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Blazing New Trails: An Interview with Reinette Senum

Blazing New Trails: An Interview with Reinette Senum

As a born and raised Californian, I love this state and also know how special it is to not just the rest of the United States of America; the whole world dreams of The Golden State. One of our biggest challenges moving forward is creating an equitable and thriving cannabis industry, which we still currently do not have under Prop 64. Many folks find it next to impossible to survive with the over taxation and over-regulation, and there is insufficient help or true equity to bring low-income and minority communities’ access and opportunities after the heinous brutality of the drug war.

Reinette Senum has recently decided to run for Governor of California. One of the things I love most about her platform is the importance she places on rectifying the current dismal state of the so-called legal cannabis industry. I was blessed to sit down with Reinette and her partner Susan in Nevada City, and I believe you will find her as inspiring as I do.

Making choices that serve us for seven generations. Photo: Jamie Arrigo

Tell me a bit about yourself, and how you came to be mayor of Nevada City.

I was born in San Francisco. Fourth generation. My family built a house in Nevada County in 1971, when I was four years old, and we moved here. I fell in love with Nevada City the first time my family drove up Broad Street. Susan and I have been together for 13 years. I paint houses for a living, and I have a cat. I ran for local office in 2008 and received the most votes in the 150-year history of the city. Because I received the most votes, I became Vice Mayor my first year, and Mayor my second year. I served my second term as Vice Mayor and Mayor ten years later in 2019. It was my objective, through risk assessment, public outreach, and a daily hands-on approach, to prepare Nevada City for an unpredictable future.

My first term was a dream. I handpicked the best community members in their respective fields to be part of the Sustainability Team. We were the first to devise an official 20-year city-sanctioned sustainability vision. Sustainability, and creating a clear path forward had never been part of the conversation at the city council table. I wanted to change that. I championed the installation of solar arrays on every municipally-owned building in Nevada City, launched the county’s first organic farmers market in downtown Nevada City, and retrofitted a city-owned building into an energy-efficient model for the community. We also built a fleet of 40 micro-houses on wheels, and I spent 3 years, personally, wheeling those micro-homes out into the woods, wherever the homeless were. Following the construction of these micro-houses, I co-founded Sierra Roots, an advocacy organization for the undomiciled, and launched the county’s first Extreme Weather Shelter for the homeless.

My second term was very different from my first. It was less proactive and more reactive to constant crisis: PG&E blackouts, the threat of fire, homeowners insurance policy cancellations, rising homelessness, and the entangled process of cannabis and wireless ordinances. However, as a city council, we still managed to approve a solar farm so as to meet our 100% renewable energy goals as a city, and we approved a five-level, 190-space parking structure with 6,000 square feet of storefront, solar, EV charging stations, and the ability to transform into an extreme weather shelter for the homeless or— now that fires are more catastrophic, anyone for that matter. There were 2 ordinances that I worked on throughout this last term, both ridiculously difficult: our cannabis ordinance and telecommunications ordinance. Both were highly technical and much more complicated than they needed to be.

                     Photo: Reinette Senum

You have decided to run for governor of California; can you tell us a bit more about what brought you to this important decision and some of the issues that you seek to address in running and holding office?

I never intended to run for California Governor. In fact, I had just won my third election for the Nevada City City  Council in February of 2020. I was on the verge of finishing my 2nd term as Mayor, but instead of taking my oath for a third term as Mayor, I resigned. I could see what was happening in our local government around COVID-19 and it was very disturbing. Ultimately, I made the decision to “step down to step up,” though I really didn’t fully know what that was going to look like at the time.

I have now spent this last year consulting with a diversity of world-renowned doctors, lawyers, and health experts and it has become apparent that critical data, therapies, and solutions are not being shared with the public. We can truly protect the vulnerable without trashing anybody’s constitutional rights, and there are terrifically effective protocols for dealing with the virus that is affordable and readily available. We must tend to all the state’s resources with care, efficiency, and wisdom. Our young people, our lands and waters, our communities, our creativity, and our finances — we must protect the most vulnerable while supporting everyone’s sovereign right to thrive in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

California is the 5th largest economy in the world, it sets the standard for progressive policies such as higher fuel emission standards and electric car tax incentives.  We are a vital part of the national and international economy, and we can lead the charge on fostering sustainable industries in all sectors; can you share your perspective on this?

