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.
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 DelphiTeam.com 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.