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How Kearney won swing seat on Petaluma council

Gabe Kearney tries to get out the vote on Election Day last November. BETH SCHLANKER/PD


Gabe Kearney had just about given up being on the Petaluma City Council.

He finished fifth among nine candidates for three open seats in the November election, garnering only 12 percent of the citywide vote. Then, when a fourth seat opened up in January as David Glass left his council seat to become mayor, the progressive bloc supported other candidates.

In the first round of informal voting on Jan. 31 to determine who might be a suitable replacement, Kearney received not a single “expression of interest” from six council members.

Yet, late Monday night, the 29-year-old emergency preparedness coordinator for Kaiser Permanente and an active member of the Sonoma County Young Democrats became the compromise choice for the disputed seat.

The council needed to break a 3-3 impasse, separated by an ideological divide primarily over management of growth.

In the first straw poll, eight of the 19 applicants received three votes, one shy of the necessary 4-vote majority to win an appointment. Still, Kearney only received two votes.

What was significant was he was the only applicant to receive any crossover support — from Councilman Mike Healy of the pro-business bloc and progressive Tiffany Renee.

“With the first round it looked like it wasn’t going to happen at all,” Kearney said Tuesday between congratulatory messages.

Glass and Renee were prepared to leave the council with six members, which they said would force them to work together. Along with Teresa Barrett, also a proponent of strict regulations on development, they weren’t inclined to change their votes.

So, faced with the possibility of operating until December 2012 when Glass’ former term expires with a split council, newly elected Councilman Chris Albertson decided he’d had enough.

“Not making that decision was abhorrent to me,” Albertson said afterward. “That was our job. We needed to have a seventh member.”

Albertson threw in with Healy, and with Renee’s backing, Kearney polled three votes, again, the only applicant to draw crossover support.

Then in a formal vote late Monday, Councilman Mike Harris, the most conservative member on the council, joined in, giving Kearney a 4-2 vote to become the council’s seventh, potentially tie-breaking member.

Glass and Barrett voted no.

In a follow-up ballot, the council voted unanimously to appoint Kearney.

Glass said his choices, which included former Mayor Pam Torliatt and tech executive Jason Davies, were the only candidates he could support, although Glass did give Kearney the maximum contribution of $200 for the November election.

“There’s four people that the environmental community really has gotten to know,” he said. “There’s different values….That’s the values that we represent in this community.”

Kearney is viewed a liberal thinker, and was described as an environmentalist in his unsuccessful 2000 bid for the council, when he was 18 years old.

He is chairman of the Sonoma County Young Democrats and has been active in statewide Democratic politics. He also served as chairman of the Sonoma County Community Development Committee.

When he is sworn in Monday, he will become Petaluma’s first openly gay City Council member. He also will become the only east Petaluma council member.

He was born in San Francisco and moved to Petaluma at age four with his parents, James and Cynthia Kearney. He has a brother who is a Stockton firefighter and a sister who works at a law firm in Petaluma.

As the seventh council member, Kearney could be a crucial swing vote on controversial projects such as Deer Creek Village, a proposed 346,000-square-foot shopping center that is planned to include a Lowe’s home improvement center. The environmental impact report on that project could come before the council this summer.

Healy said Kearney was essentially shunned by progressive Democratic leaders in November, many of whom supported Davies. Davies ran on an unofficial slate with Glass, Barrett and Torliatt, who sought the county supervisor’s seat.

Both Albertson and Healy said they worry about Kearney’s political leanings, but said they believe he can be open-minded and objective.

On Tuesday, Kearney was noncommittal on Deer Creek, saying he needed to read the EIR before taking a stand. But he said the city does need to work to capture some of the millions of dollars its residents spend in other cities.

In his application for appointment, Kearney said he supports transit-oriented development. He said he supports the general plan zoning blueprint, but he would be comfortable issuing exceptions to projects whose impacts can be mitigated.

“I’m pretty confident that Gabe is strong enough to help us change the culture of the council,” Healy said. “I don’t expect him to vote with me 100 percent of the time or with the other side 100 percent of the time. If council members have to persuade each other, as opposed to what we’ve seen in the past, it will be better than before.”

