By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
As the race for four seats on the Santa Rosa City Council enters the final stretch, political observers are focused less on Mayor Ernesto Olivares and Councilman Gary Wysocky and more on which candidates may ride their coattails into office.
Both incumbents are expected to hold onto their seats on the seven-member council, leaving the fight for third and fourth place as the real battleground where the balance of power on the next council will be decided.
“What we have is a pretty solid one and two, and then, frankly, what I think is a pretty fluid three, four and five,” said David McCuan, professor of political science at Sonoma State University.
For the past two years, the council has been deeply divided. Four members backed by business and development interests generally support fewer regulations on business, and three members have more environmental and labor leanings and place greater value on neighborhood input.
“It’s unclear what the future direction of the council will be because the lack of succession and a clear farm team for each side,” he said.
Incumbents in races across Sonoma County are expected to do well this year, in part because the economy is better than it was two years ago, said Steven Gale, chairman of the Sonoma County Democratic Party.
“I think voters in the cities are feeling like we’ve make it through some tough times,” Gale said.
Among the five non-incumbent candidates, those who have been actively campaigning the longest, namely neighborhood activist Julie Combs and attorney Erin Carlstrom, are showing strong support because they’ve had a longer time to make their case to voters, Gale said.
But with two weeks to go, Gale acknowledges the race remains difficult to predict. “There is enough volatility to make the race very close,” Gale said.
That may be because the other three active non-incumbent candidates have strengths of their own and reasons to be optimistic about their chances, as well.
Don Taylor, owner of Omelette Express restaurants in Santa Rosa and Windsor, has significant name recognition from his public service and three previous council campaigns. He has served on the planning commission and was president of the Historic Railroad Square Association. He believes the best way to create jobs is to reduce the red tape for businesses and better marketing of the city.
Though he got into the race late, Taylor says his campaign is gaining traction, several key endorsements have gone his way, and people appreciate his focus on signs of health in the local economy.
“Even during these tough times, we’ve made pretty significant headway,” Taylor said, citing new restaurants downtown and new businesses locating in Railroad Square, including two bike shops and a dance studio.
Winery executive Hans Dippel believes Santa Rosa needs to capitalize on its location in the heart of Sonoma’s Wine Country to become a destination city for tourists. He also believes in removing barriers to businesses and actively recruiting them to set up shop here, especially in vacant commercial spaces.
One idea he has for boosting business downtown is for free parking for at least two hours, which would bring more shoppers and visitors downtown and eliminate the outrage people feel when they get a parking ticket. A photo he posted on Facebook of a ticket he got for an expired meter got numerous responses, he said.
“I think we have a system right now that’s not working,” Dippel said of the city’s parking program. “You show that picture to people and it stirs emotions more than district elections or binding arbitration or just about anything.”
Caroline Bañuelos, a former homeless services provider, also has significant name recognition from her years on the planning commission and involvement with nonprofit groups.
Bañuelos also strongly supports making Santa Rosa a destination city and doing more to attract new businesses. But she also believes the city should focus on helping its existing businesses thrive, especially small, locally-owned businesses.
“I think they are really the backbone of Santa Rosa, and I think we need to do everything we can to support them,” she said.
Two candidates, Mike Cook and Shaan Vandenburg, dropped out of the race but remain on the ballot.
But not everyone is buying the idea that it’s a five-way race for the third and fourth seats.
Political consultant Herb Williams, who is running Olivares’ campaign, agrees that incumbents should face an easier time this year, but said his surveys suggest not all incumbents are shoe-ins.
“I think what Mr. Gale and others are saying is normally true, but not in the case of Mr. Wysocky,” Williams said. “I think his treatment of people has not gone unnoticed by voters.”
Williams declined to elaborate or share the data from his survey.
Wysocky called that a “baseless charge.”
“So much for Mr. Williams and Mr. Olivares reaching across the aisle,” Wysocky said. “I’m proud to run on my record.”
Wysocky often takes the lead in questioning city staff and others on issues before the council, particularly on complex subjects such as the budget, contract negotiations, and pension reform. He feels the council hasn’t made the difficult decisions needed to restore the city to fiscal health.
He also has called for greater accountability in the city’s gang prevention programs, feels the council needs to give more weight to neighborhood concerns, and supports alternative transportation initiatives like the SMART train and pedestrian and bicycle improvements.
While he can be strong willed, Wysocky said council members whose campaigns Williams has run have been more prone to outbursts from the dais or rude treatment of residents.
“All I know is when I meet people at the door, I’m getting a very positive response, and people are grateful for my service on the council,” Wysocky said. “I ask tough questions. I do my job for the people of the city.”
Olivares, for his part, says his top priority is to continue efforts to make the city more welcoming to new and existing businesses. He cites the work of two task forces he formed — on economic competitiveness and pension reform — as helping the city make meaningful progress on both issues.
Olivares claims the city has created 1,300 new jobs since he’s been on the council and has 1,900 “on the drawing board.” Those estimates, put together by city economic development staff, refer to some projects that took advantage of economic development measures established by the previous council and assume future projects that are highly uncertain.
If Combs and Carlstrom are both elected, it could set up a dynamic where Carlstrom occupies an influential position on the next council, McCuan said.
Combs, a neighborhood activist, holds positions on issues similar to Wysocky. These include the need for an “honest, balanced budget,” more significant pension reform, bringing good-paying jobs to the city, and giving a greater voice to the neighborhood groups.
She has been sharply critical of Olivares and his allies, often on Twitter, which she uses prolifically to communicate with supporters and issue live updates of council debates in real time.
Carlstrom, on the other hand, has endorsed Olivares, and vice versa. The two pledged to work together, despite their divergent views on issues, to change the tone on the council.
Some viewed the alliance as a refreshing step toward restoring a sense of civility and collaboration on the council. Others saw it as an election year stunt meant to give the relatively unknown Carlstrom a boost and to give political cover to Olivares, who promised to reconcile the council but admits the effort failed.
Whatever the case, if voters react positively and Carlstrom is elected, “she could become that pivotal, critical vote in the middle,” McCuan said.
If that happens, it could make for some very interesting votes.
While she has endorsed Olivares, McCuan believes Carlstrom will show herself be more aligned with the environmental, labor and neighborhood oriented candidates now in the minority.
“She’s closer to the progressives than she is to the mayor,” McCuan said.
A quick review of some key 4-3 votes over the past two years seems to bear this out, with Carlstrom saying she probably would have voted with the majority once and the minority four times.
She said she would have voted:
• In favor of West End neighborhood’s appeal to require more environmental review of the Bodean Co. asphalt plant’s three new silos.
• Against rezoning the Yolanda Avenue site once eyed for a Lowe’s Home Improvement to make the site easier to develop.
• In favor of spending another $100,000 to study the pedestrian and bicycle bridge over Highway 101, expected to cost between $13 million and $20 million.
• Against reprioritizing the council’s goals to reduce the value placed on neighborhood involvement.
• In favor of the latest two-year police contract which included some pension reform measures.
Carlstrom declined to speculate on how her election could influence the council’s direction.
“Right now, all I’m trying to do is to get elected,” she said.
Olivares said he’s been clear that his endorsement of Carlstrom didn’t suggest they would be voting together on key issues, which he says he hasn’t even discussed with her in detail.
Rather it was a commitment to listen to each other in a genuine effort to reach consensus and move the city forward.
“It’s hard to say right now how things are going to shake out,” Olivares said.