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There are almost 50,000 voters in Sonoma County's 5th Supervisorial District, and Ernie Carpenter is betting that many of them won't vote in the June primary.

What's more, the 69-year-old candidate is banking that the lion's share of most likely voters — those over 50 years old — will cast their ballots for him.

"If everyone with a little gray and slightly balding votes for me, I'm in good shape," Carpenter quipped recently.

When he entered the race two months ago to challenge first-term incumbent Efren Carrillo, he both shocked the district and pleased one of its biggest constituencies — the conservation and environmental community.

Environmentalists had been concerned that Carrillo's opponent, former Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Veronica Jacobi, was no match for Carrillo's four years in office and his ability to raise money, as evidenced by his current campaign war chest of about $80,000.

Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, reiterated this week that Carpenter's entry instantly turned an "election" into a "race."

There will be a runoff in November of the top two finishers if no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote.

For his part, Carrillo, 31, rejects attempts to characterize him as pro-development at the expense of the environment. Carrillo, the first Latino elected to the board, says he balances his political views to also encourage jobs and says he's worked to represent all of the district. Rampant development, he said, is a "ghost of Sonoma past."

"They're tilting at windmills that aren't there anymore," Carrillo said, adding that growth in Sonoma County has been sluggish for more than a decade.

"I frame my decisions with a lot of consideration and thought," Carrillo said. "My job is to look at the realities before us, to recognize the need for jobs and the need to keep the community viable."

Carrillo's endorsements are extensive and include Rep. Mike Thompson, State Sen. Noreen Evans and Assemblymen Jared Huffman and Wes Chesbro. He also is endorsed by his fellow supervisors, District Attorney Jill Ravitch, Sheriff Steve Freitas, a number of former county supervisors, the North Bay Labor Council, the North Bay Association of Realtors, the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and Sonoma County Alliance.

Jacobi, who served as a Santa Rosa councilwoman from 2006 to 2010, has been endorsed by Sonoma County Conservation Action, which also endorsed Carpenter, an unusual move for the group. Jacobi's individual endorsements include Santa Rosa council members Marsha Vas Dupre and Gary Wysocky and former Petaluma Mayor Pamela Torliatt.

Jacobi, 53, said she's raised about $18,000 for her campaign and has kept busy visiting areas across the expansive district while trying to keep her carbon footprint low. Whenever possible, she carpools to election forums and recently she rode a bus back from Jenner, engaging some of the riders in lively discussions.

At a recent forum, Jacobi said she has a "jobs and climate recovery plan" that would encourage the creation of a "green mecca" modeled after Silicon Valley. She also wants to promote a self-sustainable local food system.

"I have a proven voting record that takes care of people and doesn't put big money above the greater good," she said, adding that she "will never forget the future when solving current challenges."

The district covers the largest area of county's five supervisorial districts. It includes the coast, the lower Russian River area and all of Sebastopol, as well as areas of west and southwest Santa Rosa.

Redistricting added 2,167 people to the district, which included 97,005 in 2011. It has 49,039 registered voters.

One of the most significant changes was a newly drawn precinct in west Santa Rosa bounded by Fulton Road, West College Avenue, Marlow Road and Jennings Avenue that went from a little more than 700 registered voters to 1,345. Much of the neighborhood was formerly in the 4th District and, not surprisingly, all three candidates have campaigned there.

David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist, said redistricting changes — with votes added in the Santa Rosa section of the district — benefit Carrillo, who lives in west Santa Rosa.

At a forum late last month in Graton, the three candidates established their campaign priorities, and Carpenter and Carrillo set a decidedly personal tone by hammering away at each other.

Carpenter, who left office in late 1996 after serving as supervisor for 16 years, says he wants to get back in office to fix county roads, protect timberlands from vineyard conversion, focus on recycling and reuse and incorporate Santa Rosa's Roseland neighborhood.

He says that in order to deal with long-term unfunded pension liabilities, the the county will likely have to implement various benefit caps and a "two-tier" system where county employees will be working side-by-side with different levels of benefits.

He criticizes board decisions on key environmental issues and claims that it is "slipping" in its land-use protections.

He cited Carrillo's approval of the Dutra asphalt plant in Petaluma, gravel mining in the Russian River and the Best Family Winery project, which through a general plan amendment allowed a production facility, tasting room and vineyard to be placed in an apple orchard off Highway 116 and Occidental Road.

And there's Preservation Ranch, the timber-to-vineyard conversion project on nearly 20,000 acres outside Annapolis that has become a rallying point for conservationists in the district.

During the Graton forum, Carrillo confronted the issue head-on, bringing it up before Carpenter or anyone else did. Carrillo fired back at Carpenter's criticisms about Preservation Ranch, pointing out that back in the late 1990s, the former supervisor was a paid consultant for a project that preceded Preservation Ranch. In that plan, some 10,000 acres of coastal forest were to be converted to vineyards.

Rosatti, of Conservation Action, said his group endorsed both Carpenter and Jacobi because of their strong environmental positions. He said Jacobi's "heart is absolutely in the right place."

"Voting on the council, she was pretty right on," Rosatti said. "As for climate change, we're very happy that that voice is being brought up."

He said Carrillo gets "high grades" for his extensive outreach in the district during his time in office, "but when it comes down to voting on the resource extraction issues, that's when we have doubts."

Eric Koenigshofer, a former 5th Distinct supervisor who is an adviser to Carrillo, said he has tried to represent all the constituents of the 5th District, not only the environmental community.

"Efren has demonstrated to people that he's been a good conscientious protector of the environment and at the same time he's trying to tend to the biggest problem that we have, and that is the condition of the economy," Koenigshofer said. "When I listen to Ernie, it sounds like he's running 25 years ago."

Carrillo cites his work on the board in helping to launch the county's Energy Independence Program as a way of putting people back to work. The program helps finance energy and water efficiency and renewable energy improvements through a voluntary assessment.

Carrillo said he's helped bring federal dollars to the county for fisheries restoration and has expanded tourism opportunities, which are critical to the west county economy.

Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, which opposed Carrillo in 2008, said Carrillo's performance in office has "changed our perception."

"We basically have been convinced that he cares about working people and has tried hard to be open and be accessible to working families," she said.

Maldonado said that while Carrillo's biggest challenge comes from Carpenter supporters whose priority is protecting the environment, "there are very few single-issue voters in that district," she said.

But Carpenter's strategy is to get to those who are most likely to vote.

"I think we know that universe and we're focused on it," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.)

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