Yes, and my perspective on this is different than most. I want our state to get less entangled in bureaucracy, and more rooted in common sense. My platform is explored in detail in the Contract with Californians; it embodies and celebrates the inherent value of always making decisions with an eye to the next seven generations and with an ear to our elders and the last seven generations. Focusing on what is best for our children and using the basic wisdom that we have acquired over generations provides us with the means to step out of our current destructive trajectory, set aside our differences, and realign our priorities to set the state back on a good course; a sustainable course.

The Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy — the Great Law of the Iroquois — played heavily in the creation of the US Constitution. The Contract with Californians has been crafted in the same spirit, but with the re-inclusion of two of the most critical principles from the Great Law of the Iroquois that were not included in the Constitution: the Seventh Generation Principle and the Wisdom of Grandmothers and Elders Principle.

Susan Nance and Reinette at home in Nevada City. Photo: Jill Carmel

It’s a cultural shift, actually.  This is where the Seventh Generation Principle comes in. It removes the need for so much bureaucracy and allows all California citizens a chance to reset their compass for a different direction: we adjust our thinking in such a way that we always ask, “Is my/our decision serving seven generations from now?” If we do this, everything else will begin to fall in place.

Under my Contract with Californians, our children — the future of our state — are at the center of our wheel, but each spoke in the wheel counts. The Contract with Californians should inspire us to consider what is possible when we work together to rebound from Newsom’s thoroughly abusive reign of terror as a California that our children, and the children of our children, can thrive in.

California’s heritage craft cannabis producers include a large number of farmers who have built their practices on sustainability, controlled growth, and dedication to protecting and replenishing our natural resources.  Do you see a role for cannabis cultivators as leaders in planning California’s agricultural future? 

Yes! We would be fools not to. I know many cultivators that take great pride in their sustainable practices and I would like this to become the gold standard for all of California. We have been leading the way for years. Banning pesticides and chemicals is paramount if we are to improve the number of pollinators, clean our waters sources, soils, and improve the health of Californians. Cannabis farmers can take the lead in this. And we have thousands of potential entrepreneurs and boutique business owners that would like to enter the market, and simply can’t afford it; we can change that.

          Photo: Reinette Senum

Would you use the power of the governor’s office to curb the extensive and onerous regulations currently in operation and, according to some, being mishandled by the cannabis bureaucracy of the BCC, CDFA, and DPH?

Yes, I would.  While on the city council I personally witnessed the over-taxation and regulation within our local cannabis ordinance for a local dispensary. I had never seen such an over-handed reach of government! So many people thought our town was going to be doomed once we opened a dispensary. Nobody ever guessed that the average age of our local customer would be 55 years old. Everyone assumed it was going to bring crime into the area and cause problems with the adjacent businesses and nothing could be further from the truth. The fears and myths of the perceived risks of cannabis have been dispelled. In fact, Nevada City’s only dispensary has been the city’s saving grace regarding declining sales tax from all the shuttered businesses during these illegal shutdowns!

Now that these fears are waning, it’s time to braid in all the local and small-scale mom-and-pop businesses, the boutique businesses and cultivators that can’t enter the market because of the crushing costs, and the oppressive hoop-jumping of California’s over regulated bureaucracy. Ensuring accessibility and entree into the cannabis industry at every level is key. In fact, I want to not only see regenerative farming at the forefront of California’s economy, but the cannabis industry to play a large role in this as well. If California doesn’t streamline the cannabis process now, other states will, and we will be at the back of the pack. Why would we do this to ourselves?

Organic, regenerative agriculture, and sustainable farming practices are an important part of your platform; can you explain why you this is important not just for our state but our world at this time?

It has become very clear to many of us that humanity is in a relationship crisis with everything. And I mean everything: our water, air, soil, food, biosphere, government, education system, religions, banking system, media, neighbors, and family members, even our own bodies. When you look at the vast majority of these relationships, they are abusive. Either we are being abused, or we are doing the abusing. Clearly, this is not sustainable, and certainly does not serve citizens now or for the next seven generations.

It’s obvious we are headed towards a massive food crisis when considering we only have 64 harvests worth of topsoil that remains around the world; our farmland is turning into suburbia; our pollinator population is crashing; we are losing our family farms; water is less and less available for our farmland. We have lost a healthy connection to our bodies, food supply, and the natural world around us.

Agriculture is not a threat to our environment, and farmers are some of the best allies to natural resources stewardship. This campaign is an opportunity to gather forward-thinking and wide-minded farmers, share technical tools and best practices, implement carbon-focused farming, repair California’s topsoil, reduce pesticide usage, and increase pollinator populations. We should facilitate every opportunity to fortify the vast swaths of common ground shared by environmentalists and farmers. 

