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Two years ago, the balance of power shifted in Santa Rosa politics. Now a fierce battle is under way to try to shift it back.

In 2008, after decades of control by largely pro-development City Council majorities, candidates focused on environmental and quality-of-life issues took the helm of the city.

Now, on the heels of two years of deep budget cuts and even deeper council divisions, the question that only voters can answer is whether the new majority can hold onto its gains in the face of a trio of pro-business candidates determined to retake the lost ground.

"This is a philosophical fight over the direction of a community," said local political analyst Brian Sobel. "I think it mirrors what is going on in a number of other races."

With campaign literature clogging mailboxes and disclosure reports revealing the people and money backing the candidates, the battle lines in the seven-way contest are becoming clearer by the day.

"One side says you embrace business, and through business you create jobs and bring money into the community. And the other side says being careful and protecting the environment and being cautious is more sustainable in the long term," Sobel said.

In 2008, an alliance of local labor and environmental groups and a base energized by an historic national election helped the more liberal candidates build on prior gains to win their first-ever majority on the council.

Gary Wysocky and Marsha vas Dupre joined Susan Gorin and Veronica Jacobi to form a 4-3 majority that often clashed with John Sawyer, Jane Bender and Ernesto Olivares. Now, Gorin and Jacobi are seeking re-election, and Bender's retirement is leaving a third seat up for grabs.

Gorin, Jacobi and retired teacher Larry Haenel, whose views place him firmly in the Gorin-Jacobi camp, are digging deep to preserve their hard-won gains.

They've won endorsements from a large number of groups with significant sway in liberal Sonoma County, including the Sierra Club, Sonoma County Conservation Action and Concerned Citizens for Santa Rosa.

Meanwhile, a variety of business, development and public employee organizations are rallying around a slate of three candidates working with veteran political consultant Herb Williams to regain power and alter the leadership in what they say is a city adrift.

The signs for Scott Bartley, Jake Ours and Juan Hernandez succinctly sum up their campaign message with the slogan "Want jobs?"

The trio and their backers are sharply criticizing Gorin's leadership and Jacobi's grasp of economics as they focus on a campaign emphasizing economic development, job creation and changing the atmosphere at City Hall.

They claim the current council majority has turned away projects such as Lowe's Home Improvement that would have generated jobs for residents and tax revenue for the city. The council "rhetoric" of preferring "high-paying, green jobs" shows how out of touch some council members are, said Bartley, an architect.

"A vital society needs a complete spectrum of jobs," Bartley said.

To that end, the trio claim they are better suited to attract new businesses to the community. Bartley and Hernandez, owner of a small computer business, note that they have experience running businesses and managing employees, experience the incumbents lack.

They say that as council members they would attend trade shows to help bolster efforts by staff to recruit new businesses and send the message that Santa Rosa is "open for business."

"That's a big thing in the perception of how friendly the city is," said Ours, the former chairman of the Santa Rosa Redevelopment Agency board of directors.

Gorin said the argument that the city should be approving big stores for the jobs and sales tax revenue they create shows the hollowness of the slate's platform. The "big-box slate," as she calls them, ignores the damage Lowe's would have done to local businesses, the gridlock it would have created on Santa Rosa Avenue and how little additional tax revenue would have been generated.

She said that's because the development interests behind "the slate" are eager to return to the days when sprawl was the name of the game and neighbors' concerns took a back seat to business interests.

"They really want to go back to the past," Gorin said.

What they are offering is a "quick fix" that might be attractive to people who are suffering from job losses and foreclosure. When times are tough, it is easy for people to promise they can do a better job, she said. But creating living-wage jobs is tough work requiring long-range vision, which she said she has shown in projects such as the filling vacant commercial space and redeveloping the former AT&T building downtown.

Jacobi said she, too, wants a diverse employment base for the city, but doesn't want to sell out local companies to do it.

"I don't want jobs that steal other jobs," she said.

A business that creates new jobs only by undercutting existing local business and taking the profits out of the community is not her idea of sustainable development, she said. Nor is one, like Lowe's, that she said would have left the city on the hook for $46 million in traffic improvements.

"I want net gains. I don't want net losses," she said.

Haenel believes hiring local workers for public projects is one way to boost the local job market.

Neither side has an obvious advantage in the fundraising arena. Gorin and Bartley are neck-and-neck with just over $27,000 each, and their groups, when loans to themselves are removed, show total fundraising through Sept. 30 of around $47,000 each. The figures do not include spending by independent committees, which often are most active late in the campaign season.

Joanna Schaefer, a 27-year-old law school graduate, also is in the race, though not raising or spending much money.

Bartley said there is a gulf between what Gorin claims to have achieved and the dim view groups like the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce have of her record.

"There is a disconnect somewhere there, frankly," Bartley said. "I know Susan doesn't quite get it."

One of those groups critical of Gorin is the North Coast Builders Exchange, whose 1,400 members "feel strongly that a new majority is needed," said Keith Woods, the group's chief executive officer. The current council's actions are discouraging new businesses to come to Santa Rosa when the exact opposite is needed, he said.

Woods, whose group has endorsed the trio, said "the stakes are higher than ever" in the current election, and his membership plans to make its concerns well known over the next three weeks.

"We will be more active in this election than our organization has ever been before," Woods said, declining to elaborate.

Other groups more active in the Santa Rosa race and elsewhere this year are the public employee unions.

"Unions, fire and police in particular, are really coming to the fore as never before," Sobel said.

They are bolder, and in some cases brazen, in their attacks against city leaders they see as threatening the pay and benefits packages to which they've become accustomed, Sobel said.

The City of Richmond, which saw its public safety unions dredging up financial and personal medical information about that city's mayor, is just one example, he said.

"This is a new M.O. and it's not just here, it's all over California," Sobel said.

Gorin and Jacobi, who were stung by sharp public criticism from the Santa Rosa Police Officers' Association, and who have not received endorsements from any major city employee unions, agreed the employees are unhappy, and understandably so.

They're working harder than ever, giving up concessions to help the city survive and are being properly credited for their sacrifices, Gorin said.

"They are far more active and vocal this year," Gorin said. "I'm not taking it personally. They are doing what they feel they have to do."

More sacrifices may very well lie ahead. The costs of public pensions are rising sharply while economic forecasts project shrinking revenues, perhaps for several more years.

Bartley, Ours and Hernandez have announced they have secured the agreement of the public safety unions that endorsed them to form a "task force" to investigate the problem in a civil, constructive way.

The only candidate to put forward a concrete pension overhaul proposal is Jacobi, who advocates capping pensions at between $100,000 and $125,000. It is unclear how many employees that would affect, but in 2007, the city had 256 employees who made more than $100,000. The retirement system provides benefits that can equal 90 percent of an employee's highest salary.

"I think $100,000 per year is more than enough to lead a reasonable life," she said.

With three weeks left to go in the race, Jacobi said she assumes more unpleasantness will emerge, but said she hopes voters will see past the rhetoric to the facts.

"There has already been quite a bit of distortion, and I anticipate there will be more," she said.

Staff Writer Kevin McCallum can be reached at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.