Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 9.3.2009

Prime Mover
Early activist Cindy Wooten returns for a candid look at Eugene  
By Ted Taylor

Eugene might be a very different place today if Cindy Wooten had turned on, tuned in and dropped out in the 1960s. Instead, she dropped in and made a big splash in our town. And she kept making waves that continue rippling through the valley today.

She was the driving force for starting the Eugene Celebration, the Oregon Country Fair, Saturday Market, the Eugene Crafts Guild, Switchboard and the Eugene Youth Hostel, according to Suzi Prozanski, who recently published a history of the Oregon Country Fair called Fruit of the Sixties

Wooten lives in Berkeley now but was back in town this summer, getting new knee joints at RiverBend Medical Center, and we managed to catch her for an hour during her recuperation. We asked her about the old days, what she’s been up to in the Bay Area for the last 20 years and what she thinks about how Eugene has evolved (or not) since she’s been gone. And will she return to give her old hometown a fresh kick in the pants? First, a little history.

Gathering at the Odyssey

Cindy and Bill Wooten operated the Odyssey Coffee House at 713 Willamette in the late 1960s “before urban renewal changed the look and feel of downtown forever,” she says. The Odyssey was where Rock ’N’ Rodeo is now, across from the Hult Center. 

“In those days it was across the street from Pope’s Donut Shop and next to Ralph’s Bail Bonds. Mrs. Pope had a conveyor belt in her widow so you could watch the donuts go by,” she says. The Odyssey was a gathering place for anti-Vietnam war activists and also served as a political and cultural center for the new, hip generation. “There was a bunch of anti-war activity, but also a bunch of community institutions, projects and programs.”

She is quoted in City Club of Eugene’s history book Eugene 1945-2000 in a chapter by Steve McQuiddy as saying, “There was a kind of beatnik elite, and the Odyssey brought the so-called hippie presence downtown.” The Wootens were accused of being funded by the Communist Party. “We were investigated. Our phones were tapped,” and a hearing was even held at City Hall in 1969. “It was like we were space aliens come to destroy their lives … Except we weren’t space aliens, and we weren’t trying to destroy anything. We came here to demonstrate an alternative way of being alive.”

In spite of Eugene conservatives, Wooten was elected to the Eugene City Council in 1980 and suggested to the council that Eugene have an annual party. The Eugene Celebration “was my brainchild,” she says. And out of the celebration evolved a bizarre parade and a SLUG Queen coronation that have helped put Eugene on the counterculture map — to the delight of free-thinking liberals, and to the chagrin of more conventional thinkers in the community. 

Has Eugene evolved?

Wooten has maintained many friends here and has tracked the Eugene City Council and Lane County Commission over the years. “Some politics and issues are the same today: jail bed space, herbicide spraying, potholes, budget crises, it goes on and on. West Eugene Parkway and the Riverfront Research Park — they are all questions that we were grappling with 20 years ago.”

From her California perspective, Wooten says she’s observed “a few things about the goodness of Eugene. To go back a ways, there’s no question that Eugene is as kind and gentle and sensible as it is because of LCDC (Oregon’s Land Conservation and Development Commission). The early land-use guidelines and statutes and our urban growth boundary have really kept Eugene from sprawling unmercifully.”

Wooten says she’s heard complaints that Eugene has grown too much. The population has doubled since the 1960s.  “I think some of the growth in Eugene is good and not all bad. The university continues to be the underpinnings of the economic and social infrastructure, along with health care.”

Driving around the area, she says she sees “remarkable improvements: the Eugene Public Library and the Lane Transit station are gorgeous, the improvements at Delta Ponds are wonderful, Ferry Street Bridge and the new Federal Building, the new health care facilities at RiverBend.”

Wooten says she’s impressed with Oakway Center. “I thought that should have been downtown. And downtown is another issue that remains the same. Opening Broadway didn’t make any difference,” she says. “I find downtown really pitiful. It’s such a shame. The flowers are gorgeous, there’s a lot of effort going into beautification, but it’s still empty. In the 1980s it was a little more prosperous and vital, and they tried to do some downtown concerts and things to bring people downtown but I understand even the Eugene Celebration has not become too much of a magnet anymore.”

She is critical of many Eugeneans’ attitudes toward the young people who hang out downtown. “I think Eugene overreacts to kids downtown, and the lack of diversity here is appalling. They’re kids. They may be troubling and maybe even disturbing, but it’s not anything new that’s happening from generation to generation. Downtown has always been a magnet for kids.”

