With boundary shift, two Santa Rosa-based candidates join fight for what traditionally has been Sonoma Valley seat
By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Valerie Brown’s pending retirement from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has led to the most sharply contested race for that seat in decades, and the outcome could alter the balance of political power in the county for years.
But redrawn political boundaries that include more of Santa Rosa and the resulting candidacies from John Sawyer and Susan Gorin — both Santa Rosa City Council members — could shift the district’s center of political power northwest and possibly create a scenario in which three of the board’s five members are based in Santa Rosa.
Standing in their way are Sonoma Valley-based candidates Gina Cuclis, Mark Bramfitt, Joanne Sanders and Michael McClure, setting up a showdown at the June 5 primary and what most political observers expect will be a runoff between the top two vote-getters in November’s general election.
“The race for 1st District supervisor is so important because it’s not only about replacing an experienced incumbent, but also about the future direction of the board as it deals with a new fiscal reality,” said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.
That reality includes the county’s unfunded pension liabilities currently totaling $353 million, a deteriorating network of roads and major land use battles. How the board tackles those issues while also responding to the local concerns of the 96,984 people who reside in the 1st District will be greatly influenced by who wins that seat, McCuan said.
“If it’s a Santa Rosa-centered pol, it takes the board in a different direction than what has traditionally been seen as a more parochial or valley-centered seat,” he said.
The political stakes also include the potential for a seat that in recent history has gone to a Republican or to a centrist Democrat being won by a candidate who has more liberal leanings.
Money is pouring into campaigns, endorsements are being lined up and signs for the candidates are spreading from Montgomery Village east to the Napa County border. Behind the scenes, organizers of independent expenditure committees are said to be waiting for the opportune time to unleash money and advertising that could turn the race negative in a hurry.
It’s a different scene from 2008, when the race between Brown and challenger Will Pier was an afterthought among other county races and the presidential election that year. And unlike this year’s contest involving Santa Rosa candidates, both Pier and Brown live in Sonoma Valley.
The 1st District includes the entire valley east to the Napa County line, the city of Sonoma and the unincorporated communities of Kenwood and Glen Ellen, as well as eastern Santa Rosa.
Based on 2010 Census data, the district was expanded last year to include more of Fountaingrove and Bennett Valley, an addition of 3,750 Santa Rosa residents.
Of the 1st District’s 56,862 registered voters, 52 percent, or 29,437, now reside within Santa Rosa city limits.
The other 48 percent, or 27,497, live in the district’s unincorporated areas or in the city of Sonoma.
The numbers were tallied by Rob Muelrath, Sawyer’s campaign consultant, based on data from the county’s registrar of voters.
“There’s no question that if any candidate takes a large portion of Santa Rosa they probably can guarantee themselves a spot in the runoff,” Muelrath said.
But Muelrath said Sonoma Valley is a “very important part of our campaign strategy” and that Sawyer’s focus is to make sure he gives the valley “equal time.”
Brown, who lives in Kenwood, said it would be difficult for a Santa Rosa-based supervisor to handle valley concerns given the challenges of distance and time. She has more than two decades of experience representing the area on the Sonoma City Council, in the state Assembly and as a supervisor.
“You’ve got to know the people down there. You’ve got to know what their needs are. You’ve got to know their history,” she said.
Brown has endorsed as her replacement Sonoma engineering consultant Mark Bramfitt, who said the geographic differences among the candidates are “absolutely an issue for some folks in the valley who would prefer to have a supervisor they think knows their issues and is accessible to them.”
But Bramfitt said valley residents are not so “provincial” as to vote for someone simply based on where they live. “I think they are going to make their decision on a broad set of criteria,” he said.
That may be, but it hasn’t stopped several of the valley candidates from trumpeting where they live. That includes Sanders, who is Sonoma’s mayor and whose campaign motto is “The Voice of the Valley.”
Sanders said she has a better understanding of issues in the valley than do the Santa Rosa candidates, citing in particular redevelopment projects in the city of Sonoma and surrounding area, as well as water issues.
“Those are two things the Santa Rosa council members have no history with,” Sanders said.
Sanders also raised veiled criticism of Gorin at one candidates forum for Gorin’s decision to move into the 1st District in order to qualify for the race.
In a subsequent interview, Sanders said Gorin’s move raised questions about her motives and whether Gorin is more interested in “getting a job” than representing the district.
Brown raised similar concerns, saying Gorin “had a seat she could run for and she chose not to.”
Gorin responded to Brown’s remarks by saying they reflect Brown’s endorsement of Bramfitt.
“I’m coming at it from a different place,” Gorin said. “This is about my experience and my success as an elected official.”
Gorin’s Fountaingrove home, which she and her husband are now renting out, is about four blocks outside of the redrawn 1st District boundary. The couple have rented a home in Oakmont, which in addition to being inside the district also includes precincts that historically have had the highest voter turnout in local elections.
