If you’re a politician these days it’s hard to separate yourself from the pack. Everybody wants better schools, affordable healthcare, a livable wage, an unpolluted environment, less crime, and fewer homeless and drug addicts on the streets. If you’re running for office for the first time it’s easier to paint a future utopian picture with all of these problems solved than if you’re an incumbent who’s on the hook for not solving them.
After you’ve been in the trenches a while the realities of a shrinking tax base, no affordable housing, lousy schools, and a stubbornly persistent homeless, mentally ill, and drug addicted population inevitably tarnish an incumbent’s long-ago inspirational campaign promises as society’s woes roll right along from one term into the next. But elections keep comin’ ‘round and candidates keep searching for ways to convince their constituents that they as individuals can somehow make a difference despite the stark evidence of an enduring mountain of ongoing problems.
Life-long Ukiah resident, parent, local businesswoman and Ukiah mayor Maureen “Mo” Mulheren is both an experienced Ukiah city councilwoman and a brand new contender for the District 2 seat on the County’s board of supervisors, and she sees herself as a standard bearer for her overwhelmed fellow young-adults and their many struggles.
She’s not new to politics—she is still Ukiah’s mayor—but she is a new candidate for the District 2 supervisor’s seat that’s up in the next election in 2020. When we met in her office last week at 304 North State Street and walked through a warren of small businesses back to a conference room, she told me she had recently filed her letter of intent to run for the District 2 seat, currently held by John McCowen, and has in fact already kick-started her campaign, which is being managed by Cloverdale Mayor Melanie Bagby. She said Bagby is working on her campaign website.
This next step up in the trajectory of Mulheren’s professional life has, like all political campaigns, its own unique brand of intrigue. For one, at least as of last week, nobody seems to know (including Mulheren) if McCowen, who’s filled the District 2 seat for three 4-year terms, will retire or not after the current term. Mulheren actually went over and asked him about it but said he was noncommittal. “I think three terms is long enough for any elected official,” she said, adding that, if elected, she’s committed to serving only two terms. “How engaged or passionate you are at some point becomes an issue when you’ve heard the same things over and over…”
When I asked Mulheren why she decided to throw her hat in this particular ring, she caught me out on the cliché. “That makes it sound like I just woke up and decided to do it,” she said. “This has been my plan for 13 years.” Mulheren’s clearly not a free spirit who jumps at any ol’ thing on the fly. Since graduating from Ukiah High, she’s gone from county employee (I didn’t see opportunities for advancement so I went into the private sector) to working for a local contractor (It was great to be able to follow a project from its inception to its conclusion) to becoming an insurance agent for somebody else, to owning her own local insurance business, which she still does today while serving on Ukiah’s city council as mayor; the mayor’s spot is filled from among the council members on a rotating basis every year. She’s by all accounts a hard-working, long-term planner who doesn’t let grass grow under her feet. She says, with matter-of-fact self-confidence and without a trace of arrogance, that she has no doubt that she’ll win the supervisor’s seat she seeks.
Mulheren's straightforward and calm demeanor is refreshing. She comes across as neither fawning nor arrogant. “When I worked for Sheriff Allman he called me a Type A personality. If I’m doing something I’m all in,” she said. “I make sure that I’m at every meeting I can be at, that I’ve done all my research and all my homework and am really engaged with the community.”
She wouldn’t tell me her political affiliation, if any, and says for the most part that she’s been able to sidestep the worst of the hulking political beast. “It’s pretty challenging because so many people make snap judgments,” she said. “We have a really divided county, and I understand it because I grew up here. I can hear both sides. There are some people who flat out don’t care about me, don’t want to listen to me. They’re never gonna change.”
So…could Mulheren be running for the supervisor’s seat for the dough? “That would be a change,” she laughed. “It would be nice to be paid.” She said that Ukiah city council members, including the mayor, receive a stipend of $416 dollars a month. “It’s basically a volunteer job,” she said. “If I calculated my hours it would be about $1.50 an hour.” County supervisors, on the other hand, recently voted to increase their salaries by $24,000 and earn between $61,200 and $85,500 a year, not counting full county benefits.
