Key moments from the 2nd District Sonoma County supervisor candidates’ forum

Monday’s forum had the three candidates weigh in on pandemic recovery, homelessness, drought, transit and other issues.|

With ballots now in the mail and voting set to begin for most Sonoma County voters, the three candidates in the county’s most closely contested supervisor race squared off on issues including drought, leadership experience and climate change during an online forum Monday night.

Supervisor David Rabbitt is vying for his fourth term against Petaluma Planning Commissioner Blake Hooper and Kevin Hayenga, a freelance video editor and Uber driver.

Rabbitt and Hooper, especially, have intensified their jockeying in recent weeks. Hooper has staked a core part of his campaign on his ability to work with cities in the district, casting Rabbitt as out-of-touch and incapable of working with the local elected leaders in his district, spanning Petaluma, Penngrove, Cotati and some of Rohnert Park.

Rabbitt, a former Petaluma councilman, has hit back, arguing that Hooper’s attacks reflect a resume light on leadership experience. Hooper is a former district aide to Rep. Jared Huffman and now works in the state Senate.

Monday’s forum, hosted by the Petaluma Argus-Courier and Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce, had the three candidates weigh in on pandemic recovery, homelessness, drought, transit and other issues.

It featured some testy exchanges among the rivals, but also some moments of levity, including a brief pause when Hayenga disappeared from the camera’s view only to return moments later sharing that his kittens had escaped.

Election Day is June 7. The last day to register to vote is May 23 and the county’s first seven voting centers open May 28.

Here are some notable moments from the 2nd District forum:

Scuffle over endorsements

Hooper’s early endorsement from the Sonoma County Democratic Party prompted a sparring among the three candidates, all registered Democrats.

Hayenga and Rabbitt said they were not given the opportunity to interview for the endorsement, raising questions about the party’s process.

“The Sonoma County Democratic Party did not invite me, and did closed doors by picking Blake,” Hayenga said.

The party’s central committee opted for early endorsements this election season and in December contacted candidates in multiple races that had announced their bids, said Pat Sabo, the Sonoma County Democratic Party chair.

She acknowledged they did not reach out to Hayenga because they did not know he was running.

“He did not declare any type of candidacy until February and we had already endorsed,” Sabo said of Hayenga. “He had not indicated in any way that he was running.”

Sabo said the party did reach out to Rabbitt, via an email sent to his campaign address. An email shared with The Press Democrat, dated Dec. 13, 2021, with the subject line “Early Endorsement, Sonoma County Supervisor, District 2, 2022” asked Rabbitt to fill out a questionnaire if interested in an early endorsement.

Rabbitt said he never received it.

“I didn’t see an application, none was sent to me that I know of,” Rabbitt later told The Press Democrat. “I’m a lifelong Democrat, this is my fifth campaign, I won the first four. I’ve been a supervisor in this county for 12 years and I’m trying to go for one more term. She (Sabo) knows where to reach me.”

He called the handling of the endorsement “disappointing” and said he learned the party’s deadline had expired from Congressman Mike Thompson. Rabbitt said he then called Sabo but never heard back.

Sabo said she never heard from Rabbitt.

Law enforcement oversight

As the conversation turned to local law enforcement oversight, Hooper called out Rabbitt for accepting the endorsement of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff's Association, which has stood in the way of voter-approved reforms.

“You cannot have a supervisor who supports oversight when at the same time is supported by the same entities that want to take it away,” Hooper said.

The deputy sheriff’s group and an allied union representing correctional deputies challenged key parts of Measure P, which county voters overwhelmingly approved in 2020 to increase the authority and budget of the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach.

The complaint with the state labor board resulted in a decision that gutted much of the measure. The county has since moved to appeal the board’s decision.

Rabbitt said he supports police oversight and the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach but had publicly raised concerns about Measure P’s legal pitfalls before it was added to the ballot.

“Where is Measure P today? It’s basically in court, kinda right where they told us it would be and there’s a price to not listening to your attorneys,” Rabbitt said.

“I don’t think that means any of us are less interested in transparency and accountability of law enforcement.”

Combating climate change

With the county entering its third year of drought, climate change overshadowed much of the debate, including talk of housing, drought and transportation.

Rabbitt touted Sonoma County as a leader in climate change initiatives, pointed to the county’s large solar power installation at the Los Guilicos campus and highlighting his involvement in acquiring federal funds to support the North Bay’s water recycling program, as well as efforts to use surplus winter flows from the Russian River to recharge groundwater supplies.

“There is a lot of good work going on, a lot of challenges ahead, more work to do,” said Rabbitt, a representative of the county’s Regional Climate Protection Authority. “Exactly why we need to have someone in the office who understands the full, big picture of what is happening and the opportunities that exist.”

Hayenga voiced concern that growth would deplete strained water systems, signaling that he would seek to hold the line on new developments — a major tension point amid the region’s severe housing crisis.

He also urged the county to invest in more “large-scale” solar projects, promote adoption of electric vehicles, evaluate other water sources including desalination, and help areas outside cities do more to combat catastrophic fire risks.

“We need to conserve where we can, convert our yards to low use, beef up water recycling programs and assess how much water we will need in the future,” Hayenga said.

Hooper called for the county to update its general plan, the main blueprint for land use, to coordinate with cities’ climate mitigation.

The county has to “get serious about regional transportation that actually connects well, and high density housing that focuses on transit corridors,” Hooper said.

“That's why it's so important that we have a supervisor that is actually focused on communication at all levels of government when it comes to our transit opportunities,” he added, tying the issue to his critique of Rabbitt’s work with constituents.

Addressing commercial cannabis

With tensions high in the county between rural residents and cannabis cultivators, the 2nd District has proved to be an especially volatile flashpoint.

Neighbors are concerned about public safety, water use and other impacts, while growers are pressing the county to lighten and streamline a regulatory framework that has hampered their expansion.

Asked how they would help resolve the conflict, Hooper criticized the county for not conducting a comprehensive environmental impact study years ago. He said the county needs to overhaul its permitting department, which has struggled to keep up with cannabis business applications.

That overhaul should be part of the county’s general plan, he said, highlighting his parts of this platform that rely heavily on the county blueprint.

It guides zoning, development, growth and conservation. But “a general plan alone is not going to solve all of your problems,” Rabbitt said, responding to Hooper.

Rabbitt among his board colleagues has been the most cautious over the expansion of commercial cannabis operations. He stood by the board’s decision to halt part of its cultivation permitting program while the county attempts to untangle its backlog of applications and outdated zoning policies.

“It doesn't work well for the neighbors, it doesn't work well for the applicant either as they get thrown into this mix, it doesn’t work for the county either,” Rabbitt said.

Hayenga said he is “for the cannabis industry.”

“I’ll admit, I’m a cannabis user and I use just the right amount,” Hayenga said, before adding that he believes there are places in the county where neighbors are more open to cannabis cultivators than others.

He said he would listen to the residents on whether they want a cannabis farm in their neighborhoods.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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