Napa State Assemblyman Bill Dodd served as a Napa County Supervisor for 14 years before winning his Assembly seat in 2014. He was named to the Assembly agriculture committee upon his election, and in December was picked to be its chairman. Dodd, a former Republican (he switched parties in 2013 and has said the tipping point was gay marriage) is running for State Senate in the Fifth District against former Napa Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada. I’ll post an interview with Yamada in coming weeks. I met with Dodd at the bustling Oxbow Market in Napa on a recent rainy afternoon; what follows is a lightly edited transcript of the interview; I’ve boiled down some of my more mush-mouthed questions for clarity’s sake. The first question to him was about his rapid rise in state politics—and that he’s the first-ever Committee on Agriculture chairman who doesn’t hail from the Central Valley. Why him, and why now?
Bill Dodd: It’s probably better stated that I’m probably the first guy from Northern California maybe north of the Delta to be the chairman of the ag committee. I think that…I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it but…I think that they’ve seen in my year in the Assembly that I’m pretty balanced. I have a pretty good ability to balance business interests and environmental interests and my experience in Napa County just along those veins is that I reject the notion that agriculture and the environment are mutually exclusive items, or entities. I really believe that we’re in big trouble if you can’t if the environmental community and the agricultural community can’t come together, we’re in big trouble. Because of environmental interests, we have sustainable farming, which has completely taken off. I’m also chair man of the Select Committee on wine, we held a hearing at Sonoma State University, Lois Wolk and I. Normally what those committee hearings try to do is bring out what an industry is lacking, and what we try to emphasize is what the agricultural or the viticulture industry in northern California is really doing well. And that’s organic farming, that’s those are operations that have put sustainability plans into practice and even ones that have gone to dry farming. What we should do is celebrate those environmental farmers for the great job that they’ve done and use them as examples of best practices to farmers that have not yet seen the light in some of those areas.
Bohemian: What is your view on this notion of “peak wine,” that we’ve got too many vineyards in Napa County and the North Bay?
Dodd: When I was working as a county supervisor here, we had our general plan, and we worked really hard on this general plan to try and identify what was left, and have some goals, not only on acreage of grapes that could be planted, but also, how many more wineries do we really need, or want, you know, in this day and age. And, in addition to that we’ve had big community discussions even when I was first in office, in the early 2000s, on grape-growing, and frankly, Napa County’s got the most stringent agricultural rules of any agricultural region in the world, and my guess is that Sonoma county is a close second—and I think I think it was somewhere around 45,000 acres of grapes, that Napa has about 45,000 acres of grapes and the conventional wisdom says that we’d be lucky—not lucky, that’s not the word I want to use—the industry would be lucky to increase that by 10 percent or another 5,000 acres or so. Now there’s some people who wouldn’t want that at all. But my standpoint is that I think that the erosion control plans that are required, the careful scrutiny of large projects having to have full environmental impact reports, are important to the discussion. Nowhere else are they making them do the full environmental impact reports.
Bohemian: How do you translate the dynamics on the ground in Napa now that you have statewide authority as chairman of the Committee on Agriculture?
Dodd: I think there’s a realization with climate change being such an important policy discussion in the state of California, that many farmers see the writing on the wall and are already working with technology to become more sustainable. Case a point, irrigation: the day and age where we are going to flood-irrigate our crops I think should have come and gone by now. But it is a huge investment to change this, it doesn’t happen overnight but I believe that it’s incumbent upon the industry and the market to move them towards solutions to these problems. You understand what I mean about the market? Because you know what? The cost of water is not going to be the same. I mean, people want more and more regulation but the reality is there is going to be a statewide market for water that is going to be priced on availability and demand. In fact I’m writing a bill this year that seeks to get information for all water transactions in the state of California. It would be a public record, and the idea here is that many of these water transaction are done in the shadows, nobody knows about it, nobody knows how much they are paying, but if there were a clearinghouse that all water sales would have to be recorded, recorded with a state agency, that helps us establish the market, so we understand the prices that are being paid.
Bohemian: What kind of transfers are we talking about here?
Dodd: A rice farmer, for example, who finds a way to sell his water to a water agency somewhere in the central valley or Southern California and leave his field fallow for a year or two, or ten, because he can make more money on that water. If everyone knows the price that’s being paid, that market becomes a public market. And it also gives decision-makers, based on that information, some opportunity to maybe understand some of these other proposals that are being put forward on water issues.
