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Remembering Carol Whiteside

William Fulton on
Feb 22, 2021

Sometime in the late 1980s – I can’t find a hyperlink at this late date in history – the brash new mayor of Modesto went to a meeting of the Association of Bay Area Governments and argued that the Central Valley should be part the conversation about future of Bay Area growth. It was the early days of supercommuters and, during one of California’s periodic housing booms, Bay Area commuters were breaking down the wall to the Central Valley. In return, Carol Whiteside wanted to break down the wall that shut her out of regional planning in the Bay Area.

It was a slow news day and Carol got a lot of headlines, though the truth of the matter was that nobody in snooty Bay Area planning circles took her very seriously. But Carol, who died Friday at the age of 78, was not easily deterred. In 20 years as a leader on growth issues in California – four as mayor, six in the administration of Pete Wilson, and 10 as head of the Great Valley Center – she probably had more influence over the shape of regional planning in California than any other single individual.

In Modesto, where she served one term each on the school board, the city council, and as mayor, Carol was one of those people folks call “a force of nature,” as the Modesto Bee’s lengthy and loving obituary made clear. (A more personal and moving remembrance by longtime Bee reporter Garth Stapley can be found here.) But it was in her subsequent roles with the Wilson Administration and the Great Valley Center – an institution that came into being entirely because of the force of her personality – that she left her most lasting impression on the state.

She came into state government as an aide to Doug Wheeler, Wilson’s natural resources secretary, and stayed on as director of intergovernmental relations – essentially, Wilson’s liaison to cities and counties around the state.

Proposition 13 had given the state far more control over local finances, and the locals – chafing over this loss of control – retaliated by pursuing narrowly focused planning goals, often cutting the amount of housing permitted (which typically was – and still is – a money-loser from a tax perspective) while maximizing retail space (which generated sales tax). The result was, for the first time, a lack of housing production in job-rich areas – the early symptoms of today’s mega-crisis in housing in California. In 1988, longtime Assembly Speaker Willie Brown had proposed simply abolishing local government altogether and replacing it with a small number of regional governments.

Fresh off her mayoral appearance at ABAG, Carol jumped into this fray with gusto, traveling the state constantly and trying to find solutions that would retain local control while at the same time meeting regional needs. Admittedly, this was a little easier in those days: the challenges of balancing climate change and extreme housing underproduction lay ahead. It’s also worth noting that, on growth issues, Wilson – the former mayor of San Diego – was a much more moderate Republican than his current reputation would suggest. But it’s important to understand how different she was from most of her contemporaries who moved from local to state government in the ‘90s

After term limits passed in 1990 – the same year Wilson was elected governor – the legislature opened up for the first time in decades and many city and county elected officials moved up. Most were Democrats, many had strong ties to labor, and almost all of them seemed to immediately forget where they came from: They prioritized the state’s needs over the state-local relationship. By contrast, Carol – working in the executive branch for a moderate Republican governor – did not. Wheeler and others who worked with her during this time, including Wheeler’s longtime undersecretary Michael Mantell, recall that she was extraordinarily skilled at navigating the often-difficult relationship between the state and local governments.

Part of her skill was simply her passion for both local government – government close to the people, something Republicans once valued – and a regional approach to both growth management and economic development. She preached regionalism wherever she went, often to a lukewarm response. But in 1997 she was able to create for herself the ultimate perch for regional advocacy in California: She persuaded several Bay Area foundations to stake her in creating the Great Valley Center, an organization that advocated for a regional approach in the 18-county Central Valley of California.

The Central Valley has often been overlooked as a force in California and Carol was determined to change that. In the 10 years that she ran the Great Valley Center, she was the most powerful person in the Valley – more powerful than any individual politician or business leader. She used that power to promote the idea that the Central Valley was a region that needed to work together to get things done but also that needed to be taken seriously by the political and economic leaders in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. She largely succeeded – helped by the fact that the Central Valley was, at the time, California’s swing political district.

Part of Carol’s success was due to her passion and commitment, but part of it was due to the fact that she was a warm, caring, and funny person. The Modesto Bee obituary called her “smart, creative, tough, curious, stubborn, brilliant and bold" and that pretty much sums it up.” When we were on panels together at conferences, which was pretty much all the time back in the '90s, she would often sit next to me and draw pictures of birds for me to take home to my daughter.

And she often used her own culinary skill to bring people together. She was a gourmet chef and had once taught classes on cooking. She once greeted me at her front door holding a blow torch. (She was making creme brule). Bill Higgins, now head of the California Association of Councils of Governments (CALCOG), told me the story about how she once invited him to a Fourth of July party where the guests all dressed up as characters.

Higgins jokingly suggested that it be filmed as if it were Iron Chef, so she told him to bring a video camera and do the recording himself. Just out of law school, Bill didn’t have a video camera, much less the money to buy one, but nonetheless he went out and purchased one in order to film the entire event – then returned the camera to Best Buy because he couldn’t afford it. Because, as he told me the other day, “who is going to say no to Carol?”

We will all miss Carol, and I hope that her example can shine forth in the future, as we continue – in a changed and complicated world – to wrestle with the same issues that engaged her for so long.


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