Making a Difference – Vern Goehring
Reflections on a legislative career and the impact of everyday citizens
By Liv O’Keeffe
On the last day of the 2017 legislative session, a who’s who of California’s environmental community gathered in Senator Ben Allen’s Capitol office. Lobbyists, conservation directors, and policy wonks squeezed into the room, piling onto the leather sofa, crowding into corners, and checking their phones for updates.
Senate Bill 249, the OHV reform legislation carried by Sen. Allen, had passed unanimously the previous day, a noteworthy victory for natural resources and the young Santa Monica senator. But that’s not why this group had assembled. Word was out that Vern Goehring, the long-time CNPS legislative director who lobbied on behalf of SB 249, was retiring.
Striding into Sen. Allen’s office that day, Vern assumed the Senator needed to review some last minute details about the bill. Instead, he stopped at the door, eyes filling with tears upon seeing the group gathered around a Dudleya-covered cake. Over the next hour, long-time colleagues and friends shared personal stories and statements like:
“Vern is the most ethical person I’ve ever worked with.”
“I modeled my career after Vern.”
To those who know Vern, these words come as no surprise. He has built his career around strong relationships, the value of one’s word, and doing the difficult, detail-oriented work good legislation demands.
Vern grew up on his family’s Kern County farm in a conservative, Christian household. The fifth of six boys, he helped his parents with chores, played in the school band, and participated in school government. Vern recalls watching his Dad, who had no more than a 6th grade education, navigate the high-stakes business of a small farm.
“He was smart enough to know what he didn’t know and consulted regularly with an accountant, a lawyer, and banker, often around our kitchen table,” says Vern. “Both my parents were always thinking two or three steps ahead. I’m sure that had a significant impact on how I work: Where are we today and where do we want to be? Can we do it in one giant step, or is it a series of steps? There’s always more than one way to get the job done.”
Indeed, that strategic focus has fueled Vern’s career as legislative lead for Caltrans, the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFW), and organizations like CNPS. Since joining CNPS in the late ‘90s, Vern influenced countless pieces of legislation, including the Natural Community Conservation Planning (NCCP) Act, California’s Timber Tax Bill, and off-highway vehicle reform.
“Not only does he know what needs to be done, but he knows exactly how it can get done, and what at any given time is the most effective strategy,” says CNPS Conservation Program Director Greg Suba. “Vern has always understood that conservation victories are usually incremental and that no legislation is ever final. Being able to rely on someone as knowledgeable with the workings of the legislature as Vern was a huge advantage for CNPS.”
Recently, we sat down with Vern to talk about his recent retirement, the journey from Kern County to the California Capitol, and the lessons he’s learned along the way.
Despite working in public service during a contentious political era, Vern believes strongly in the potential of our political process and the good-will of people. But, he emphasizes it’s still up to each of us to educate ourselves and get involved.
Vern, you’ve got a lot of people that respect and admire you. How have you managed to keep such positive relationships while navigating tough political issues?
I learned early on that your word is everything in the Legislature. You’ve got to have credibility. My father-in-law [the late Sen. Walter Stiern] had a huge influence on me. His last year in the legislature was ‘86, so I had about 10 years of overlap with him at the Capitol. During that time, I had a chance to watch and learn and listen. He was a very ethical, moral, open, sincere person. He did his homework on a personal basis. In some cases, he knew as much about his colleagues’ districts as they did. He would even advise people not to vote for his bills if he knew it wasn’t a reasonable fit for their districts. He was a moderate Democrat in one of the more conservative parts of the state, but he was re-elected time and again.
That sounds like a breath of fresh air. We seem to be living through a pretty ugly time in politics. What do you think is going on?
The problem we have now is that not enough people know that others generally have good intent. It’s easy to believe the negative, particularly when we’re bombarded throughout the day with bad news. Right now, we tend to hear from the extremes, but in reality there are reasonable rational points to both sides of most issues. In almost every bill I worked on, I could see both sides of the arguments.
So what’s your advice to folks right now?
One of the first things we need to do is take a couple of breaths. Just calm down. It’s hard to do with Trump, but I think it’s helpful to not focus on Trump or international stuff so much. Just focus on an issue at home. Get to know your local elected officials even if they belong to a different party. Go to a function or two. Go to the coffee gatherings. Don’t go to throw eggs. Go and listen. Shake a hand and ask a simple question. There’s real value in doing that — in learning about the process and engaging in a more respectful way.
Elected officials are human beings. The overwhelming number of these members really want to do a good job. But, they can only work from what they know. If they don’t hear from rational, reasonable calm people about real issues, they’re not going to learn. Otherwise, they’re left to be swayed by the loud mouths or moneyed interest.
