By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The election of Erin Carlstrom to the Santa Rosa City Council has created one of the youngest, most influential and most unpredictable politicians the city has seen in decades.
The day after her third-place finish in the race, the 29-year-old attorney is being viewed as someone likely to wield significant clout on the new council despite her relative political inexperience.
“We are entering a period of the council that really is uncharted territory, which gives someone like Erin a bit of running room for both sides,” said David McCuan, professor of political science at Sonoma State University.
McCuan views Carlstrom as someone whose is uniquely positioned — given the broad-based support she received and her vow with Mayor Ernesto Olivares to change the tone on the council — to fundamentally alter the polarized dynamics that has defined the council in recent years.
“Erin’s election has the opportunity to change the combatants and the trench warfare that has characterized Santa Rosa politics,” McCuan said.
The council has long been divided between members backed by business and development interests who generally support fewer regulations on business, and those who place greater importance on the environment and the input from neighborhoods.
How Carlstrom will navigate or even bridge this divide is still very unclear to many people, in part because during her campaign she positioned herself as someone offering something for everyone.
She impressed environmentalists with her commitment to urban growth boundaries. She got the backing of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce after stressing her commitment to job creation. She won the support of labor groups such as local firefighters union, publicly noting how public safety groups have given significant labor concessions to the city. And neighborhood groups appreciated her promise to listen to and value their input in the city’s planning process.
“Her answers were effusive to all groups,” McCuan said.
Carlstrom on Wednesday said it was too soon to speculate on how she would approach council decisions. She downplayed the notion that she will hold some pivotal role on new council
“Everyone holds a swing position on the council. Everyone’s vote is important,” she said.
But she said she is well aware that she expressed support in the campaign for a variety of interests and knows that “sometimes those interests will collide.” In those cases, she said she would try to focus on what unites people instead of divides them, work hard to find areas of compromise, and respect everyone’s position.
“If there are divergent interests, I will hope to craft solutions that benefit everyone,” she said.
Rob Muelrath, who ran the unsuccessful campaigns of Don Taylor and Hans Dippel, gave Carlstrom credit.
“She ran a good campaign. She did all the right things,” Muelrath said.
Specifically, early in the campaign she catered to her liberal Democratic base and the environmental, labor and neighborhood concerns they value. As the campaign progressed she moved closer to the center, positioning herself as a more moderate candidate emphasizing job creation, support of public employees and her vow to reach across the aisle.
“Whether she is going to be that way on the council, that’s to be determined,” Muelrath said.
The uncertainty on how Carlstrom will vote, when push comes to shove, “makes everyone on all sides uncomfortable,” McCuan said.
He likened her to a rookie pitcher who can throw 100 mph fastballs.
“Is she going to strike people out, or is she going to throw over the backstop? You’re just not sure what you’re going to get when she pitches,” McCuan said.
But she quickly will face key votes that should clarify her priorities and demonstrate the influence of her new position.
The first will be after she and neighborhood activist Julie Combs are sworn in Dec. 4, and the new council will vote for a mayor.
Susan Gorin, who will remain on the council until she steps down in early January to be the new 1st District Sonoma County supervisor, has made it clear she will support Gary Wysocky for mayor.
While he can be brusque, Gorin says Wysocky is experienced and knows the budget better than anyone.
“I think Gary will be one that really guides the city forward, so he has my confidence and would have my vote to be mayor,” Gorin said.
Wysocky’s has style created some bad blood on council, and Carlstrom could risk alienating Olivares and his allies with such a move. But the same could happen if she supported Jake Ours or Scott Bartley for the post, neither of whom has been shy about trading barbs with Wysocky from the dais.
The second opportunity will be when the council votes to fill Gorin’s seat in early January. The selection could prove another politically delicate one in which Carlstrom could play a pivotal role.
Muelrath said Taylor, who came in fifth place, is the natural choice because he’s a moderate and a successful businessman with a long history of community service.
He noted that two candidates on the ballot who were backed by business groups but dropped out of the race, Mike Cook and Shaan Vandenburg, received nearly 19,000 votes. If they hadn’t been on the ballot, Taylor likely would have been elected and Wysocky ousted, Muelrath said.
Taylor said he hasn’t had much time to consider the appointment process, but said he would be willing to serve. “I’m available,” said the owner of Omelette Express.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. OnTwitter @citybeater