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Candidate: Lynda Hopkins

Age: 33

Lives in: Forestville

Occupation: organic farmer

Quote: “I want to change the way local government works and give people a greater voice. And I want to change the world and make it a better place — call it good old-fashioned idealism.”

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5th District candidates forum

Hosted by the League of Women Voters, 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sebastopol Community Center, 390 Morris St., Sebastopol

A 15-acre organic farm tucked into vineyards west of Healdsburg has served as the home base and launchpad for a first-time political candidate who until a year ago spent most of her working days tending dairy goats and harvesting vegetables.

Lynda Hopkins, a 33-year-old Stanford University graduate, Forestville resident and mother of two young children, still describes herself as a “milkmaid.” She and her husband have operated their Foggy River Farm on family land since 2008, selling the produce at street markets and at a pick-up stand on the farm.

These days, though, since jumping into the political ring and advancing as the top vote getter — ahead of her rival, former state Sen. Noreen Evans — in the primary to represent western Sonoma County on the Board of Supervisors, Hopkins spends most of her time campaigning, splitting it between phone banking, knocking on doors and attending neighborhood meet-and-greets.

On the campaign trail, she touts the “fresh perspective” she said she would bring to local government.

“I’m not running to be a politician. I’ve never aspired to be one,” she said. “I want to change the way local government works and give people a greater voice. And I want to change the world and make it a better place — call it good old-fashioned idealism.”

Activism in high school

Hopkins calls herself an “activist.” She dates her political awakening to a time after her parents divorced when she was 16, leaving her mom to take care of her two younger brothers and her.

“I was part of the small liberal minority at my high school in San Diego,” she said. “We were called the tree people, ironically.”

She recalled pulling George W. Bush campaign signs from a neighbor’s lawn as a teenager, and later, at Stanford, participating in campus demonstrations protesting President Bush’s policies and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She and her husband, Emmett, were volunteers for Barack Obama in Nevada during his 2008 campaign.

But before launching her bid to succeed Supervisor Efren Carrillo, Hopkins’ local political experience was limited to her involvement in one issue — a disputed tribal housing, resort and winery development adjacent to her Eastside Road farm.

She emerged as a lead negotiator for a group of neighbors seeking to convince the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians to downsize their project. The deal between the two sides that Hopkins presented to the county has not advanced, but her role in the negotiations thrust her onto the political stage — where she was unknown — and that experience remains a key talking point on the campaign trail.

“There were a lot of meetings happening behind closed doors between the tribe and the county and it appeared like the county was just going after as much money as it could rather than bringing the community into the conversation,” she said in an August interview. “I realized that the county sometimes shies away from public engagement because it can be contentious. It’s that lack of access that really leads to frustration and distrust in government.”

That message — emphasizing the need to make local government more accessible and transparent — and Hopkins’ background as a farmer are key reasons for her strong showing so far, her supporters say. She has secured endorsements from influential business and agriculture interests, including the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the Sonoma County Alliance and the advocacy group Save Our Sonoma Roads. She has amassed $425,000 in campaign donations since she launched her campaign, compared with $282,000 for Evans.

“What Lynda brings to the table is openness and an unbelievable work ethic,” said Mike Martini, a partner and general manager of Taft Street Winery in Sebastopol who served with Evans on the Santa Rosa City Council in the 1990s and early 2000s. “Lynda is out there, she’s talking to people and trying to understand their problems. And she’s an organic farmer, so she knows agriculture and she understands our issues and needs.”

To her critics, however, Hopkins is an untested novice with no record to show how she will address and vote on a range of county issues, from divisive land-use proposals including winery development and marijuana regulation, to county spending on roads and employee pensions.

“Maybe Lynda can take $300,000-plus for her campaign and not be influenced by those who gave it to her when she gets into office, but she would be one of the only ones I’ve ever seen who could do that,” said Mike Reilly, who held the west county seat for 12 years prior to Carrillo’s 2008 election. Reilly and his predecessor, Ernie Carpenter, have both endorsed Evans. Carrillo has endorsed Hopkins.

“There is a strong environmental ethic in the 5th District and in order to represent this area well, you’ve got to be able to stand up to other supervisors when it matters,” Reilly said. “Noreen has shown that she can be tough, and she’s got a proven, progressive track record.”

The race for Carrillo’s seat marks a new chapter in political leadership for the west county. The victor will be the first woman to hold the 5th District seat, with a territory that spans from west Santa Rosa to the coast and north to the Mendocino County border.

Both liberal Democrats

Beyond that, the runoff between Hopkins and Evans — both liberal Democrats — presents voters with a choice between a political novice and a veteran politician with two decades in local and state office.

“When push comes to shove, the dilemma this November is going for a leap of faith with Lynda Hopkins, or the experienced candidate with Noreen Evans, who has liabilities associated with her,” said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist. “Lynda is a political novice, but that could be offset by her energy to run in a year that is fraught with peril for those with experience.

“Noreen, on the other hand, knows the players, she’s been through the historic battles over land use and quality of life issues and she understands how Sacramento has changed the landscape of county government over the past 20 years.”

Hopkins has drawn a large share of her financial support from the county’s wine industry, farming, construction and real estate interests, many of whom backed Carrillo and James Gore, who was elected to the north county supervisor seat two years ago.

