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The costly, closely watched race for 5th District supervisor

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ALL SMILES  Noreen Evans is the frontrunner in the race for 5th District supervisor, but challenger Lynda Hopkins is riding a wave of momentum.
  • ALL SMILES Noreen Evans is the frontrunner in the race for 5th District supervisor, but challenger Lynda Hopkins is riding a wave of momentum.

On a warm evening in Graton, Lynne Koplof and Richard Flasher, the founders of the alternative Nonesuch School in Sebastopol, gathered with their neighbors at the Graton Community Club.

It was standing-room-only for two solid hours at a meeting sponsored by the League of Women Voters. The five candidates for 5th District supervisor—Marion Chase, Noreen Evans, Lynda Hopkins, Tom Lynch and Tim Sergent—sat at the front of the room and looked out at a sea of attentive faces.

Alice Richardson, the moderator, explained the ground rules. "This is a forum, not a debate," she said, and, while each of the five candidates tried hard to stand out from the pack, no one came away a decisive winner.

If nothing else, the forum—and others equally well attended in Sebastopol, Monte Rio and Santa Rosa—showed that Sonoma County voters, like Koplof and Flasher, take local politics as seriously, if not more so, than they take national politics. In the 5th Supervisorial District, which runs from Santa Rosa to Sea Ranch and then south to Bodega Bay, voters have been witness to a fractious, complicated and expensive campaign in which three former supervisors—Ernie Carpenter, Eric Koenigshofer and Mike Reilly—as well as outgoing board member Efren Carrillo, have taken sides and backed their favorites.

Now at last comes the June 7 primary when voters have to choose one of the candidates, all of them liberals, all ready to put their civic shoulders to the wheel and make a difference for the better. But whom to believe, whom to trust and whom to fund? There's the rub.

Evans told the crowd in Graton, "There's not a lot of difference between us." But again and again she emphasized the trust factor. "Who can you trust to represent your interests?" she asked. "That's the question."

No one else in Graton played the trust card and no one else emphasized, as Evans did, the need for community monitoring of the police in the wake of Andy Lopez's death at the hands of law enforcement in 2013. Nor did anyone else join with Evans to urge the creation of a dedicated phone number, similar to 911, that would be used solely for mental-health issues, including depression, schizophrenia and suicide.

Hopkins, who owns a small farm with her husband, emphasized the need to think outside the box and bring alternative ideas—like composting toilets—into the mainstream. She criticized what she called "the failures of our leadership," including the failure to create affordable housing for the middle and working class, and warned about the drought and climate change.

Sergent, a public school teacher, emphasized local issues: free beaches, quality public school education and the need to preserve rural lifestyles. He praised the county for its general plan and argued that Sonoma County ought to follow the lead of Mendocino and Humboldt counties and ban GMOs.

Lynch, a building contractor, threw his weight behind pension reform, which he regards as the number one issue.

Chase, a social worker for the county, has proposed that undernourished school kids ought to receive a free lunch all summer. She has also called for a literacy program to teach English to Spanish-speaking adults, and an agricultural program that would encourage dry-farming of grapes, conservation of water and protection of the environment.

More than anyone else at the forum in Graton and at other public events, Lynch has challenged Evans nearly every step of the way. When she argues that taxing legal cannabis enterprises will provide funds to fix the thousands of potholes on county roads, he insists that pot revenues won't be sufficient to do the job.

Lynch is also suspicious of the financial backing that Evans has received from labor organizations that, in his view, will likely tie her to trade unions and their political agendas. Evans hits back and suggests that real estate agents and developers have bought Lynch's loyalty.

Citizens have repeatedly asked Hopkins if she can accept money from wineries and real estate interest and still maintain her independence. Again and again she has said, "Yes, I can." Her father-in-law, who has grown grapes in Sonoma County for decades, made the largest single contribution ($2,894) to her campaign. Chase, Sergent and Lynch have also received donations from family members.

At the forum, none of the candidates was as candid as they might have been when Richardson of the League of Women Voters asked them about campaign contributions and spending. Still, they issued finance reports a few days later. From Jan. 1 to April 23, Hopkins raised $117,763, Evans $116,615, Sergent $10,407, Lynch $1,670 and Chase $100.

Evans and Hopkins have a long way to go if they are to break the all-time campaign spending record set in the race for 4th District Supervisor when James Gore and Deb Fudge spent a total of $923,000 in 2014.

For the moment, Hopkins seems to have that all-important factor: momentum. In the past five months, her supporters have grown, and her name, once largely unknown, is now widely recognized by voters, though she is still, according to informal polling, running behind Evans.

Less than a month before the election, many voters are still undecided. Others have made up their minds to cast a ballot to defeat the candidate they dislike the most. Community activist Ken Sund said that Sergent was the best-qualified candidate. He wasn't going to vote for him, however, because he didn't think he had a chance of winning and because he wanted to make sure that Hopkins, who did have a chance—and whom he regards as a shill for big wine—would not be elected.

Koplof, who has lived in the county since 1969, expresses conflicting sentiments about the candidates. She regards Chase as the most "trustworthy," and, while she describes Hopkins as "smart, quick and articulate," she notes that, "Evans has a vision of the county that is closer aligned to mine than Hopkins."

But she adds, "My perspective might change between now and Election Day."

Jonah Raskin has lived in Sonoma County since 1976. He is the author of 'Marijuanaland' and 'Field Days.'

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