Well, I exaggerate slightly. But the announcement by Congressman Wally Herger, who represents the enormous if sparsely-populated Second District, that he will be retiring at the end of his term was the best news I had all day. Wally (I just can’t bring myself to call him ‘Herger’—if he were a political figure of any consequence on the national stage, the satirists would undoubtedly portray him as a rangy, somewhat bemused Walrus) has had northern California as his political fiefdom for 25 years, seldom faces a formidable challenge from badly outnumbered and obscenely outspent Democrats (2010 was Wally’s worst year electorally…he won only just over 57% of the vote), and is perhaps most notable for his blandness.
Don’t get me wrong…there is something almost Reaganesque about Wally. Maybe it’s the hairstyle. It could also be the slightly vacant stare. Or perhaps it’s his ability to substitute platitudes (which already make up the majority of his statements) for conjunctions in his speeches and utterances. Wally’s inarticulacy might have endeared him to Republicans, but it also prompted rumours in 2010 that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Wally flirted with fame when a hyperventilating Keith Olbermann named him and his spokesperson ‘Worst Person in the World’ on consecutive days, but his star, such as it ever shone, was already on the wane when he lost his bid to chair the House Ways and Means Committee in 2008 (he was a sufficiently toadying right-winger that I remember my high school government teacher predicting that Wally would take over the Chairmanship of this powerful committee if the Republicans retained control of the House).
I suspect that Wally’s political longevity is explained by three factors. The most obvious is the seemingly insurmountable advantage that Republicans have in the paradoxically right-leaning north-state (which has toyed with the idea of seceding over the years, each time pulling back from the brink, perhaps realising that the de facto subsidies from the Bay Area-ites they love to hate aren’t such a bad deal).
He has also perfected that art of castigating a central government deaf to the needs of a geographically, socially and economically marginal constituency—while using his supposed skill at manipulating the earmark system to bring pork back to his district. A perusal of his earmarks suggests, interestingly, that those of us in the north of his constituency have got a pretty raw deal—most of the earmarks seem to favour the southern regions of the district from which Herger himself hails: Chico, Yuba City, Woodland, etc. In other words Shasta County residents don’t have much to show for the unyielding electoral support they’ve given Wally since the ‘80s. But if Herger’s footsteps are more than a little shaky, he does talk the talk, and was one of the earliest members of Congress to tap into the Tea Party spirit, sprinkling his newsletters (I receive these because I’ve made a habit of sending Herger irritated e-mails) with nutty asides, illogical diatribes, and a healthy dose of invective against Israel-doubters, “illegals”, those who question the military industrial complex, and anyone who thinks that the wealthy should pay their fair share.
But Wally’s greatest asset (from his party’s perspective) has been his loyalty. Most members of Congress, whether Democrats or Republicans, have a few lines in the sand over which they are willing to face down their own party leadership…a few principles that put them at odds with the party hierarchy. Not Wally. He is truly a voting machine, never deviating from whatever brand of bonkers the GOP is pedalling in a given week. It was this loyalty which gave him a shot at a committee chairmanship.
And the loyalty extends beyond the GOP to its financial Godfathers. In the 2011-12 cycle, the top five industries contributing to Wally’s campaign committee included health professionals, pharmaceuticals, HMOs and the insurance industry. In the 2009-10 cycle, insurance, health professionals, pharmaceuticals, crop production and HMOs featured. 2007-08: insurance, crop production, forestry, pharmaceuticals and health professionals. 2005-06: insurance, crop production, health professionals and real estate. 2003-04: crop production, insurance, health professionals, electric utilities and securities/investment. 2001-02: insurance, crop production, health professionals, pharmaceuticals and electric utilities. 1999-2000: insurance, crop production, pharmaceuticals, health professionals and electric utilities. 1997-98: insurance, crop production, securities and investment, health professionals, pharmaceuticals. Across the last 22 years of his career, crop production, insurance, health professionals, pharmaceuticals and real estate comprised the five largest contributing industries to his campaign coffers. You get the picture.
