May 3-9, 2006

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The Byrne Report

No Egrets

By Peter Byrne

The signs went up over night in the Sixth Assembly District. Huge, colorful, political signs. Candidate Cynthia Murray's forest-green and pastel blue sign depicts an egret, a river, a mountain and promises, somehow, that she will protect nature. Oddly, her signs have mostly appeared on fences owned by such prominent Sonoma County developers as Basin Street Properties. Poor Pamela Torliatt has nice big red signs, but they're not strung up along the fences that Basin Street has erected all over Petaluma. Could that be because, as a member of the Petaluma City Council, Torliatt insists that Basin Street pay the city $440,000 she says it owes for cost overruns on a redevelopment project?

Or maybe Basin Street is so Murray-positive because its owner, Matt White, has thrown a $4,000 political donation into her campaign coffer? He is not alone among real estate interests looking to buy Murray's favor. When Murray's war chest passed $323,000 in mid-March, it was overflowing with string-trailing largesse from the likes of Bank of America ($3,300), North Coast Builders Exchange PAC ($1,500), California Building Industry Association PAC ($2,300), Centex Homes ($2,800), North Bay Council PAC ($3,300), Maggiore & Ghilotti ($3,500) and Rohnert Park casino brokers Jimmie Rogers ($3,296.38) and Clem Carinalli ($500).

The O'Brien Group, which is selling houses developed by Murray's husband, Daniel Aguilar of Mission Valley Properties, in Magnolia Heights--Petaluma's cemetery district--gave $2,500. And Peter Pfendler, the wealthy landowner who will not grant the public two feet of access through his precious private property so that folks can enjoy the beauty of city-owned Lafferty Ranch, greased Murray with $3,300. In return, she publicly supports Pfendler's petty private agenda. Pfendler also contributes heavily to such Republicans as George W. Bush.

Whew! Murray is a poster person for pavement, plumbing and plutocracy. It's hard to imagine egrets being very fond of her cement-packing backers. Case in point is the guy who shares half of everything he makes with Murray, Dan Aguilar. In 2003, Aguilar ran afoul of at least a thousand Petalumans who signed a petition protesting his development of the 15-acre Magnolia Heights parcel that had been set aside by the city's general plan as park land. After seven acres of trees on the site were chopped down and left to rot, Aguilar said the stumps were a "hazard" and proposed to put an "amenity" in their stead. Aguilar, who actively campaigned to elect a pro-Aguilar and -Matt White majority on the ethically fetid city council, stands to gain even more political-economic clout if his wife goes to Sacramento.

Don't get me wrong: I spent a pleasant hour interviewing Murray, 55, in mid-March. She comes across as energetic, forthright, intelligent, politically liberal to a point (she supports the Patriot Act!) and a person who knows how to get things done in a fundamentally corrupted system of pay-to-play governance. She calls for a complete withdrawal from Iraq, does not like Bush's evisceration of the public schooling system, supports a living wage and marriage equality, and, in general, reflects the prevailing social sentiments in Marin and southern Sonoma counties.

I was, however, a tad surprised when she said that Blue Cross was a "best practice" for medical care. Furthermore, she does "not believe universal healthcare will happen anytime soon." It is worth noting that Murray took a $1,000 donation from Blue Cross of California, not to mention the $6,700 gift from the California Medical Association PAC, which does not support the single-payer universal healthcare bill pending in the legislature.

David Keller, a former Petaluma City Council member, gave me a transcribed copy of a telephone push poll conducted on March 21 by Fairbanks, Maslin, Maullin and Associates. The poll asked both positively and negatively framed questions about all of the assembly candidates--except that the questions about Murray were very positive, not really negative, and vice versa for the others.

For example, respondents were asked to approve or deny the outrageous statement that John Alden "just files frivolous lawsuits for a living." Alden is a hard-working consumer-protection attorney in a reputable firm.

How about Damon Connelly? According to the pollster, Connelly is "just another Sacramento insider who doesn't understand the needs of our community." Ridiculous. Connelly wants to be on the inside, but he has not made it yet. And, as a school board member, he understands the needs of the community as well as the other candidates. Of Murray, the pollster stated, "No other candidate in this race has this much experience [in issues] facing our community" and went on to say that "she is known for balancing budgets in a fiscally responsible manner" and "is the best prepared to hit the ground running."

Murray denies commissioning the poll, and Fairbanks, which has dozens of real estate firms and developers as clients, will not say who paid for it. But somebody did.

Contact Peter Byrne or send a letter to the editor about this story.