Marin Councilman, Lawyer and Leader: Q&A with Dick Spotswood
The politics and government columnist for the Marin Independent Journal knows what he’s writing about.
HE’S BEEN A city councilman, a transportation authority director and a college foundation president. And, at 71 years old, he’s in the prime of life. He’s also been a practicing attorney for 44 years. All of which now informs the writing in his twice-weekly Marin Independent Journal newspaper column on Marin politics and government.
For the past 15 years, Richard “Dick” Spotswood has been transferring his thoughts from his brain to a blank computer screen on what makes Marin, and occasionally the State of California, function, or not. Inquiring minds always want to know, is he liberal? Or is he conservative? According to him, the answer is neither. For years, Spotswood has billed himself as “the militant centrist” on all political matters. The evidence is unclear: he served a term as an elected member of the San Francisco Democratic Central Committee; then again, he also spent six years as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves. As for his voting record, he’s registered as an independent.
After graduating from the University of San Francisco with an undergraduate degree in law and attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for two years, Spotswood was admitted to the California Bar in 1973. Then for 12 years, starting in 1980, Spotswood was elected and re-elected three times to the Mill Valley City Council, where he served three one-year terms as the city’s mayor. In the ’80s and ’90s, he also served as a director on the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District; the Doyle Drive Task Force; and on the board of the Transportation Authority of Marin. In one out-of-the-box pursuit, he and several colleagues are seriously addicted to railroad nostalgia: they are the owners of a restored Pullman car in which they often travel from city to city throughout the country.
The columnist and his wife, Joanne, who both volunteer for St. Vincent de Paul in San Rafael, have lived in Mill Valley since 1976. The couple has two adult children: Beth, a writer for Alta California magazine and a print and online columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle; and Alex, a production manager at Lucasfilm Animation.
Your column appears in the Marin Independent Journal’s opinion section on Wednesdays and Sundays; how long does it take to write? My wife says I’m always writing a column. I’d say I spend from three, four, five, to maybe six hours writing one column; usually that’s in two sittings. And that doesn’t include the research. But I’m always taking notes, talking to people or they’re calling me. I can carry two or three columns around in my head at any one time. Tomorrow, I’m having breakfast with Jerry Peters. Jerry’s a friend of mine who’s a Novato Sanitation District commissioner and former Chamber of Commerce president. We’ll talk about what’s going on in Novato. Maybe I’ll take notes, but I’m not looking for specifics; I’m looking to understand. I’ll keep what we talk about in my head for a few weeks, then put it together with something else I run across, and I’ll have a column.
Is it difficult to write a column? Or does it almost come easily? The hard part isn’t writing the column; I just write what’s in my head. The hard part is polishing what I’ve written into 600 words, more or less, that makes some kind of sense and that looks reasonable.
How do you select your topics? When something makes me angry, I’ll write about it. But you have to keep in mind, I’m a dilettante; I’m intrigued by politics. Some writers won’t go somewhere unless their publication pays their way. Not me. I go to the Iowa caucuses because I want to find out what’s going on. I consider dilettantes the future of journalism.
At the end of every column you often give your email address (firstname.lastname@example.org); does that bring a deluge of junk mail? My email address is there every time and I’m really behind right now. Again, my wife asks me, “Why are you doing this?” I guess in a global sense, I want people to think my column is something they can rely on. Occasionally, I strike pay dirt.
So it’s worth it sometimes? About a month ago, a lady emailed me from Corte Madera. She said she was worried about fire danger around her home — and that she’d called several places but no one responded. So I went there to look around and it did seem dangerous. At the time, I’d been writing about Marin’s fire danger for over a year, but never got an inside look at the crisis. After our meeting, I placed some calls and told people about the lady I’d met in Corte Madera. I wound up spending hours touring the hills with the Marin Fire District, and I’ve continued writing about the fire danger in Marin County ever since. Then last week a chap emailed me from Rotary Manor and complained that the grounds were overgrown and no one cared except him. But it was beautifully overgrown as far as I could see. Then I found out Rotary Manor is actually affordable senior housing, but it sure didn’t look like what I would think affordable housing would look like. So I learned a big lesson there.
A month ago, your column claimed most homeless people suffer from mental illness and they should be cared for in an institution, not left on the street to suffer. What was the response to that? Surprisingly, it got little response, but what it did get was mostly positive. Here’s the story: several years ago, as a volunteer at the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall for the homeless in San Rafael, I met Christine Paquette, their executive director. She’s rock solid. Anyway, I said I needed a deeper, even intellectual, understanding of the homelessness problem and she said to read Street Crazy by Dr. Stephen Seager, a psychiatrist’s no holds barred, in the trenches discussion of the problem. So I read it. Seager’s main point was that reforming the system for treating homelessness is like reforming a slavery camp in the 1840s. It can’t be done; you have to get rid of the system. In this case, you have to get rid of slavery. With regards to homelessness, it’s a moral issue: You shouldn’t leave a sick person out on the street. In other words, the system must be changed; these people should be institutionalized. And it can’t be elective; they need to receive this kind of help.
Has anyone talked personally to you about that column? One response I did get was from a very close friend; she’s well known in her community but I won’t mention her name. Her son is homeless in San Rafael. The other night she called to say her son was in jail. Now that’s not the right place for him to be, but, she said, “At least I know where he is.”
What’s another problem that makes you angry enough to write about? I think the lack of qualified candidates running for office, on the local, state and national level, is a terrible problem. The public has this misconception that when they vote they’ll have the luxury of choosing from the most qualified candidates. The truth, in most cases, is that many candidates are not qualified to serve. You can always find a bunch of third-raters and wackos to run. Qualified candidates are hard to find. I won’t mention names, but the other day I was talking with three former mayors of a major Marin city who were unhappy with their county supervisor. But when I suggested one of them run for that seat, they replied, almost in unison, “Why me?” And that’s understandable. Why would any normal, sensitive, middle-class citizen with a job and a family to support do this?
Is there anything you find encouraging while writing a column on government and politics for a regional newspaper? Let’s just leave it with this: I’m encouraged with what’s happening regarding government and politics on the local level — but not on the macro level, the American level. I’m very concerned about America.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine's print edition with the headline "Dick Spotswood".