Wally’s financial backers are the people who tried to gut Obama’s reform to the healthcare system, manipulating it in favour of the insurance industry. They’re the people who work fastidiously to weaken environmental protection and the regulation of pollutants and chemicals, making the Central Valley (the northern end of which forms the southern portion of Wally’s constituency) the place where quality of life is lowest in California (depressed sections of our cities and places like the timberlands of northern California are just behind).
Wally’s backers are the people whose immoral speculation and dodgy financial dealings plunged the housing market into a crisis, the economy into a tailspin, and unemployment rates into the largest leap in years. Big Ag, Big Banks, Big Pharma…Wally, for all his talk, has never had much time for the little guy.
And he’s buried the competition. In 2010, Wally outspent his Democratic opponent 7.5 times over. In 2008, by 16.4 times. In 2006, by 4.1 times. In 2004, almost sixty-fold. In 2002, seventy-fold.
Which explains why he got away with pedalling his small-state, anti-government fantasies for so long. Too many northern Californians live on the edge, plagued by chronic unemployment and underemployment. Work is hard to come by, and when it’s there, it tends to be poorly-paid and intermittent. Living conditions can be trying, especially for those north of Wally’s Chico-area homeland: tough winters, long commutes from outlying areas into ‘cities’ like Redding, poor services (where in fact services exist), and small schools threatened by closure (one of Wally’s few decent moves was to secure subsidies for small, rural schools in 2000—the type of action his Tea Party supporters now profess to deplore).
It is an area, in other words, ripe for assistance and investment (UC supposedly pondered building the campus that was eventually constructed at Merced in Redding, and Redding seems overdue for a CSU campus). But since the decline of logging, serious assistance would require government action, and Wally is violently opposed to taxes of any sort (taxes which fund schools, colleges, universities, construction projects, agricultural subsidies, healthcare and social services, etc), he has transformed himself into an albatross around the neck of the north-state, bemoaning its condition and endlessly whining about big-bad government, but demanding that its residents wallow in his “live free and die” philosophy.
So will things be looking up for Northern California?
Probably not, because Wally has already anointed his successor, Doug La Malfa, an equally demented reactionary, and one of the cookie-cutter blowhards that northern California’s Republican Party seems to adore. La Malfa has cycled through the California Assembly and Senate, and joins the likes of Wally, Sam Aanestad and Jim Nielsen in promoting northern California’s defiant stagnancy. He wears his ten-gallon hat with pride, but his actions and record suggest that there’s not much inside of it.
Wally, La Malfa, and their brand of GOP die-hards are right to point out the neglect that northern California suffers. But they ride the collective resentment to high office and then sit on it. They manipulate the acknowledgement of the region’s downtrodden state as a political tool and disdain the use of tools at the disposal of federal and state governments to better the region’s condition.
Jim Reed is making a second tilt at the Second District in 2012 for the Democrats. Hugely outspent, he lost badly to Wally in 2010, but brought the incumbent to his lowest ever level of support. Reed’s positions on a withdrawal in Afghanistan is expensively cautious, his take on balancing the budget perhaps unrealistic. But his willingness to acknowledge the inequities bred by corporate irresponsibility, the danger posed by the yawning income gap, the genuine threat posed by our reliance on an unsustainable energy sources, and the skewed distribution of resources and wealth in our country make him a fine candidate and infinitely preferable to La Malfa, a Wally clone.
It would take a decisive shift in north-state politics to end the Republican reign. But the dire straits in which many families, communities and institutions find themselves might give progressives an opening.
So long Wally. I’ll probably miss the tortured responses to my inquiries for information to his offices (which one family friend is convinced explain the spookily-frequent jury summonses that my dad and I receive—we share a name), and I’ll have to find some new target for letters-to-the-editor, but his retirement might provide the north-state with a much-needed chance to re-think its representatives’ response to the pressing social and economic issues of the day. Our shouldn’t be a particularly fond farewell.