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Hopkins stakes out ambitious agenda as new chair of county Board of Supervisors

On the back side of Bodega Head last month, Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins was laboring with a large wooden sign that had seen better days.

Hopkins, who represents the county’s entire 76-mile coast, spotted the downed sign near the protected shore of Campbell Cove, where small waves pushed and pulled it back and forth on the sand.

The sign declared the beach an ecological study area, and warned visitors against digging in the important research zone. Hopkins dragged it 20 yards to an embankment, and with a series of grunts, hauled it up to a concrete picnic table before dusting the sand and muck from her hands.

“Old habits die hard, I guess,” she said with a laugh.

Five years ago, Hopkins was a political newcomer in her first run for elected office against a better-known opponent, former state Sen. Noreen Evans. But Hopkins, a former journalist and organic farmer, made inroads with voters by digging in on local issues and being quick to lend a hand.

On the campaign trail, she helped clear trash from west county waterways, and in her first weeks in office, she donned rubber boots to survey historic flooding along some of those same streams.

When Hopkins sees a problem, even if it’s not clearly hers, she wants to fix it. The instinct helped her get elected to represent the sprawling 5th District, stretching from Sebastopol to The Sea Ranch.

It’s a central thread running through many of the high-profile wins she has scored in office — ranging from open space protection and education funding to homelessness, police accountability and divestment from private prison companies.

But the approach also has aggravated some constituents, board colleagues and fellow elected officials, who have often balked at Hopkins’ penchant for wading into issues beyond the traditional grasp of county government.

This year, Hopkins, as the new Board of Supervisors chair, will bring more power to that far-reaching, interventionist brand of leadership, and she has left little doubt that she intends to use it.

With a clear disdain for business as usual, she’s preparing a sweeping agenda aimed at stimulating the local economy, slowing the tide of climate change and fostering equity and transparency in county government.

“I really feel like we live in this world of broken systems in government,” said Hopkins, 37. “My hope is that we take this crisis and use it to look at what isn’t working and work to forge something better for the community.”

Ambitious agenda

On Tuesday, Hopkins was sworn into her second term in office by her daughter, Gillian Hopkins, 8, whose siblings, Addy, 5, and 1-year-old Linden, looked on, offering the occasional giggle while their mother assumed the role of chair.

“Back when I imagined my year as chair of the Board of Supervisors, it didn’t look like this,” Hopkins said, making her first remarks from her Forestville home. “I didn’t think I’d be hiding from my distance-learning children in a corner of my bedroom, my button-down shirt and suit jacket paired with my favorite comfy jeans and slippers.”

Hopkins, a Southern California native and Stanford alumna with two environmental degrees, likes to chalk up her political wins to a relentless work ethic, one that even her detractors acknowledge. She prepares meticulously but scoffs at the notion that she’s organized.

“I would say I thrive in chaos,” Hopkins said in an interview last month.

As a journalist between 2009 and 2013 with the Sonoma West Times & News, she made it a point of pride to write the longest, most detailed stories on government bureaucracy. Some of her biggest goals for 2021, she’ll acknowledge, involve wonkish efforts to shore up the county’s agenda setting and public notification processes. She plans to push for an all-encompassing public meeting with each of the nine city councils in the county, calling it a first for the county and demonstrating commitment to a sort of aspirational bureaucracy.

As recently as last month, Hopkins was pushing for a board discussion on the powers of the chair because, she said, each successive leader in the board’s rotation had approached the role differently. Hopkins has her own view.

“I think it’s really important to set the tone in terms of meeting leadership,” Hopkins said. “But I also think that it’s an opportunity to set the outward-facing tone for the county, to really identify and establish priorities that are within the framework of what the board supports.”

Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board’s senior incumbent, who has served as chair three times during his 10 years in office, eschews the notion the rotating role is responsible for driving board direction.

“I believe the chair should not have an agenda; it’s the board’s agenda,” Rabbitt said in an interview. “This is really where we’ve gotten sideways.”

In her introductory comments Tuesday, Hopkins sought to highlight her hope for a brighter future, even amid a crippling pandemic that has taken at least 218 lives in the county since March. She called out the ongoing COVID-19 surge, the worst since the coronavirus reached Sonoma County, but also the rollout of vaccines now entering its third week.

“Sonoma County has been in disaster response mode since I first took the oath of office,” Hopkins said. “Floods, fires, floods, fires, pandemic, fires, and still the pandemic. We live in extraordinary times. But we are also extraordinary. And I enter this new year with eyes wide open to our challenges, but also with a huge amount of hope.”

There was no sense of board friction in the moment, and no immediate reckoning with Hopkins’ vision for her role as chair. But both are likely to come in the year ahead as the county continues to confront the pandemic and Hopkins pushes three other major priorities: improving government, combating climate change and working toward racial equity. She sees each as emergencies the county has yet to meet with a commensurate response.

“I think the time for incrementalism has passed,” Hopkins said in the interview, lamenting what she characterized as the inertia of the status quo. “We need substantive reinvention and change in government.”

