Eric Christen says he has no plans to run for office, but instead wants to get his preferred candidates elected | TheUnion.com
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Eric Christen says he has no plans to run for office, but instead wants to get his preferred candidates elected

John Orona
Staff Writer

When Eric Christen first moved to Nevada County, bringing with him years of political experience and a history of contentious behavior, he made a promise to his wife, who at the time was a lieutenant colonel at Beale Air Force Base.

“Don’t dirty the nest you live in,” was the PG version, he said.

In the past four months Christen has been at the center of movements to allow indoor dining at restaurants ahead of the state schedule, efforts to have schools teach in-person classes during the pandemic and to implement school vouchers, and an enterprise to create an alternative to the Nevada County Fair, which was canceled due to COVID-19.

His tactics, including caustic comments online, quickly garnered attention locally, creating both loyal followings and dedicated detractors in his wake.

“This is going to pass, but we’re always going to remember how we were treated or how we treated each others.”— Bret McFadden, Nevada Joint Union High School District superintendent

While some say his antagonistic approach is not the “Nevada County way,” his supporters believe a boisterous voice is needed for someone to push back against government overreach and media conformity.

Whatever side one falls on, it’s clear Christen is no stranger to controversy, he acknowledged, which is all part of the strategy to enact his long-term aims of changing the political landscape of Nevada County.

‘CHAOS THEORY is part of the plan’

Christen said for the past several years he’s tried to avoid notoriety after garnering headlines for ill-tempered actions, both as part of a lobbying group opposed to union contracts in construction and while an elected official Colorado Springs, Colorado.

After being elected to the Colorado Springs School District 11 board in 2003 on a four-person, pro-voucher slate with the financial backing of a local developer, Christen was recalled by voters three years later for his aggressive antics on the board. The recall effort was successful, with more than 70% of voters in support. But Christen submitted his resignation the week prior to voting.

During his tenure, the board removed him as treasurer and reprimanded him for his comments to the community, other board members and staff, as well as for not distinguishing between his personal views and those of the board in interviews and letters to the editor. He’s alleged to have called his colleagues buffoons and unbalanced.

From labeling his opponents as racists, to threatening “guerilla warfare” against the school board he represented, his admittedly unprofessional behavior in the past has caused him to make public apologies and vows to change.

“Because I have strong opinions, and I am who I am, I am going to get a lot of reactions … Part of it is because I believe I’m effective,” he said. “That doesn’t deny the fact that I need to at the same time not just be a bull in the china shop and not just be against people all the time … if I’m wanting to better my community.”

However, in just a few months back in the public sphere the pattern has continued, and he said it’s made his movements successful.

“They’re constantly being caught flat-footed because that’s what I do: it’s never give them a chance to breathe, never give them a chance to know … The chaos theory is part of the plan,” Christen said.

‘HEY, KEEP IT PROFESSIONAL’

During an online Nevada Joint Union High School District board meeting, comments in the chat feature became so concerning that administrators restricted use of the chat going forward.

“The chat and the comments started to get visceral,” said Brett McFadden, Nevada Joint Union High School District superintendent. “I notified several people, Mr. Christen included, via text that — hey, keep it professional. All parties notified were very responsive.”

During the meeting, Christen called one resident a “Satanist and all around hater,” accused district teachers of using the pandemic as an excuse to take a longer break from the classroom, and claimed nonprofit Child Advocates of Nevada County had a “radical agenda” that is not about health in supporting distance learning.

“Quit pretending it’s about parents and students,” he wrote.

“The agenda of Child Advocates of Nevada County is to prevent child abuse and to serve children who have been abused and in 25 years of doing that work it’s always been received by people of every political persuasion,” said Marina Bernheimer, the organization’s executive director. “Child abuse is the one thing we can all agree together is something we want to address as a community and it’s never been politicized. I can’t imagine in what universe preventing child abuse is considered a radical agenda.”

Though that particular occurrence prompted the change, McFadden stressed similar protocols have been in place in many jurisdictions.

“It’s been a learning experience for me,” Christen said in an August interview. “I came on the scene about 50 days ago and I jumped into it and made a splash and part of it is I need to understand my weaknesses as well as my strengths. My comments online need to be sometimes rephrased or changed … I hope that I’m constantly reexamining life.”

