As the race for four seats on the Santa Rosa City Council enters the final stretch, political observers are focused less on Mayor Ernesto Olivares and Councilman Gary Wysocky and more on which candidates may ride their coattails into office.
Both incumbents are expected to hold onto their seats on the seven-member council, leaving the fight for third and fourth place as the real battleground where the balance of power on the next council will be decided.
"What we have is a pretty solid one and two, and then, frankly, what I think is a pretty fluid three, four and five," said David McCuan, professor of political science at Sonoma State University.
For the past two years, the council has been deeply divided. Four members backed by business and development interests generally support fewer regulations on business, and three members have more environmental and labor leanings and place greater value on neighborhood input.
But unlike previous years, when the battle lines were more clearly drawn, this year there is "a lot of upheaval" and uncertainty in political circles over the current crop of candidates, McCuan said.
"It's unclear what the future direction of the council will be because the lack of succession and a clear farm team for each side," he said.
Incumbents in races across Sonoma County are expected to do well this year, in part because the economy is better than it was two years ago, said Steven Gale, chairman of the Sonoma County Democratic Party.
"I think voters in the cities are feeling like we've make it through some tough times," Gale said.
Among the five non-incumbent candidates, those who have been actively campaigning the longest, namely neighborhood activist Julie Combs and attorney Erin Carlstrom, are showing strong support because they've had a longer time to make their case to voters, Gale said.
But with two weeks to go, Gale acknowledges the race remains difficult to predict. "There is enough volatility to make the race very close," Gale said.
That may be because the other three active non-incumbent candidates have strengths of their own and reasons to be optimistic about their chances, as well.
Don Taylor, owner of Omelette Express restaurants in Santa Rosa and Windsor, has significant name recognition from his public service and three previous council campaigns. He has served on the planning commission and was president of the Historic Railroad Square Association. He believes the best way to create jobs is to reduce the red tape for businesses and better marketing of the city.
Though he got into the race late, Taylor says his campaign is gaining traction, several key endorsements have gone his way, and people appreciate his focus on signs of health in the local economy.
"Even during these tough times, we've made pretty significant headway," Taylor said, citing new restaurants downtown and new businesses locating in Railroad Square, including two bike shops and a dance studio.
Winery executive Hans Dippel believes Santa Rosa needs to capitalize on its location in the heart of Sonoma's Wine Country to become a destination city for tourists. He also believes in removing barriers to businesses and actively recruiting them to set up shop here, especially in vacant commercial spaces.