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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.

But based on historical trends, Gore would appear to have an advantage in the district, with agricultural and business groups on his side.

His endorsements include the Sonoma County Farm Bureau; Sonoma County Alliance; North Bay Association of Realtors; North Coast Builders Exchange; engineering contractors; operating engineers; and the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.

Gore has scored some strategic points by snagging campaign endorsements from a majority of the Windsor Town Council members who serve with Fudge, including council members Steve Allen, Robin Goble and Bruce Okrepkie.

"There's no question the groups that show up at every election have figured out who they think will benefit them more," political consultant Sobel said.

"Based on what we know and the positions they've taken, the board will be more progressive if Deb Fudge is elected and probably more centrist if James Gore is elected," he said.

The contest for the open seat kicked off last year when McGuire, who was elected in 2010, decided not to seek re-election and instead run for the state Senate seat being vacated by Evans.

A former Healdsburg school board member and city councilman with a vast circle of contacts and acquaintances, McGuire earned a reputation as a tireless campaigner. He handily beat Fudge in their runoff four years ago.

In doing so, McGuire managed to get endorsements from a wider range of groups than both his predecessors and presumptive successors in the north county seat. Seen as "middle of the road and cautious," McCuan said, he has been the swing vote on several key board decisions in recent years.

Gore, McCuan said, appears closer to McGuire's political mold, though the county supervisor has not made an endorsement in the race and has declined to signal whether he will.

Gore, who lives outside Healdsburg, describes himself as a business leader who learned how to manage staff and budgets as assistant chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Raised in Cloverdale and Santa Rosa and a graduate of Montgomery High, Gore has had to fend off the perception he's a newcomer or an opportunist who moved back to Sonoma County to run for office.

He moved back to Sonoma County early last year and said he decided to run for supervisor around October, when he heard McGuire would not seek re-election.

"I've never been a person who doesn't jump when there's an opportunity to serve," he said.

Recently, Gore has done consulting work on environmental issues and has worked for the California Economic Summit, a conference that brings together leaders from throughout the state to tackle a range of issues.

Before his job in the Obama administration, Gore served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia and worked for wine trade associations before joining international trade services consulting and lobbying firm JBC International in 2006.

While at the National Resources Conservation Service, he said he led conservation efforts, including programs focused on the Russian River, securing more than $12 million to protect endangered and threatened fish on the North Coast.

Gore said other efforts focused on delivering resources to persistent poverty areas for programs dealing, for example, with water reliability and irrigation efficiency.

When it comes to others in the race, observers are downgrading Foppiano's chances after recent revelations that he has owed more than $1.5 million in income taxes to the Internal Revenue Service for years, according to liens filed against him by the federal government.

Foppiano, who has disputed the claims, said the matter stems from a disagreement over his income and deductions as a mortgage and real estate broker. He insisted he has always paid his taxes. But other liens filed against him by Sonoma County for long overdue business taxes, and some court judgments against him for money he owed, have clouded his political prospects.

"A lot of people look at a situation and give a pass to anyone who is audited," Sobel said. "What they see with Foppiano is a pattern. People look at patterns and are disturbed by them."

Churchill, a winery owner and entrepreneur, has made public pensions his main theme, pointing out what he says is a $1 billion unfunded pension liability for the county — the difference between what is owed, and what is available to pay for promised employee retirement benefits.

He said escalating county pension costs have siphoned money away from programs that pay for road repair, social programs and parks.

"It was done because of poor management decisions made a decade ago," Churchill said, hammering especially on a decision by supervisors and county officials at the time that retroactively boosted pensions for employees' past service.

Over the next decade, fueled by the enhanced benefits and massive investment losses that forced taxpayers to fill the shortfall, annual county pension costs jumped more than 300 percent, to more than $98.3 million a year currently.

But analysts say Churchill's single focus on pensions — after a round of state-mandated changes and other county moves to curb retirement costs — is unlikely to capture enough votes to get him elected.

Rhinehart, who briefly ran for 1st District supervisor in 2012 before withdrawing, also is seen as a long shot.

He acknowledged he got in the race to keep Fudge from winning.

"I'm afraid we're at a tipping point where special interests, especially extreme leftists — environmental special interests — will tip the Board of Supervisors," he said in a forum Monday.

Fudge, for her part, highlights her background in environmental planning and work to address the sprawl she saw unfolding in Windsor 20 years ago.

After a stint on the Windsor Planning Commission, she's been elected six times to the Town Council, where her colleagues have five times appointed her mayor.

She touts Windsor's relatively strong budget and healthy reserves and is proud of the role she played in helping to create a mixed-use downtown of residences and businesses centered around the Town Green.

"We were an exit on the highway. Now we're a town with a heart," she says in her stump speech.

Fudge points to her involvement in Russian River cleanups, her contribution in launching local water savings programs and her early support for Sonoma Clean Power, the new public venture seeking to provide a greener alternative to PG&E. Fudge is a retired PG&E environmental specialist and senior program manager.

The past chairwoman and current member of the board of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit has touted her role in bringing the commuter train to Sonoma County. Fudge took over leadership of the train's board of directors during a time of turmoil as the agency struggled with declining tax revenue caused by the recession.

Despite the troubles, she has been a persistent champion of the train and touts the fact that the agency is expected to begin service from San Rafael to Santa Rosa in 2016, with train cars from Japan already in this country.

But she's also been subject to criticism that the sales tax measure to fund the commuter trains was oversold to voters.

Delays in establishing the train service have sparked other complaints, with 4th District residents unhappy the line won't run — at least initially — the full 70 miles from Larkspur to Cloverdale as originally intended.

SMART only has the funds to extend the line north to near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

Officials continue to look for funding to extend the line farther, to Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

As she walked a precinct in Cloverdale's Del Webb retirement community on Wednesday, she told residents the train is inching its way north.

"Are you going to bring the train to Cloverdale?" asked one octogenarian.

"You bet," she replied. "We aren't quitting until the trains roll into the station."

Both Fudge and Gore are going door-to-door with their volunteers, visiting thousands of homes occupied by people who vote in most elections.

They are scouring the most populated areas of the district for support, following the same energetic ground game that propelled McGuire to county office four years ago.

"When I'm exhausted, feeling tired, when I need to regenerate, I come out walking. It feels good," Fudge said while knocking on doors in Cloverdale. "I love that I can connect with people of all types. It's what it's about."

The same afternoon, Gore was going door-to-door in the working-class Presidential Circle neighborhood in Healdsburg.

"I like to talk to the person, engage, look a person in the eye," Gore said, adding that he wants to hear their concerns, whether it's about roads, water or traffic.

"We have great momentum now," he said. "We're doing good on fundraising. We have an active, focused, fresh volunteer base. Our signs are everywhere."

You can reach Staff Writer ClarkMason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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