A “landslide of biblical proportions” is what put the longest-serving public official in Calaveras County out to pasture by his own estimation.
If it had to happen, Tom Tryon, the county supervisor representing Angels Camp and much of the Highway 4 corridor for 28 years until earlier this month, wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I’d hate to lose the way that I’ve won,” Tryon said, referring to the series of seven elections between 1984 and 2008 that tipped his way, never by too cozy a margin.
His 20-point drubbing by former Angels Camp Mayor Debbie Ponte last November left no doubts.
“There’s no second thoughts — it’s over,” Tryon said. “My time had come. I knew it had. My head’s high. I did the best that I could. When you lose, it’s a personal repudiation … that some really take pretty hard. I don’t think an election defines me.”
A similar margin in June’s primary seemed to reveal the writing on the wall and Tryon said he was more “stunned” by colleague Gary Tofanelli’s defeat, calling Tofanelli the best supervisor with whom he served.
What does define Tryon’s tenure is an outspoken nature. Love him, hate him or indifferent, it was never too hard to determine where the rancher, now 67, stood on the issues.
A member of the Libertarian Party, he was its standard-bearer in statewide races for controller in 1990 and lieutenant governor in 1998.
That means he proudly cast his vote for Ron Paul, whom he has met personally, in the 2012 presidential primary (briefly switching his registration to the GOP to do so before shifting back to the Libertarians), boasts of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson’s record performance for the party in the general election and views administrations such as Franklin Roosevelt’s and Barack Obama’s as “Marxist.”
Nevertheless, in county politics, he found that party affiliations, often widely known by voters despite the officially nonpartisan nature of the offices, mattered little.
“It’s hard to get good supervisors,” he said. “Good, strong, competent people can make more money in the private sector.”
In Tryon’s view, the best boards he worked with were his first, alongside Democrat Tom Taylor and Republican Michael Dell’Orto, and his last, often teaming with Republican Tofanelli and Democrat Merita Callaway.
Tryon said much of the largely conservative Calaveras County citizenry often longed for a three-member majority of Republicans on the board.
“We’ve had three Republicans down there and it’s been a frigging disaster,” he said. “There’s only so much political philosophy you can deliver. There’s so much dictated by state and federal law. Partisan politics don’t matter at all. It comes down to competence and some degree of positive vision.”
Much of Tryon’s vision centered on improving public infrastructure, including an initially unpopular sewer system for Vallecito. Sampling showed raw sewage running through the streets, Tryon said, and he strongly supported the upgrades. The only election in which he won but failed to carry Vallecito precincts ensued, he said.
He was not swayed on that issue by popular opinion.
“I always voted and did what I thought was in the public interest,” Tryon said. “People liked the honesty … and the results, after the fact.”
He said he kept infrastructure costs in mind while supporting development centered around existing community centers, despite clashes that created with other libertarian-minded folks about so-called “rural sprawl,” particularly after the rise of the Tea Party movement.
“I believe you can have all the private property rights that you want but you don’t have the right to be subsidized,” Tryon said. “Everybody can’t have their five-acre parcel on a road if that road is then going to be choked with traffic.”
On the other hand, “everybody says they want development and growth in the community centers,” he said. “They just want in somebody else’s community center.”
In some regards, he took an unequivocal Libertarian line, maintaining staunch opposition to the heavily subsidized Calaveras Transit system, repeated attempts to increase the county’s lodging tax and formation of any regulated “historic district” in towns like Murphys and Mokelumne Hill.
He called the revitalization of Murphys his greatest pride and a poster child for “libertarian philosophy.”
Tryon could have easily avoided a career in politics. He graduated with an economics degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and followed it up with a master of business administration degree from the University of Chicago. He worked initially in the banking sector, including a stint as vice president for the agricultural division of Crocker National Bank, based in San Francisco.
When his predecessor as District 4 supervisor, Charles Wistos, asked him if he would accept a Planning Commissioner appointment, Tryon’s instinct was to balk.
“As a Libertarian, I thought it’d be an oxymoron to be involved in government,” he said.
His parents actually encouraged him to learn the ropes of the public sector, citing its importance given the family’s sizable land holdings, he said.
Tryon said serving on the Board of Supervisors ultimately appealed to him in the early years because it provided him an opportunity to stay on the family’s Angels Camp ranch and pursue what remains his passion to this day.
“I love it,” he said of ranching. “But you don’t make any money at it. It’s an extremely high-risk venture for little (financial) reward. It’s very physically demanding.”
Tryon continues to live on the ranch with wife Denise but like most ranch owners of this age, does not expect grown children Elizabeth, Kate or Walter to someday take on the duties that go along with 200 head of cattle themselves.
He campaigned for the open board seat against Tony Tyrrell, who he maintained a friendship with in personal, but not political, matters.
Initial counts showed Tyrrell won. A final hand recount gave Tryon a one-vote victory even as Tyrrell attended a California State Association of Counties conference for new supervisors-elect.
“My mother told me not to look back on things … what was meant to be was meant to be,” Tyrrell said. “I don’t agree with Tom on a lot of things, particularly drugs. We have two very different political philosophies. But I still like him as a friend. I went over and congratulated him of course.”
Tryon’s stance against drug prohibition led him to butt heads in his first term, particularly with then-Sheriff Claude Ballard, and sparked a short-lived recall effort that did not acquire enough signatures to go to a ballot.
Tryon continued to have run-ins with the county’s top lawmen later in his tenure, namely pitched budget battles with sheriffs Dennis Downum and Gary Kuntz following the recession of 2007.
“Tom Tryon basically stands on his issues. I’ve never really actually butted heads with him that I can remember,” Kuntz said. “Tom is just Tom. What can I say?”
As a freshman supervisor, Tryon said he likely got the benefit of the doubt from “a reservoir of goodwill” his parents established in Angels Camp.
The Tryons have a lengthy history in the area.
Tom’s great-uncle, Charles, was an Angels Camp native and Tryon Peak in Alpine County is named for him. Prior to 1900, he too had a stint in county government.
Charles Tryon, a proud Republican, served as one of Calaveras County’s first sheriffs.
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