Bohemian: You worked for the water company Culligan, and there’s a big controversy in California and elsewhere over the Nestlé CEO saying that water is not a human right, that it’s a commodity first, you should have to pay for water. Where do you fall on this idea—accept that water is a commodity, sell it, but at the end of the day do people die of thirst because of that? How much of a say should the market have on people’s ability to access fresh water?
Dodd: I think, the market can give us a good indication of future, in terms of where we can go with this. I think, the idea that water plants like Nestlé—the reality is that they should be subject to the same rules and regulations as any other land use, you know, and in today’s day and age, they shouldn’t get any better breaks more than anybody else—whether it’s agriculture or business coming into a community. That one was a little bit dicey because [Nestlé’s bottling plant] is located at the headwaters of the Sacramento River…. Let me put it a different way. If you look at how Israel has dealt with this situation, and they have a similar situation—let’s face it, that was a desert too. They had a lot of arid conditions all over the Middle East, and for sure Israel. And in a span of about 10 to 15 years, they went from a 30 percent deficit to a 20 percent surplus and now they are actually exporting water to other areas of the Middle East and getting paid for it. I think there’s an order to which you do these things, but I think first and foremost we need more water storage both above-ground and underground storage, I think we need to get more adroit on how we are doing water reclamation and you know, I gotta tell you, there’s probably no better agency than the Sonoma county water agency at doing that. They have done a phenomenal job, really before it was fashionable. In Napa County I led the charge supervisor Keith Caldwell to do the purple pipe [water reclamation pipes] on vineyards and golf courses on the east part of Napa. To tell you how long it took, I started working on this in 2001, 15 years later, it’s just about completed. It’s not something that comes easy, but we need to multiply the number of times we are able to use our water and that needs to be used in those types of practices, throughout the state of California. Finally I know the environmental community doesn’t appreciate desalination—very expensive, not a long of bang for the buck—yes, but if the market determines that it is very expensive, water is already very expensive and with new technology, and particularly more renewable energy being used, we might find that like Israel that could be something that we could duplicate, but first things first.
Bohemian: What’s the driver behind your opposition to Gov. Brown’s Delta Tunnels proposals?
Dodd: First and foremost the Delta is already environmentally fragile, it’s an environmentally sensitive area and you know, anything that goes wrong there could jeopardize the whole ecosystem of the delta, and that would be devastating. Secondly, I don’t understand the cost structure because the cost per acre-foot would eclipse those costs for desalination, so…. And at least they say they’re not going to take any new water but if they’re going to build two tunnels that are so large and have so much capacity, that makes one a little suspect to what their true motives are.
Bohemian: which is to sell more water to the Central Valley—
Dodd: Yeah. Southern California, populated area.
Bohemian: The Democratic Party highlights social issues, immigration reform, environmental issues—do you think that if you were to have remained in the GOP, you might perhaps have been a more effective advocate for a more sort of reasonable-Republican push on some of these issues?
Dodd: No. Their tent is not big enough for people who have strong social values who really believe in immigration reform, who really believe that it’s our responsibility for future generations to impact change on climate.
Bohemian: Well, here you are, a Democrat who is “pro-business,” but on the other hand, you could still be a Republican who is pro-immigration reform, pro-environment. If that was national model…
Dodd: Yeah, that would be a lot better, wouldn’t it! If you look at that kind of national model, our congressmen, Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman, would be able to do the kind of great things that they are in Washington, D.C., to do, but the environment out there doesn’t make it conducive to advance the great things that they want to advance.
Bohemian: Your predecessor on the ag committee [former Assemblyman Henry Perea] was part of the moderate caucus of the state Democratic Party, and when he left the Assembly, he almost immediately took a job with the pharmaceutical lobby. You’re moving very quickly through governance here—what are your ambitions beyond elective office?
Dodd: It is very, very simple: I intend to serve my eight years, two terms in the state Senate and advance policies that will—we haven’t even talked about education—that will make California a better place for future generations. I have five kids and five grandkids, and I just think that the next generation or two of Californians, if we don’t advance these important policies, in the state, we will not have anywhere near the California that my parents and grandparents left me.
Bohemian: You’ve been a supporter of charter schools—
Dodd: I’m talking about public schools. We’re forty-seventh in the nation in per-pupil spending, and we’re the seventh largest economy in the world. You tell me how those two things make any sense. I believe we have, going forward, we have some really ambitious goals for carbon reduction in our atmosphere. I would like use that model to place some really serious goals on increasing our funding for public education in the state of California and I do believe that investments in our future, in Pre-K, and selected, targeted investments in career technical education, will pay for itself in one generation in reduced prison costs and reduced social services costs. In fact, Sen. [Mike] McGuire and I have—we had a budget bill last year and we were able to get $400 million for career technical education, and we’re very proud of that. [McGuire] has been an outstanding partner, and I’m looking forward to working with him.