According to the Colorado Springs Independent, in a 2005 speech as part of the “Family, Church & State Conference,” Christen proclaimed his support for private education over public schools and suggested changes in that direction would be coming once more pro-voucher candidates were elected.

“We’re going to do radical, radical things in D-11,” the Independent quoted Christen as saying.

More recently, following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Christen tweeted, “Rest in Hell #rbg.”

“In my opinion, Mr. Christen has little to no respect for anyone in the community that disagrees with his assertions and is quick to judge others as ‘liberals’ or ‘Democrats’ (which he seems to have no tolerance for) based on very little information,” said Sara Keller, a Nevada City resident familiar with his online comments. “We must find ways as a community to come together to resolve the issues that we face, instead of slinging divisive vitriol at those with differing views.”

While his approach has caused some in the community to avoid him online, for others, his aggressive style is part of why they support him.

‘it’s TAKEN ON A LIFE OF ITS OWN’

According to Christen, due to his years lobbying on behalf of business interests across the state in a previous life in politics, members of the business community began reaching out to him around the time restaurants were ordered to cease indoor operations for the second time.

“I kept getting calls from friends to help out the community,” he said. “It wasn’t anything specific, just to come here and help us. At the time, it was the rally — and from there it’s taken on a life of its own.”

Ken Paige, co-owner of Friar Tuck’s, said he reached out to Christen after hearing him in a Zoom meeting on alternatives to the county’s approach to education. Immediately impressed, he sought to work with him even before knowing of his political background.

“He seemed to be like-minded,” Paige said. “He wanted to help the community just to be able to be free, be able to express their opinions and work closely with their government officials.”

In his first foray back into politics after trying to lay low, in July Christen spoke during a rally outside the Eric Rood Administrative Center protesting the state’s COVID-19 orders and the closing of the Board of Supervisors chambers to the public during meetings. Other speakers included Tara Thornton — co-founder of the Freedom Angels, a vaccine skeptical and pro-reopening group — and former Nevada City Mayor Reinette Senum.

County residents David and Sarah Hale attended the protest after reading on Facebook the Board of Supervisors would allow the public to give comments in person. Sarah said they originally came for the meeting because their internet connection would not allow them to watch online, but when they found the doors locked they joined the protest.

“Basically, the county needs to have meetings open to the public, and allow for public comment and the county health officer should be answering questions from the public,” Sarah Hale said.

But the board had announced the previous week it was not going to be open for public comment or viewing in person. Even so, the Hales said they would be out to support local business autonomy either way.

At the protest, Senum also claimed coronavirus tests were being inflated, that the mandates were not about public health because they did not embrace a holistic approach to the pandemic, and that the mask mandate will eventually lead to “social credit” policies like those reported in China, suggesting a potential vaccine order will be held over the state if developed.

“I don’t know one elected official in this whole entire county or city that is keeping you informed,” Senum said. “There’s not a spike, there’s a manipulation of numbers. This is smoke and mirrors, my friends.”

Christen led the rally afterward to Old Town Cafe, which at the time county officials said was operating indoors against COVID-19 mandates. Once there, protesters were met by U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa at Christen’s invitation.

Two days later, Christen organized a rally at Bear River High School opposing the Nevada Joint Union High School District’s implementation of distance learning — which he called an emotive and political decision.

“My 16-year-old daughter is not going to go to a high school in which she is forced to walk around in fear all day,” Christen said. “We will pull her out.”

‘people see whaT’s going on’

County resident Michael Webster first heard of Christen when he spoke outside the Eric Rood Administrative Center and was drawn to his style and willingness to address topics and people he said aren’t being heard. He went to the Bear River rally as well, feeling the science behind the recommendations didn’t add up.

“Where is the science, where is there any kind of reasoning behind it? You can pack a passenger plane full of people elbow-to-elbow but kids can’t be in the classroom, they can’t be on a baseball field together?” he asked. “We can pack Walmarts everyday, without a problem. If you’re not going to get it from a Safeway or Walmart, why can’t (we) open our small businesses?”

While Webster agrees vulnerable people need to take precautions, he said government agencies and the mainstream media are “pumping people full of fear.”

