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Bedwell’s rise

Britt Retherford

In the relatively few years since Drew Bedwell erupted onto Nevada County’s political scene, many words have been used to describe him: tenacious, radical, passionate, outspoken, militant. His politics have been loved, loathed and lambasted, but all admit that he is a man who had an impact.

Last Tuesday, the former Bay Area resident and retired mechanical engineer resigned from the county’s Board of Supervisors to undergo clinical treatments for Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer that strikes the lymphatic system.

Bedwell declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he was undergoing more medical tests.

Gov. Arnold Schwar-zenegger must now decide whether to appoint an interim supervisor until residents can choose a new one in the Nov. 2 general election.

This temporary leadership vacuum has given Nevada County an unexpected reason to reflect on how Bedwell’s conservative crusade rattled and reshaped the local political landscape.

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Bedwell originally moved to Nevada County to manage property and spend as much time as he could dredging for gold on his 40-acre claim on Tahoe National Forest land at Lavezzola Creek near Downieville. The small nuggets he found were sometimes sold for jewelry, and the cash went to cover equipment costs.

When the Natural Heritage 2020 Program – an environmental project to study and protect open space – was approved by the Board of Supervisors in May 2000, Bedwell felt that his favorite pastime was threatened. He decided it was time to speak out for property rights and defend home ownership.

He founded the group Protect Your Property Rights in March 2001 and led fellow opponents in sporting yellow armbands at board meetings and public hearings in protest. He launched a petition campaign against NH 2020 that was so effective, even those who rallied behind it from the beginning are now skeptical of the program’s future.

District 1 Supervisor Peter Van Zant said recently that NH 2020 did not have a chance, at least “not with this board.”

Before Bedwell was elected to the board by a narrow 19-count margin over Supervisor Bruce Conklin in 2002, the board was decidedly liberal, with District 2 Supervisor Sue Horne as the lone conservative voice. Today, the board is seen as having a 3-2 conservative majority. Horne credits Bedwell with “changing the makeup” of the board.

Both friends and foes remember Bedwell’s voice, which emerged well before he took office. Bedwell spoke during several public comment sessions before he became a supervisor.

Bedwell did not limit his crusades to Nevada County. In July 2000, Bedwell and his wife, Ruth, were with a group that armed themselves with red, white, and blue pickaxes to break apart a four-ton boulder placed on a remote gravel road in Jarbidge, Nev., by the U.S. Forest Service to protect the bull trout, residents of the nearby Jarbidge River. Bedwell represented the Gold Country chapter of People for the USA in the effort, which he likened to “the West’s version of the Boston Tea Party.”

In May 2001, he joined a group of farmers and their families, as well as Sam Aanestad – then an assemblyman from Alta Sierra, now a state senator – in Klamath Falls, Ore., to protest the Federal Bureau of Reclamation’s decision to comply with the Endangered Species Act by shutting off water to 1,400 area farmers.

Bedwell’s outspoken nature and avowed “militancy” earned him more than a few opponents, both within his end of the political spectrum and on the opposite side. In early 2001, a group called Citizens for Property Rights in Nevada County split off from Bedwell’s property-rights group in hopes of appealing to a broader range of residents.

“I’m too radical,” Bedwell said at the time.

Bedwell was able to be so politically successful, Van Zant said, because “he had a very effective campaign” that brought so-called soft money into the county for the first time.

Regardless of his politics, Bedwell is a perfect example of how one man can make a difference, said Todd Juvinall, a former supervisor and a member of California Association of Business, Property and Resource Owners.

After two years that only seemed to mark the beginning of a political career, Bedwell’s announcement of his illness and resignation came as a shock to many.

“He has to fight this battle, and that is the most important thing,” Horne said.

Many are confidant Bedwell will be back on the political playing field soon enough.

“Once he completes his treatment, he’ll likely be back, this time in the peanut gallery with the rest of us,” said Terry Robinson, a political ally and close friend of Bedwell. “Who knows, maybe he’ll run again in a couple of years. I’ll be up for it.”

Truckee Town Councilman Ted Owens, who will take a seat on the board as the District 5 supervisor next January, said he has not had a chance to speak with Bedwell.

“I feel for his family,” Owens said. “I think he’s made a very honorable decision. I know Nevada County is very near and dear to his heart.

“When something like this happens, it doesn’t matter who you are, it is deeply saddening.”

– Jamie Bate of the Sierra Sun contributed to this story.


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