MODESTO — Few people regularly attend local government meetings, and those who do usually can be categorized as representing an interest a union, developers, environmental protection, the Latino community or as preparing to run for office.
Occasionally someone stands apart. Emerson Drake is such a person. Over the last several years, he has become one of the most recognizable faces and voices at local public meetings.
At 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, Drake would have a presence even if he never said a word. But in fact he says lots of words at meetings of the Modesto Irrigation District board, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors (when it doesn't conflict with the MID) and the Modesto City Council.
At some of these meetings, Drake occupies the microphone more than any of the elected leaders or staff. He usually speaks eloquently in a booming baritone voice that doesn't really need amplification. He speaks with authority, even when he's on shaky ground factually.
Depending on your viewpoint, Drake is articulate, amusing and a righteous thorn in the side of bureaucrats and self-serving elected officials. Or he's a showman and a buffoon, rude with his catcalls and heckling from the seats and generally annoying. All of those descriptions and more came up as I asked various officials about Drake's impact.
Drake also is a regular commenter on modbee.com stories and some of my editorials and columns under the moniker "truthseekers." He maintains a website, http://eyeonmodesto.com, and has a Blogtalk radio show that he calls "What's on America's Mind." The expansive title says something about his range of interests and self- confidence. His Democrat view often shines through.
So who is this guy? I sat down with him for 90 minutes a couple of weeks ago, and learned a few things, but only a few. Drake, 60, the oldest of six children, says he came to Modesto 26 years ago to work at Modesto Tobacco & Candy Co. He said he spent 20 years in distribution, warehousing and warehousing management jobs. These days he's a job applicant.
His unemployed status explains why he has time to attend so many meetings beginning to end adding up to many hours every week. His unemployment can be explained as well: Drake has a felony conviction for cultivating marijuana.
His April 2008 arrest appeared as a brief in The Modesto Bee. To summarize: Investigators said a strong odor led them to a northeast Modesto home where they found a marijuana growing operation that had produced about $160,000 worth of dope. The police lieutenant said investigators found marijuana growing in three bedrooms and about 18 pounds of packaged pot.
Initially Drake was charged with three counts: cultivating marijuana, possession of marijuana for sale and theft of services (stealing power). Drake pleaded no contest to the cultivation charge and the other two were dropped. He was sentenced to 36 months' formal probation, 90 days in jail and ordered to pay $200 fine restitution. According to the Sheriff's Office, he was in custody at the honor farm from March 20, 2009, to May 10, 2009.
Drake said he started growing marijuana legally, with seven or eight plants for medicinal purposes for others, "then it turned out I had a green thumb," he explains, with his signature chuckle. His conversation reveals this odd mix of it's-no-big-deal and it's- not-something-I'm-proud-of. "I haven't had a toke in four years," he says.
On one hand he states that employers don't worry much about cannabis these days. Perhaps that's a comforting thought, but he's still looking. It's a tough job market for a lot of people.
Of the three agencies he dogs most closely, Drake has had the harshest words for the MID board and specifically Director Tom Van Groningen, who he referred to as "the worst thing that ever happened" to the public utility. A few years ago, then City Councilwoman Kristin Olsen seemed to be his favored target. He dubbed her "the Shopping Cart Queen" because of the ordinance she pushed to regulate abandoned carts.
I asked Drake why he seemed to get personal in some of his remarks. His response was that it was the officeholder who made it personal and he only responded in kind. Really.
I also asked Drake whether he thought it was hypocritical for him to suggest that some members of the MID board and management have been guilty of misdeeds so serious that they are criminal when he, Drake, is a convicted felon who had been accused of stealing power from the MID. Drake dismissed my suggestion, saying he had been criticizing the MID even before his arrest and claiming that he had paid the MID for all the power he used for his marijuana grow.
The MID does not release individual customer information, so I couldn't confirm or not confirm Drake's claim of repayment. As for hypocrisy, that's almost always in the eye of the beholder.
I don't agree with Drake on many topics, but we're on the same page about one overriding principle the need for government to be open and forthcoming.
The most interesting question about Drake is whether the hours he devotes as "an engaged citizen" the term he likes are having any influence. He thinks that people are starting to listen to him.
Drake has been part of a successful chorus on several issues, such as opposing the MID water sale to San Francisco and supporting a city anti-cat-dumping ordinance.
The issue he's carried single-handedly in recent months has to do with revising Modesto's Tin Cup ordinance, which limits council members from voting on issues involving someone who has contributed $3,000 to their campaigns over the preceding 48 months.
When the ordinance was first adopted in 1987, the limit was $1,000. Drake would like to see it returned to that amount for council members, and $2,000 for mayor. The council Safety and Communities Committee voted 2-1 to send the issue to the full council for a decision. (Drake has submitted an op-ed on this subject that we will run next week.)
After our interview a couple of weeks ago, Drake seemed to get cold feet. He called and said he was concerned I planned to do a hit piece on him. A few days later he called Editor Joe Kieta with the same concern.
Interesting comment from a man who dishes it out regularly on camera, on air and online.
If there's any doubt that politics is a year-round sport, take a look at the anti-Jeff Denham billboard put up on Maze Boulevard, between Stone and Texas avenues. It was paid for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, evidence that the 10th Congressional District is already on its wish list for 2014.
By the way, former astronaut Jose Hernandez, who lost to Denham last November, attended Denham's recent "listening session" on immigration issues.
Sly is editor of the Opinions pages. Contact her at (209) 578-2317, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @judysly.