Strange Bedfellows

by Jonah Raskin, April 21, 2016

Charles Dudley Warner, the nineteenth-century American writer and Mark Twain’s pal, coined two memorable quips: “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it; and “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” Indeed, campaigns, causes, elections and parties (whether they’re Democratic, Republican or Independent) — bring together individuals who wouldn’t normally be together: think John McCain and Sarah Palin on the same ticket or during WW II, Roosevelt and Stalin as allies against Hitler.

Strange isn’t necessarily bad. Hey, except for the Indians, Americans are all strangers in a strange land. Nor is strangeness something that can be quantified. But strangeness is the very stuff of politics that, by it’s very nature, creates alliances that bridge individuals and communities usually separated and even divided from one another. It’s what makes politics so political.

Moreover, while it’s true that issues are vitally important, they’re not the only vital factor in local and national politics. Citizens who have chosen Bernie Sanders over Hilary Clinton say they do so because they trust him more than they trust her.

Closer to home, Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore insists, “The biggest thing with voters isn’t where you stand on the issues, but can they trust you and are you responsible.” Gore’s district includes The Geysers, Lake Sonoma, and much of the Russian River. Not surprisingly, he cares about clean water, clean politics, clear channels of communication and transparency in government.

The trust factor plays an essential role in the race for supervisor in Sonoma County’s Fifth District where now more than ever before voters distrust local politicians, their PR and their campaign promises, and where the candidates scream about roads, rents, the river and recreation. The Fifth includes parts of Santa Rosa and stretches all the way to Bodega Bay, Jenner and Sea Ranch. It shares a long border with Mendocino’s Fifth District that includes Ukiah, Boonville and the town of Mendocino. So far, however, local media, for all its solid reporting, has largely missed the elusive and yet tangible trust factor in a heated contest in which five rivals from diverse backgrounds and dissimilar communities — Marion Chase, Noreen Evans, Lynda Hopkins, Tom Lynch and Tim Sergent — seek money, media attention, mass appeal and a ticket to the Sonoma Board of Supervisors.

The candidates have been attending meetings together at public forums and before attentive and appreciative audiences, where they articulate their concerns and demonstrate their sincerity. Sometimes they’re asked to listen to voters before they open their mouths. That can be a humbling experience for candidates. Indeed, if democracy works anywhere in America it’s probably in places like Sonoma County’s 5th.

In her campaign literature, frontrunner Evan calls her supporters “sponsors.” She probably has more of them — Santa Rosa City Councilwoman, Julie Combs, former Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, plus Omar Medina, Deb Fudge, Lucy Kortum and Tim Smith to name just a few — than any one else running for supervisor, though Lynda Hopkins, her main rival in the campaign, is catching up.

After twenty-one years in public life, the 2016 campaign is probably Evans’ last hurrah. She’s calling in her chits — asking for donations big and small — and emphasizing her integrity, as well as her record in public office.

Evans asks voters a critical question, “Do we want Sonoma County to be a place where only the wealthy can afford to live and raise a family?” Her own answer is a resounding “No,” though her sponsors don’t belong to a single economic class, but rather to a generation (largely boomers) and perhaps to a tribe, as well, that values liberalism, environmentalism and pragmatism. Her sponsors recently rallied at an fundraiser in the Graton backyard of former supervisor Ernie Carpenter, who stood before the crowd, and, tongue-in-cheek — or perhaps not — observed that Evans “always voted properly.” Sponsors chuckled.

Then, under a leafy green tree, Evans framed herself as the authentic voice of West County and it’s near perfect representative. “You can get angry, or you can get involved,” she said. “I lived a lot of my life in small communities. My grandparents ran a rural grocery store. I didn’t plan to be a politician but a lawyer.”

Quickly, she guided the crowd through her career: from Santa Rosa councilwoman, to member of the State Assembly and then the State Senate. “I spent ten brutal years in Sacramento,” she said. “I’m excited to be running for supervisor in the Fifth. I love this place.”