What would she do to “fix” downtown? “There don’t seem to be any strategies that work on a permanent basis, and I don’t know if anyone has the answers. It’s not predictable what the ingredients are that make a downtown successful. I’ve always believed that an anchor department store that people actually want to go to would make a huge difference. But apparently the county or even the region is not a large enough population base to attract a Nordstrom or any store that would have enough of a spillover effect to be meaningful.”

Eugene’s form of government

Wooten has observed how cities function in the Bay Area as well as Eugene and says, “Overall, I think a strong mayor form of government for Eugene would be healthy, irrespective of political party in power.” Eugene currently has a council/manager form of government in which the city manager runs city government and the council only sets policy.

“When I was on the council and Mike Gleason was city manager, there were huge issues that we did not get full information on and it was totally unfair because [the city staff] didn’t trust the council. They see the council as people who come and go and are too political. City managers always say they work for the majority of the council, but that’s not true. They really work for themselves and their staff, and to build up their internal empires.”

“I think it’s time for a change,” she says, “though people would be scared of that. I don’t know if it would pass on the ballot.”

Missed opportunities

Wooten has become an expert on energy efficiency (see below) and has identified at least one environmental issue that is being overlooked. “I’ve discovered that Lane County has been eligible since March for almost $600 thousand in stimulus package money, but the county doesn’t have a plan on how they would use it. Eugene gets more than $1 million for energy efficiency, primarily, and energy renewables. The county doesn’t have any kind of sustainable energy plan or policy. It’s a national priority, it’s not as though this a radical conspiracy, and they are being given the money to do it.”

She says she has met with County Commissioner Pete Sorenson on this issue, and he’s working on it. 

On performance auditors

Wooten favors independent performance auditors and doesn’t understand why Eugene doesn’t have one. Berkeley’s elected performance auditor looks at the fiscal health of every department and makes recommendations for structural changes, she says. “There were a number of issues that were brought to the council and to the public by the auditor that were really important to review and to fix. Berkeley has had one for decades.”

Will she come back to stay?

“I love Eugene,” she says. “I would be more than thrilled if I could work part-time here and be sometimes in the Bay Area. It’s fast and easy to fly from Oakland to Eugene. But my husband can’t move his practice, so we would need to spend some time apart.”

She says she would miss the Bay Area’s cultural amenities and the racial diversity. 

“I see a lot of work that can be done here,” she says. “I have a lifetime of friends here, and I really think of Eugene as homeland. I don’t hate Berkeley; I just don’t feel like I belong there. I was here too long, I guess.” 

Drawn into politics

Cynthia Wooten served on the Lane ESD board for eight years, and was elected to the Eugene City Council in the 1980s when Gus Keller and Brian Obie were mayors. Both the school board and council were unpaid positions, so to put groceries on the table, she served as Congressman Jim Weaver’s senior legislative assistant at his Eugene office from 1976 to 1987. She was then elected to the Oregon Legislature in 1992 and was term-limited out after three terms and six years.

“I was with Weaver at a time that I think was especially important,” she says. “There were incredible people in that office at that time. It was extremely exciting, and we did lots of wonderful things, such as the wilderness bill. It was amazing what we were able to accomplish and facilitate accomplishing.” 

Weaver was known for picking exceptionally bright, highly motivated staffers, and in addition to Wooten, the list included Peter DeFazio, Peter Sorenson, Ron Eachus, Joe Rutledge, Dan Meeks, David Fidanque, Mardel Chinburg, Greg Skillman, Grattan Kerans, Clayton Klein, Gayle Landt, Bern Johnson, Sam Adams and many others.

The California years

After Weaver retired from Congress, Wooten met and married Mike Cohen, an attorney from San Francisco, and in 2000 she moved to Berkeley. She got involved in local politics and gay rights, became chair of the Berkeley Budget Commission and served on the mayor’s urban task force and a number of boards and commissions. 

“I worked to try to get a local wastewater and water district to become a vertically integrated utility to take over the PG&E territory and become a full public utility,” she says. “I started that effort and got pretty far down the road. But coming from the Northwest, I never knew public power was a socialist term, and I totally underestimated the power of PG&E.”

She says she organized a citizens group and hired consultants for a pre-feasibility study. “We were moving right ahead, and then PG&E decided to hit back, and they started threatening the board members, stacking public hearings, sending out mailers. So that didn’t happen, which it should have. That was at the peak of the energy crisis in California, and it made perfect sense to do that.”

Today she has taken her background in energy work and partnered with Navigant Consulting Company in the field of energy efficiency. “I bring them new lines of business they hadn’t thought of doing. I get involved in something called community choice aggregation — cities or counties can buy their own power and construct their own portfolios, which can lead them to having energy efficiency as a resource, and renewables at a much higher degree, and using their public bonding capacity to become an equity partner in renewables.”