9 Responses to “How Kearney won swing seat on Petaluma council”

  1. Progressive majority? says:

    I’m a progressive Democrat who was encouraged to vote for Torliatt, Glass, Barrrett, Davies, and Kearney. While I was disappointed that they didn’t all win, my preference for the appointment was actually Davies not only because he came in ahead of Kearney, but because of his business experience, tech background, and higher level of support in the community. I was also impressed that Davies was the only candidate in the race that was endorsed by the Democratic party and the Press Democrat, which showed him to be a more moderate and pragmatic voice. I also have seen him on the Tech & Telecom Committee and have been impressed.

    What is interesting about the comment in this article about Kearney being supposedly shunned by progressives is that Healy must have missed this message sent from the Torliatt campaign just days before the election:


    “If you live in Petaluma, make sure we keep our city moving forward and join me in supporting David Glass for Mayor and Teresa Barrett, Jason Davies, and Gabe Kearney for City Council.”

    Contrary to what Healy alleges, Torliatt supporters were distributing Democratic party slate cards that included Kearney along with the other Democratic endorsed candidates. They also helped pass out Kearney’s lit I’m guessing because the ones on my doorstep were bundled together.

    There was only one flyer I saw that had other Democrats who were endorsed but no Kearney. All three of the candidates on the flyer expressed their support for Kearney in other ways including cross endorsements and contributions and I received calls from the Young Democrats that included Davies and Kearney but no Barrett. Kearney was also on the Sonoma County Conservation Action flyer along with the other endorsed candidates, and he did get endorsed by Petaluma Tomorrow, though perhaps not Moms for Clean Air.

    Even the PD reported that Kearney was part of the progressive slate and was a member of the smart growth faction. Gotta give Kearney some credit though in turning the fact that he ran a low-key campaign into an “I’m not with them” tone to get support. Unless of course he actually promised to deliver something in exchange…which is concerning (the vote appeared to be well orchestrated in advance).

    Kearney ran as a very liberal progressive but since his campaign was so muted, the other side must have missed it, as did voters that placed him in fifth behind Davies who ran a stronger campaign and had greater support by the community at large. Perhaps it helped that Kearney didn’t answer the questionnaires on the PD and Argus, the other side didn’t have a clear sense of his views.

    It may be tough for Kearney to keep what base he has and satisfy his new “friends” on the other side. If indeed Kearney remains true to his very liberal progressive nature, those who wanted to see another two years of the progressive majority will be pleased, but I would guess Healy, Harris, Albertson and their supporters won’t be.

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  2. Grey Whitmore says:

    In other news, the rest of the Petaluma City Council came out as straight today.

    Transparency people. Transparency.

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  3. BigDogatPlay says:

    Kearney’s sexual orientation has absolutely nothing to do with anything. Including it in the story is nothing but another rhetorical bow at the altar of political correctness.

    When, in this country, are we going to get to Dr. King’s ideal of judging people by the content of their character?

    Mr. Kearney’s appointment, especially considering how it was accomplished, is a breath of fresh air into the council chambers. Petaluma needs leadership, and the incumbent mayor is incapable of providing it. My earnest hope is that Gabe Kearney, working with the broader coalition who supported his appointment, can bring the council forward.

    I wish Kearney every success, even though I am sure we will disagree on some things in the days ahead.

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  4. Alic says:

    provincial petaluma provides an never ending embarrassment of rich cliches – Congratulations Gabe!

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  5. Kim says:

    Does sexual orientation have anything to do with anything? To me, no but it seems that whenever any minority group is the first to be elected to office, first in space, etc. the newspapers always make note.

    I agree Dan, that editorial spoke volumes, didn’t it?

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  6. Dan Delgado says:

    I concur with Frank. I read the line about Kearney being gay and wondered “what the hell does that have to do with anything?”

    The bigger story, as referenced in today’s editorial, is how David Glass will reconcile his personal politics with the greater responsibility of being mayor. Just what did he think being mayor was all about? It’s leadership, Mr. Mayor. If he’s not going to even meet with those other than his predetermined allies, what use is he to us as mayor?

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  7. Frank Simpson says:

    Curious as to relevance or “newsworthiness” of Kearney’s sexual orientation as part of the story.

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  8. Boring! says:

    Lets talk about something more interesting like which city in Sonoma County pays the most in taxes and the break downs of those taxes?

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  9. bridge to petaluma says:

    I voted for Gabe
    and so it goes I think he is an excellent choice

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