Blake Hooper, Petaluma planning commissioner, to challenge David Rabbitt for Sonoma County supervisor seat

Blake Hooper’s entry in the the 2nd District field means Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt has his first election challenger since 2014.|

Blake Hooper, a Petaluma planning commissioner and former staffer for Rep. Jared Huffman, will run for the south county seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, the first challenge to the board’s senior incumbent, David Rabbitt, since 2014.

Rabbitt, 61, is the county’s longest-serving incumbent supervisor, and three times the chair of the board, since winning the seat in 2010.

Hooper, 31, who confirmed Friday he filed paperwork to run for the 2nd District seat, has lived in Petaluma since he was a child. He said he’s running for office in 2022 to ensure more residents are able to thrive in the area where his parents settled.

“In the last decade, it has become increasingly difficult to not only live here, but to be able to build a life here, where you don’t have to work multiple jobs to keep a foot in the door of this community,” Hooper said in a phone interview.

A Petaluma planning commissioner for the past year, Hooper is choosing to bypass the more traditional first foray into local politics — a run for a city council seat — saying the problems facing Petaluma and the south county require county-level coordination.

His decision comes after nearly a decade in politics, including three years as a field representative for Huffman, D-San Rafael, as well as his current role as a legislative consultant for California Senate Democrats.

“I’ve spent the better part of the past 10 years working at the state and federal level, working with communities, seeing the people impacted and knowing how funding sources work. … And I’ve been able to see the dysfunction,” Hooper said, adding that much of his work for Huffman came in the aftermath of Sonoma County’s deadly 2017 wildfires.

With Hooper’s entry into the race, the south county’s 2nd District, which comprises Petaluma, Penngrove and Cotati, as well as the rolling dairylands of southwest Sonoma County, lays claim to the county’s first official contested supervisorial race.

Supervisor James Gore, who represents north county, has not filed reelection paperwork, but he confirmed via text message Friday that he plans to run for another term. Gore does not yet have an opponent for the June 2022 primary, according to county records.

Although he said he has mulled a future out of politics, Rabbitt stressed that the time hasn’t come yet, and he plans to defend his seat — and his record — vigorously.

Along with his role on the Petaluma Planning Commission, Hooper serves on the city’s Transit Advisory Committee and Pedestrian Bicycle Advisory Committee, and is a board member for Sonoma County Conservation Action.

Born in Greenbrae, Hooper has lived in Petaluma since he was 4, attending Petaluma schools before going to college at UC Santa Cruz.

He’s married to Illiana Madrigal-Hooper, an appointee on the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights and the communications director for Wine Country Young Democrats.

Hooper said he has spent months building support for his insurgent run against Rabbitt, a former Petaluma councilman and architect who has earned wide political support and amassed a strong record of campaign fundraising. He won his first bid for the 2nd District seat in 2010 in an upset over then-Petaluma Mayor Pam Torliatt and has not faced a close race since.

Behind the scenes, in talks with local elected officials, environmentalists, business leaders and people in the agriculture community, Hooper said he’s gaining “quiet support.”

“It became apparent that there was a shared sense of urgency in how we change the direction of things,” Hooper said.

Hooper’s public endorsements to date include Petaluma City Council member Dennis Pocekay, Rohnert Park Mayor Gerard Giudice and Vice Mayor Jackie Elward, and Petaluma City Schools Board of Education President Joanna Paun.

Hooper said he had not yet approached Huffman, his former boss, to seek an endorsement. Such an endorsement, if it comes, would mark a coup in Hooper’s effort to challenge the veteran supervisor.

“It’s really hard to defeat an incumbent,” said Sonoma State University political science professor David McCuan. “And it’s really hard to find, in the history of Rabbitt’s district, someone who can leverage their work and experience to defeat an incumbent.”

Rabbitt still enjoys the support of agriculture, business and development interests that propelled him to victory against Torliatt. He has also broadened his appeal with governing experience across issues ranging from pension reform to public transit.

He serves as a county representative on the Golden Gate Bridge District and is a member of the SMART board, on which he is the chair.

After he cruised to a third term unchallenged in 2018, Rabbitt has $75,000 socked away in his campaign account, according to campaign filings through June 30.

His last contested election came in 2014 against Penngrove rancher and water activist John King. King wasn’t able to mount a significant challenge, securing just one-third of the vote.

Rabbitt highlighted his leadership on the Board of Supervisors, including one extraordinary back-to-back two-year rotation as chair in 2013 and 2014 and again in 2019. His decade-plus in office has overlapped, he said, with “arguably the county’s most difficult time.”

“Whether fires, floods, pandemic — everything has been thrown at the board,” Rabbitt said. “And I’ve been front and center leading that board.”

Hooper, though, channeled frustration over Rabbitt’s centrist approach, calling the incumbent a fiscal hawk who has been adversarial to the needs of the cities in his district, including Petaluma.

He knocked Rabbitt’s decision to cast the lone dissenting vote over whether to locate the future county headquarters in downtown Santa Rosa, saying Rabbitt wasn’t thinking of the bigger picture.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Something is too expensive, we can’t afford it,’ when there is a necessity attached to it,” Hooper said.

Hooper’s strongest critique of Rabbitt centered on his approach to constituents, a connection he said has waned throughout the past decade, costing the 2nd District its voice in leading the way on major issues, including climate change.

“We’re going to have to make tough choices, which involves actually communicating with the community, being engaged — not speaking from a podium or on the dais,” Hooper said.

Rabbitt said he has delivered for his district on myriad fronts, citing road repairs and Highway 101 widening, as well as his advocacy for rural neighborhoods opposed to the spread of commercial cannabis farming.

“I don’t necessarily jump up and down and post everything on social media constantly, but if you look at what’s gotten done for the district, I think the list is pretty strong,” he said.

Rabbitt’s record aside, McCuan said the timing of Hooper’s challenge — in 2022, during a midterm election likely to favor anti-establishment voices — gives Hooper a chance. McCuan noted Hooper’s ability to bring in campaign money, and his potential to marshal the resources and endorsements from a variety of organizations, including, potentially, the labor and environment camps that have often propelled more progressive candidates to office.

“It has been a desert of progressive success, and a desert of potential strong challengers to David Rabbitt,” McCuan said. “It is early, but the fact that he’s talked about and it’s early, Hooper has potential to do damage against the incumbent.”

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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