Herb Williams: The behind-the-scenes mastermind of North Coast politics

This story was originally published April 17, 2005

Outside of Sonoma County's tightly knit political circles, few people have ever heard of Herb Williams.

But his impact is felt every day across Sonoma County -- from Santa Rosa, where residents pay an extra quarter-cent sales tax, to Rohnert Park, where a failed recall slowed efforts to stop an Indian casino from moving next door.

No other political tactician came close to his record of election success last year, with 11 winners in the 13 campaigns he directed for Sonoma County candidates and ballot measures.

In Santa Rosa, he masterminded a campaign that persuaded voters to ban fireworks, got the same voters to easily pass a police and fire tax measure and strengthened the political grip of business-friendly forces at City Hall while helping bring the city its first-ever black council member.

The campaigns are a reflection of Williams' politics and personality, which meld a Republican's belief in business as the best way to develop a community's economy with a Democrat's embrace of social equality and change.

"I'm a social moderate, fiscal conservative," he said. "I believe if you do the right thing more often than the wrong thing, you're going to live a good life and you won't regret the life you lived."

The self-deprecating, 68-year-old election expert, who prides himself on being a behind-the-scenes force, is credited by both friends and foes with having shaped the political landscape, not only in Santa Rosa, but also in Rohnert Park and Petaluma.

"How many people get an absolute report card on how well they do their job? I do. It's called elections," Williams said.

But his victories also have generated criticism that his candidates are tied too closely to business interests and suspicion that lucrative private consulting contracts give him a financial advantage in developing election strategies.

"He's the Karl Rove of Sonoma County," said Santa Rosa political activist and environmentalist Sonia Taylor, alluding to President Bush's political strategist, who helped his boss win a second term despite such high-profile negatives as the war in Iraq and the outsourcing of millions of American jobs overseas.

Nomadic career

Williams came to the county 15 years ago, when he was asked to do one of the first surveys on a possible Highway 101 transit tax, and after a nomadic career in political consulting that took him from a U.S. Senate campaign in Kansas to land-use measures in San Diego County.

Williams, who grew up poor in Tennessee, recalls the beatings his parents gave him and the lessons he learned in Boy Scouts that he credits with turning his life around and charting his future.

Now, even with diabetes and arthritis among his mounting health problems, the world of politics is his adrenaline in life. "It is where I am happy, where I can be creative, where I can think," he said.

Although he never finished college, Williams reached into academia when he named his company, calling it after a place in Greek mythology. "It's where the gods came to solve the universe's problems. My Delphi is where you come to solve your political problems."

His favorite book is "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu. "It says you don't enter a battle until you know the outcome. How can you know the outcome without good survey research?"

His reliance on polling helped him develop the strategies that brought him impressive wins in March, August and November elections in 2004, some against seemingly insurmountable odds. They include:

- Santa Rosa fireworks: In March, he orchestrated the defeat of the powerful and rarely defeated fireworks industry in its quest to overturn Santa Rosa's pyrotechnic ban, despite being outspent nearly 3-1.

- Rohnert Park recall: In August, he led the anti-recall effort that saved the jobs of then-Rohnert Park Mayor Armando Flores and Councilwoman Amie Spradlin, both targets of community anger over their support for an Indian casino next door.

- Santa Rosa sales tax: In November, he directed a campaign that persuaded Santa Rosa voters to raise their sales tax to bolster police and fire services, despite a controversy over police response times that almost torpedoed the campaign before it started.

- Santa Rosa City Council: His candidates swept all four vacancies and included the first minority, Lee Pierce, and the first openly gay council member, John Sawyer, elected in the city's 154-year history.

But elections -- candidates and land-use initiatives - do not provide his financial lifeblood.

His primary paychecks come from consulting work he does for developers and other business interests, some of which rely on votes from officials that Williams helped get elected.

His client North Bay Corp., a Santa Rosa-based garbage hauler, has won contracts from Santa Rosa, Windsor and Rohnert Park. Yardbirds, the Petaluma-based chain of home improvement stores, and various home builders that occasionally employ Williams, are continually active in the same cities guided by Williams' elected clients.

