Incumbents Chris Howard and Gerry Hemmingsen were the only candidates for Del Norte County supervisor to show up at a forum hosted by local youth on Saturday.

Hosted by the Local Youth Organizing Network and Gender Talk, the candidates forum was the culmination of a day-long summit that focused on getting young people civically engaged, said organizer Rachel Patterson.

Organizers of the Del Norte Social Justice Youth Summit spent about four to five months planning the event, Patterson said. The youth, ages 17-21, had spent some time brainstorming the questions they wanted to ask, focusing on the California Values Act, or SB 54, as well as how the candidates were planning on representing everyone in the community, including people of color, indigenous communities, women, the LGBTQ community, the disabled community and youth ages 21 and under, according to Patterson.

“We initially reached out to the candidates by email about a month before,” she said. “Chris Howard was the only one who responded to the email. About a week after that I personally made phone calls to all of them and then got commitment from Hemmingsen, Ron Phillips and David Mason. Jake Smith and Roger Daley didn’t respond to any of that. They didn’t call me back after voicemails and they didn’t get back to us by email.”

Nearly all of the participants in the youth summit are registered to vote and some live in the two districts whose seats are up for election, Patterson said. One of the activities were for the youth to identify the county supervisor district they lived in, she said.

Smith is challenging Howard for the District 3 supervisor seat. Phillips, Mason and Daley are hoping to unseat Hemmingsen to represent Del Norte County’s District 4.

When taking up the youths’ first question — naming two specific actions they will take to address and amplify the voices of the marginalized communities they may be elected to represent — both Hemmingsen and Howard said all voices should be heard and it’s up to elected officials to make sure everyone is treated equally.

“The job of a county board of supervisors is to be inclusive of everybody,” Howard said. “And the Board strives, often fails, but they do strive to be the voice for everybody. But we do fall down sometimes as you’ve seen recently at the board of supervisors meeting around SB 54. It’s been a wedge issue for us. It’s been extremely polarizing and more importantly it’s been used as a campaign issue to drive separation between a community that is extremely small where you have to see everybody when you go to the grocery store. It’s not fair in politics to do so, but then again politics isn’t fair.”

Howard spoke about the work the county has done with with local Native American tribes as an example of the work he and his colleagues do to represent indigenous communities. He noted that county supervisors meet with representatives of each local federally-recognized tribe, including the Resighini Rancheria, Elk Valley Rancheria, the Yurok Tribe and the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation at least every other month.

This, Howard said, gives the tribes a voice in community government as well as gives them an opportunity to let supervisors know what their goals are.

“Our door’s always open and we try to welcome them in,” he said.

In order to address the question of representing marginalized communities, Hemmingsen said he wanted to elaborate on the things he does as a business owner.

“There’s a lot of things I believe in that I do in practice and for my businesses,” he said, adding that when he hires employees he doesn’t discriminate by race, gender or religion. “I believe in equal pay for equal work. I try my very best to keep that equity going. I have people of both genders working for me and pay is pretty consistent, so I feel like I do that pretty well.”

Hemmingsen said that since his father lost one leg and his brother lost both his legs, he knows what it’s like for a physically disabled person to try to get around. He called for having services available for those suffering with mental illness.

Hemmingsen also brought up the needs of Del Norte’s youth, saying he’s a proponent of early childhood education. He noted he and his colleagues endorsed the 3Read23 initiative, which seeks to have every third-grader reading at grade level by 2023.

Hemmingsen said he is also a believer in vocational education. He noted that not every student wants to go to college and said there should be more avenues for them to reach their goals.

Hemmingsen then echoed Howard and stated that all voices should be heard in government.

“All Americans should have the same rights regardless of what they believe and what they look like,” he said.

Another question brought up Measure A, which seeks to establish term limits for newly-elected supervisors, but would exempt current supervisors.

Howard said the measure was put forward by Supervisors Bob Berkowitz and Roger Gitlin and was authorized for inclusion on the ballot by a 3-2 vote, with District 2 Supervisor Lori Cowan joining Berkowitz and Gitlin in supporting it. Howard noted that Gitlin, Berkowitz and Cowan called for term limits on the board of supervisors when they campaigned for office in 2016.

Howard said he voted against placing Measure A on the ballot, saying it’s difficult to find someone willing to run for public office. There has been bullying, he said, not just in schools, but in the outside community, which can turn people off to serving their community politically.

“Once you come to the office you serve everybody, you don’t just serve yourself,” Howard said. “It takes a long time to develop relationships, not only with our local community, with the representatives around us in other counties, our legislative representatives at the state and our congressional representatives. Those relationships don’t come easy, they don’t take a short period of time to develop and once you develop that relationship it takes a long time to cultivate.”

Once a person leaves office, those relationships disappear, Howard said, and the newcomer has to start over from scratch.

“The relationship is what’s going to make the connection between you and your issue for this community,” Howard said. “They’re going to remember that handshake, they’re going to remember that smile, they’re going to remember that issue that you’re passionate about when it comes to taking a decision that’s going to affect you at a state or federal level right here in our backyard.”