Bohemian: What’s your view on the “Fight for $15” minimum wage and how it has played out in the state, locally and nationally?
Dodd: I see advancement in the state toward a higher minimum wage. We have to be careful. We represent the entire state of California. And it’s kind of like there’s a tale of two cities, if you will. You have the interior part of the state of California where the economy has not come back anywhere near as strongly as it has from Sonoma Count to San Diego County on the coast. But if you look at the interior counties—from San Bernadino to Modoc County—unemployment is high, business are not back and people are suffering. So, I think what we’ll see is cities take this on, on a regional basis for the foreseeable future.
Bohemian: It sounds like what you are saying is it would be great to have a $15 minimum wage but what’s the point of having it if there isn’t a job to pay that wage?
Dodd: I guess I’d say that. But the fact of the matter is that with the increased cost of living, and the cost of housing and all of that throughout my district and future Senate district, demands that people get more than the minimum wage that’s there today. And that’s not lost on me. I will tell you that as a former businessperson for 25 years, that when the unemployment rate goes down, as it is in the stronger counties, I would full expect that wages will go up because the demand for high quality workers and the lack of supply.… One thing I want to bring up—you brought up Hendy Perea, he was a moderate. The two people that picked me in concert was the Speaker right now, Toni Atkins, and the new one that’s coming in, gave his approval. too, Anthony Rendon. They’re both progressive, strong-democratic-value leaders that know me and work well with me and know that I have the balance to balance these real important issues. And I’m really appreciative of their confidence.
Bohemian: Do you think there’s anything to the idea that undocumented workers are taking jobs from American workers?
Dodd: I reject that notion. I don’t think there’s a significant workforce willing to do the type of jobs that our immigrant—legal or illegal—provides for our economies.
Bohemian: We’re not seeing a lot of white high school kids going and working in the fields for their summer jobs…
Dodd: Let me tell you, I picked grapes—I was with a group and we were making wine, going through the whole process. And the deal was, you couldn’t just make the wine. You couldn’t just pick the grapes. You had to go through everything, from A-to-Z, and let me tell you, after two days of picking, I thank my lucky stars that I wasn’t a farm worker. It’s back-breaking, and I’m sure nobody put me through the paces that [the workers] are being put through. I think that a lot of the workforce that we have today, their kids are getting a great opportunity. And that’s what they are doing it for. They are advancing the economy, our local economies, which are renowned worldwide, their kids are going to our schools and in many cases excelling, and many times are the first generation in their families to go to college, and they’re not looking to be farm workers in the future. So this issue is not going to go away, we’ve got to have programs that are going to satisfy our need for labor in these agricultural areas.
Bohemian: What’s the biggest complaint you hear from constituents?
Dodd: You know, I don’t hear a lot of complaints specifically about state government, and clearly, I’ve seen the polls, the closer you get to the people, the local and city and county governments poll very well—maybe not Sonoma County this year, or at least if the SEIU has any say—but generally, that’s the case. The state does well. But right now the federal government is polling really, really low. I think that’s the example, and unfortunately we all get painted with that same, broad brush, just because of the fact that there’s gridlock in Washington D.C. But I’m honored to work in Sacramento where it’s not like that at all, where you can have a civil discussion or a dinner or coffee or whatever with people you agree with, people you disagree with, regardless of political parties. That’s the one thing that I think people, that sometimes the easy way out with me is, ‘Oh, the impression with him is that he’s pro-business, so I’m not going to go see him.’ I learn things every day. And my office is always open, to everybody. I’m interested in learning and understanding more and more about all positions.
Bohemian: In your 2014 Assembly run, you had lots of local endorsements from elected officials, where your opponent had lots of support from organized labor. You seem to have more of the precinct-level, committee-level of support from the Democratic Party…
Dodd: I’m a firm believer that particularly in this case, right now I have the Sonoma Valley and Rohnert Park in my district. This [Senate] district will add Petaluma, Cotati and Sonoma. So in communities where I’m not a household name, I really do believe that if the majority of the local elected officials are supporting a district or statewide candidate, that resonates with voters. And I’ve got over 70 percent of the city councils, the boards of supervisors and the school boards that have endorsed in this race. That’s what I did in the Assembly race and that’s what I’ve done again in this race. This time I do have some pretty incredible statewide figures, some strong women, like [U.S.] Sen. Dianne Feinstein, [State] Sen. Lois Wolk, just to name a couple. That’s helpful. Because they’ve seen how I operate, they trust me and they know that I’ll represent their communities well.