How does this translate for CNPS members?
Years ago I read a book by Dan Walters on grassroots lobbying in which he wrote about how the realtors association has been one of the most effective organizations. There are chapters in every city and county. They’re well organized. They’ve developed personal relationships with members – not just by “buying” them but by going to coffees and teas, developing a familiarity.
CNPS is a good mirror image of that. We have a network of people all around the state that are knowledgeable about their local issues. Think about being significant constituents. Whenever you have a function, invite the local legislator to your meetings. If they can’t come, ask one of their staff to come.
People sometimes say, ‘But I don’t know what to say.’ But that fact is, you do. You know what’s happening in your neighborhood. You don’t need to know the nuances of the Endangered Species Act. You can simply share your experiences with the beauty, the enjoyment, the healthiness of walking with school kids and their families in nature.
What drew you to CNPS and the native plant mission?
When I left Caltrans and went to work for CDFW, I had no concept of anyone working to protect native plants. That was in ’86, a few months after the first state CNPS conference, which was sponsored in part by CDFW. While I was at CDFW, I got to know Susan Cochrane who was the branch chief representing native plants. I thought that was kind of neat. I was raised on a farm, so growing stuff, being attentive to the cycle of plants, was in my blood.
I just really admired what Susan and her team were doing. Susan taught me about conservation planning. (The NCCP eventually came out of her shop.) It didn’t take me long to figure out that native plants are the framework for wildlife too. When I started putting those things together it all made sense.
While working at CDFW, I also got to know Phyllis Faber [a CNPS Fellow and the original editor of Fremontia]. She later connected me with Dave Chipping and Joe Willingham [also CNPS Fellows], who recommended that CNPS hire me. They decided to try me for four months. Four months turned into 20 years.
Vern, you chaired the Environmental Justice session at the CNPS Conservation Conference last February. Can you speak a bit to this issue and the role of organizations like CNPS?
Surveys that suggest different ethnic groups don’t care for the environment are just plain wrong. Not everyone can afford to fly to Alaska to go fly-fishing. A lot of people can’t even get enough time off work to visit the Sierra or the desert, but that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy nature or care about their environment. Everyone needs clean air and water and access to nature. That’s why the issues of social justice and urban wildlife are intertwined. Our urban natural spaces are incredibly important. When CNPS volunteers are working to restore and preserve urban wildlands in places like LA and San Francisco, it isn’t just for nature, it’s for people.
Some wonderful groups are working in the community in other ways. This issue of Flora, for example, features the work of John Sanders’ Delphinus School of Natural History and Theodore Payne Foundation’s recent efforts in the LA projects. How do you think CNPS can help?
We need to do more to reach out to our communities. For example, a group of residents from a low-income neighborhood off Power Inn Road here in Sacramento is working to restore their local creek. Right now it’s covered in concrete and surrounded by high wire fence. It’s ugly and dangerous. Our chapters can just go and listen and see if we can help.
You’ve watched CNPS in action for years. How do you think we can be even better at what we do?
CNPS has to learn to stop talking so much Latin. I say this with reverence. I know there is a place for it. We need to be precise in terminology. But whenever we’re talking Latin, we’re not speaking to the public or decision-makers. We need to learn how to talk to the general public.
We also need to realize that while good science is really important, good science alone is not going to save us. I’ve heard biologists say, ‘but we’re professional scientists” we don’t do politics.’
Think of the professional groups that spend the most money on lobbying and advocacy. The lawyers, the dentists, they’re not just sitting around waiting; they’re going to influence the legal framework that allows them to do good work. Shouldn’t scientists want that too?
Seven ways to support CNPS in the Capitol
Legislators need to hear from their constituents (that means you!). Elected officials can be important allies whether you’re looking for a vote in Sacramento or enhanced credibility in the community.
- Identify your state Senator and Assembly member(s), http://leginfo.ca.gov. Bookmark, the page for their contact information.
- Create a file of information about your representatives interests, positions and statements with regard to native plant (wildland) conservation, open space protection & restoration, horticultural practices, and related issues.
- Know which of your chapter members/supporters are prominent community members who have relationships with legislators and would be willing to help facilitate contact.
- Meet with legislators, preferably in their district offices, at least twice annually, including once just to introduce/reintroduce your organization and report on events in the area.
- Invite legislators to your organization’s events—meetings, fundraisers, workdays, etc. Introduce them and give them a few minutes to speak.
- Ask for a vote or other specific action if you are meeting with them. Come prepared to make a limited number of supporting statements. Know the bill number or the budget item and where it is in the legislative process.
- Share important information learned with others in CNPS, especially the Conservation Program staff.