By SEAN SCULLY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa winemaker Ken Churchill, an advocate of overhauling public workers’ pensions, has jumped into the race to replace Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire.
“I have been trying for several years now to get the supervisors to move pension reform forward and it just hasn’t been successful,” Churchill said, explaining his last-minute move to enter the race, just days before the filing deadline for the June 3 primary.
Churchill said he had been supportive of the candidacy of Healdsburg City Councilman Tom Chambers, who had touted his business experience as an engineer, manager, and consultant in several manufacturing firms. Chambers, however, dropped out of the race in February, citing his inability to gain momentum because of his relatively late start in the campaign.
Churchill, 60, joins Windsor City Councilwoman Deb Fudge, former Obama administration official James Gore, former Healdsburg Mayor Pete Foppiano, and Keith Rhinehart, a former UPS supervisor and part-time teacher. All entered the race late last year and are already well into their fundraising efforts.
The sprawling 4th District extends to the Mendocino County line and includes parts of north Santa Rosa, along with all of Wikiup-Larkfield, Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale. The deadline for candidates to file is Wednesday.
If none of the candidates gets more than 50 percent in the June election, the top two vote-getters will face off in a November runoff.
McGuire is not running for re-election so he can pursue the state Senate seat being vacated by Santa Rosa Democrat Noreen Evans.
Churchill admitted that he is getting a late start, but said he hoped to tap into his contacts in past philanthropic efforts, including the restoration of the historic farmhouse that now serves as home to the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation.
Churchill is a founding member of the government watchdog group New Sonoma, a vocal critic of the county on fiscal issues. He is also a member of the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association.
Churchill is best known for his relentless criticism of the Board of Supervisors for a series of votes 12 years ago that increased pension benefits now received by more than 1,000 county retirees and promised to thousands more current county workers. Churchill claims the move was not conducted lawfully and imposed unsustainable costs on taxpayers. Since then, county pension costs, including bond debt, are up more than 360 percent.
Churchill’s crusade has earned him the wrath of public employee unions, who say he and other pension reform advocates are unfairly scapegoating county workers. Churchill said he is resigned to the idea the unions will vigorously oppose his candidacy.
“I’m going to get slammed like crazy … but so be it,” he said.
Churchill’s background as a fiscal hawk will play well with business interests, said Sonoma State University political science professor David McCuan. But it is not clear whether he can extend that traction beyond the issue of public pensions, McCuan said, much the way anti-tax activists gained prominence amid California’s high-profile battle over the 1978 property tax limitation measure known as Proposition 13.
Churchill denied he is a one-issue candidate, saying he will apply his business background to managing the county’s finances. Although the election is non-partisan, he described himself politically as a “liberal Democrat.”
He grew up in Moraga, in Contra Costa County, and earned a business degree from Diablo Valley College. He started in business as a solar energy consultant, but that stint ended in 1985 when the federal government ended subsidies for solar projects.
He and wife, Susan, then founded Berkeley-based ACC Environmental Consultants, working with building owners to contain asbestos and other environmental hazards during renovations. He remains on the board of the company but sold the venture to his employees in 2000.
He and his wife moved to Sonoma County in 2000 and now run Churchill Cellars in Santa Rosa, producing small-lot pinot noir.
You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BeerCountry.