Bohemian: I met with Mariko Yamada when she was the outgoing Assemblyperson. We really liked here dogs-in-restaurants bill. As Senator, will you pledge to not try to repeal that law?
Dodd: I have a great deal of respect for the former Assembly member and I would never undo her most important bill.
Bohemian: That was a good one. She’s a supporter of capital punishment. You?
Dodd: She is? Yeah, you know I am torn between the families of victims and how they would feel about this, particularly violent, violent murders, rape, etc., but I also understand the almost barbaric nature of the death penalty, certainly that is going to be an issue that I am going to have to work hard on the policy moving forward. I think the other thing is, the cost of our prison systems—we used to be the fifth, top five in nation in spending for pupil, and at the bottom five in per-prisoner spending. Today, we’re at the top five in prisoner spending and the bottom five in education spending. So that balance has got to be there as well.
Bohemian: What did you think of Gov. Brown recently flip-flopping on his previously held support for mandatory minimum sentences? He is now saying that it has really backfired.
Dodd: You know, I’m not an expert in that area but as I’ve gone around the district I’ve had judges tell me that it has been an absolute problem for them, and I think the Governor is probably right. We need to take another look at that.
Bohemian: The Napa Register quoted you a couple of years ago as basically saying that just because you were “pro-business” didn’t mean you turned a blind eye to labor or environmental issues. Can you expand on that?
Dodd: If you look at my voting record the first year, there’s a number of people in the business community that are very unhappy with me. And, I just think that my responsibility is not to represent business, it’s not to represent labor, it’s not to represent the environment, but to represent people by keeping the focus on—the environment, look, this is what we’re going to leave the next generation—policies that promote a cleaner, less carbon-intensive environment need to be advanced. Our shrinking middle class and labor force is important to, frankly, business and the economy moving forward and I just think it’s our responsibility to balance those things and make sure that we make good decisions for the future of the state of California. It’s pretty straightforward to me. I look at the issues, and I care about who is on what side, that’s part of the debate, but at the end of the day I have to look at my district and the state of California overall and make a nuanced, balanced decision that’s best for the people.
Bohemian: Last question. Hillary or Bernie?
Dodd: You’ve just spent like 45 minutes turning your readers on about me, I hope, and now I’m going to piss ’em off in one breath [Laughs]. No, I am all in with Hillary. I am all in with Hillary. Matter of fact, she’s called me, I talked with her while she was in Napa Valley, I had dinner with her in a very small group. And she’s talking about the same things that I am talking about, and our Congressman is talking about—schools, the education of our kids, jobs and the economy, the environment—and the one thing that I was really impressed with was her wanting to change the status quo on mental health in the United States. As Patrick Kennedy has said—he’s become kind of a friend, he comes to the mental health thing at the Staglin winery every year—you know, it really makes you wonder about our society that when you need a ‘check-up from the neck up’” that all of a sudden you can’t get it and, or they don’t take you seriously. We need to do a better job. We talked about that, and about gun control issues—we haven’t even ventured down the line when it comes to suicides in California and our country, and just the veterans and what they are going through, the post-traumatic syndrome. I’m telling you, this is a real challenge to our system today and people are not being taken care of and that’s what I heard her tell me. And that got me. Number one, it was fun being with potentially the first woman president of the United States, but somebody that if she never got there would have had a career as Secretary of State, as First Lady, as Senator, with distinction. I really enjoyed it.
Bohemian: I think about that famous line from Mario Cuomo that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Are Democrats basking in the poetry of the Sanders campaign but will eventually accept the prose of Clinton?
Dodd: I think so. That’s not to say, if you go back and listen to Bernie’s stuff, go back to 2000, 1990s, I don’t know how early he was making those predictions about income inequality—or what was going to happen in Iraq. He may not be the next president of the United States but you’ve got to give him some props for being a very smart public servant.
Bohemian: I will make sure that comment makes it into the story.
Dodd: [Laughs]. I’ll tell you. I’ve been going up and down to Democratic clubs, they’re going to do an endorsement, and here I am—actually I’m not getting a lot of that “former Republican” stuff this time around, but still there’s that underlying with real progressives. There’s a lot of the grassroots that I see every day, lots of Bernie Sanders support by Democratic activists…