Today at Berkeley Lab

A Lifetime of Politics for Lab’s Government Relations Head

By Sabin Russell

Berkeley Lab’s Sam Chapman was a newly minted poverty lawyer in 1974 when he watched a Napa county supervisor fall fast asleep at a public meeting. It was a bit of a revelation. “That,” says Chapman, “was the beginning of my career in politics.”

At the age of 26, he ran for county supervisor as a youthful advocate for the environment. He drew the ire of the developer-friendly Napa newspaper where he had worked summers and weekends as a teenager, but also won a Sierra Club endorsement. In the end, the campaign was really about energy — his own. A liberal long shot in a conservative district, Chapman made a point to knock on every door. He won by 16 votes.

After that, Chapman’s political career took off, and he capped it by serving for two decades as Senator Barbara Boxer’s Chief of Staff. Today he is still a champion of hard work and grassroots advocacy. After a sojourn as publisher of the Pacific Sun, a Marin County weekly newspaper, last year he became Berkeley Lab’s Manager of State and Community Relations — the lab’s ambassador to the public. One of his goals is to forge the best possible ties with communities surrounding the lab — one of the five strategic initiatives laid out by Lab Director Paul Alivisatos.

From the start, Chapman has been building the case that Berkeley Lab is a good neighbor, an engine for the local economy, and a valuable national asset in the search for sustainable energy. When more than 20 proposals rolled in this March from area communities hoping to become the site of Berkeley Lab’s Second Campus, it was clear that message was getting through.

Chapman represents the lab in organizations like the East Bay Green Corridor, which helps county and municipal leaders develop solar-friendly and other sustainable energy ordinances. “I know what they think, and how they operate, because I was one of them,’’ Chapman explains.

His knack for making connections with like-thinking people has served him well. As a county supervisor, he sat on regional panels such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District board. There, he struck up a friendship with a Marin County supervisor who also was once a reporter at the Pacific Sun: Barbara Boxer. After Boxer ran successfully for Congress, she needed a politically savvy legislative director/press secretary, and tapped her friend. In a short time, the job morphed into chief of staff.

The work became only more demanding when Boxer won her first term as senator, yet Chapman stayed with it. He served most of the time, not in Washington, D.C., but from an office in San Francisco. “When people ask me how I spent 22 years in the same job, I tell them it was because the job kept changing,” says Chapman. After two successful senatorial campaigns, Chapman decided a bigger change was in order, and he took a post as publisher of Boxer’s old paper, the Pacific Sun.

Early in his political career, Chapman served on numerous state and regional boards. One was the Governor’s Solar Cal Local Government Commission, which he chaired. It was composed of county supervisors, mayors and council members from across the state interested promoting and adopting energy efficiency and sustainability policies. Chapman remembers Berkeley Lab’s Art Rosenfeld addressed his group about energy efficiency in civic buildings. Today, Rosenfeld’s global stature has helped to cement Berkeley Lab’s reputation as a place where good things can happen. “A lot of what we are doing today is what we were talking about 30 years ago, “says Chapman. “It feels like it has come full circle.”