Sponsors fired questions about the same sorts of issues that bedevil citizens in Flint, Michigan, Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere: community oversight of the police, clean water, healthcare, climate change and more. Then too, West County residents share worries about traffic and tourism with citizens to the North, the South and the East: in Healdsburg, Sonoma, St. Helena, Calistoga and Point Reyes.

“I’ve been around,” Evans told her fans in Carpenter’s backyard. “I understand what a general plan is and I know zoning codes.” She added that, ”leadership starts at the top.” Still, she didn’t venture far out on a political limb. “I don’t want to criticize anyone,” she said. “I wouldn’t say no to all development.”

At the end of the afternoon, in response to a question about Lynda Hopkins, Evans said that, ”The people who support Lynda are the same people who have fought me the whole way. We keep very different company. You won’t always know her opinion, you will always know mine.”

When they share the same platform, Evans and Hopkins play nice and even echo one another. At an event titled “Beyond the Vote” that took place at the Sebastopol Grange and that was sponsored by several groups, including the Farmers Guild, Evans and Hopkins agreed that citizens were often unable to contribute to the political process itself.

“Government often makes decisions the exact opposite of what people want,” Evans said. Hopkins added, “We need to change the whole political process.” Needless-to-say, but perhaps worth saying, the audience applauded enthusiastically. Evans and Hopkins also agreed that it might well be a conflict of interest for the five members of the Board of Supervisor to serve as well as the directors of the Sonoma County Water Agency. Citizens have been saying that for years.

For Tim Sergent, a 19-year resident of the 5th, life has almost always been one sort of campaign or another. In the U.S. Infantry during the Contra Wars of the 1980s, he volunteered for a clandestine mission that brought food and medical supplies to an orphanage in Honduras. “I was stationed in Panama,” he said. “I got out of the military a year before U.S. forces arrived and deposed General Manuel Noriega. Years later, when I went back, I saw that that invasion severely damaged U.S./ Panamanian relations.”

When he served in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, Sergent was part of a team that engineered humanitarian operations in Bosnia, and that also “secured loose nukes” in the former Soviet Union. “I worked in Washington when Washington worked,” he said. “From that experience, I learned that it’s important to put aside differences and work for the common good.”

Now, Sergent teaches at Maria Carrillo High School, speaks Spanish fluently to students and their family members, opposes GMO’s, clamors for rent control and a permanent center for the homeless. Quietly and calmly outspoken, he urges monitoring of ground water and the updating and streamlining of the permitting process. Plus, he wants Sonoma County to move to zero waste, recycle everything that can be recycled and bring back composting in a big way.

“I leaned about personal integrity from my mother and father when I was a boy in Southern Oregon,” he said. “I joined the military because there were no jobs in lumber and because it paid for college.” About his campaign, he said, “My base is local and grassroots, family, friends, and small business. I don’t represent any special interest groups.”

About Sonoma County, he explained, “we like to think we’re progressive and in the forefront of social movements, but we have a long way to go. The cost of living here is driving residents away. We need to reverse that trend.”

Jovial Tom Lynch, a West County resident for 37 years, has never accepted as gospel Jim Morrison’s lyric, “When you’re strange no one remembers your name.” In fact, Lynch argues the opposite. “You stand out if you’re strange,” he said. Then, too, he embraces the Yippie slogan that in an election you vote for “The evil of two lessers.” In 1985, after 750 million gallons of sewage spilled into the Russian River, Lynch got angry and chose to act. A fan of the Wobblies and the Yippies, he knew the power of guerrilla theater and freewheeling political protest. He bought a load of manure from Grab ‘n’ Grow, rented a tractor and spreader from Warren Dutton in Sebastopol, drove it to Santa Rosa and distributed it over four city blocks, beginning at The Press Democrat building on Mendocino and ending at City Hall. He has never ben arrested; in West County and elsewhere, he’s a folk hero.

If Lynch looks like an Iowa farm boy it’s probably because he spent his boyhood on an Iowa farm. “I grew up on the other side of the tracks and both parents were disabled,” he said. “That was the time of President Johnson’s Great Society when the government helped people in need.” Lynch argues that there’s no going back to those glory days. “We need to reinvent government, bring in community groups and private funding to solve problems,” he said.

