Opinion by Ben Boyce
While the national media attention is consumed with the fascinating and unprecedented presidential election, we have a consequential election right here in Sonoma County for our most powerful political body, the Board of Supervisors. The two races that will determine the ideological direction of the Board are in the 1st and 5th Supervisory Districts. The balance of power between progressive Democrats and ‘moderate’ (business) Democrats is what’s at stake.
My wife and I attended the 1st District Supervisor candidate’s debate last week at the Sonoma Charter School in Boyes Hot Springs, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Springs Community Alliance sponsored the debate. A lively audience of about 100 attended the event. The League moderator did an excellent job of moving the debate along and setting a civil tone. Three candidates were on the stage: incumbent Susan Gorin, challenger Gina Cuclis and perennial message candidate Keith Rhinehart. For the large number of young people present, the debate was a good model of civic participation.
Parsing local politics in Northern California is challenging for the casual outside observer, because the conventional Democrat/Republican party labels are not an accurate guide to a candidate’s positions. The Republican Party has collapsed into a vestigial entity in this region. They do run protest candidates just to get their message out, but the real action occurs within the Democratic Party. Just voting for ‘the Democrat’ is no guarantee that you are voting for a candidate who actually shares your values.
North Bay Democrats come in two main flavors: ‘progressives’ and ‘moderates.’ A number of so-called moderate Democrats who have run in recent years were registered Republicans in their home state before moving to California. The progressive wing of the Northern California Democratic Party is generally associated with powerful environmental and labor organizations, while the centrist Democrats are endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, large real estate and agriculture interests, and the major business-oriented regional newspapers.
Centrist or moderate Democrats are the new stealth brand of what used to be the regional Republicans. Since you can’t get elected to almost any office with an ‘R’ in front of your name, local conservative-leaning political consultants advise ambitious political actors to run as Democrats. They differ from orthodox conservative national Republicans in their de-emphasis on culture war issues and a greater concern for environmental conservation and quality of life issues. What they have in common is the core belief that the primary role of government is to facilitate a ‘healthy business climate’ and a dedication to deregulation, and diminishing the role of the public sector unions.
The most reliable indicator of a candidate’s political allegiances is to look at who is funding their campaigns. One caveat is that large business organizations like The Chamber will spread their bets if a progressive incumbent is a sure winner, thereby maintaining access. The axis of conservative power in Sonoma County is the Chamber, the Sonoma County Alliance, and the Farm Bureau. The axis of progressive power is groups like Sonoma County Conservation Action, the North Bay Labor Council, and conservationist groups like Greenbelt Alliance. The primary political tensions are rooted in land-use and development issues.
Sonoma County has a decades-long history of resistance to the inexorable development pressure emanating from the expansion of the Bay Area megalopolis. The environmentalists can take credit for maintaining the green belts between cities, preserving agricultural land and preventing Sonoma County from getting built out wall-to-wall like other Bay Area counties closer to the main urban center of the region. The public sector unions have largely resisted imposition of extreme austerity budgets and the privatization of public assets and services favored by the North Bay Business Journal types.
Unfortunately, opposition to almost any proposed development is a hard-wired reflex for many rank-and-file environmentalists and conservationists in Sonoma County.
I have long argued (at some personal cost) for a carefully designed regional urban planning consensus, based on a large body of academic research, that concentrates on coordinating energy, transportation, and land-use systems. Twenty-first century urban planning seeks to preserve urban growth boundaries and open space districts; encourages in-fill mixed-use commercial/residential development; living wage businesses; and affordable housing located near public transit hubs. The conservationists, due to their professional class status, are often functionally indifferent to pressing social and economic concerns, like housing for service sector workers and weighting project approvals based on the wage structures and labor practices of proposed business developments.
The political landscape outlined here is complex and there is a continuum of views within each of the two major political camps in county politics. That is why identifying the best candidates for local office requires a degree of discernment. What’s at stake in the 2016 county elections is the balance of power between progressives and centrists on the Board of Supervisors.
With this brief power analysis of the Sonoma County political structure in mind, I offer my unsolicited endorsements for the Board of Supervisors. My clear pick for 1st District Supervisor is incumbent Susan Gorin, who has demonstrated an even temperament and a steady hand as Board Chair. Without reservation, I endorse former State Assemblywoman and State Senator Noreen Evans for 5th District. Noreen is a dedicated public official with a sound moral compass who will bring her deep knowledge of state and county government to benefit the Board.