By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A surge of last-minute spending has sparked a final war of words between Susan Gorin and John Sawyer, the two candidates vying for the 1st District seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
The sparring has included proxies making independent expenditures on behalf of the two rivals, who are long-time opposites on the Santa Rosa City Council.
The money race has accelerated in the past week, with both direct campaign contributions and outside spending pouring more than $80,000 into the contest to replace retiring Supervisor Valerie Brown, campaign finance records show.
As she did earlier last month, Gorin outpaced Sawyer since Oct. 20, pulling in nearly $17,000 through Thursday, including more than $10,000 from two labor groups, Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and Operating Engineers Local 3.
Sawyer, who still leads the overall money race, collected almost $13,000 in the same period, including more than $7,000 from supporters with building and real estate interests.
The figures include contributions of at least $500 — one-time or in aggregate through this year — that were reported since the close of the last reporting period.
The last-minute cash has allowed the two campaigns to rachet up their attack advertisements in the district in the past two weeks. The region includes the city of Sonoma, Sonoma Valley and parts of eastern Santa Rosa.
Sawyer has insisted his campaign efforts and those of the groups supporting him have only been in response to a “first punch” thrown by Gorin and her allies.
“I can say without this support I would not have been able to respond to the campaign against me,” Sawyer said. “It’s only been very recently that we’ve moved negative.”
Gorin disputed that claim and alleged that Sawyer’s larger campaign coffers, plus the greater outside spending that has favored him has resulted in a four-to-one advantage in mailers for her rival.
“He has been critical of me since the first day after the primary,” said Gorin. “People I talk with at their doors, they can’t believe the number of mailers they’ve received from him.”
From Jan. 1 to Oct. 20, Sawyer reported nearly $282,000 in contributions, including a $16,300 loan. He spent about $265,000 over that period.
Gorin reported more than $218,000 in contributions and about $176,000 in spending.
The latest surge in outside money has heavily favored Sawyer. Since Oct. 20, two groups have spent more than $40,000 on activity supporting him or opposing Gorin. In the same period, outside spending in Gorin’s favor was reported at just over $13,000.
Allies for Sawyer include the Sonoma Jobs Action League, backed primarily by the Sonoma County Alliance, a coalition of local business interests, and the California Real Estate Association. The jobs league reported spending more than $25,000 since Oct. 20.
The other group supporting Sawyer, an independent expenditure committee formed by the California Real Estate Association and linked to the North Bay Association of Realtors, added more than $15,000.
Reports detailing their spending included an apparent error that prompted inquiries by county elections officials Friday and a scramble by representatives of the real estate association to fix what they called a “mistake.”
Their initial report, including $59,000 in expenditures to date in the race, listed a $14,600 payment directly to Sawyer for polling. Such a transaction would have violated rules governing independent expenditure committees, which cannot contribute directly to candidates or their campaigns. From any other entity, the payment also would have exceeded campaign contribution limits, currently at $5,250 per reporting period in the race.
Lotus Lou, a spokeswoman for the California Real Estate Association, said the form should have noted the payment was made to a Washington-based political consulting firm for polling in the county race.
The association was filing an amended form with the county to make that clear, she said. No payment was made to Sawyer from the independent committee and none of the polling results were shared with his campaign, she added.
Rob Muelrath, Sawyer’s political consultant, said the campaign had received no money from the independent group and that the campaign had paid for its own polling. He cited campaign finance documents to bolster his defense.
For Gorin, the $13,000 in recent outside spending came mostly from two divisions of SEIU, representing local government employees and health care workers. It was funneled through a group called the Coalition for a Better Sonoma County.
From the start of the year to Nov. 1, outside spending favoring Sawyer totaled more than $98,000. The amount in support of Gorin topped $71,000.
Both candidates voiced some discomfort with the tenor and influence of outside advertising in the race and the latest round of back-and-forth mudslinging.
In an interview by phone Friday afternoon, Sawyer shared some relief Election Day was near.
“Four days and counting,” he said, describing the past week as a “whirlwind.”
“We talked about this after the primary. I remember saying that at the end of the general (election) that I would not be unprepared for the pieces coming from my opponents. I believe that we have been well-prepared in this campaign.”
Reached by phone Friday evening, Gorin said the hard-fought battle was no surprise to her, given the issues at stake for the county and her staunch rivalry Sawyer.
“I knew the tenor of this campaign was going to be exactly that,” she said.
She was speaking by cell phone from a local post office, where mailers from both sides occupied considerable space in the garbage bin.
“I have my own defense to do,” she said of her mailers. “The things that I paid for, that our campaign has paid for, that I take responsibility for, are factual.”
She added, “hopefully voters will be sifting through the nastiness and making a reasonable choice.”
(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)