Building alliances

David McCuan, the Sonoma State University political science professor, recalls meeting Hopkins for coffee when she was first considering running for office. She struck him as smart and ambitious, and McCuan has watched Hopkins grow into a dynamic politician who nevertheless relishes the role of provocateur.

“Most of politics is about appearances and timing,” McCuan said. “She seems to disdain both of those.”

Hopkins’ allies in key votes have been Supervisors Susan Gorin and James Gore, and before her board exit earlier this month, Shirlee Zane.

But where Gore and Zane have jumped in to support some of Hopkins’ most extraordinary proposals, including her push to funnel hotel-bed tax dollars to struggling school districts, Gorin and Rabbitt, both with long records of public service, have found Hopkins’ approach jarring at times.

Rabbitt has clashed with Hopkins over the creation of stay-at-home signs on county roads, the proposed tax hike on overnight lodging to raise school funding in her district and even Hopkins’ recent push to replace the county’s longest-tenured Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District board member — Brian Sobel, a Rabbitt ally.

Late last year, Rabbitt assailed the education funding measure Hopkins spearheaded in part to forestall a high school closure in her district. It will be on the ballot for west county voters in March.

“Throwing bad policy on the ballot does not change the fact that it is bad policy,” Rabbitt said during a Nov. 24 Board of Supervisors meeting. He called on Hopkins and other board members to be less parochial. “Look at this as county supervisors, not district supervisors.”

Gorin has puzzled over her support for Hopkins, an ostensible ally in the climate fight.

“Maybe because I’ve served on a lot of different boards, I have a slightly more balanced and deliberative approach to how I work through issues, rather than just moving quickly to a conclusion,” Gorin said.

Gore has had no-such qualms. He offered a full-throated endorsement of Hopkins’ approach, and has championed her unconventional moves, saying they show a willingness to try new things.

“She’s not a sneaky politician — she comes right out and says what her people need,” Gore said. “She is unapologetic. She doesn’t have time to wait around for three years to get something started.”

With Supervisor Chris Coursey, the former Santa Rosa mayor, now seated as Zane’s successor, Hopkins will need to forge new alliances or mend fences to push through her agenda.

Rob Muelrath, a Santa Rosa political consultant who has represented all but Gorin and Coursey on the board, said he expects Rabbitt and Hopkins to be allies in 2021.

“This next year, I think you’re going to see the two of them see more eye to eye on issues,” Muelrath said. “I think you’re going to see Lynda working to make sure there is consensus and collaboration all around.”

Start in politics

Hopkins waded fully into political activism in 2015 when she stepped up her involvement on a disputed tribal housing, winery and resort project west of Windsor — and near Foggy River Farm, the Eastside Road business she started with her husband in 2008.

Gore, the supervisor for the area, met her there in early 2015. They sat across from each other at a picnic table. She was fired up about what she saw as a lack of transparency in the public process surrounding the tribal proposal. Gore, with a chuckle, recalled the conversation as an interrogation. But he also said Hopkins’ preparation was impressive.

“The first two months were her turning from anger, into activism, into leadership — she ultimately became a very powerful leader on that issue,” said Gore, who would go on to endorse Hopkins in her 2016 race against Evans.

Hopkins said she was dismayed about the sequestered nature of the public discussions over the development project put forward by the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians on land that has since been recognized by the federal government as sovereign territory. The closed-door negotiations, she claims, did not reflect community input. It led her to question the extent of her role in civic matters.

“There was definitely an inflection point, in which I was like, ‘Am I going to be the angry gadfly who was just yelling about how bad government is, or am I going to try to work with government and achieve better results?’” Hopkins said.

She still channels that inner activist.

On more than one occasion, Hopkins has bucked political norms by showing up, unannounced, to the public comment portion of other government agencies’ board meetings to share her input. The maneuver has irked board members of the West Sonoma County Union High School District and the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, but Hopkins’ penchant for direct action has also helped her score political wins.

Since taking office in 2017, those have come on a countywide level and within her district. Because of Hopkins, there hasn’t been pesticide sprayed on county-owned land in nearly a year. She championed, too, the recent public purchase of 500 acres near Monte Rio to serve as the first regional park along the lower Russian River.

She pushed the county to divest from banks that helped fund private prison companies that operate at the U.S.-Mexico border, and she was the only county supervisor to publicly endorse the Evelyn Cheatham Effective IOLERO Ordinance before voting with her board colleagues to place the law enforcement oversight measure on the November ballot, where voters overwhelmingly passed it.

But some of Hopkins’ most high-profile victories have come at the political expense of fellow supervisors, and amid fights about the proper limits and focus of county government. That tension, already conspicuous in Hopkins’ first term, could be elevated with her ascension to chair.

Disputed moves

Last fall, Hopkins led her fellow supervisors into a tense west county conflict, convincing her colleagues to advance a ballot measure to voters that would hike lodging taxes in the region to raise new revenue for 5th District schools and emergency services.

