In what is supposed to be a nonpartisan, local election, the race for the three open Petaluma City Council seats has become a political battle for majority control of the seven-member body, drawing active participation from political heavyweights throughout the region.

While incumbents Tiffany Ren?, Mike Healy and Gabe Kearney are all vying to maintain their council seats, challengers Jason Davies, Alicia Kae Herries and Kathy Miller are also seeking election. Healy is looking to serve a fourth term, Ren? a second, and Kearney is looking to return to the seat he was appointed to after David Glass vacated his council seat to take over as mayor in 2010. Davies ran for council unsuccessfully in 2010 while Herries and Miller — both attorneys — are running for the first time. Miller is a former planning commissioner and Herries is a current planning commissioner.

All the candidates are registered Democrats and most are running on slates with endorsements from a variety of elected Democrats and Democratic organizations. Herries and Davies are endorsed by progressive Democrats Mayor David Glass, former Mayor Pam Torliatt, council member Teresa Barrett and progressive Democratic Assemblyman Michael Allen who is in a race to represent Petaluma in the State Assembly.

Healy, who is endorsed by Democratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman, encouraged Miller to run for city council and the two are running together as a slate. They share a more business-oriented focus on jobs and retail development, having been strong supporters of the Target and Friedman's Home Improvement shopping center developments. They also strongly support the Rainier crosstown connector which has been a politically controversial project.

"I asked Kathy (Miller) to run on a slate with me because we both hold similar priorities," said Healy in a candidate interview in September. He added that those priorities include the completion of the long awaited Rainier Crosstown Connector and the pursuit of revenue by being open to large-scale development along with local, small business development.

Most progressive council candidates have expressed support for smaller, transit oriented business development, but tend to part company with the business-oriented slate of Healy and Miller on issues of large-format retail development like Target. Herries and Ren?, for example, both opposed the Target shopping center development and voted against the Friedman's shopping center development as well. Many progressives who also opposed those developments stressed the need to protect local, small business interests, noting that "big-box" stores can often "cannibalize" profits from smaller stores by offering lower prices.

While Herries and Davies have both been endorsed by the same progressive political leaders, they differ on their positions towards retail development and the Rainier connector. Davies has expressed conditional support for the city's approval of both shopping center developments, while expressing concerns about their potential to divert profits away from local businesses. Unlike Herries, who has expressed opposition to the Rainier connector, Davies said he supports the project but has reservations about how it will be funded.

Davies, who along with Herries and Ren? recently participated in a progressive campaign rally and precinct walk dubbed the "Petaluma Push" with Allen, Glass and Torliatt, said that he developed an affinity for the progressives because of a shared active stance against the Dutra asphalt plant.

Incumbents Kearny and Ren?, who in past elections were both identified as progressives, are running more independent campaigns this year. Ren?, who ran on a slate with Glass in 2008 but does not have an endorsement from him or Torliatt this year, is still widely identified as a progressive, with endorsements from active progressive Democrats like former council member David Keller, Assemblyman Allen and Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey.

When asked why he wasn't endorsing Ren? again this election, Glass said he felt he did not need to endorse her. "Tiffany (Ren?) will win, or lose, regardless of my endorsement," Glass said. "She has a strong voting record, I've enjoyed working with her and I wish her all the best."

Kearney says he has consistently voted what he believes is right, regardless of the political ramifications. A delegate to this year's Democratic National Convention, Kearney describes himself as a "Kennedy Democrat." Despite this, he failed to receive an endorsement from the Sonoma County Democratic party after a meeting in which Glass, Torliatt and Allen urged party members to endorse their slate of candidates instead. At that meeting, Glass spoke against Kearney, citing Kearney's decision to endorse Healy instead of himself to the state's redevelopment oversight committee earlier this year.

Kearney's major endorsements include state Assemblyman Jared Huffman, who is currently competing for the 2nd Congressional seat that will be vacated by Lynn Woolsey at the end of this term, the Sonoma County Young Democrats, Petaluma's largest city employee union AFSCME and the Petaluma Police Officers and Firefighters unions. The police and firefighters union have also endorsed Healy and Miller.

According to Petaluma political analyst and former city councilmember Brian Sobel, by looking at each issue individually, Davies and Kearney are doing nonpartisan local politics the right way. "City council members are supposed to be representing everyone. They need to be blind to political party affiliations because when they get caught up in it, they run the risk of being kicked off the ticket if they don't toe the party line."

Sobel said that the perceived "progressive versus moderate" Democrat push is not new and has been occurring for years in Petaluma. He added that issues that have split the council before, such as major development, will most likely be few and far between in the immediate future.

Sobel pointed out that the candidates are very open about where they stand on issues like the Dutra asphalt plant that they all oppose, a desire to see an increase in hotels that could boost the transient occupancy tax revenue for the city and a desire to focus more on the city's roads and streetlight maintenance.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)