Led talks with Lytton tribe

Gore has endorsed Hopkins, saying he was impressed with her involvement in neighborhood talks over the proposed Lytton tribal development. She helped persuade the Pomo tribe to scale back its 200-room hotel project in exchange for a tax break from the county, according to Gore and Larry Stidham, a lawyer representing the Lytton Pomo tribe.

“We didn’t take any action, but Lynda became a superior organizer for the neighbors on that project,” Gore said. “I earned a lot of respect for her through that entire process.”

Evans has characterized the deal as a conflict of interest for Hopkins. The vegetable farm she and her husband run is near the proposed development and her husband’s family owns a large vineyard property adjacent to the Pomo lands.

“She was trying to negotiate a classic back-room deal at the expense of taxpayers,” Evans said. “The problem is her farm is directly adjacent to that development proposal. Her involvement calls into question her motivation for running for supervisor.”

Hopkins has rejected that assertion but acknowledged the negotiating experience was formative.

“It all started from an open, town hall process,” she said.

On the campaign trail, without a voting record to share with constituents, she has pointed to it as evidence of how she would approach divisive issues in elected office.

“I bring a community organizing perspective,” she said. “I’m really passionate about grassroots government.”

Hopkins has sought to demonstrate on the campaign trail how she would conduct business in office. At a series of town hall meetings in August and September, she asked attendees to write their concerns down on poster-sized paper, which she said she intends to consider when forming opinions and policy positions. She sets time out from her schedule to hold in-depth, one-on-one conversations with 5th District voters.

“What I really want to do tonight is to talk about community,” Hopkins told a crowd at a town hall event in Bodega Bay in August. “When you live out in the country, it’s very easy to feel forgotten because a lot of the votes and the population concentration is in city limits.”

“I believe wholeheartedly in participatory democracy,” she said in a follow-up interview.

Hopkins worked for two years as executive director of Sonoma County Farm Trails, an organization that promotes local agriculture. She is on the board of Farm to Pantry, a local fruit and vegetable gleaning nonprofit group, and she reported for the Sonoma West Times and News as a freelancer in 2009 and was a staff writer from 2010 to 2013.

Her critics have accused her of seeking out the supervisor’s job to land a steady paycheck. Supervisors make $142,000 a year, earn county benefits and, if they serve at least five years, a guaranteed pension.

Hopkins said Foggy River Farm, situated on land owned by her husband’s family, takes in about $150,000 to $200,000 a year, supporting two full-time and two part-time employees. They sell produce at three farmers markets and about 85 people pay to participate in their community-supported agriculture program.

Not just running for a job

“Running for county supervisor is like a yearlong application process. If I just needed a job, there are lots of other ways I could get one,” she said. “And I think the fact that it’s a paid position means working families can participate in that process. If it weren’t paid, it would make it tough for a working parent to participate. … You’ve got to be able to put food on the table.”

She has put forward a number of priorities in her campaign, proposing the creation of tent villages on vacant government land across the county to provide temporary shelter for homeless people, as well as a tax on sugary beverages to fund universal preschool and scaling back fees to increase development of affordable housing.

She has also gained support for creating so-called community improvement districts in lower Russian River towns and along the coast to allow those unincorporated communities to have greater representation — a spinoff of the county’s former redevelopment areas — and retain a portion of hotel bed tax revenue to invest in services such as road repairs and emergency response.

“I think Lynda is a very sharp individual with an ability to look at a wide range of issues, and adapt accordingly,” said Charlie Bone, a retired coastal deputy for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and president of the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District board, speaking about his personal preference. “Noreen Evans’ strong point is her experience, which is undeniable. But what I look at is potential and common sense.”

Self-effacing, Hopkins conceded that charting a new public life in politics “felt awkward” in the early days, knocking on voters’ doors for the first time.

“Now it’s just how I spend my afternoons,” she said. “I always ask people ‘What are the issues you care about? What could we be doing better?’ ”

Hopkins says she had not yet decided to run for supervisor last June when she and her husband purchased a home in Forestville, which falls in the 5th District. Until last year the couple and their two daughters lived in a cottage near their farm, which falls in the county’s 4th District, represented by Gore.

At times, the race has weighed heavily on her. Long days on the campaign trail have led to sometimes emotional moments in public and caused her to question a career in politics.

In an interview before the June primary, Hopkins said if she lost she would never run for office again. Her comments were in reaction to the spotlight that Evans and her supporters have sought to cast on Hopkins’ campaign donors, alleging that she was being “bought” by powerful interests in the county.

“If you ever think I’m running for office again, you’re crazy,” Hopkins said in May. “I absolutely mean that.”

“These things have really stuck with her, and it really displays a candidate who is learning,” said McCuan, the Sonoma State political scientist, referring to the attacks lobbed by her detractors. “Politics is a bloodsport, and it’s not a place for kid gloves, especially when the future of the board is being determined.”

Criticism empowers her

Now, Hopkins says, the criticism she confronts in the final sprint of the supervisorial race empowers her to work harder.

“When I look at the problems we’re facing, two things that come to mind are climate change and pensions,” Hopkins said. “These are things that are going to inhibit future generations’ ability to live and thrive in Sonoma County.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 707-526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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