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Fevered final week in Zane-Coursey race for Sonoma County supervisor

Riding a quarter-million dollar surge in political spending a week before Election Day, the fight for a seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors between incumbent Shirlee Zane and challenger Chris Coursey has escalated into a feverish race to the finish.

Each has poured tens of thousands of dollars from their campaign into a blitz of mailers - and well-funded outside groups have waded in on both sides of the race with their own advertising, spawning another round of sparring between the two well-known candidates and one-time political allies.

Zane, seeking her fourth term representing the 3rd District, said the independent campaign that favors Coursey and seeks her ouster represents “a direct attack on the integrity of our election.” It is funded by a trio of oil companies that she says opposes her leadership on the powerful Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

“It’s really critical that we don’t allow outside interests to influence a local county supervisor race,” Zane said at a Monday news conference meant to spotlight the oil companies’ mailers.

Coursey, the former Santa Rosa mayor, has also called on “Big Oil” to “butt out” of the race while noting the influential real estate interests that have backed Zane’s reelection bid. He said the outside spending has served as a convenient foil for his opponent.

“I think it has been a gift to Shirlee Zane,” Coursey said. “Obviously she would rather be talking about tar sand oil in Canada than the issues in Sonoma County.”

The spending - totaling more than $250,000 in the past month between the two candidates and three outside committees - has distinguished the 3rd District race as the most expensive and closely fought contest for local office on the March ballot, where two other supervisorial seats are also up for grabs. The 3rd District, the county’s most urban, takes in central Santa Rosa and most of Rohnert Park.

Zane continues to hold an edge on fundraising and spending, having pulled in more than $149,000 - $15,000 more than Coursey - and spent nearly $100,000 more. A pair of independent committees have also poured more into the race on her behalf, totaling about $189,000. The bulk came from the National Board of Realtors, which has spent $150,000 in her favor, including polling and advertisements.

The latest campaign finance reports represent the last comprehensive public glimpse at fundraising and spending before the March 3 election. The next report is due at the end of July.

David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist, said jockeying and campaign spending at this point can set the tone for the waning days of the race, and very often that means going on attack.

Zane is “in a place where she’s trying to generate some momentum to her campaign, and one of the best ways to do that is to grab one of the big bad bogeymen of politics - big oil,” McCuan said.

The committee supported by Marathon Petroleum Corp., Phillips 66 and Chevron Corp. has dropped about $97,600 on eight glossy mail pieces touting Coursey’s work to curb homelessness and his leadership after the 2017 fires, among other messages.

It reported $50,000 in the bank, funds that could supercharge the race’s remaining week. Representatives listed on campaign finance disclosures have not returned multiple calls seeking comment on the spending.

Zane called the proxy support of Coursey a “badge of honor” for her, saying the oil and gas-backed group is targeting her for key votes to rein in pollution and increase monitoring and oversight on Bay Area refineries.

“This is not about him, it’s about getting me off the air board,” Zane said. “They see me as a No. 1 enemy.”

The infusion of cash for Coursey has spurred a response from another independent committee supporting Zane, backed primarily by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, owners of the Rohnert Park casino. The group has spent nearly $39,000 on mailers critical of the oil company advertising. Other donors to the pro-Zane group include the Sonoma County Alliance, the Airport Business Center, and John Dyson, owner of Williams Selyem Winery in Healdsburg. It has raised about $79,000 to date.

Coursey, who is endorsed by the local chapter of the Sierra Club and Sonoma County Conservation Action, acknowledged Zane has been a positive influence for Sonoma County residents on the air board. A campaign finance complaint he filed against the oil-and-gas backed group was dismissed earlier this month by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

Zane also said she didn’t believe Coursey would be friendlier to oil and gas companies.

“Clearly, Sonoma County voters care about the environment,” Coursey said. “Neither I nor Shirlee would be on Big Oil’s side.”

Still, he said Zane’s attacks on the special interests benefiting him were hypocritical given her embrace of the outside groups supporting her. Zane rejected the comparison.

“It’s different,” Zane said about the group bankrolled by the Graton Rancheria and other business interests. “That is funded by all local people. The real estate one, also, even though the check comes out of Chicago, that came at the request of local realtors. They live here, work here. I don’t think Chevron, Phillips 66 and Marathon are local yokels.”

Since the last reports were filed Jan. 31, Zane has received 13 donations of $1,000 or more, including from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the Sonoma Alliance for Vineyards and the Environment - backed primarily by ranchers and farmers, including vineyard and winery owners - and the local plumbers and pipefitters union. She showed about $24,000 in cash on hand as of Feb. 15.

Coursey got 12 donations of $1,000 or more in the same time frame, including from Tony Geraldi, general manager of the Sonoma County Airport Express, architect Mark Quattrocchi and therapist Tina Kelly. He showed about $26,000 in cash on hand in the latest report.

By Monday, just 17% of mail ballots in the county had been returned, with a slightly smaller share received from the 3rd District, according to the county elections office.

“People are waiting because they want their ballot vote to count,” McCuan said, referring to the Democratic presidential primary. “This is unusual in the sense that California matters. They want to vote for a winner, and that affects this race.”

Elsewhere on the ballot, Supervisor Susan Gorin had about $40,000 on hand in her reelection bid for the 1st District seat representing southeastern Sonoma County, including eastern Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley.

That’s substantially more than her opponent, Sonoma City Councilman David Cook, who had about $2,700 in the bank.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who’s running for a second term representing western Sonoma County, showed about $53,000 on hand and less than $2,000 spent in her race against political newcomer Michael Hilber. He has not reported raising or spending any money on his campaign.

Staff Writer Will Schmitt contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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