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Former Obama appointee enters Sonoma County supervisor's race


James Gore, a Sonoma County native whose family is in the wine industry and who returned to the area this year after leaving a senior post in the Obama administration, is jumping into the open race for the north county supervisor's seat.

Though well-versed in government from his seven years in Washington, D.C., including three years working in the Department of Agriculture under President Obama, Gore, 35, is making his first bid for public office. He announced his candidacy to succeed Mike McGuire for the $134,000 county supervisor's job Wednesday.

Gore faces the extra hurdle of running as a relative unknown. But he called himself "a proud public servant" and said he sees "fresh perspective" as an advantage in the race. He intends to build name recognition and earn support through a "tireless" door-to-door campaign, he said.

"I see it as being on the ground, full-court press, meeting every resident I can in the district, earning every inch," he said. "That's the only way I've approached anything in life and that's the way I'm going to approach this."

Gore now lives outside Healdsburg with his wife Elizabeth and their two-year-old daughter. He was raised in Cloverdale and Santa Rosa and graduated in 1996 from Montgomery High School. He has an undergraduate degree in agriculture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a masters in political management from George Washington University.

His opponents in the contest for the open 4th District seat so far include two political veterans, foremost among them longtime Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, who last month announced her third attempt to claim the north county seat.

The other two declared candidates are former Healdsburg Mayor Pete Foppiano, who lost a previous bid for supervisor in 1994, and Keith Rhinehart, a former UPS supervisor and part-time teacher.

Gore, who returned from Washington after leaving the federal job in May, was widely reported to be making the rounds among political insiders and others after McGuire announced in mid-October that he would run instead for the open state Senate seat representing the North Coast.

Gore said he doesn't see the supervisor's seat as a launching pad to higher office. "I came back to be in Sonoma County, not to be in D.C. and not to be in Sacramento," he said.

His avowed "passion" for environmental conservation and roots in agriculture — his father was a founding partner in Vyborny Vineyard Management and his family owns a 30-acre vineyard outside of Cloverdale — could shake up the county's traditional political fault lines. Fudge also claims strong environmental credentials. The growing field also could splinter support and funding from business and labor groups.

Candidates will need to have a solid base to survive the June primary and crossover appeal to win the seat outright, said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.

"You can't win that race just being the environmental or pro-business candidate," he said.

After college, Gore followed in his father's steps by joining the Peace Corps. He served in a remote region of southern Bolivia.

He later worked for a Washington-based consulting and lobbying firm, representing the California wine industry on international affairs and trade.

He joined the Obama administration in mid-2010 and served most recently as assistant chief in the Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, which specializes in environmental protection involving private landowners.

Gore oversaw some of those efforts as well as an initiative to combat rural poverty. He also helped funnel federal money to aid West Coast salmon recovery, including about $2 million to North Coast streams, the Russian River among them.

He said his experience in Washington — perhaps a black mark for some — would help in steering federal and state assistance to Sonoma County.

"I've had a good opportunity to run in a lot of different places and do a lot of different work," he said. "As much as I know my way around, I know how to get it done."

The north county district stretches from northwest Santa Rosa to the Mendocino County line, taking in the unincorporated Larkfield/Wikiup area, Geyserville and the cities of Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

Gore said his campaign would emphasize health services, education, environmental protection and other core government programs.

"You're talking about roads. You're talking about water for people. You're talking about law enforcement. Those issues are going to be prime time in my mind because it's the nuts and bolts of what a county supervisor does."

He shied away from stating his stance on a number of hot-button county proposals, including fluoridation of drinking water, union rules and benefits for large county construction projects and protective setbacks to limit development and farming along more than 3,200 miles of streams.

The latter two issues have become litmus tests for influential labor, environmental and farming groups. Gore is seeking their endorsement but said that he remains undecided on the issues at this point.

"To me, it's not responsible to take a position at the beginning of a campaign before I talk with the residents to see what they want," he said. "That's what every candidate should do, and that's the way I'll approach it."