As our mayoral election was heating up last summer, this column called for a polite and reasoned debate, stating that we should be able to disagree without being disagreeable. Sadly, that didn’t happen.
One of the most tiresome and non-productive themes in our political discourse this election season was the old argument over who qualifies as a local. The implication, of course, is that if you were not a true “local,” then your political standing and your right to have an opinion were weak.
In political terms, the simplest definition of a local is that if you’re registered to vote here, then you’re a local, regardless of when you arrived in town. Socially, the issue is more complicated. This column addressed the subject more than a dozen years ago, and given that the debate hasn’t disappeared, it may be time for another look.
What defines a St. Helenan? Is it being born here? Is it living here “X” number of decades? I remember the story of a friend who attended a local funeral. An elderly lady said to her then, “I’m so happy to see someone here from ‘old’ St. Helena.” My friend said to me, “Old? I’ve only lived here 30 years!”
We should cherish those families who have been here many generations; they constitute the institutional memory of our town. The late and lamented Ernie Navone once mentioned to me that his earliest memory of St. Helena was of the streets being ripped up to lay down gas lines. That was over a century ago.
We, or our parents or grandparents, were all at one time immigrants to this town. Eighty years ago, Franklin Roosevelt told a convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution, “Remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants … ” That injunction applies today to our political communities, both locally and nationally.
Let me offer a set of questions that address the characteristics of locals:
- Do you own a permanent home or land here; have you made a personal investment in a local business or the wine trade?
- Have you joined organizations and clubs; do you have a library card?
- Have you made a significant purchase in town – cars, appliances; do you have house charge accounts at local merchants?
- If children, do they attend local schools; if no children, do you still attend school events?
- Is your doctor here; your dentist?
- Do you have business suits/dresses that have gone unworn for at least two years?
- Have you had to respond to a Napa jury summons; do you vote here?
- When walking downtown for 10 minutes, do you invariably exchange greetings with a half-dozen people?
- And, finally, when traveling and asked where you’re from, do you automatically say “St. Helena”?
We can grade our answers to these questions on a “curve”; there’s no rigid pass-fail score. But ownership is clearly question no. 1. I’ve got nothing against renters; in fact, by being a renter back East decades ago I avoided prolonged real estate slumps. Yet owning a home says you’ve put your money where your boots are. Home ownership in St. Helena typically requires a big chunk of our assets. Moreover, as the economist Larry Summers once cagily observed, “In the history of the world no one has ever washed a rental car.” Ownership, simply put, leads to civic involvement.
One pal tells me that to him the most crucial of these questions is where your dentist is. Indeed, I know folks who have lived here many years and still retain a dentist far away. Come on, people, we have many fine dentists here in town.
When Mary Koberstein ran for City Council in 2016, she was a recent arrival, having been here only two years. This column noted then that her burden was to demonstrate that she had a new and different perspective on our problems. She clearly succeeded.
I asked her recently if she could explain her political success. She suggested that being new to town did have an advantage in that she could bring a “fresh point of view.” Koberstein says her political theme has been “to get things done by understanding issues and getting to real facts.” To her, that requires “Being open-minded with a pragmatic approach.”
My own view is that just as immigrants have made this country great, it is the constant flow of new blood to St. Helena that continually reinvigorates our town. That means new St. Helenans like Mary Koberstein.
In a couple of weeks, I’m getting a new dental crown on an upper molar. My dentist is on Main Street.