Jim Chapman was just 19 when he was elected to the Susanville City Council – his candidacy an attempt to “defend the family honor” following his mother’s failure to win the post.
“I was young, cute and polite, and the little old ladies responded,” he said.
Then the youngest city council person ever elected in California, Chapman matured into a committed public servant. Now 62, he’s retiring in December from the Lassen County Board of Supervisors after a political career spanning 42 years.
Chapman has been an advocate for rural counties such as Lassen, said Brian Dahle, who served with him for 16 years on the Lassen board before winning election as a state Assemblyman.
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“Jim has been very good at predicting what would happen, crafting policies that reacted to each crisis,” Dahle said. “It’s knowledge you can’t get other than being around for a long time.”
Chapman, who has spent 36 years as a county supervisor, said he knew from a young age that he wanted to pursue a career in public service. “I was always on the committees even in high school. I took charge and got things set up,” he said.
He was 12 when he launched an informal political career tossing newspapers onto the front porches of the people who would later become his constituents. “I’ve been courting these people a long time,” he said.
His first bid for election was in 1973 to the Susanville City Council, a position his mother failed to win two years earlier. He walked door to door among his former newspaper clients with a campaign that emphasized law enforcement, budget and community quality-of-life issues.
Chapman was elected. Two years later, when he was 21, he became the state’s youngest mayor. Soon he was campaigning for the District 2 seat on the Lassen County Board of Supervisors with the slogan “a new spirit for ’76.”
Winning made him the youngest person elected to a California county supervisorial position. Since then, Chapman has run for the District 2 seat 10 times, winning nine contests. He said he’s retiring with the third-longest tenure of any county supervisor in state history, tied with Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who is also leaving office at the end of December after 36 years.
The supervisors who held office longer might have faded from public memory were it not for Chapman’s passion for history. Piecing the record together through historical accounts and old newspaper clippings, Chapman found that Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn served 40 years – 10 full terms – from 1952 to 1992. Bernice Merrill Danberg served 37 years, from 1930 to 1967, on the Alpine County Board of Supervisors.
Chapman’s sole loss in his bid for local office came in 1984 after a term when he had been active in Northern California water issues, including service on the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.
“It taught me a valuable lesson: All politics is local,” he said. Chapman waited out the four years, was re-elected in 1988 and every four years since then.
His longevity has given Chapman a perspective that began in 1978, the year he became the youngest chair of a California board of supervisors. That was also the year voters statewide passed Proposition 13 limiting local authority to raise taxes and other revenue. Chapman’s experience with the sudden restrictions, combined with a prodigious memory, have helped him maneuver through subsequent budget crises when the state passed mandates to counties without funding, said Dahle.
David Liebler, director of public affairs for the California State Association of Counties, called Chapman a champion for rural counties. “Everyone at the table has a voice, but not all voices are equal. Jim had a great grasp of how issues at the state level impact counties, especially rural counties,” Liebler said.
If he has had successes, Chapman said, he credits them to his study of history and the way issues come back on a regular basis. Animal control, for example, rolls around as a problem about every seven years. “With a little bit clairvoyance you can anticipate the next thing to come around and be prepared to tackle it,” he said.
His penchant for embellishing a bare-bones policy discussion with ancient case law and arcane local history has caused his fellow supervisors to refer to his long-winded orations as “Chapmanizing.” He doesn’t mind the mockery:
“I learned early on that this is not about me. I was elected to get the job done. I may make a lot of people mad but that’s OK with me if I’ve done my homework and know what’s right for the community.”
In retirement, Chapman plans to continue his involvement in local history events, including donning the top hat, 19th century tie and character of Isaac Roop, a California pioneer of the 1850s who renamed the burgeoning berg of Roopville as Susanville for his daughter Susan.
He also plans to continue running the local mailing and copy service he operates out of his basement, a warren of low-ceilinged rooms, one of them labeled “Darth Vader.” Amid the stacks of paper, computers, copy and cutting machines are photographs of Chapman along with a strip of Far Side cartoons. But there are also reminders of his political career: volumes of government code and walls covered with plaques honoring Chapman’s contributions of local and statewide service clubs.
“You serve. Eventually you give it over. I have no desire to be in public office when I die,” he said.