On the street with Diane Furst

05/10/2012

Sitting outside Dr. Insomnia’s coffee shop in Novato on a hot May morning, blonde and blue-eyed county supervisor hopeful Diane Furst has the easy warmth of a suburban mom. She’s exchanging text messages with her older daughter, arranging the 11-year-old’s summer softball plans. “Things seem to start earlier every year,” she said with a laugh.

With family affairs taken care of, she quickly delves into her platform. A homemaker and relative newcomer to Marin County, Furst is also a shrewd businesswoman who’s gained recognition as vice mayor of Corte Madera for helping balance the local budget and stand up to development. If she’s able to oust Steve Kinsey from his established seat as District Four supervisor, she promises to focus her energy on strengthening the county’s fiscal policies and preserving the precious open spaces that make Marin such an attractive place to live.

She’s recently riled opposition by leading the charge to withdraw Corte Madera from the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), which is responsible for allocating housing quotas. In Furst’s opinion, state housing mandates are not always in line with a town’s capabilities, needs and character. She argues that when housing quotas are decided by the state, local schools, water and fire districts, police forces and roads could suffer in the longterm.

But while ABAG has its critics, some feel that without state pressure, workforce and other affordable housing simply will not be built in Marin; meanwhile, commercial development continues to be waved forward, resulting in a disconnect that creates suburban sprawl, lengthens commute times, and negatively impacts the climate.

Furst insists that there just isn’t the space to accommodate ABAG’s mandates in Marin’s small communities. Still, she concedes that things are difficult for younger and lower-income residents. Despite a high demand for affordable housing, parts of Marin and especially West Marin are “not the place” for high-density developments, she contends. In her view, progress will be slow, and will be accomplished “one unit at a time.”

As an alternative, Furst supports the creation of second units—such as by splitting a single family home into a duplex—to help meet housing needs, as well as to enable more seniors to “age in place” instead of being priced out of their longtime homes.

“Each new unit helps multiple families,” Furst said, meaning that once one family leaves a unit, another could move in. Furst believes the challenges facing West Marin—namely the future of agriculture, the relationship between the community and National Park Service, and tourism—will directly benefit from her business acumen. County funding to nonprofit organizations is in jeopardy of being cut, Furst said, due to the current financial situation. “This is why I decided to run. We need some change,” she said.

Furst stressed that small agricultural enterprises like organic ranches and farms must continue to operate, and must be supported through organizations that foster their value-added products. She said she supports efforts to “heal the relationship” between the county and the park service. Protections for state and national parks should be clear and not tempered with “wiggle words” that could open the door to harm or exploitation, she added.

She said it is important to support small businesses while making sure that the local character is retained and that any tourism remains “Marin focused.”

Despite moving to Marin as recently as 2004, Furst has strong opinions about what defines Marin’s character and how to maintain it. Her campaign literature explains that she worked in finance for 13 years before devoting her time to motherhood and volunteer activities such as the Get Ready campaign and Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) in Corte Madera. But she also has a decidedly less conventional story to tell.

After growing up in Orinda, Furst moved to southern California to study chemical engineering at Long Beach State University. But working her way through school while trying to keep her 77’ Ford running proved too much of a challenge. “The car broke down, and I couldn’t get to any of my three part-time jobs,” she said. “I was out of money, so I dropped out of school and towed the car back to Mom and Dad.”
She abandoned the lab in favor of part-time business classes at Diablo Valley Community College, and found a job working for Nationwide Insurance. But when the company relocated soon after, Furst moved on to the next thing. She was hired at a division of Harper Collins, where she started off as an accounts manager. Despite not yet having a bachelor’s degree, she was promoted to business manager before a company downsize left her again looking for new professional horizons.

She then held a variety of positions, including with Dianne Feinstein’s senate campaign and as a controller for a nonprofit focusing on education. Then, thinking she wanted to become a financial journalist, Furst enrolled at San Francisco State University in 1994. She wrote for the student paper—which she said was “basically a full-time job” and proved to be too much, since she was working to pay her way through school. So she chose to focus on what had been her minor, economics.

Furst graduated in 2000 at age 35. She and her husband, Steve, had their first daughter in San Francisco in 2002, but when Steve was transferred, the family moved to Illinois, where Furst gave birth to their second daughter. She missed the California weather, so when a job opportunity arose for Steve that would mean a transfer back to the Bay Area, she encouraged him to take it. This time around the family chose to live in Marin County, and they bought their $1.5 million home in Corte Madera in 2005. “We liked the small-town feel of Corte Madera. There’s a woman’s club, a Lion’s Club. It has a real sense of community,” she said.

Furst first dabbled in civic life because of an interest in disaster preparedness stemming from the 1989 earthquake, which she experienced on her second day of work at Harper Collins. “It was very frightening,” she recalled. The brick building didn’t sway, it just “sort of jolted”—and it took her seven hours to get home.

Furst said her colleagues in CERT encouraged her to run for town council in 2009. She won with 29 percent of the votes, finishing in second place out of the four candidates and two incumbents competing for the three available seats. Her platform was about fiscal responsibility, and her number one issue was balancing the budget in tough economic times. The town now boasts a balanced budget. Things are “moving in a good direction” as a result of her work, she said.

One of her main reasons for running for supervisor is what Furst calls the county’s “unfunded liability” for pensions and retiree benefits, which she said is between $700 million and $2 billion. “Those numbers do not even include health care,” she said. “They’re just continuing to kick the can down the road. There is nothing wrong with defending benefits plans, as long as they are carefully managed.” And Furst believes they have not been.

She’s been endorsed by the Sierra Club, but said the endorsement does not mean she’s “in lock step” on every issue with it—or with any other supporter. She said she supports ranchers’ rights to graze in Point Reyes National Seashore, and though she’s not taking a position on the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company debate, she said there has been “exaggeration on both sides” and that it is up to Secretary Ken Salazar to sort it out.
Furst believes it would be unfortunate if West Marin turned into a vacation spot at the expense of community, and said she could see a moratorium placed on vacation rentals at some point to help prevent that.

Growing up in Orinda, she said she felt the “world used to end beyond Walnut Creek,” where the suburban blocks ceased and the seemingly endless farms began. Now those farms are gone, making Walnut Creek “just like any other town.” And she doesn’t want to see the same happen in Marin.