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Riding a late wave of voting results, Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Susan Gorin boosted her cushion over rival John Sawyer and claimed victory Wednesday in a tight race for an open seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

Although thousands of mail-in ballots remain uncounted from the election Tuesday, Gorin, 60, a former Santa Rosa mayor and six-year council member, voiced confidence that the result will hold and an eagerness to get to work in her new full-time job.

She was buoyant and sleep-deprived as she fielded dozens of congratulatory messages, including a call from Supervisor Valerie Brown, whose 1st District seat she is set to assume in January.

"We are celebrating," Gorin said. "I'm looking to create lots of opportunities for people and groups to work with me on issues they feel are important."

Sawyer, 57, a Santa Rosa councilman since 2004, conceded the hard-fought race in an interview and said he planned to call Gorin at some point.

He said it was unlikely he could eliminate the 1,299-vote margin that separated the two candidates Wednesday, a larger margin than the approximately 400-vote lead Gorin had enjoyed most of Tuesday night.

"To start out even a few hundred votes behind is never a good indicator," he said. "I'm thankful for the support I received. It was heartening."

Gorin and Sawyer are longtime rivals on the Santa Rosa council and were favorites in the race from the beginning, long before the June primary, as they sought to represent a much wider swath of the county. The 1st District encompasses Sonoma, Sonoma Valley and eastern Santa Rosa.

They engaged in a contest that was bruising at times, including their own attacks and those launched by their proxies. Spending in the race, including independent expenditures, topped $720,000 as of last week. The county record of more than $815,000 was set in the 2010 2nd District race between David Rabbitt and Pam Torliatt.

Gorin was backed by environmental groups, the county's largest public-sector labor union and the Democratic Party. Sawyer, who led the money race throughout, was supported by large agriculture, business and real estate groups, as well as labor unions representing law enforcement.

The stakes were high because many see the outcome as pivotal in determining the political direction of the Board of Supervisors. That includes decisions affecting county services, from roads and parks to labor agreements and aid programs.

While a win by Sawyer would have preserved the status quo, according to Sonoma State University political scientist David McCuan, Gorin's election shakes up the picture.

"Clearly the board's center of gravity has shifted," he said.

On controversial land-use issues, the board may now have a three-member majority, including Gorin and Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Mike McGuire, that favors tighter county oversight.

"I think we now may have a much better chance of some good environmental policies coming out of the board with Susan elected," said Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, which backed Gorin.

Others disputed the election signaled a larger change in board direction.

"I think for the last three decades the board has been liberal," said Eric Koenigshofer, a Sawyer supporter and former Sonoma County supervisor who served in the late 1970s. He cited previous agreement on county planning efforts and open space protection as examples of broadly shared environmental values.

What: Welcome Roseland Community Celebration

When: Saturday, Jan. 20. Noon-4 p.m.

Where: Roseland Neighborhood Village and Community Center

Address: 779 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa

Gorin acknowledged she could factor heavily in any board shift, but downplayed the existence of hardened voting blocks.

"Not all elected representatives vote in lock-step," she said. "There will be differences large and small in how we vote on different issues."

Based on projected voter turnout, county officials said there could be 7,000 mail-in ballots uncounted in the 1st District. Gorin suggested the number could be even higher, at around 11,000, including provisional ballots.

Consultants on both sides of the race and independent experts suggested it is unlikely that the outstanding ballots would reverse Gorin's lead. Wednesday's results included a majority of mail-in ballots expected from the district and all 104 precincts.

County officials said they plan to have a tally of the uncounted ballots by the end of this week. The ballots could take as long as 28 days to be verified and the final vote count must be certified three days after that.

Gorin is set to forgo the last two years of her second city council term to assume the county job, which pays $134,000 annually, plus benefits. She said she would use the next several weeks to plan her move into the office.

"I'm going to learn as much about the job and the number of appointments I make so that transition will occur smoothly and seamlessly," she said.

Sawyer's second term on the council will end in early December, leaving him without a political platform for the first time since 2004. He said he hadn't had time to reflect on his future.

"I've been so concentrated on this race I haven't thought about what it means to just be a private citizen," he said. "Whether I like it or not -- I guess it's like retirement. You don't know until you try it."

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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