Concerns over influence

The sometimes-dual representation has raised concerns about the influence Williams wields, particularly in Santa Rosa, where six of the seven council members are people he helped put in office.

Santa Rosa Mayor Jane Bender, a twice-elected Williams candidate, and Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, a former Santa Rosa council member and past adversary of Williams-backed candidates, said concerns about the sway Williams holds are exaggerated.

"People like to make him out to be a Svengali, but he isn't. He has never told me what to do," Bender said.

Evans, co-founder of the Coalition for a Better Sonoma County, which represents environmental, social and labor groups, said anyone who believes Williams wields that kind of power overstates it.

"He helps people get elected, but he doesn't necessarily form their political platforms," she said.

Former Santa Rosa Mayor Sharon Wright, another client, said during her 12 years in office Williams "never once asked me for a vote -- ever."

"What he will do (on behalf of a client) is ask council members, 'What are your concerns and what do you want?' and then he goes back to his client and says, 'This is what you need to do,'" she said.

Williams himself said he's never asked someone he's helped elect for a vote. "I have never, in 40 years in this business, asked for a vote from anyone," he said.

But political consultant Terry Price, who handles candidates with environmental and liberal-leaning agendas, said Williams doesn't need to.

"If you get the right people elected, you don't have to do a lot of lobbying," he said.

Those who know Williams said the postelection bond he forms with those he helps elect provides him and his clients with one clear-cut advantage - access.

"There is no question you are loyal to those you go to war with. Is he hired by people because he has access? Undoubtedly. But by the end of the day you still need an argument that makes sense to public officials," said former Petaluma Councilman Brian Sobel, a public relations consultant who hired Williams 12 years ago in a failed bid for the state Assembly.

Williams acknowledges his contact with those he helps elect doesn't end on Election Day.

He'll sometimes ask them what they think of the projects proposed by some of his private clients, such as the Yardbirds proposal nine years ago to build a store on a precarious Santa Rosa hillside.

"When Yardbirds hired me, I said, 'If you're hiring me to get you the votes, I can't and won't do that.' I said, 'If you're hiring me to find out what you need to get your project through so it will be received the best, I can do that.'"

Cash, endorsement magnet

When a candidate hires Williams, money and endorsements often follow. But so can criticism.

Councilman Steve Rabinowitsh, the lone non-Williams client on Santa Rosa's council, said Williams is a cash and endorsement magnet for his clients.

"Getting involved with Herb means getting involved in a support system that includes key sign locations around town and lists of potential donors," Rabinowitsh said.

Former Rohnert Park Councilwoman Linda Spiro knew getting money and endorsements, particularly from business and development groups, would be much easier during her two campaigns with Williams at her side.

"When I would go into meetings with groups that were providing endorsements and money, and they knew I was a Herb candidate going in, I felt comfortable it would not be a waste of time," she said.

The endorsements and the money, however, can be a double-edged sword.

"All candidates who work with Herb have been accused of being in the pockets of developers. That is the banner the opposing candidates wave," said Sawyer, who was successful in his second bid for the council.

Many local candidates said Williams charged them only nominal sums, between $1 and $1,000, to run their campaigns.

And his use of surveys and pre-election tracking polls, which can be expensive, rarely show up on the campaign finance statements of his candidates.

Some critics contend the cost of the polls and Williams' salary are subsidized by business and development interests that shower his candidates with campaign contributions at election time.

Williams flatly denies he relies on outside funding.

"I am not being paid by someone else to run their (candidates') campaigns," he said.

Williams said the hefty retainers he charges for his nonpolitical work allow him to pursue his true passion in life - politics - on his own dime.

"I charge other people an arm and a leg. If it's not political, I don't do anything for less than $5,000 a month," he said.

Williams also pays the cost for two voter surveys, one around January of each year and a second one prior to the filing date for candidates in an election year, that run between $4,000 and $8,000 each.

The cost of the surveys, which Williams said give him an early heads-up on what concerns voters most, is never publicly reported. That has led some critics to suspect his candidates are receiving an unfair and possible illegal advantage.

Not so, said Williams. Since he pays for the surveys and they are done before he has any clients signed on, the surveys and their costs are not reportable nor chargeable to candidates who may be future beneficiaries of the information -- an issue he cleared with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, he said.

