Despite all the recent conflict in the Tulare Local Healthcare District and the uncertain, yet hopeful path the district faces, I believe that we need, every now and then, to take a step back and remember how far we’ve come. As we’re left reeling by the recent New Yorker story and the criminal investigations into the actions of HCCA and Benny Benzeevi, I think it’s an appropriate time to also reflect on what has been achieved, and what it means for our community.
When the news broke that Benzeevi spent upwards of $230,000 on foreign spies for Kumar’s recall election in June 2017, many political observers unfamiliar with the specifics criticized his foolishness and lack of campaign savvy. While it’s true that Benzeevi’s tactics were incredibly wasteful and traditional campaign methods probably would have been cheaper and more effective, I also find his choice to be an indication of the dire circumstances that led him to that point.
In the year and a half prior to the recall, the prior board had lost three elections — Measure I and two board seats — by a minimum margin of 23%. Benzeevi and Kumar knew the walls were closing in and, after having tried traditional methods in those failed elections, resorted to more unconventional means.
We, the voters of the Tulare Healthcare District, are the obstacle which brought them to that point. Through our efforts — organizing grassroots election strategies and activating voters, building a social media community of over 2,000 members, and keeping our mission focused — we managed to overcome such significant investment against us with the power of community engagement. Whether you knocked on doors for the recall or other campaigns, did some research and shared on the Citizens for Hospital Accountability page, put up a yard sign, or simply shared the message with your friends and neighbors, you were an integral part of this movement and deserve thanks.
At the time of the recall, our efforts had already picked up plenty of momentum, and I believe both sides had an inkling of the impending outcome (hence Benzeevi’s desperate tactics). However, there were many times earlier in the process in which the outcome was not nearly so certain. While the vote margins may not show it, Measure I and the elections of Kevin Northcraft and Mike Jamaica were all hard-fought elections which required significant coordination on the part of those involved, and excitement from the voters to make a change. Legitimate, respectable, fact-based campaigns were delivered, and the voters responded with overwhelming support.
I was fortunate enough to be able to devote substantial time working on messaging and organizing for those campaigns. I was — and still am — amazed at the shift in the community and the activation of voters we all witnessed around this issue.
It may not seem special to some, but I tend to believe that in many parts of the United States, with the modern political climate, this sort of organization and change at the local level is impossible. Only in a place like the Valley can such strong community engagement and togetherness emerge around issues of local importance.
If you don’t believe me, look at Moreno Valley. They have been dealing with Benny’s older brother, Iddo Benzeevi, for a longer period and have yet to remove him from the community. In fact, despite the efforts of a few concerned citizens, he has, essentially, been able to elect a city council of his choosing. On one hand, this speaks to the lack of organizational commitment: in many of these races, concerned groups put forth more than one candidate, splitting the vote against Benzeevi’s option. On the other hand, though, it indicates that there are simply communities which, for one reason or another, have difficulty mustering the critical mass required to make a change at this scale. I am honored to say that I live in a place that can — and did — enact this sort of transformation.
Looking forward, this assuredness in our community spirit makes me hopeful. While it wasn’t a mystery before, it is now crystal-clear that local issues bring us together. If you give the voters in this community a convincing message, they will show up. I believe this is something we should all be proud of.
Drew Phelps is a healthcare advocate, land use professional, and fourth-generation Tularean. He was a primary member of Citizens for Hospital Accountability and holds his Master’s in American Politics from Claremont Graduate University.