Healdsburg woman brings presidential candidates to Sonoma County
Iron Horse Vineyards CEO Joy Sterling can remember a time when the sight of a presidential candidate schmoozing in Sonoma County didn't necessarily turn heads.
This would have been in the 1980s, when former U.S. Rep. Doug Bosco was hosting the likes of Dick Gephardt and Walter Mondale, when, in Bosco's words, “it was a lot easier to get together 50 of my best friends.”
Sterling's parents, Barry and Audrey Sterling, went to Stanford University with William Rehnquist, the former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who died in 2005, and retired associate justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and were later regular hosts of big-name political figures, Joy said.
Despite hosting O'Connor in 2014, the elderly Sterlings don't entertain as much as they once did. Neither does Bosco, leaving a vacuum for the type of power and perseverance necessary to attract big-name candidates to a spot that's not quite San Francisco and not quite Napa.
In the past couple of years, Sonoma County has experienced a revival as a fundraising springboard for presidential candidates thanks to Healdsburg's Barbara Grasseschi. Three 2020 hopefuls have made, or plan to make, stops in Sonoma County this year. A fourth could come by the end of the year, and each visit has been arranged by Grasseschi, who owns Puma Springs Vineyards with her husband, Tony Crabb, who also donates to candidates.
“There was no one organizing people up here,” Grasseschi said. “If (residents) ever wanted to see them to ask a question, they'd have to drive to San Francisco. Now there's a chance to do that here.”
This week, presidential candidate Julian Castro, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 2014 to 2017, will make a fundraising stop in Windsor. Before the year is out, Grasseschi wants to bring South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg to the area.
“If you look back historically, on the one hand, it's new; on the other hand, it's a little bit of a throwback to my parents' generation,” Sterling said.
Why Sonoma County?
Sterling, the chairwoman of the California Democratic Party Rural Caucus, said the visits are important to put Sonoma County - and the issues important to its residents - on the map.
She's partial to rural topics, and said despite outside appearances, Sonoma County - particularly the western half - embodies that rural lifestyle.
“The prevailing wisdom is that the road to victory is through the rural communities of the nation,” Sterling said. “It's great for Sonoma County to be a voice and a representative for those specific interests and concerns. That gives us the opportunity, once (the candidates) come talk to us, we get to hold them to account.”
You have to look back three decades to get to such a rash of visits from presidential hopefuls, including former Senator and Vice President Mondale, former House Majority Leader Gephardt and President Ronald Reagan, who also announced his candidacy for California governor in Healdsburg. The Sterlings, who settled in Wine Country in the late 1970s, had a hand in many of the visits.
Bosco was involved, too, Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said.
Crabb said via text message that Grasseschi is the key driver of the couple's political work, and Grasseschi said her husband's role is purely as a donor. In that case, she is responsible for the resurgence, including what Gore called a growing number of visits from all levels of government.
“It's not just about fundraising; it's about organization,” Gore said. “Somebody has to call campaigns and give them a reason to care about your area. Do they care about the North Bay and the North Coast? It's not on their radar unless we put it on their radar.”
Then, as now, money is a big draw.
President Donald Trump wasn't in San Francisco or Los Angeles last week because he agrees with the politics, after all. He raised $15 million in his two-day trip through the state, according to CNN.
And former Vice President Joe Biden, who's scheduled to be in San Francisco on Oct. 3 for a fundraiser hosted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her husband, Richard Blum, will likely see donations from Sonoma County residents. But pulling strings to host him in Sonoma County would mean raising more than the $500,000-plus he's likely to pocket in San Francisco.
“(At this point in the race), you'd have to raise substantially more money to get their attention,” said Bosco, who's an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. “They're campaigning all over the country - primarily raising money all over the country. Time is literally money for them.”
The exception is candidates lower in the standings. Castro is polling at 1%, and will be in Windsor on Thursday for a two-hour fundraising appearance.