Hemmingsen also noted it’s difficult to find people willing and qualified to represent the community in local government. He also elaborated on why he thinks term limits were established for some local offices.

“(It’s) not necessarily to get rid of your representative, but to get rid of the other guy’s representative,” Hemmingsen said. “’Cause you don’t get a chance to vote the other guy out, you only get a chance to vote your guy out. If you have term limits then you can make sure that other guy is not going to stay in there for a long period of time. That’s not necessarily a good thing and I don’t think that anybody should ever give up their right to vote. This is taking away your right to vote somebody in to office or vote somebody out of office. You don’t even get a chance to vote them out if they’re just removed.”

Hemmingsen said during his tenure on the board he has put in a lot of effort to build relationships and partnerships.

“It’s all about connections to keeping that going,” he said, noting state legislators have term limits. “It’s very difficult when you continually have transitions.”

During the question regarding SB 54, Patterson asked Howard and Hemmingsen to name some of the steps they’ve taken to better understand the immigrant community as well as citizens negatively affected by legislation targeting the immigrant community. Patterson also asked why those who support SB 54 support their candidacy.

Howard again noted that SB 54 is a polarizing issue for Del Norte County, citing the more than three-hour long discussion at a recent supervisors meeting as an example. He also pointed out that the California Values Act is polarizing across the state and at a national level. It’s an issue that pits immigrants against “folks that feel they’re non-immigrants,” Howard said.

“What we have playing out here is something in a small town that I believe needs to be played out between the two people that started this fight: Gov. Jerry Brown and President Trump,” Howard said.

Howard spoke of his Hispanic colleagues at Alexandre Dairy and their children being told that “ICE is coming to pick you up.”

“This is not a good thing folks,” Howard said. “That probably won’t happen, but the fear that creates in a child is a fear that’s real and that we as local policy makers and elected leaders do not need to continue to perpetuate that fear in our own backyard. These are people that have rights in our community. They’re living here, they’re working here and they’re adding to the wealth of our economy. Without them our clock probably wouldn’t tick as well and that is a true thing.”

Howard said with respect to the California Values Act, the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors doesn’t want to get in the way of law enforcement doing its job. He also noted the California Law Enforcement Association supported the bill before it passed because it addressed violent felons.

“The folks that wanted to see the hurt and the wedge and the anguished presented to others in this community, in my feeling during an election year, drove that home,” Howard said. “And yet there were just as many people on the other side that didn’t want to see anything done. I think the board rose to a higher level and as you saw, as motioned by Supervisor Hemmingsen and seconded by Supervisor Cowan, we moved to table any type of resolution, any kind of action, on SB 54 until this issue was ferreted out legally in our court system.”

Hemmingsen noted SB 54 is really a law enforcement issue. He said he believes in due process and most are allowed due process. Hemmingsen said he also spoke with Del Norte’s current sheriff, Erik Apperson, and its previous sheriff, Dean Wilson.

Hemmingsen also noted the American Civil Liberties Union has sued counties that have come out in opposition to SB 54 and threatened to sue Del Norte if they weighed in on the issue.

“If we get into this battle it could be financially devastating to us,” he said. “We don’t have the resources to get into a lawsuit if we want to stand up against this bill or if we want to stand for it. Win or lose we can’t do it. If we lose we don’t have the resources to pay any kind of a fine.”

Finally, since they were the only two candidates to participate in the forum, Youth Summit participants gave Howard and Hemmingsen a chance to talk about issues they were passionate about.

Hemmingsen, whose grandkids are fifth-generation Del Norters, said he wants to create a community that will provide his grandchildren and other youngsters “to be able to have a spot to come back to in Del Norte County.” Having an economic base that offers employment opportunities to young people is important, he said. Hemmingsen said he wants to make sure his grandchildren can return to Del Norte County to work if they want to do so.

“I’m truly fortunate and truly blessed that my son and my daughter, they both work here,” he said, adding that his daughter works as a teacher in Del Norte County schools. “That makes my grandkids very close in proximity to me so I get to visit them every day if I choose and I choose to a lot. They’re extremely important to me.”

Howard, who had hung a campaign banner signed by Rikuzentakata representatives Mayor Futoshi Toba and City Council Chair Akihiko Ito behind his chair, said preserving the sister city relationship with Rikuzentakata is one of the issues he’s most passionate about. Helping Del Norte representatives be better prepared for a tsunami another, Howard said.

Howard said he was invited by the two Rikuzentakata representatives to view the devastation created by the March 2011 tsunami.

“It made me realize after being here less than 25 years that we’ve had three tsunamis in our backyard during that period of time, one that completely devastated our commercial fishing fleet,” he said, “They were prepared and they lost life, 2,000 people. Del Norte County is the most prepared for a tsunami on the Pacific Coast and yet our citizens will most likely perish if a tsunami were to happen here within the next few minutes. We need to find a way to get that voice out.”

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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