Prefers nonpartisan campaigns

For most of his life, the native Tennessean has been a die-hard Republican.

But Williams has engaged in few partisan races along the North Coast, a Democratic stronghold, preferring instead to manage nonpartisan city council and supervisorial campaigns in Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties.

Last year, his one major loss was Republican Pat Krueger's 18-point defeat to Democratic candidate and then-Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Noreen Evans for the state's 7th Assembly District seat.

Despite his ability to turn seemingly lost causes into victories, his touch isn't always golden.

His efforts to block establishment of urban growth boundaries in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park failed, as did campaigns to win the support of Novato voters for a 424-home subdivision in 1996.

And his effort to convince 1st Congressional District voters to replace incumbent Democrat Lynn Woolsey with then- Santa Rosa Mayor and business-backed Mike Martini in the 2002 Democratic primary was overwhelmingly crushed.

Williams encouraged his Republican friends to temporarily switch parties to bolster Martini's chances of unseating Woolsey.

Williams followed his own advice. But unlike the others, Williams never switched back.

"I'm a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-ERA Republican who believes you have to help people some of the time. But most Republicans don't believe in that and they have made it such a litmus test of being pure that it is my protest," he said.

Refuge in Boy Scouts

Williams' views on politics and the need for social equality are influenced by his upbringing.

At age 12, he sought out the Boy Scouts to insulate him from the mental and physical brutality of his home life.

"It was the Boy Scout gang," Williams said. Over the next five years, as he worked to achieve Scouting's highest honor, Eagle Scout, he learned the survival and leadership skills "that saved my life," he tearfully recalls.

At age 17, armed with those life skills, he ran away from home. He enlisted in the Army two years later, serving in a Special Forces unit that carried out missions in unfriendly countries during the Cold War.

"Our job was to dismantle (anti-aircraft installations) and maybe get back," he said. Williams said he's prohibited from naming the countries he was in, but said, "Let's just say some of them have changed their names three times since I was there."

Upon his discharge in 1955, he had thoughts of becoming a philosophy professor and had a short-lived career as a newspaper reporter for the Nashville Banner.

But the one-time newspaperman decided there was little money to be made in the field of telling both sides, so he embarked on a career telling folks how to win elections.

"I wanted to make money in my life. I was poor all my life, and I didn't want to be poor for the rest of my life," he said.

Plunge into politics

While in Nashville he joined the Republican Party and, with organizing skills developed during a brief stint as the head of the March of Dimes campaign in Tennessee, helped coordinate several political campaigns.

"It was like a duck to water. I became a classic political junkie and I moved wherever there was a campaign," Williams said.

His life in search of the next campaign began on the countywide level in Nashville in the early 1960s. It reached its pinnacle in 1974 when he was hired to head the re-election campaign of Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who, like most Republicans, was fighting for political survival in the face of the Watergate scandal.

In a book titled "Bob Dole," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ben Cramer claimed Williams mismanaged Dole's campaign and was dismissed six weeks before Election Day, leaving behind a trail of unpaid bills and useless advertising.

Williams said Cramer's conclusions are baloney. He did publicly quit after his own survey found "the out-of-state carpetbagging consultant" -- himself -- was the senator's primary liability in the minds of voters. Williams said quitting was simply a ploy to eliminate him as an issue. "I never left. I worked out of an apartment as the campaign's consultant until it was over," he said.

Dole won and months later Williams earned a job with the Republican National Committee as regional director of the Pacific Northwest. He eventually settled down in San Diego County, where he pushed pro-growth land-use issues and candidates.

In San Marcos, former Mayor Lee Thibadeau said, "We needed people who were more pro-business, and he was instrumental in getting a new council majority elected."

But a failed marriage and a business bankruptcy combined with a countywide shift to more pro-growth attitudes that dried up the lucrative field of land-use initiatives and consulting. Williams moved on, temporarily settling in Sacramento before being drawn to Sonoma County in 1990.

While Williams has talked openly about retiring someday, he already is embarking on a poll this month that could set the stage for election campaigns in 2006.

For Williams, it is his life's calling. And he's certainly not going to go out a loser.

"In my business, you're only as good as your last race," he said.

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