Gorin countered criticism of her move by saying the race is about who has the better qualifications and not about where the candidates live. She said she wasn’t interested in running in the 3rd District against Shirlee Zane, who she called a “capable supervisor.”
Asked whether she and her husband plan to continue living in the 1st District whether she wins or loses the race, Gorin replied, “We haven’t really discussed it. We are just enjoying where we are living right now.”
Sawyer’s Bennett Valley home is several hundred yards inside the 1st District boundary.
He compared the 1st District to Santa Rosa, where council members have come almost exclusively from the city’s east side. Sawyer also lives in that area but said he’s done a good job representing the entire city.
“I think everyone has been represented well regardless of my ZIP code,” he said.
He said becoming supervisor would represent a natural “evolution” for the 1st District and that it’s “just a matter of time” before a candidate from Santa Rosa is chosen for that seat.
The idea that the race boils down to a contest between Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley interests was dismissed by Gorin’s campaign manager, Terry Price, as essentially self-serving spin.
“It serves some campaigns to bang on that drum because it’s a wedge issue to say I’m a better candidate because of where I live,” Price said.
Price was specifically referring to Cuclis, a former City of Sonoma planning commissioner and communications consultant who lives in Boyes Hot Springs. Price said Cuclis is “totally outclassed” in the race.
“What else does she got? She’s got, ‘I’ve lived 30 years in the county.’ Yeah, well, so what?” Price said.
He argued that Sonoma Valley residents would benefit by having Gorin represent them because of her connections in Santa Rosa and on regional boards.
“That’s a big bonus for Sonoma,” Price said. “Susan’s going to kill herself representing the people of Sonoma because she already knows Santa Rosa.”
Cuclis has not shied away from emphasizing the fact that she has lived in Sonoma Valley for 25 years.
“Your perspective is developed based on where you have lived and where you have been active in this district,” Cuclis said. “I’ll quote a local business owner: ‘It’s not that you are from here. It’s that you know here.’ ”
But Cuclis said “there is no geographic divide when it comes to the two major issues in this campaign, and that is roads and pensions.”
Interest in the 1st District race also stems from the fact that it’s a truly open race for the first time in decades.
Brown was appointed to the seat in 2002 and won re-election twice. Mike Cale was appointed in 1991 and won re-election three times. Janet Nicholas held the seat from 1985 until 1991.
Both Nicholas and Cale were Republicans. Brown, who is widely viewed as a centrist Democrat, said it remains to be seen which of the five candidates appeals to conservatives and independents who reside in the district.
“I think they’re the wild card because they’re looking for someone who is much more akin to who they are,” she said.
Sanders, who co-owns an employee staffing firm with her husband, has cast herself as the most fiscally conservative of the group, stating publicly that she wants supervisors to cut 10 percent from the county payroll and slash their own salaries to help fund road repairs and maintenance.
That stance this week earned Sanders the endorsement of Save Our Sonoma Roads, a group that was recently formed with the mission of making road maintenance a priority in the county.
Cuclis, Bramfitt and Gorin say part of the solution in funding road repairs lies in asking county residents to raise their taxes. Sawyer and Sanders oppose such increases.
McClure, a teacher at the Sonoma Developmental Center, has run virtually no campaign.
The other five candidates have publicly supported changes to public employee pensions to deal with unfunded liabilities.
Those changes include increasing the retirement age, spreading out the calculations for retirement pay to discourage “spiking,” capping pensions and instituting a two-tier system in which new employees would receive less than current retirees.
But for some 1st District voters, issues don’t matter as much as their impression of a candidate. That was the case for David Lynch, who said this week that he decided to support Cuclis after she knocked on the door of his Oakmont home and the pair “hit it off.”
“I like the idea of change,” he said. “That’s what it boils down to.”
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Political background: Served on Local Agency Formation Commission, Valley of the Moon Water District and Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission
Other: 25 years as a major account representative for PG&E; now an energy consultant.
Residence: Boyes Hot Springs
Political background: Served on multiple governing boards and campaigns, including the Verano Springs Association and the City of Sonoma Planning Commission
Other: A communications consultant
Residence: Santa Rosa
Political background: Santa Rosa City Council member since 2006, serving one term as mayor; chairwoman of the Sonoma County Water Advisory Committee and has served on the boards of the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District
Residence: Glen Ellen
Political background: None
Other: Teacher at Sonoma Developmental Center; holds a master’s degree in business administration from the University of San Francisco and a law degree from Empire College School of Law
Political background: Sonoma mayor, formerly served on the board of directors of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District
Other: Co-owner with her husband of a Sonoma employment agency
Residence: Santa Rosa
Political background: Santa Rosa City Council member since 2004, serving one term as mayor; member of the Sonoma County Solid Waste Advisory Group
Other: Operated family business, Sawyer’s News, until it closed in 2010