He wants to reform the pension system, create housing for the homeless and for young workers, nurture a sense of community that cuts across generations, and bridge social and economic inequalities. “I’m a fiscal conservative and a social liberal,” he said. “I love Sonoma County. We’re probably more tolerant and progressive here than in many parts of the U.S. Guerneville has long been a haven for gays and lesbians. Sonoma County is a candle in a dark age.”

On the subject of the local economy, Lynch said, “We lost a lot of jobs to globalization. H-P and Agilent went off shore. Ag and tourism have helped us rebound; we need to do both in a sustainable manner.” What Lynch doesn’t like is the negative campaigning taking place in the 5th and that’s mostly been directed against Lynda Hopkins who has been touted as the business candidate by Evans’ supporters.

When former supervisor Eric Koenigshofer introduced Hopkins at the Sonoma County Alliance — an organization of professionals and business folk dedicated to a “robust economy and a healthy environment” — he depicted the Fifth as a place of small towns and villages like Duncans Mills, Jenner, Freestone and Valley Ford. In her talk, that began as stand-up comedy and that ended as a serious power-point presentation, Hopkins emphasized her role in the community as an organic farmer with a small business and as the mother of two young daughters.

“I want a New Deal for Sonoma County,” she told the audience of about 250. She added, “Agriculture is part of our environment. We need to protect and encourage small farms in farm belts that grow food for cities and we need to bring down the price of farmland.” When asked about marijuana, she said that she wanted to help small growers and distributors and prevent the corporate take-over of pot.

At the end of the meeting, Koenigshofer said, “Lynda represents the new paradigm.” He added, “This might sound corny, but in America, where we strive for decentralized government that’s the antithesis of monarchy and dictatorship, there’s no greater opportunity for democracy than on the local level.”

Of all the candidates running for supervisor in the 5th, Marion Chase is the only one who was born and raised in the Fifth. A graduate from Santa Rosa’s Montgomery High School, she attended SRJC on a Doyle Scholarship and received an A.A. degree in 1985. For a decade, she was a pharmacy technician and for four years she was employed at the Sonoma Developmental Center in Glen Ellen. Now, as an eligibility worker in Human Services for Sonoma County, she sees thousands of clients every year who are unemployed, underemployed, homeless, hungry and who suffer from poor mental health.

“I think there are widespread misconceptions about how well the county is doing,” she said. “Many citizens don’t see what I see, and local politicians have a narrow circle of ideas.” Still, Chase doesn’t despair or feel overwhelmed by the troubled and troubling clients that she sees.

“For me, the phrase ‘politics makes strange bedfellows’ means that people ordinarily not together find common cause,” she explained. “That’s what the Fifth does best. When the Russian River flooded in 1986, I saw strangers pull together to help one another.”

Safety is Chase’s theme song: safe, affordable housing for working people; safe, well-paved roads that keep the county connected and running smoothly; and safe, high-speed Internet connections all the way to coast that citizens can use to call fire departments and the police.

She knows that she’s the underdog in the race and the least visible candidate. “I’m not viewed as a threat to anyone else, so nothing is really directed at me,” she said. “I’m under the radar, but make no mistake about, I’m running to win and to raise awareness, too. I know that women outside political elites have done amazing things in this county, like stop the construction of the nuclear power plant in Bodega Bay.”

As impassioned as any of her rivals and as knowledgeable about permits, ordinances and laws as anyone else in the race, she speaks volumes about transient occupancy taxes, pensions and Section 8 Housing which provides federal assistance to renters with low-incomes.

If all politics is local, as Democratic Congressman Tip O’Neill famously observed, then politics in Sonoma County, is hyper-local, though it also offers a window into twenty-first century America, where citizens feel increasingly pinched in more ways than one. Taking the pulse of the Fifth is a good way to take the pulse of the nation itself. The primary in June will make the race less crowded, though less colorful and perhaps even more heated.

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