Reprinted from The Carmel Pine Cone, April 5, 2013
In certain circles, it is fashionable to work up a frothy head of jaundice when speaking of Jose Castañeda.
Jose Castañeda is a kook. Jose Castañeda is dangerous.
The accepted opinion among the high and the mighty in Monterey County is that Jose Castañeda makes a mockery of democracy, that he’s turned the Salinas City Council into a three-ring circus. He’s a wacko with a cause. He glorifies a notorious and long-dead bandit (horrors!) and his mere presence disrupts the social order.
Get over it, people.
Throughout Monterey County’s long and proud history, kooks and wackos have enjoyed glorious ascendancies in local politics without destroying the social fabric of the region. The woods are full of them. If Monterey County enacted an ordinance forbidding weird gadflies from public office, we’d never be able to fill the average school board.
The most casual political observer wouldn’t have to dig far to find a Jose Castañeda on their own city council. And a handful of local oddballs actually move along to higher office. Witness Jeff Denham, who now babbles tea party drivel in Washington D.C.
If we survived Peter Frusetta, the erstwhile Cowboy in the Capitol, we’ll certainly survive a Jose Castañeda in our midst.
But here’s the thing: Everyone seemed to be okay with a guy like Frusetta and his nutty way of doing things as a state Assemblyman during the 1990s. He was sort of loveable and he wasn’t rude to the local media and—well, you know—he wasn’t one of those La Raza de la Gente troublemakers.
A troublemaker. That’s the word. Jose Castañeda is a troublemaker. And somehow he got elected.
For the uninitiated, Castañeda is an Alisal School District board member who got himself elected to the Salinas City Council in November. Citing conflict-of-interest precedence, the rest of the council believes Castañeda should resign one of his elected positions.
Castañeda refuses, so now everyone has their panties in a wad, as though Castaneda is the first political animal they’ve ever encountered who is encumbered by conflict.
Castañeda hasn’t helped himself in the public-relations department. He’s the sort of guy who actually runs from the television cameras. His dumb-ass supporters are circulating a petition to recall the new mayor. He celebrated his swearing-in ceremony at the card room down the street from City Hall. He runs his school board meetings as if he’s presiding over a street riot.
If he has an agenda—or even a point of view—he doesn’t seem anxious to share it with anyone.
The movers and shakers in Monterey County have expended so much energy denouncing Castañeda that they haven’t spent any time trying to figure out what Castañeda is symptomatic of in the district he represents.
Castañeda appeared out of nowhere from one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Monterey County. He represents a district with a population density that rivals Manhattan, but where only 3,415 citizens bothered to vote in November.
The Alisal in East Salinas has long been represented by a succession of activist Latino politicians with lofty ideals who quickly got co-opted or gutted by the powers that be in Monterey County. They got along to get along.
They were told that the system would work for them if they worked within the system, if they stopped being troublemakers. So they abandoned their ideals. They compromised and nothing changed, except their own lives got considerably more comfortable.
Supervisor Fernando Armenta is incapable of making one of his harmlessly inane public statements anymore without prefacing it with a litany of apologies to those he might offend. Supervisor Simon Salinas will be a featured speaker at an upcoming Panetta Institute Lecture Series event. That doesn’t happen if you’ve built a career out of challenging the political and social order.
So a guy like Jose Castañeda fills the vacuum.
It’s hard to know what Castañeda thinks he represents or what he hopes to accomplish. He seems too distracted by his status as a martyred angel to tell anyone.
Or maybe no one has asked.