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After 10-month wait, Chris Coursey takes his seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors

Sonoma County supervisors

This is the second of three stories on changing faces and roles on the Board of Supervisors.

Next up:

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, 5th District, incoming chair

A 10-month transition into elected office was bound to be long under any circumstances. But Chris Coursey, the former Santa Rosa mayor, claimed his seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in early March at the outset of a historic pandemic.

In a matter of weeks, schools were closed, local workplaces were shuttered and the tens of thousands of county residents were jobless. Then, as coronavirus infections spiked over the summer and deaths climbed — they now stand at 19,386 cases and 196 deaths, respectively — another series of destructive wildfires overtook the region, claiming nearly 500 Sonoma County homes through October.

Throughout, Coursey, 66, a former journalist and SMART spokesman who led Santa Rosa as mayor during the 2017 firestorm and its aftermath, was forced to sit on the sidelines, watching as the county grappled with emergencies layered on unprecedented crises.

To be an elected leader in waiting was a blessing and curse for Coursey, who wasn’t responsible for any of the board’s actions, but because he was sidelined, also felt it was important to stay tight-lipped about county leadership.

“I watched them doing a job that is already hard, but I think it has been tougher than ever these last nine months,” Coursey said. “It’s hard in a way, but I knew that I was going to go through this waiting period.”

Still, he’s been bracing for a role that has changed unimaginably since he won the 3rd District seat representing central Santa Rosa and most of Rohnert Park, defeating Supervisor Shirlee Zane and becoming the first challenger to oust an incumbent supervisor in 36 years.

Coursey will be sworn in Tuesday, and he stressed the county’s response to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic is at the forefront of his, and the board’s, agenda.

“We have to treat that as our immediate priority,” Coursey said.

“I do still want the job,” Coursey said. “I knew that local government has all kinds of challenges — road blocks, obstacles to getting things done. I knew that going in. I know that now more than ever. If I was intimidated by any of that, I wouldn’t have gotten into this business.”

Pandemic to dominate first year

The first Board of Supervisors meeting of the new year after an election is typically a ceremonial affair, featuring little more than the swearing in of new and returning county elected officials, some speeches and cake.

On Tuesday, however, the newly seated board will grapple with recovery from three massive wildfires over the past two years, fallout from the pandemic on the economy and county budget and even a potentially historic decision on the future $500 million headquarters for county government, the county’s largest local employer, with more than 4,100 employees.

“Normally, we have a very superficial, puffy meeting,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said with a chuckle Monday. “We’ve got some really pithy items in front of us.”

In addition to the pandemic, Coursey said, homelessness and housing will continue to be key priorities for his office and the county.

“After we can get past this immediate thing, we’re still going to have to deal with the lack of affordable housing in this community and the homelessness problem plaguing the community,” Coursey said.

As supervisor, Coursey will now bear some responsibility for county progress on those fronts, putting him in the hot seat on several combustible issues.

The county’s ill-fated attempts to unload its 72-acre Chanate Road property for housing development is one. In mid-December, the latest buyer walked away from negotiations, marking the fourth collapse of negotiations in just the past two years.

Zane, who saw her political support narrow amid that controversy, said in her parting comments last month that it would be Coursey’s problem now.

He has already emerged as a vocal supporter of the push for county’s equity in public programs and services, spearheaded now by the new Office of Equity, headed by Alegria De La Cruz, the former chief deputy county counsel. Coursey said equity should be the pivot point for the county’s response to all manner of crises.

“It’s not anything that’s ever been a secret, but the spotlight’s been on it,” Coursey said. “When we address these priorities — housing and homelessness and health — equity has to be … We have to make equity part of everything we do, as we do it.”

On the campaign trail he sought to draw a contrast with Zane over his style of leadership, pledging a more collaborative, accessible approach to governance. He’s echoed that commitment during the transition.

“The first thing you’ll notice is just a different style,” Coursey said during a recent interview with The Press Democrat’s Editorial Board. “The way I approach the job … dealing with the public, constituents, colleagues, staff — we’re two different people that way.”

But with the county shut down amid another coronavirus surge, Coursey will also be hard-pressed to make that connection visceral with constituents. Remote meetings and limited in-person gatherings are likely to continue for much of his first year.

“This community is a very hands-on, politically connected community,” Coursey said. “There are tons and tons of events … At every one of them, you see people you know, you meet new people, you hear issues, you get lobbied, you get criticized, you get congratulated. All of that has been taken away — from everybody. That makes things very different.”

