Epic battles for power and control in Sonoma County's two largest cities and on the board of supervisors will conclude Tuesday, and depending on the outcome, could change the political landscape for years to come.
"Change" was the buzzword in 2008 when Barack Obama was swept into office and locally, when candidates backed by environmentalists helped wrest control of the city councils in Santa Rosa and Petaluma.
Candidates backed by business interests are now hoping to regain power in those cities, and also deflect a political tilt on the board of supervisors, where a business-friendly majority still reigns.
"There's a tremendous amount at stake in that you have two philosophies going head-to-head for who will dominate the politics of Sonoma County," said Brian Sobel, a former Petaluma city councilman and now a political consultant.
"You've got a moderate-to-pro-business faction, and you've got a moderate-to-progressive faction," he said. "That means there are a whole lot of people in the middle who, under the circumstances, might lean one way or the other."
Gobs of money are being poured into the respective races, including a pace in the 2nd District supervisor's race that could eclipse the 2008 record of $700,000 set by 3rd District candidates Sharon Wright and Shirlee Zane.
Pam Torliatt, viewed as the slow-growth, pro-labor candidate, is running against David Rabbitt, who has earned support from the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, building and trade groups, and local police and firefighter unions.
Petaluma environmental activist and former county supervisor Bill Kortum, a Torliatt supporter, called the election a "watershed for how the future's going to go."
Kortum said the county's environmental future is at stake, and as evidence of that, he pointed to the board's recent approvals of the Dutra asphalt plant on the Petaluma River near Shollenberger Park and the Roblar Road quarry west of Petaluma, both on 3-2 votes.
"Despite these protections that voters voted in, and use their pocketbooks to protect, a couple of lame-duck supervisors pushed through these insulting and unneeded projects," he said.
He said the board's upcoming decision on Preservation Ranch, which would place about 1,800 acres of vineyards on 20,000 acres of heavily logged land in the northwest section of the county, outside Annapolis, is another example of why the election matters.
But Eric Koenigshofer, a former county supervisor and spokesman for Premier Pacific Vineyards of Napa, the developer of the timber conversion project, said there is no risk to the county's strong environmental protections after Tuesday.
"What this change could bring is not a threat in any real way to those values, but what pro-business means in terms of our environmental construct," he said. "It's a process that is not only sensitive to our environmental values, but has some practical applications of project review and how long it takes."
The outcomes of Tuesday's races are likely to depend in large part on who voters believe have the best plans to address problems with the poor economy, the acknowledged key issue in this year's election cycle.
Generally speaking, the candidates backed by business interests talk about the need to attract and start new businesses, including streamlining and speeding up the permit process.
The candidates backed by slow-growth advocates say the infrastructure is there and discuss filling vacancies and attracting "green jobs."
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