A veteran Windsor town councilwoman, a former Obama administration official and three other candidates are vying for an open and potentially pivotal seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, where the swing vote between liberal and centrist blocs is seen by many to be hanging in the balance.
The closely watched contest to succeed Supervisor Mike McGuire has spurred action by most of the county's influential interest groups and driven the two presumptive front-runners to pile up cash in preparation for a contest that will likely extend to November.
Political pundits voiced little hesitation in predicting who they expect to come out on top in the June 3 primary. They singled out Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, who has served in elected office for 18 years, including various posts on regional bodies overseeing transportation, solid waste and the environment, and James Gore, a new face with an impressive resume as a White House appointee, lobbyist and former Peace Corps volunteer.
"The two people to watch are Gore and Fudge. Eventually you will see them go at it one-on-one," said Brian Sobel, a Petaluma political consultant.
Rounding out the field is former Healdsburg Mayor Pete Foppiano, who lost a previous bid for supervisor in 1994; and two dark-horse candidates — Santa Rosa winemaker and government pension critic Ken Churchill and part-time teacher Keith Rhinehart.
The 4th District seat in contention represents a sprawling area that extends from north Santa Rosa to the Mendocino County line, including all of Larkfield-Wikiup, Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale.
Fudge and Gore have attracted most of the money and lined up nearly all of the major endorsements in the race. But because of the crowded field, neither is expected to pick up the necessary majority to win the seat outright next month.
Pundits say the campaign for the primary is the prelude to a contest that will only intensify as the general election nears.
"Essentially, it becomes the two-person race: Fudge versus Gore," said David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University.
The campaign contributions and the plum endorsements have a familiar pattern.
Fudge, with her established environmental and progressive credentials, has the backing of the Sierra Club, Sonoma County Conservation Action, the county Democratic Party, and public employee groups.
She also has endorsements from Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael; former Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma; state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa; and state Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata. Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas also is in her corner.
Two other significant endorsements for Fudge include Sonoma County Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin, who would form the liberal-leaning majority — and the first female majority on the Board of Supervisors — with Fudge if she gets elected.
A victory by Fudge would also mark the first time a woman has been elected supervisor in the north county district, which has tended toward conservative-to-moderate representation with longtime incumbents such as Nick Esposti and Paul Kelley.
After two previous unsuccessful campaigns for supervisor, including a narrow loss in 2006 to Kelley, Fudge, a Windsor councilwoman since 1996, said she is feeling buoyant about her chances this year. After so many years in office, people are familiar with her record and where she stands, she said.
"I'm going to win," she said last week after walking neighborhoods and talking with voters in Cloverdale.