Agriculture generates 9% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), which makes it the state’s fourth-largest emitter, after transportation, industry, and buildings. But agriculture is the only one of these sectors with absolutely tremendous potential to also remove carbon dioxide and other GHGs from the atmosphere. The science shows us that carbon-focused farming can also improve crop yields and livestock health, increase crop resilience to drought, reduce erosion and flooding, improve soil water-holding capacity and allow farmers to cut back on the use of synthetic fertilizers. Over time, these practices can lower costs for farmers, and by building resilience in crops, they may also reduce federal crop insurance payouts, saving taxpayers money. Keeping the land resilient and productive is a common-sense good investment, and California is primed to blaze this new trail.

You suggest the issuing of 45-year bonds; can you tell me more about this program and how it pencils out?  Do you support a scaled payback burden, with the bulk of bond debt carried by the wealthiest sector?

I can get into the penciling out of this, but this is a complicated, technical matter and only one piece of the pie. I do want to say, however, that it is my hope to have direct household participation in the issuance of these bonds. While general participation in the bond market has fallen over the years, I would like to encourage all Californian’s invest in our future and not just the wealthiest and most elite sector of the state. We are all stakeholders.

You suggest a “resource extraction severance fee” to fund your proposed rejuvenation of the Economic Development Bank and to jump-start an expansion of the Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts.  Will that be sufficient to accomplish all that you have outlined to improve the lives of Californians?

No, this will not be enough. But it is a beginning and a strong one. We shouldn’t kid ourselves, we have a very long and arduous road ahead of us and we must find ways to adjust our current economic infrastructure so as to better serve all Californians. We have allowed this state to fall into complete disrepair and we are at an unacceptable level of crisis.  Implementing a resource extraction fee allows us an immediate springboard so as to begin rebuilding our frayed economy, investing in our children, and making our state golden once again. It is my belief, that as we make the changes identified in my platform, we will create a powerful feedback loop that will increase the economic multiplier effect and ensure the beginning of an economic rebound.

Saving and making soil for the future.          Photo: Jamie Arrigo

Some argue that California residents are exiting the state in record numbers but the real problem is that medium to large businesses are moving to cheaper states, taking vast numbers of jobs and tax revenue away with them.  How can you entice job providers to stay?

Two major reforms are required. First, we have to broaden the charter of the I-bank so that it not only funds government projects, as is presently the case, but also private endeavors, including local, small-scale mom-and-pop businesses and manufacturing. Second, we also must remove the exceedingly low financing caps that prevent the I-bank from supporting any projects of real significance.

There is no easy way to finance these needs. But what we are doing now to finance these needs is supremely ineffective — wasting tens of billions of dollars every year on interest payments to Wall Street is wasteful. If we jumpstart our local economies through our own state bank, we won’t charge ourselves so much in interest. So we can really get the most out of our money and make every dollar we invest in this state count for something meaningful. And all our dollars stay right here, in California. Within the first 100 days of my administration, I will work with all willing members of the legislature to pass legislation to massively expand the use of the I-Bank to help jumpstart our economy at every level.

If we structure a new California Main Street Micro Loan and Grant Program to funnel quick money to families and individuals with a dream and a need, we will spur a massive wave of new sustainable local economic growth, for pennies on the dollar compared to what we’re paying in interest right now. We need to stop spending 5% interest on our bond indebtedness to line the pockets of Wall Street and start investing our money much more efficiently and effectively within California. I recommend we establish an Economic Task Force from each respective county to identify the greatest local needs and help develop tailor-made responses — via seed funding, partial investments, or matching funds subsidized through the I-Bank. Special emphasis will be given to investments supporting the expansion of regenerative farming practices, providing carbon sequestration, and revitalizing Main Street businesses and manufacturing, as well as addressing the housing crisis.

We should also look at capital gains cuts. California taxes all capital gains as income, but the Federal Government differentiates between long-term capital gains and short-term capital gains for tax purposes; we should do the same. As it stands, California’s capital gains taxes can run between 1% to 13.3%, depending on your overall income and corresponding California tax bracket. As a state, we need to re-evaluate this. Californian business owners can no longer afford this burden.

A key portion of your “Contract with Californians” is titled “Real Public Health.” Do you support universal health care or Medicare for all? 

