Not many years ago, Harry Martin, the publisher of the Napa Sentinel, was the scourge of local politics. With his “Give ‘em hell, Harry” bumper stickers, Martin seemed ready to overthrow the status quo at City Hall with his populist agenda.
When he ran for Napa City Council in 1994, the political establishment feared the worst. Department heads were prepared to resign if Martin won, it was rumored.
Seeking to allay the fear, Martin told an interviewer, “I’m not the ogre they think I am.”
Martin told the truth. Twelve years and three council terms later, Martin, 67, may not have achieved venerated elder statesman status, but his slow-growth, pro-neighborhood votes have made him a political fixture.
Martin doesn’t shred public officials on the pages of Sentinel with the regularity or invective he once did, but his votes against contentious development projects can be counted on.
In running for a fourth term, unprecedented in modern Napa times, Martin is presenting himself not as a firebrand, but as a seasoned veteran whose government experience will help the city deal with fiscal problems.
“The experience I’ve had, the 12 years’ worth, certainly puts me in a position to guide the ship,” Martin told the Napa Valley Register’s editorial board. No one has greater “institutional knowledge” than he does, he said.
Martin and two planning commissioners, Peter Mott and Juliana Inman, are vying to fill the seats now held by Martin and Councilman Kevin Block, who is not seeking re-election.
It is telling that none of Martin’s fellow council members are endorsing him for re-election, although several concede he will be tough to beat.
Block accuses Martin of knee-jerk politics, of always “playing to the crowd.” When he votes against a project, Martin recites, in rote fashion, the same old list of objections, he said.
“The world is not black and white. It is not good versus evil. It is not the people versus the special interests,” Block said. “That’s a cartoonish view of how the community works. It’s wearing thin. I think the community needs a more subtle, thoughtful approach.”
Councilman Mark van Gorder thinks 12 years may be enough for any council member. “I get concerned when I see people in a position of power for a really long time,” he said. “We need new blood, new ideas. It’s probably time to have someone new.”
Councilman Jim Krider is endorsing Inman and Mott, but said “I don’t have a problem with Harry. He is kind of a known.”
In an interview, Martin said his supporters, who tend to be blue collar and the elderly, appreciate having someone like him on the council. “I represent the whole city, but the little guy feels he has a voice,” he said.
Martin doubts that any recent political figure has his name identification. “I’m out there all the time,” he said. “I have the newspaper. I have the TV show. Love me, hate me, there’s no in-between.”
Martin critics bristle at his ability to participate in council debates on Tuesday night, then write up those debates as news stories the next day for the Sentinel.
In his paper, Martin has torn apart fellow council members, police and fire officials, the local head of the flood control district. The list is a long one. Martin may lose a 4-1 vote at a council meeting, but he can always have the last word in his paper.
Martin’s overlapping civic roles initially caused a problem with the Napa Police Officers Association, which did not endorse him in 1994. “He was someone who had attacked our members,” said Sgt. Tim Cantillon, the union president.
Since then, Martin has regularly won police endorsement and financial donations. Martin has proved to be a valuable ally, Cantillon said. “Pure and simple, he’s labor friendly.”
Martin said his blended newspaper/council life isn’t a problem for the voters who handily re-elect him. “I’ve been elected three times with that newspaper. I think it’s been pretty well accepted by the community, that dual role,” he said.
When Martin ran in 1994, he promised to serve only one term. He intended to change the city’s spending priorities, help solve the youth gang issue, then get out.
Since then, he has won two more council elections and lost two bids to become mayor. Martin now says his fourth term could well be his last.
Besides wanting to give the city the benefit of his experience, Martin said financial obligations to family members figured into his decision to run again. “I’m supporting four generations,” he said.
Council wages, stipends and fringe benefits can total over $45,000 a year.
After four years of budget-cutting, including freezing vacancies and deferring projects, city staff warned the council this summer that more bad times lie ahead. The city may have to cut spending by another $10 million — or more than 10 percent — when it adopts a two-year budget next spring.
“The budget is a hell of a problem,” Martin said. He admits that he and other council members misjudged when they approved expensive long-term employee contracts with the expectation that the economy would grow substantially, with new hotels built on schedule.
Despite the city’s poor finances, Martin supports new spending for sidewalk repair and a downtown convention center. A fire station for Browns Valley is another need, he said.
Martin wants more police and firefighters. He supports a charter amendment requiring the city to hire more public safety officers as the population increases.
As one of its revenue-generating ideas, the city wants to make infrastructure repairs along the Soscol Avenue entry to downtown to promote private investment in the area.
Martin said he did not support the proposed financial vehicle, a new redevelopment district. “I’d be opposed to anything under the redevelopment label,” he said.
Perhaps property owners could tax themselves through an assessment district to make drainage improvements, he said.
Martin routinely votes against development projects if neighbors complain about design and traffic. Residential growth rate is running ahead of the city’s ability to keep up with streets and other infrastructure improvements, he said.
City voters this year will be electing new council members in November, rather than in March, largely because of Martin. He convinced the council that a November date, when state and national candidates will be on the ballot, would draw more voters.
Yet a November election could put him at a disadvantage, he said. His supporters are loyal, but they may not be a majority of city voters.
It doesn’t matter, he said. November is a better date. “If it hurts me, it hurts me.”
Unlike two years ago, when he ran for mayor, Martin this time is running solo, without a companion candidate who agrees with his agenda. His partner last time was Pat Rogers, a Sentinel employee.
The prospect of a Martin slate sweeping into office energized the business community, which poured a lot of money into the winning campaigns of Mayor Jill Techel, Krider and van Gorder.
Things should be calmer this election, Martin said. “I’m running by myself. I’m not a threat, per se.”