- Rory McNamara
- THE 5th DEGREE The race for the 5th District feature shades of gray, not black and white.
At least it can be said that nobody is threatening to throw the loser in jail in the race for Sonoma County Supervisor in the 5th District.
But the race between Noreen Evans and Lynda Hopkins has featured all the negative bells and whistles of a political campaign in a season gone amok with the bitter and bilious: the open mom-shaming of Hopkins for supposedly abandoning her kids to political ambition; campaign commercials featuring literal piles of bullshit, Evans taking to Facebook to ask her supporters to stop vandalizing Hopkins' signs with spray paint smears accusing her of being a one-percenter; and street-corner encounters in Sebastopol between supporters of the candidates—both of whom are, in the end, progressive Democrats, and kind empaths at that.
Pete Foppiano, the former Healdsburg mayor, city councilman and local political analyst who is a regular on Steve Jaxon's KSRO radio program, says the race has unfurled just as he said it would months ago: The 30-something newcomer Hopkins has been relentlessly dinged by the veteran pol Evans and her supporters for the contributions and support she has received from Sonoma power brokers such as Doug Bosco (general counsel at the Press Democrat) and assorted entities such as the North Coast Builders Alliance and the gravel-mining industry. Hopkins insists she'll be an independent voice on the board even as Evans highlights Hopkins' well-documented base of support and what that might or might not say about how she would vote on issues before the board.
Beyond "experience" and "follow the money," there are a few areas of apparent division between the candidates, or at least interesting jump-off points for further discussion: pensions, housing and cannabis.
The pension debate may be the most starkly held and byzantine of the issues that have defined the West County race, and Hopkins' supporters point to Paul Gullixson commentaries in the Press Democrat that have highlighted how legacy pensions are crushing the county's books. The local paper of record has endorsed Hopkins, who herself says flat out of her opponent, "I think there is a pension problem and [Evans] does not," as she highlights a nearly $1 billion in unfunded liabilities held by Sonoma County in a pension system that she says is not delivering on its promise.
"The system is predicated on a [return on investment] of 7.25 percent that is not attainable," Hopkins says as she adds that it is "a huge issue that threatens local social services" and handicaps the county's ability to, for example, enact living wage legislation. Evans has the support of the Service Employees International Union, which has been battling with the county over wage-equity issues for the past couple of years.
Hopkins' supporters have emphasized that she brings a head full of new ideas to the table; detractors, including Evans, question the wisdom of some of her proposals, including her pension fix proposal. Evans notes that she has waded through the pension-reform debate for years and explains that wthere are two different mechanisms through which pension are paid: Very briefly: one is the legacy system for county workers; the other was implemented through state reforms that created a second tier that significantly cut benefits for new union employees. Hopkins' new pension tier is designed to spread the investment risk—a hybrid between a public employee retirement account (401c3) and a pension.
The problem, says Evans, is that such hybrids are currently "illegal under California law. It's not only disallowed under California law but it would cost the county a lot more to administer." The issue is playing out in state court through a lawsuit in Marin County that seeks to overturn the so-called "California rule" that says municipalities can't change the rules on pensions once they have been vested.
Hopkins is adamant about unaddressed abuses she says have gone on at the county—and which Evans has supported, she says—noting an especially high-profile pension of former county auditor Rod Dole who, by the time he had cashed in all his accrued sick time and paid vacation, was earning more as a retiree than he did as a county employee. Evans says that Dole's case isn't enough to upend the county pension system with a new tier. "There just aren't enough Rod Dole's in the system to solve the problem as she has defined it," Evans says.
Some of the differences between the candidates appear to be based on a localized version of the national outbreak of bias confirmation that this nation has been enduring at the national level.
Sonoma County and Santa Rosa officials are pushing for an emphasis inclusionary zoning to promote affordable housing. That means requiring developers to build a mix of affordable and market-rate housing in new developments. Evans embraces that approach and she has also supported local efforts at rent control. Her critics have noted that Hopkins was late to support Santa Rosa's rent-control measures. But Hopkins argues that that inclusionary zoning doesn't go far enough. She and Evans support high-density, city-centered growth, but Hopkins points out that current funding models (i.e. inclusionary zoning) are inadequate to the crisis—and that "outside the box" solutions need to be embraced, including building tent cities and tiny-home communities.
The whisper-campaign knock on Hopkins is that in pursuit of those out-of-box solutions, the county's unique urban-growth boundaries and community separators might be in play, given the insistence among some Evans supporters that Hopkins is the candidate of the so-called one percent. Hopkins brushes aside the critique and says she supports urban-growth boundaries. For her part, Evans is in favor of tiny homes, too. But in Sonoma County, any talk of rezoning agricultural land to accommodate workforce or affordable housing is going to be contentious and Evans says there's a way to embrace tiny-home communities without opening the floodgates to the rampages of development upsetting the rural character of the area. "That always been the caveat—if we do it right."
