source has stated that Harmon has shown that she knows nothing about the running of the City Council. It will be up to the new Council to educate her. There’s something very wrong with this picture. Why wouldn’t she run for Council first to learn the ropes before diving head first into the mayoral seat and requiring that everyone else help her out?

Harmon appears to be a decent activist in promoting Bernie’s ideals. She was able to rally the rank and file to support Bernie. That role seems much better suited to her than taking on the Mayor’s role.

Why wouldn’t Harmon run for Council first? Because she felt entitled to be Mayor. She figured as a Berner she had the right to the seat. The disregard for the value of hard work and time to achieve one’s goals seems unimportant. Experience and education don’t seem to matter; neither does history. What in the world did Harmon think qualified her for the job? Many have said it was a vanity campaign more than anything else.

I heard her in an interview during the campaign, in which a very conservative resident asked her why we don’t have fast food drive-throughs in SLO. She didn’t have a clue but thought it was a good idea to look into. Whaaatt? She didn’t know that drive-throughs were prohibited many years ago in SLO because the Council, rightfully so, believed that keeping the car idling was bad for the environment. Quite forward thinking, I would say. She appears to have no sense of SLO history, no experience in government or on city committees, and no education that would help her here. But, she thought she would do a good job.

In her desire to become mayor, Harmon showed her disloyalty to a political friend, namely Jan Marx. Again, on first-hand authority, when Harmon ran unsuccessfully for Assembly against Katcho, she asked for Marx’s support. Marx went out on a limb to support Harmon publicly. This support actually caused Marx political fallout in local Democratic circles. But, Marx stood by her.

Harmon couldn’t have waited two more years to run for Mayor, when Marx would have been out of office anyway? No. She wanted it and wanted it now.

This lack of loyalty to those that came before her, to those that helped her, is disturbing. Personal success at any cost took precedence. And, Marx was exceedingly gracious in defeat.

It is still early in Harmon’s tenure as mayor. It’s too early to tell whether she can become a political leader and make hard, often unpopular, choices. Being a leader is not a popularity contest. Maybe she’ll learn that, maybe not. But I will say this: when a candidate has equal support from Cal Coast News AND its loony commenters as well as from, the new SLO progressives, as Harmon did, a resident has the right to be worried.

Author: Marilyn Rossa

Marilyn Rossa has been an English professor for more than 25 years and long-time faculty union president and contract negotiator. She recently passed the California Bar and practices employment law. Marilyn lives in Arroyo Grande.

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