Political Notebook

Dan Walters: Paranoid wave hits the coast

The term “drinking the Kool-Aid” entered the popular lexicon after one of the most tragic incidents of the 20th century.

In 1978, over 900 members of the “Peoples Temple” religious cult, which had moved from California to Guyana, committed suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid on the orders of Jim Jones, their leader.

The phrase came to be applied to anyone who blindly adheres to a narrow dogma.

In its extreme form, fanaticism manifests itself in violence, as in Guyana, or in the murderous rampages of contemporary jihadists.

In nonviolent form, it’s seen in allegiance to causes that takes on a religious fervor.

One sees rapturous righteousness within the religious right on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage, and within the secular left on climate change and other environmental issues.

One even sees bipartisan outbreaks, such as last year’s intense legislative battle over requiring vaccination of schoolchildren.

We definitely saw it last Wednesday during a very lengthy meeting of the state Coastal Commission on whether its executive director, Charles Lester, would be fired.

Dozens of speakers passionately portrayed it as an effort by development interests to silence opposition to coastal projects.

No one, however, offered any proof. Their repetitious plaints of conspiracy, very reminiscent of the hearings on vaccination, were merely expressions of fervent, even paranoid, faith in their cause.

Conversely, commission members – mostly card-carrying liberals and environmentalists – insisted that it had nothing to do with developer pressure and everything to do with unhappiness over Lester’s managerial style, particularly, they said, being kept in the dark about pending cases.

One of the most detailed accounts of Lester’s alleged shortcomings came from TV producer/environmental activist Dayna Bochco, who later voted to keep him on the job.

“It’s not about developers and their consultants,” Bochco told the audience. “We have been terribly mischaracterized as developer hacks.”

Even Lester, in a post-firing interview with the Los Angeles Times, generally agreed that his differences with commissioners hinged on how much independence he should have.

So there’s absolutely no evidence that Lester’s firing, on a 7-5 vote, was a developer coup.

It was really a garden-variety clash over managerial style, which is common in state and local governments, particularly when a manager is chosen by, and therefore should be answerable to, a board.

Neither simple logic nor lack of evidence, however, deters coastal activists and those in the media who also sipped the Kool-Aid from believing that it was a moral clash of biblical proportions. And political figures feed the paranoia.

Tom Steyer, the billionaire investor who may run for governor two years hence, fumed, “Behind closed doors, the Coastal Commission defied the will of the people and acted to weaken the protection of California’s iconic beaches. This is a wake-up call for all who care about preserving California’s majestic coastline for future generations.”

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, who should know better, tweeted, “Let me apologize to the public. I truly thought my appointees would be better stewards of the coast.”

That Kool-Aid must taste mighty sweet.