Real public health has been under attack for decades by a corporate, multinational industry that is primarily concerned with profit, not peoples’ health.  We have all experienced this in our interactions with the medical system. Traditional community public health resources, infrastructure, and personnel have been systematically dismantled and degraded while being captured and directed by corporate entities that have profit as their primary motive — and not actual good public health practices. So while I am in favor of universal healthcare or Medicaid for all, I am equally committed to seeing corporate interests where our healthcare is concerned be reduced and minimized. But there are some profound ethical issues we’ve been confronted with over this past year that don’t have anything to do with co-pays.

Every Californian — every human — has a basic fundamental right to make choices about his or her own health, with full informed consent and transparency about the potential risks and benefits of different treatments or approaches. There is no place for state-sanctioned coercion in the lives of Californians. We must — and we will — do better at empowering Californians to be free to make their own choices regarding their own health and well-being.  Our present nanny-state government approach does not work.

Do you see a place for cannabis medicines to be a legitimate option for those who are turning to herbal remedies instead of pharmaceutical drugs? 

Cannabis is absolutely a legitimate option for Californians who chose to go that route.  Cannabis offers the possibility of both incredible innovation and high access. It is inexpensive to produce, and with common-sense policies, and both scientific rigor and sensible regulatory oversight, California can ensure widespread access to those in need, disrupting the traditional marketplace.

According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 60% of Americans take at least one prescription and 79% say the cost is unreasonable. This must stop. We must advocate for more affordable therapies and for pricing transparency. Beyond drug costs, far too many Californians are simply taking way too many prescription drugs.  While we absolutely need to make drugs more affordable, it’s even more important that we help people reduce their overall dependency on pharmaceutical drugs and achieve better baseline health markers so that they can reduce their overall medical and prescription costs.

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The ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center have documented the rise in right-wing, white supremacist groups across the country with a huge upsurge in California.  How do you plan to meet these issues head-on? 

As governor, I would continue to support the justice system’s efforts to combat and prosecute hate crimes to the fullest extent of the law. The California I dream of is the same California everyone dreams of, and this dream is available for all people, regardless of identity politics. The ACLU and SPLC were created largely as responses to the inequitable application of civil rights and I believe in their mission to combat systemic bigotry; if the law were being applied equitably, organizations like the ACLU and SPLC wouldn’t be necessary. The fact of the matter is if we just do what we say we are going to do—all of us are free to pursue peace, liberty, and justice for all– organizations like the ACLU and SPLC wouldn’t be necessary.

A growing number of people in this country believe our election system is broken.  How will a Rank Choice Voting system address the historic disenfranchisement of poor, Black, and/or Brown voters?  How will you ensure sufficient polling places and increased voting opportunities?  Where will that funding come from? 

What we’ve witnessed is a wholesale disenfranchisement of all voters and citizen stakeholders. Corporations are doing great. Too often, candidates win elections despite being strongly disliked by a majority of voters. With RCV, if no candidate has a majority among voters’ first choices, the candidates in last place will be eliminated one-by-one. If a voter’s first choice is eliminated, their vote instantly goes to their second choice. This way, the ultimate tally determines which of the top candidates has real majority support. RCV discourages negative campaigning, provides more choice for voters, saves money, promotes more moderate and thoughtful representation, minimizes strategic voting, and increases participation from military and overseas voters.

We need to ensure that on whatever day statewide and local elections occur, every person in California who is registered to vote actually has an opportunity to do so. One of my first acts in office will be to make Election Day will be a state holiday; all employers will be prohibited from penalizing employees in any way for missing any amount of work on Election Day in order to complete the act of voting. In addition, we absolutely must be able to ensure our state’s election integrity. If we don’t have this, we don’t have a democracy. We must ensure all laws, procedures, and chains of custody are followed so as not to usurp the will of California voters.

What is your position on reparations to Native American Tribes in California for past unjust seizures of land, homes, and children? 

In 1871, the Indian Appropriations Act withdrew federal recognition of Native Nations as separate political entities that had contracted through treaties with the United States. This ultimately abolished all treaty-making. It was then established, “no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty.”  Few Americans, and even elected officials, know this, and it’s long overdue to correct this once and for all.

It is time to reinstate treaty-making and acknowledge Native independence. It is time to secure Native nations their rightful place as independent Nations guaranteed the fundamental right to self-determination for their communities, people, land, policies, and economies. In addition, it is also long overdue to stop dehumanizing the Indigenous people and ensure full rights and equal protection. For hundreds of years, Indigenous peoples have been displaced from their original and ancestral homelands. We now have 4 out of 5 Native peoples no longer living within reservation or federal trust land. As Governor, I would dedicate myself to rectifying this, and ensuring all Indigenous people are provided appropriate education, social services, employment, housing, and healthcare.

