When city worker Huy Pham died March 17, the public employees union representing him and hundreds of other Costa Mesa workers quickly made him a saint, asserting that Pham’s leap from City Hall was a reasonable–if tragic–response to hard-hearted officials prepared to kill everyone in order to balance the city’s budget.
On May 26, that narrative collapsed when the Daily Pilot revealed that the county coroner found cocaine in the 29-year-old maintenance worker’s body.
This is why Catholics typically wait years before canonization.
Until the Pilot report, critics had seized on Pham’s death* as evidence that the council majority was either incompetent, heartless, or both. Councilmember Wendy Leece–an evangelical conservative who opposes any talk of outsourcing city work–reportedly told the Voice of OC that Pham’s death was “a clear signal that the City Council should slow the process down. ‘I hope they [the council majority] rescind the pink slips and come back and do their homework.’”
This was part of the developing story line: that Pham’s death was foreseeable to everyone but a ruthless council majority pushing for budget cuts. The Voice of OC said Helen Nenadal, president of the Costa Mesa City Employees Association, was “devastated by Pham’s death”–devastated though it did “not surprise her.”
“She said she had a meeting about the layoffs with Costa Mesa Mayor Gary Monahan on Tuesday and expressed serious concerns about the health and welfare of employees,” the Voice of OC reported. “‘He didn’t seem too concerned,’ Nenandal said.”
Union supporters found themselves choosing between just two options: Was the council nonchalant or pathological? The Pacific Progressive blog quickly labeled the mayor “Murdering Monahan.” “And remember,” the blog asserted, Pham’s death “was caused by financial presentations that were crafted to create a crisis. Costa Mesa lies and a man dies.”
The Orange County Employee’s Association quickly cranked out an advertisement that transformed a clearly troubled guy into a symbol of the union’s struggle against injustice.
A myth–cultivated by union PR staffers–grew up around Pham, not just that his suicide was somehow inevitable**, but that the impromptu candlelit vigils that followed soon coalesced into an organic movement to derail the killing machine inside City Hall.
“Unfortunately, it took a real tragedy to get us organized, and it started partly because we just started talking on the steps of City Hall, whether we were standing with a candle or bringing flowers,” former Costa Mesa Mayor Sandy Genis told OC Weekly back then. “For now, we’re asking the city council to rescind its action, regarding outsourcing of most of the jobs. I don’t know if they will, but we’ll give them a chance.”
It’s tempting at this point to say that Pham jumped because he was high on coke. But that would simply mirror the illogic of the union’s position–what the Romans called post hoc ergo propter hoc, the illusion that events are caused by one of the things that precedes them.
Did Pham jump because he knew he was going to be pink-slipped that afternoon, as the union asserted? Or did he jump because of the coke in his system? Or both? Or neither? Politics hates mystery, but life is marbled with it.
It was always unfair to turn Pham into an icon; the prospect of unemployment is rarely pleasant, but none of the other pink-slipped employees have jumped, and few Americans respond to unemployment by killing themselves. And so it seemed only an oddball–or former Register reporter-turned-union spokesperson Jennifer Muir***–would ignore the myriad forces at work in Pham’s death, and pound the square peg of his suicide into the round hole of Costa Mesa politics, to alchemize Pham into Crispus Attucks.
It’s Muir, of course, whose use of time clocks has become a regular feature of her blog posts on behalf of the union leadership. In one, she reminds us that “it’s been 23 days since [City Councilman Jim] Righeimer was asked to release personal e-mails regarding official deliberations on outsourcing and the layoff notices sent to 213 employees. We’re still waiting for those e-mails.”
Jennifer: How long will it take before you apologize, on behalf of the union leadership, for suggesting that heartless men killed Huy Pham? Start the clock!
* Still unclear whether Pham jumped or fell, mind you, though every report I can find cites no evidence in concluding that it was the former.
** Which just weirdly defies simple arithmetic, given that the death of one out of some 200 workers (about 0.05%) indicates that this is an anomaly worth pausing to consider–out of regard for math itself if not the memory of the actual human in the equation.
*** This is not intended to suggest that Jennifer Muir is an oddball. For one thing, she has these just beautiful eyes, and it’s a well-known fact that oddballs have bad eyes, whence comes the expression weird eyeballs, or “odd balls.”