“I was scared In the beginning, got all the masks and gloves like a lot of people did. I was freaked out,” he said. “But seeing how Fauci would switch up — don’t worry about a mask and then you have to wear a mask ­— people aren’t idiots.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci — Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director and White House Coronavirus Task Force member — advised Americans against wearing masks amid a shortage of personal protective equipment at the outbreak of the pandemic. Fauci said that position was reversed when it became clear COVID-19 could be spread by asymptomatic carriers and the supply of PPE increased.

“The mainstream media and politicians take the people’s intelligence for granted. People see what’s going on and they’re waking up,” Webster said.

Christen said his movement attracts a diverse set of supporters, from anti-vaxxers to libertarians, some of whom he acknowledges have bought into disinformation.

“Politics is about addition, not subtraction. In any movement or effort, if I’m only going to work with people who think like me I’m going to be in a room of one,” he explained. “And you understand why people get suspicious and start falling into conspiracy theories … It gets harder to say that’s crazy talk when they don’t even allow you to not only meet in person, but won’t allow people to speak live on Zoom or phone.”

Paige said he, too, supports Christen’s style, and said he appreciates honest, direct and even at times inflammatory dialogue.

“We’ve become very timid to anyone that takes a position on anything because everyone is fearful of hurting one another and I respect that, but I sense at the same time a person that has a backbone or stands up for something,” Paige said. “I believe what Eric does and the way he does it can offend people, but in the end he’s speaking the truth … The reality of it is there’s a battle of bringing life, liberty, happiness and joy to the community.”

‘EFFECTIVE CHANGE … THROUGH ELECTED OFFICE’

Christen said he’s poured more than $5,000 into his local political efforts, which he said shows his commitment to his values.

Some have accused him of being on LaMalfa’s payroll, a claim he denies. Others believe he’s preparing a run for local office, and he said he is — just not his own.

Christen’s long-term goal is to create an infrastructure to get his preferred candidates into positions of power.

“I don’t have a lot of skillsets, but I speak for a living, I organize, I know how to arrange,” he said of how he plans to help residents. “I have decades of experience on how to determine where we are as a group, what needs to be done and how to achieve it.”

According to campaign filing disclosures, Christen has donated to Nevada County Board of Education District 1 candidate Peggy Fava, District 2 candidate Ashley Neuman, and District 3 candidate Grace Hudek.

He said in the short- and mid-term, he wants to work with state and local officials to reopen Nevada County businesses sooner and educate the public on his education alternatives. And while he said he’d remain flexible to achieve those goals, one thing he has ruled out is a return to political office.

“Never gonna happen. I was a politician once, I’m terrible at it — I speak my mind,” he said. “When I go all in, I go all in.”

He said despite postponements he still plans to hold an alternative to the Nevada County Fair, but wants to have buy-in from all levels of government and the community before going forward.

“We are going to hold an event. The question is when,” he said. “Because ultimately the point of the event was to come together as a community.”

According to Christen, even if he, too, believes he should soften his tone and act more cooperatively, his tactics have been effective.

“The reality is we don’t have millions of dollars to fund what we’re doing, so it needs to be spontaneous, last minute sometimes, and relatively inexpensive efforts,” he said.

He said ultimately, he realizes his goals won’t be achieved on social media.

“The only way to make effective change ultimately is through elected office — we have people at the elected levels that actually represent the people’s interest,” he said. “We don’t believe that’s happening right now at any level.”

But while Christen is focused on affecting Nevada County’s politics, McFadden, the high school district superintendent, said he’s concerned with preserving its pleasant and good-natured culture.

After moving to the community two years ago from a larger and more politically contentious district, McFadden said this behavior may be typical in other counties, but he has not seen anything as contentious as this in his Nevada County tenure.

“One thing I’ve learned about this community is we’re a tight-knit community, and we have a way of doing things and a way of airing our disagreements. Some of what has transpired in the last few months, I just sort of have concerns from a community standpoint — should that be the Nevada County way?” he said. “I think it behooves us to take as many extra steps as appropriate to remain civil, professional and respectful to each other.

“This is going to pass, but we’re always going to remember how we were treated or how we treated each others.”

To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email jorona@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.


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