What is your position on reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans in the U.S.?

The historical legacy of slavery in this country is a stain on the nation. California was admitted to the Union as a free, non-slavery state by the Compromise of 1850. Early historical documents demonstrate that we’ve always been a multicultural place. Native American, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish, Russian, Northern and Western Europeans all inhabited the territory at the dawn of statehood, and African Americans came west to California in search of the freedom to dream as well. California welcomed African Americans, whereas neighboring states like Oregon wrote anti-black laws into their state constitution, outlawing even the admittance of African Americans to the state. Reparations are certainly a topic worth exploring on the national scale, but I’m not sure it’s a productive conversation in California. No doubt there are measurable discrepancies in achievement among California’s African American community that can certainly be addressed with thoughtful and targeted policy. Rather than linger in our complicated past, I prefer to look to the future.

Educational opportunities have always been the largest equalizer in this nation, and I think California should provide robust funding of education across the board: pre-k through university and trades. Shoring up public district funding with cannabis tax dollars and possibly a resource extraction fee as well, will create true parity so that all schools are funded on par with the top three performing districts in our state. When students in Crenshaw and Guadalupe receive the same amount of funding as the students in Carmel, Palo Alto, and Santa Monica-Malibu, I think we will see measurable improvements in achievement. Closing the achievement gap at schools leads to improved performance among other markers beyond post-secondary education, like improved health and employment outcomes.  The achievement gap starts in school, and plays out over the course of a lifetime; the gap doesn’t just magically disappear when our students are graduated from high school. Let’s change that.

The damage to programs intended to improve rates of equity in education among California’s students must be remedied. Affirmative Action was always intended to create access– just because someone opens the door to the University of California to an African American student doesn’t mean they are also handing out degrees; that degree must be earned by the same merits as every other degree. The legislation that undermined Affirmative Action in California during the 1990s was written with very manipulative and deceptive civil rights language; many Californians thought they were voting for equity, when in fact they were voting to deconstruct the scaffolding that ultimately resulted in building more robust equity among California’s students.

My platform also describes plans to improve paid parental leave, and believe it or not, this will have a significant impact on health and economic outcomes for children and addresses the very first gap our kid’s experience in California.

You outline a number of reforms that would address law enforcement abuse of their authority, especially with BIPOC communities.  Some people advocate for “de-funding” the police in order to move resources over to social workers, health care professionals, and others thereby taking some “first responder” calls out of the purview of the police.  What are your thoughts on that?

Many Californians find themselves existing within the law’s authority but outside its protection. I think most of us agree that we do not need to employ the police to address a number of issues that are better met constructively by social workers and other healthcare professionals, and I think most of us agree that we want our police to protect and serve. There is a frayed relationship between police forces and certain segments of their communities, and there is a deep need for change in policing culture, accountability, training, policies, and practices.

We have to talk about the very valid concerns that motivate today’s police reform movement, and focus on reforming California policing; more reform, less de-fund. We can build this trust by initiating some changes such as requiring officers to carry mandatory malpractice insurance, eliminating qualified immunity, making chokeholds illegal, and expanding whistleblower protections.

As a young woman, you trekked across Alaska by yourself and had quite an adventure. Later in life, you discovered that your great grandfather, General Frederick Funston, crossed Alaska as well and your journey took on a deeper meaning for you. Much of your work is about being conscientious of those who came before you and the seven generations who will come after you. Can you speak from your heart as to why you are taking on this next challenge and what it means to you?

There are actually a lot of similarities between my great grandfather and me, aside from the Alaska trip but one thing that I know that I have that he never had: 100 years of perspective. I’ve been given the good fortune to be able to look back at the last hundred years after his death and see how his actions continue to roll out to this day, a century later, at the continued expense of future generations.

One of those actions was creating a firebreak throughout San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. He was in command of the city, declared martial law, and then ordered the firebreak so as to stop the inferno. Later on, those respective homeowners attempted to sue the U.S. Army and my great grandfather, and they lost. With that court case came the ruling known as Eminent Domain.

Ironically, as an activist and environmentalist, I’ve had to fight the overreach of eminent domain throughout my life. I have literally come to tangibly understand the meaning and power of legacy. I have learned from his right and from his wrong actions, and I’ve made a conscientious choice to leave the wrong decisions behind and continue on with what is righteous and good for future generations.

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