New leader, chronic challenges

Before his single term on the City Council, including two years as mayor, Coursey was the spokesman for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit for four years, starting a decade before the regional commuter train’s 2017 launch. For 27 years, he was a reporter and columnist at The Press Democrat.

He wrote about politics and government, and he chronicled Zane’s emergence as a public figure in a 1996 profile of her work as CEO of the county’s now-defunct Hospital Chaplaincy Services.

And as mayor of Santa Rosa in 2017, when Zane was chair of the Board of Supervisors, the two worked together in the wake of the October firestorm that destroyed 5,300 homes in the county and took 24 lives.

Years earlier, after the deaths of their spouses, Coursey and Zane also dated for a period. But their politics have diverged.

Where Zane in recent years espoused a ’Build, baby, build’ mantra that embraced developers’ call for a boom in market-rate housing construction, Coursey advocated a focus on affordable housing.

Housing and homelessness have proved intractable problems in the 3rd District, especially, most of which sits within city boundaries where supervisors have less sway. Santa Rosa has the largest concentration of people living on the streets countywide, and Rohnert Park has struggled with its own clusters of homeless camps in the past two years.

Both the county and Santa Rosa, meanwhile, remain under a judge’s order that limits how they clear homeless encampments on public property, complicating efforts to usher more individuals into permanent shelter.

Coursey said he plans to bring a sharp focus on affordable housing to a variety of fronts, leveraging a pending an appointment that could give him close involvement on the issue.

“There’s no single thing I can do to make that difference,” Coursey said. “But I plan to make it a priority that we focus on all of the time.”

Zane’s exit and Coursey’s start also marks the end of the Board of Supervisors first female majority, formed after Lynda Hopkins won election in 2016.

The two remaining women — Hopkins, the incoming board chair, and Gorin, the outgoing chair — have squared off on a number of disputed issues, including the location of sanctioned homeless camps and how the board selects its own leadership.

Coursey was nearly sidelined in that discussion last month before Gorin tabled it to allow him to weigh in. Gorin, a former Santa Rosa mayor herself, said there’s always a period of adjustment for new board members, but she didn’t think it would take long for Coursey to hit his stride.

“He’s going to come in with a great deal of experience, as well as a calm and deliberate manner,” said Gorin, who shares a political consultant with Coursey. “It will serve him well, and the board well. It will be a short learning curve for him, and I think for all of us.”

Settling into the job

Even after 10 months, the dust is still settling after Coursey’s 52% to 48% win over Zane. Hard feelings remain among the two camps. It wasn’t until November that Coursey reached out to Zane for a transition meeting, six months after Zane’s initial offer of help, Coursey acknowledged last month.

He hired Christine Culver, Zane’s longtime district aide, to perform the same job in his office, adding some continuity to constituent services.

For his field representative, he brought on Jazmin Gudino, an Elsie Allen High School alumna and recent UC Berkeley graduate with a political science degree. She has been working as a county contact tracer with emphasis on Latino households and vineyard workers.

Sean Hamlin, a former field representative for Rep. Mike Thompson, will serve as Coursey’s district director, bringing connections and political know-how. Thompson was one in a phalanx of incumbent elected officials in the region to endorse Zane’s reelection bid, including all but Gorin on the Board of Supervisors.

But Coursey staked out support from environmental and progressive groups, including the local Sierra Club chapter and Sonoma County Conservation Action. On land-use and climate change, he appears to be a natural ally of Gorin and Hopkins, who each have sought to pursue a climate change-centered agenda.

Sonoma State University political scientist David McCuan said Coursey’s willingness to rethink the message and shape of local government, a tack taken after the 2017 fires, would likely align well with Hopkins’ out-of-the-box approach.

Coursey also worked closely with Supervisor James Gore in the wake of the 2017 fires, and Gore stressed during the campaign that he had “nothing bad to say about Chris Coursey.”

With the board’s current makeup, Coursey is shaping up to be a central figure in 2021, McCuan said.

“That leaves Chris Coursey to be squarely the key vote — not the middle vote, but the winning vote,” McCuan said. “You don’t see a lot of 3-2 votes. That’s where Coursey, I think, sees himself, and can play an important role.”

While Coursey will finally have his seat Tuesday, he said he was content to wait longer to determine his place on the board.

“I don’t necessarily have preconceived notions about what my alignments are, what my assignments are,” he said. “I will work to find that as I settle into the job.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that Chris Coursey is 66 years old.

Sonoma County supervisors

This is the second of three stories on changing faces and roles on the Board of Supervisors.

Next up:

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, 5th District, incoming chair

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