But she says the money isn’t the main factor. “When I made the [Ukiah] city council in 2014…I wanted to be the voice of the people who don’t show up at city council meetings, who are busy at soccer games, having dinner with their families, or working two or three jobs: I wanted their voices to be heard, when what we were getting were the voices of a lot of retired people who are comfortable with what they have.”
"Mo," as she's familiarly known around town, says she brings a fresh perspective on what it’s like for her struggling young-adult contemporaries, squeezed on all sides, to work and raise their families in Mendo.
Mulheren is 40 years old and says she knows from the inside out all about those struggles; she’s navigated them herself – starting with housing. “It’s really frustrating for somebody from here, who grew up here and wants to stay,” she said. “I see adults my age in roommate situations, with two or three roommates. You’re in your 30s and it’s just not affordable. And if you can afford it, there’s nowhere to rent.” Mulheren says it happened to her. “I was married but had to sell my home as part of a divorce,” she said. “I was able to find a place to rent, but after two years the rent was raised and I couldn’t afford it when it was raised from $1,500 to $1,750. When I moved it was raised to $2,000. As a single parent you’re not going to be able to do that.”
Siting new housing is another issue when the NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) culture rears its ugly head. As one example, she described a resident who lived near a desperately needed new apartment building that was in the works. The resident was upset and complained that once the apartments were built and occupied, renters on the second-floor would be able to look outside their windows and see her working in her garden. Mulheren said she understands that many people feel entitled to protect the lives they’ve built for themselves, but have typically not taken the next step to talk about how they might work together, for the greater good, when problems like this one arise. “The more voices at the table the better the outcome,” she said. The housing problem is exacerbated, she added, by Ukiah’s limited footprint – just six square miles.
Mulheren said that lack of housing is hurting all local business, regardless of what type of business it is. “There are businesses that can’t recruit managers because there’s no place to live. The hospital is looking to expand and bring in new doctors. Where are those people going to live?” She pointed out that economic benefits from new residents spread out to the area’s restaurants, bars, theaters, concerts, and other services and events simply by virtue of living here and spending their money in the local economy.
Tourism, Mulheren said, is another example of where the county should be making more money than it does. “Inland people have great tourism opportunities in places like Montgomery Woods, Lake Mendocino, and Vichy Hot Springs,” she said. “We’re a day trip to the coast and we’re half the price.” Supporting local businesses with better tools to help them thrive and grow is a top priority for her. “Our local economy and how we support businesses …is one of the things that I am very passionate about. I don’t think that Ukiah is ever going to have a Tesla factory but we do have great manufacturing businesses and other employers that are already here that we could help support.”
Mulheren is if anything more glamorous in person than she appears in the group photo on the Ukiah City Council website, where she’s sandwiched between men old enough to be her father and looks like she’s just walked into “Take Your Daughter to Work” day. Reflecting on my own 1980s Baby Boomer business uniform of skirted wool suits, neutral pantyhose, long-sleeved silk blouses with big bows (a la Dianne Feinstein), sensible bobs and low-heeled pumps, I considered Mulheren’s short, sleeveless, keyhole-neck black dress, cranberry lace tights, and oversized round earrings and just had to ask her, woman to woman, if being young and glamorous worked for or against her in today’s big bad political world. She clearly considers her appearance and gender non-issues and scoffed at the notion that anybody gives a fig about how she looks or dresses. “The way I dress has nothing to do with my work, how much I do, how much I know about local politics,” she said. “It hopefully changes the way that people view how you should dress.” She added that she has in the past struggled to be taken seriously as a young woman, but that her gender is thankfully less and less of an issue as more people get to know her.
Mulheren summarized what she sees as her uniqueness as a supervisorial candidate just as her next appointment, right on schedule, walked up to the conference room door. “People understand that I’m intelligent and know what I’m talking about, can see what I stand for, especially if they’ve met me. I’m an open book.”