After several decades in public life, this Marin County supervisor still loves what she does.
IF 70 IS the new 40, Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold is, let’s say, around 45 years old with the energy of a 30-something. Moreover, after more than five decades in public life, her optimism appears hardly tempered by the reality of a life spent in government.
“You were born to be a politician,” Arnold’s father told her just days before he passed away. Currently, as she has since her election in November of 2010, she represents Marin County’s 5th District, which encompasses most of Novato and the nearby communities of Bel Marin Keys, Indian Valley and Black Point, on the Marin County Board of Supervisors. She served two terms on the Novato City Council prior to that.
Arnold began her career as an assistant to Sargent Shriver, President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps director. Following a move west, along with marriage and child-raising, Arnold found herself in Marin successfully managing the supervisorial political campaign of the late and very colorful and accomplished Gary Giacomini. For two years she served as Giacomini’s administrative aide as he fought to set beneficial environmental policy in Marin.
When Giacomini retired in 1996, Arnold took a similar position with another colorful politician, Democratic State Senator John Burton. In the late 1990s, while Burton was for all intents running the State of California during the recall and removal of Governor Gray Davis, Arnold was serving as the de facto state senator from Marin. She and Burton still, on frequent occasions, discuss regional politics.
Now, halfway through her third term as a county supervisor, Judy Arnold is president of the Marin County Board of Supervisors. We asked her about the challenges and opportunities facing this region.
Let’s jump right into it: how is Marin County faring with the Trump presidency? Well, the county should be breathing easier now that the vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, was pulled from the House agenda. If Congress had passed it, and President Trump approved it, it would have cost Marin $100 million in federal health care funds, mostly Medicaid, that’s distributed throughout the county every year. We also estimate that 600 jobs would have been lost. All I can say is, so far so good.
Returning to the home front, you also serve as chair of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board, or SMART. How is that progressing? It is going really well. By the time this interview comes out, in late spring, trains should be running along the 38-mile route between downtown San Rafael and Airport Boulevard, north of Santa Rosa. The intent is for it to take at least 1,000 cars a day off the Highway 101 commute. Clipper card machines have been ordered, fare structures are set and rigorous safety testing continues. SMART trains will all function under Positive Train Control, or PTC, which enables a computer to automatically stop the cars if a danger appears up ahead and the train’s conductor has somehow missed it. We’ll be one of the first in the nation to have this capability.
Is the rumor of free fares more than a rumor? Indeed it is, it’s a fact. SMARTs board has authorized a free ride period from opening day until the Fourth of July; then tickets will be half-price until Labor Day. By then, people will love taking the train to work and maybe heading north to the Wine Country on weekends.
Which brings to mind a transportation snafu, the winter flooding and five-day closure of Highway 37 connecting Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties. What will preclude that happening again? This is an important issue. The portion of Highway 37 that’s in Marin is actually below sea level, so it’s a critical issue involving all four counties. The good news is that in February Caltrans completed $8 million in emergency repairs that improved the drainage, paving and shoulder protection of Highway 37. This should reduce the frequency, duration and intensity of flooding — but in the long term, we need to address the issue of sea levels rising due to climate change. That said, a four-county planning effort, the Highway 37 Policy Committee, is underway to implement a long-term solution and that might possibly result in raising the entire roadway. We’ll see — along with Supervisor Damon Connolly, I’m on the Highway 37 Policy Committee representing Marin.
Continuing with transportation: What is the latest regarding the Novato, or Marin- Sonoma, Narrows? The goal is still to [add a third lane and] have a continuous carpool lane on Highway 101 through Marin and Sonoma counties. Several phases have already been completed or are under construction, but an additional $200 million is still needed to enact that vision. The complete corridor has been environmentally cleared; the business community is all for it and this is a top priority of mine. I’ve been working with TAM, Transportation Authority of Marin, to get the costs down, and so far we’ve cut Marin’s portion from $110 million down to between $42 and $75 million.
Let’s jump to affordable, or workforce, housing. What are the latest developments there? I am sorry to report there are few, if any, affordable housing developments under construction — or even in the pipeline to someday be developed. Despite the very real need for it, developers are just not applying to build affordable housing in Marin County. They say it is too difficult to get anything done in Marin. Because of that, we are focusing our workshops and planning efforts on preserving the affordability of existing housing. That could see the county purchasing multifamily rental housing for long-term preservation as affordable housing. It could also mean code amendments to allow second units, even junior second units; a landlord incentive program that would provide cash in case a rental property is damaged; and not allowing landlords to discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders. So progress has been sparse, but I’m far from giving up.
Change course, let’s talk about a pet project in your district that’s moving along at a good pace. That has to be the restoration of the Novato Theater, which opened in 1946 on Grant Avenue in downtown Novato, which is moving right along. I’m an active member of the advisory committee. We’ve raised over $2 million, with $300,000 coming from the county, and have another $2.5 million to go. There’s no doubt that once reopened, the theater will be an enormous economic benefit to downtown Novato; plus, it will benefit the entire community by showing classic and family films as well as cabaret acts, comedy, small theater and simulcasts of sports, opera and Broadway shows. The main theater will have 248 seats, plus an upstairs theater with 48 movable seats. The Mill Valley Film Festival has given us a written commitment to utilize the facility in its programming.
Finally, are there personal secrets you’d share regarding the source of your energy and your eternal optimism? I know, it’s crazy. But I’ve been in government and politics for over half a century and I still love what I do. I think it’s because I love the challenges, and I’m always learning. I rarely give in; I’ll compromise but I won’t give up. If there’s something that needs to be done, I’m going to do it. I couldn’t work like this when I was raising my kids; it’s way more than a full-time job. And my husband, Bruce, is totally supportive. He has his own interests and, when we get together, there’s always catching up to do. My energy? I exercise regularly, watch my carbs and, while I take my work seriously, I mostly stay relaxed and always think we’ll find a solution, a way to make things better. I’m further energized by my four children and six grandchildren. Also, I’m blessed with two amazing administrative aides, Tanya Albert and Leslie Weber; they’re the envy of everyone in regional government.