Tim Smith knows his campaign to unseat 3rd District Supervisor Shirlee Zane is a long shot.
He got into the race late. He doesn't have much money or major endorsements. And his track record isn't great — he was one of the candidates Zane beat out for the seat in 2008.
Despite these challenges, Smith hopes his modest campaign and will fuel further public debate about whether Sonoma County is doing enough to control its ballooning pension costs.
The county's pension system is "out of control" and the changes proposed by the current board are "cosmetic" ones that don't come close to the kind of sweeping overhaul needed avoid a dire fate, Smith said.
"We are on the track of Stockton, Vallejo and potentially, if we don't do anything, we're looking at Greece," Smith said. "Eventually you have to say STOP!"
Whether what is essentially a one-issue campaign will give Smith enough political horsepower to overcome a well-positioned incumbent is a key question in the race for the Sonoma County's central supervisorial district.
Political observers doubt it. They say Zane may be slightly vulnerable on the politically charged issue of public pensions, but it will be difficult for Smith to win the June 5 primary without a well-funded campaign to drive that point home to voters.
"This is a real uphill battle for him," said David McCuan, an associate professor of political science at Sonoma State University.
That's partly because Zane has taken a leadership role in the board's effort to tackle the pension problem, co-authoring last year's report on the subject.
Zane has been dismissive of Smith's candidacy, lamenting it as a "diversion" that will keep her from her job. She labeled his promise not to accept a pension himself if elected a "cheap campaign trick" and questioned the self-employed attorney's claim to be a "small business owner."
"He doesn't have a job. Give me a break!" Zane said recently.
In many ways the 3rd District is home to the year's least compelling supervisorial race. Far more money, energy and attention are being expended on the primary contests for the two other board seats up for grabs in November. The 1st District race is a six-way contest to replace long-time Sonoma Valley Supervisor Valerie Brown, while in the West County's 5th District, Supervisor Efren Carrillo is facing a surprise challenge from former Supervisor Ernie Carpenter.
The demographics of the compact 3rd District give a decided home field advantage to Zane, 52. Sixty percent of the district is made up of voters from her base in Santa Rosa, while 34 percent live in Rohnert Park. The balance, 6 percent, reside in unincorporated areas.
Zane also has endorsements from across the political spectrum, including labor, environmental and business groups. In February, she reported $50,000 in contributions. For months it appeared no one would step forward to challenge her for the seat.
When no one did, Smith said he felt compelled to do so. He launched his campaign Feb. 29, loaned himself $3,000 and said he hoped to give voters a choice they wouldn't otherwise have.
"I think democracy deserves debate," he said at the time.
Zane said the campaign gives her an excellent opportunity to discuss her record in her first term on the board.