Ex-Santa Rosa mayor Chris Coursey to run against Supervisor Shirlee Zane for board seat
Chris Coursey, the former Santa Rosa mayor, plans to run for the seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors held by Supervisor Shirlee Zane, setting up a battle of political heavyweights that is likely to be the most expensive and intriguing local race on the March 3 ballot.
Coursey was a longtime Press Democrat reporter and columnist and spokesman for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system before his election to the City Council in 2014.
His two-year tenure as mayor was dominated by the 2017 wildfires that burned more than 3,000 homes and scores of businesses in the city, thrusting him into an unprecedented disaster and onto an international stage like few Santa Rosa leaders before him.
In an interview Wednesday, Coursey cited rebuilding from the firestorm, finding solutions to address homelessness and building more affordable housing among his top campaign concerns. He pointed to his previous work as a journalist, covering local government and politics, and his tenure as an elected official, as influences behind his bid for the Board of Supervisors.
“I want to cause change for the good,” he said.
Coursey’s entry into the race confronts Zane with perhaps her strongest election challenge since first winning the 3rd District seat in 2008 in a bruising race against Sharon Wright, also a former Santa Rosa mayor.
Two erstwhile challengers to Zane, the longest-serving current board member, bowed out of the race in the past few weeks. Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs announced she would not run on Tuesday and Rohnert Park Mayor Gina Belforte dropped out of the race earlier this month. The 3rd District, the most urban in the county, includes most of Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park.
Coursey, 64, had been widely said to be readying a run for the seat. In an interview Tuesday after Combs’ announcement he would not elaborate on his decision-making process.
But in fact, he had made his decision Monday morning after waking up before his 7 a.m. alarm rang, he said Wednesday. He called Zane to let her know he was going to run for her seat, reversing course from what he’d told her in January, that he would not challenge her.
“And at that time, I wasn’t,” Coursey said. “But I also told her that if I changed my mind, I’d call her.”
The two have a personal history. Coursey wrote about Zane for The Press Democrat as far back as 1996, when she was leader of Sonoma County’s now-closed Hospital Chaplaincy Services.
The two both endured the death of their spouses over the past decade. Theresa Coursey died of cancer in 2010 and Peter Kingston took his own life in 2011.
Coursey and Zane dated for about three years, breaking up in 2014, Coursey said. Both were reticent to discuss how their previous relationship might affect the race or say why they separated.
“I’m not going to have a whole lot to say about a personal relationship. That’s why it’s called ‘personal,’?” Coursey said Wednesday in an interview, adding, “That has not factored into my decision here, other than knowing I would be asked about it.”
Zane, 59, said she hoped their past relationship wouldn’t be a factor in the campaign. “I don’t think it has to be,” she added.
Both said they planned to run positive campaigns.
“I’m not the kind of person that’s going to run a campaign telling people that the other person who’s running is not fit for the job or anything negative,” Coursey said. “I’m going to talk about my attributes.”
Zane did, however, note her surprise when Coursey informed her Monday of his intent to challenge her.
That, she said, was “really painful, because he told me he wasn’t going to run.”
On the campaign trail, Coursey, a 39-year resident of Sonoma County, said he would emphasize the greater need for city-county collaboration to spur new housing development and a new regional approach to funding homelessness projects.
“This will be about how best to address those, what kind of collaborations we create as we do that,” he said, “and I think it’s hugely important that we understand that Sonoma County doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”
Coursey’s bid for higher office sets up a race that will be “a magnet for dollars, resources and controversy,” said David McCuan, chairman of the political science department at Sonoma State University.
To McCuan, the exit of Combs and Belforte clearly signaled that Coursey had an open path to run ?against Zane.
“He is the only viable candidate that can challenge her,” said McCuan, who framed the race not as an ideological contest but as a question of “trust, integrity, and rebuild and resilience.”