The Sonoma County Gazette offered a handy candidates' guide not long ago that featured editorial contributions from Evans and Hopkins about their view of Proposition 64, which would legalize recreational cannabis use statewide. Hopkins was an unequivocal supporter in her statement whereas Evans didn't come out and say whether she supported 64 or not—only what she'd do in the event it passed insofar as leveraging economic opportunities and regulating at the county level.
"I addressed it that way because I am conflicted," Evans says. "It's a flawed initiative," she adds but does note that even so, "I'll probably vote for it and I expect it to pass."
Evans adds that cannabis policy is an area "where experience really matters," as she notes that it's an entirely new industry with no set path on "how to make it work, how to tax it appropriately and use those taxes." She cites her long history in writing regulations and experience with law enforcement and land-use planning issues to back her pitch as the county's top pot official.
As an organic farmer, Hopkins says she is aware of the opportunities of a new cannabis economy and highlights her concern for small growers and medical users and how they might fare in a corporatized cannabis economy. "I'm concerned that small growers and fixed income users might get priced out of the system," she says.
Hopkins criticizes Evans for viewing cannabis "as a source of funding that is going to solve a host of county ills—from roads to early childhood education." Hopkins' warning on cannabis tax dollars is that the anticipated revenue might not be there: "Don't count your chickens before they are hatched." Evans says just look at the tax hatchlings in Colorado—opportunities for similar tax bonanzas could be realized in Sonoma County. "This is an entirely new economy," she says. "We need to make it work, tax it appropriately, and use those taxes" for county services.
Both candidates say they have tried to run policy-focused campaigns and Hopkins says there's little daylight between the two on environmental issues. Hopkins also concedes Evans has the jump on her when it comes to experience—but that's just the problem.
"Noreen would work very well within the system that exists," Hopkins says. "My goal is to go in and change the system."
Hopkins says the inoculation against charges that she's been pre-bought by developers and local Democratic power brokers like Bosco is transparency. And she flips the Bosco criticism back on Evans by noting that she "has a stronger relationship with Doug Bosco than I do—she served on the Coastal Conservancy with him."
Evans pushes back against the implication. "Big donors give you the big money because they want you to act in a particular way," she says, adding that if Hopkins wants to be a single-term supervisor, "she'll take on all the interests that have taken her on so far" as she highlights the well-traveled list of local power centers that have been attracted to Hopkins' campaign: the pro-business Sonoma County Alliance, the North Coast Builders' Alliance, and others.
Evans concedes that "I have worked with various of them and they have given me money on some of my legislative campaigns but I've never been a part of that group."
But Hopkins brushes back charges that she's a vulnerable neophyte who doesn't know what she's gotten herself into by lining up with the Sonoma County power brokers. "I come from outside the political system," she says during a meeting at the Sebastopol campaign headquarters. "I don't have long-term political-type relationships." Hopkins says she does have some good local political connections, but that she plans to push back against the Sonoma "politerati" as she calls it, through the ruthless pursuit of transparency.
"No meetings behind closed doors. I want to spend my time outside of the county administration and outside of the usual political social circles."
Organic farmer Shepherd Bliss is supporting Evans in this race but is on hugging terms with both candidates and says "I don't think Lynda fully understood what she was getting into, which is why I don't approve of some of the attacks on her."
Hopkins recently released a video where she rattles off the "bullshit" charges coming from Evans in a field dotted with cow plop. She calls out, for example, an Evans claim that Hopkins moved to the 5th in order to run for office—even as Evans moved from east Santa Rosa to Sebastopol to qualify as a candidate in this race.
Hopkins says the video is in the spirit of Jon Stewart but Evans doesn't see the humor in the agit-plop effort. She calls it "raunchy" and says that Hopkins has "publicly implied that I am corrupt on three occasions. She called me a liar. It is hard to know how to respond to that kind of negativity, especially when she is producing a video like that and saying I'm negative."
Still, as Bliss says, "they are both likable for a different set of reasons."
Foppiano says the nasty tone of the race is tracking with "the pattern throughout the country. This seems to be more polarized or divided and it's not along liberal or conservative or Democrat or Republican lines. Not to simplify, but it seems to be more about the one-percent versus everyone else. If you plopped this race down in the middle of Ohio somewhere, there's not much of a difference between them. All the same, the lines have been drawn."