Harriett Phillips: 1923-2019

Harriett Phillips — defender of the Goleta Valley, precinct walker extraordinaire, and lifetime fan of the Michigan Wolverines (Go Blue!) — was one of the first people I met after I was hired by the New York Times as a Santa Barbara News-Press reporter in 1985. I was looking for citizen activists, and Harriett was up to her neck in the fight against a proposed Hyatt at Haskell’s Beach.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d made a friend for life. Over the years, I thought I was special because Harriett kept tabs on me as if she were my mother, but I found out she did the same with Santa Barbara Independent reporter Nick Welsh. We’d both get these phone calls: “I haven’t seen your byline — are you all right?” It was code for, “Call me, please.”

Harriett moved to Goleta in 1974 at the age of 51, leaving behind a whirlwind career with the Michigan Democratic Party. Here, she made her mark as the founder of Citizens for Goleta Valley, a grassroots organization that sought to rein in urban sprawl, and she founded the Goleta Valley Land Trust to preserve open space for the public’s enjoyment.

“She was a hero and a real leader,” said former county supervisor Bill Wallace, who represented the valley for 19 years. “She was just everywhere. By getting the votes we needed to be able to do things, Citizens for Goleta Valley helped save Santa Barbara Shores, Naples, and the whole Gaviota Coast from development. That was a very big deal. It’s still agriculture, past the urban limit line.” 

Harriett was a big-D and little-d democrat from the days when she helped her mother pass food through the windows to workers inside the Chevrolet plant in Flint, Michigan, during the historic sit-down strike of 1936-37. She was only 13, but she could see that the workers were hungry, and she asked her father, an immigrant from Ukraine, why they wanted to join a union.

In 1943, Harriett married Bob Phillips, a fellow University of Michigan alumnus who was as quiet as she was gregarious. After the war, they moved to the suburbs of Detroit. Harriett began walking precincts for the Democratic Party in 1948; she didn’t quit until after Barack Obama’s first election as president, 60 years later. Going door-to-door was the best way to find out what was on people’s minds, she said; the worst part was running into people who didn’t want to get involved.

“I don’t understand Americans who don’t know how precious their vote is,” Harriett said. “It got worse and worse over the years.”

From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, Harriett threw herself into Michigan politics, even as she and Bob raised three sons. She became the first woman in the state and perhaps the country to run a gubernatorial campaign. She was elected vice chair of the Democratic State Central Committee, and she was selected as a Michigan delegate to the Democratic presidential conventions of 1956 and 1960, nominating Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, respectively.

Harriett also was appointed supervisor for Oakland County in Michigan, where she served as one of three women on the board, among 63 men. The other two women were on the flower committee, but Harriett announced she “did not want to be a flower pot.” When she had her third child, the local paper ran a news flash: “Supervisor Gives Birth.”

Harriett Phillips, pictured with her husband Bob Phillips, was a big-D and little-d democrat from the days she helped her mother feed striking workers at Chevrolet to her fight to save Haskell’s Beach from development.

Harriett later led a seven-year drive for an amendment that she drafted to the Michigan state constitution, making it illegal to spend public money on private and religious schools. In 1970, it won by a landslide.

Harriett’s private papers from those heady times in Detroit are housed at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. 

In 1974, after Bob retired from his job with the federal Small Business Administration, the Phillipses moved to Goleta to escape the harsh Michigan winters. Harriett wasted no time getting herself invited to a meeting for the next water board campaign. There she met Wallace, a former board director who was running for county supervisor: he was sporting a ponytail and sitting on the floor, barefoot. “You’ve got to be kidding!” Harriett said to her new friends. “This is California,” they explained.

Harriett worked on all five of Wallace’s campaigns for the 3rd District seat; he became one of the longest-running politicians in county history, and he was one of the most liberal.

“I was in love with him as a candidate,” Harriett said. “I thought, ‘My God, this is a free country if we can run candidates like that.’ With Bill, you could talk honestly.”

Harriett gave plenty of advice to her candidates, all of them men, and they ignored her at their peril. “They have no conception of what most people feel,” she told me. “I was usually right.” Harriett advised Wallace on how to dress, telling him, for example, that he had to wear a suit to meet the Queen of England on her visit to the Reagan Ranch in 1983. Wallace put on something garish from a thrift shop, and Harriett and the London press never got over it.

Harriett saw her share of defeats as well as victories. She did not support the winning campaign for Goleta cityhood in 2002. She favored including the whole valley in the new city; she thought it was foolish to leave out UCSB, Isla Vista, and what came to be known as Noleta, the unincorporated area east of Patterson Avenue and along north Patterson, where she lived.

Citizens for Goleta Valley sued to stop the Hyatt project, and lost: the hotel was built as the Bacara Resort & Spa. But the Goletans who dubbed it “the Bizzarra” won some big concessions — most notably, public access to the beach and $5 million for land preservation. As president of the Goleta Valley Land Trust for 13 years, Harriett oversaw the distribution of those funds, buying land for Girsh Park on Phelps Road, the biggest sports park in the city; Coronado Butterfly Preserve on Ellwood Mesa; San Marcos Foothills Preserve on Highway 154; and Gaviota State Park. The group also helped save Fairview Gardens Farm, an agricultural preserve that was hemmed in by housing tracts near the library.

“It was the most fun I ever had with somebody else’s money,” Harriett said.

In late 2006 and early 2007, Wendy McCaw, the multimillionaire News-Press owner, fired me and seven other reporters in the wake of our newsroom’s overwhelming vote to join the Teamsters. Harriett, then in her eighties, showed up for so many of our picket lines in her conspicuous white hairdo and oversized dark glasses that we had to cut her out of a couple of scenes in a video we were making about our cause. “Who is that woman?” the videographer asked.

In 2011, on the fifth anniversary of what is popularly known as the News-Press Mess, Harriett spontaneously took the mike at our rally in De la Guerra Plaza and belted out the Woody Guthrie classic, “Union Maid,” which ends, “Oh you can’t scare me, I’m stickin’ with the union ’til the day I die.”

It was true: nothing ever did scare her. Harriett had a light touch and an unshakeable spirit. She was for workers’ rights and a free press, and she believed in all of us besieged journalists. Many of her phone calls to Nick and me were simply to say, “Good job.” With Harriett, it was solidarity forever. I’ll miss my good friend and her encouraging words ’til the day I die.

Harriett is survived by her sons Stevan, of Seattle, Wash. and Seth, of Kalkaska, Mich.; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Harriett’s husband, Bob, died in 20l1; their son, Bruce, died in 2001. A private memorial is planned for Harriett. Donations may be made to Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union in her memory.


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