But before that, she sided with Zane, Gore and Rabbitt to relocate hundreds of homeless residents from a west Santa Rosa public trail in her district, moving dozens into the newly sanctioned Los Guilicos Village camp in Gorin’s district in east Santa Rosa.

The move came over Gorin’s vehement opposition. “The community backlash will blow the roof off,” she said at the time, in the midst of her run for reelection.

Her opponent used Gorin’s inability to keep the camp out of the 1st District as political fodder on the campaign trail — though Gorin would go on to win the March contest handily.

For Hopkins, the moment was briefly perilous. Frustration over the large unsanctioned homeless camp on the Joe Rodota Trail was strong enough to fuel an ill-fated recall effort. Hopkins nevertheless appeared at town hall meetings and even engaged with recall organizers on social media.

During a forum in October 2019, Hopkins said the encampment had become an epicenter for lawlessness and a symbol for “everything that’s wrong in government.”

The gambit for extra education funding, on the other hand, has emerged as the riskiest of Hopkins’ political career — a bid to generate more money from west county lodging operators to prop up sagging school finances and flat fire district budgets in the area.

Rabbitt, the lone “no” vote, said the county’s involvement in such a measure would pit public entities including school districts — as well as fellow supervisors — against one another.

“When you step outside of roles and responsibilities, it can lead to unforeseen consequences,” Rabbitt said in an interview last month. “We have plenty of issues that we need to deal with, and we don’t have enough resources to do that.”

The blowback from some lodging operators was even more swift and forceful, as they grappled with the prospect of a polarizing campaign that puts them in the political ring with schoolchildren and firefighters.

Joe Bartolomei, owner of the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, said it’s a fight he didn’t want, and he acknowledged Hopkins’ relationship with lodging operators could sour over the deal, even if he said his own working relationship remained strong.

“I can’t speak on behalf of my hospitality colleagues, but I certainly would suspect that there will be some trust issues moving forward,” Bartolomei said last week in a text message.

But admonishments about potential political pitfalls don’t seem to stick with Hopkins when she sees a problem that she thinks she can fix, Muelrath said.

“One thing we’ve seen with Lynda is you can’t tell her she can’t do something,” he said. “She’s been proving us wrong. ... It’s not that the others don’t do the same. She just has a knack for being a dog with a bone. She won’t let go. She just keeps fighting.”

Hopkins makes no apologies for taking her concerns directly to other public bodies, as she did when she presented her plan to infuse more money into west county schools and again when she lobbied for a more environmentally friendly spending plan from the county’s main transportation body.

She says she would be happy to have the roles reversed.

“If somebody offered me money to solve my problems, I would jump at that opportunity,” Hopkins said. “If I see a need, I’m going to go after it, even if it’s not normal, even if it’s not the norm.”

The approach hasn’t appeared to damage her standing, McCuan said, but danger lurks for a politician who frequently launches on solo missions.

“Despite the growth she’s had, despite the personal, sometimes very mercurial way she looks at public policy problems, how she throws her weight around and influence — that doesn’t seem to have harmed her,” McCuan said. “But it will at some point.”

Inspired by young and old

Her fearless approach has endeared her to constituents, who reelected her overwhelmingly in March, and to colleagues, including Zane, who said she sees something of herself in Hopkins

“She’s not afraid to speak out,” Zane said. “Like me, she’s very forthright. She always says what’s on her mind, which is one of the many things I love about her.”

“I wasn’t a politician when I was young. But I was running agencies and balancing being a mom, too,” Zane added. “I think the way that she balances her home life in terms of her kids and her family and her husband is truly remarkable.”

Hopkins takes her inspiration from younger generations, including residents and activists who launched police reform protests across the county this past summer and helped pass the expanded law enforcement oversight measure, over the staunch opposition of Sheriff Mark Essick and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

“What we have now is an awakening, where you have mass populations of folks becoming engaged politically,” said Hopkins, who found herself surrounded by precious few allies while marching as a college activist at Stanford. “To me, that’s an awakening I’ve never gotten to experience. You hear about it from the ’60s and that era.”

Back at Campbell Cove last month, Hopkins walked the short distance to the Hole in the Head, a manmade freshwater pond that remains the primary evidence of a long-ago planned nuclear power plant atop Bodega Head, the granite promontory that forms the western barrier of Bodega Bay.

She delighted in retelling the story of the power plant’s demise six decades ago at the hands of a local waitress, a shotgun-toting female rancher and a young mother — three women, and a couple of guys, who teamed up to protect the environment before such movements were in vogue.

Hopkins leaned over a rough wooden railing as a couple of mallard drakes paddled quietly around the edge of the pond — site of the reactor that PG&E never built, its plans scrapped due to seismic concerns.

“I really like this (place) because it shows things that you think are inevitable don’t have to be,” Hopkins said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify who Rob Muelrath has represented on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. It has also been updated to accurately reflect which organizations opposed Measure P, a ballot question passed by voters in November that centered on law enforcement oversight.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @TylerSilvy

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