Quality of life issues dominate Sonoma County 2nd District supervisor race
The three men vying to represent southern Sonoma County on the Board of Supervisors for the next four years are jostling over leadership experience against the backdrop of housing and transportation needs and the drought parching one of the county’s main farm belts.
Incumbent David Rabbitt, seeking election to a fourth term, is up against Petaluma Planning Commissioner Blake Hooper and Kevin Hayenga, a freelance video editor and Uber driver. The two challengers have each positioned themselves as progressive alternatives to the more centrist political identity Rabbitt, a former architect and Petaluma councilman, has established since first being elected in 2010.
County races are nonpartisan, but all three are registered Democrats. Hooper and Hayenga are running for elected office for the first time, and Hayenga’s low-profile bid, with no campaign donations to date, has made him the longer shot of the two rivals.
Ousting a sitting supervisor is rare in Sonoma County. Before Chris Coursey’s win over Supervisor Shirlee Zane in 2020, a challenger hadn’t won since 1984.
But Hooper, 31, has said it will take a change in leadership, including stronger ties to cities, to make stronger progress on the biggest issues facing the county.
“The problem is we have a supervisor who misunderstands how he can support cities because it’s not in his wheelhouse,” Hooper said.
Rabbitt, 61, the longest serving current member of the Board of Supervisors, cites his record pushing for extra county spending on road repairs as well as the county’s bid to modernize and consolidate its far-flung network of rural fire districts. He is a long-serving member of the SMART board and the Golden Gate Highway and Transportation District, two key transit bodies for the region.
“I demonstrate leadership,” Rabbitt said. “I keep the board focused, I believe. There are more things that need to be done, more decisions that need to get done where my voice is going to be important.”
Like races throughout California, the 2nd District contest has been animated by voters’ concerns about rising housing costs and other quality of life issues, including homelessness. Drought and water supply have also become persistent worries, especially for the district’s dairy farmers, who make up the county’s second most valuable agricultural sector.
In Petaluma, home to many workers with jobs in Marin County, San Francisco or beyond, transportation is a hot-button issue. Two prime examples include Highway 101’s two-decade-long expansion in the North Bay ‒ now closing in on its final phase through Petlauma ‒ and the struggle to establish a second SMART station in town.
David McCuan, chair of Sonoma State University’s Political Science Department, said Petaluma, the hub of the 2nd District, is primed as the “ground-zero” in county for quality of life political issues.
Rabbitt, a father of three adult children and graduate of University of Oregon who ran his own architecture practice before becoming supervisor, describes himself as “socially liberal,” but a “fiscal hawk.” He said his continued service on the county board would help provide balance and moderation as the county plots its course out of the pandemic.
“Right now we have a very activist board and that’s fine but we still have limited resources and limited core services,” Rabbitt said.
Burnout exacerbated by back-to-back natural disasters and the coronavirus pandemic have prompted county employees to leave their jobs in droves, raising another major challenge for the county, the region’s largest employer. Mounting vacancies are complicating delivery of key public services, including public health and law enforcement, top county administrators recently told the board in advance of June budget hearings.
Hooper, a former staffer for Rep. Jared Huffman, has sought to paint Rabbitt as out of touch, questioning his accessibility to his constituents and his involvement in supporting cities in his district. In addition to Petaluma, the 2nd District takes in all of Penngrove, Cotati and a sliver of Rohnert Park, as well as the farm belt stretching from the coast to the San Pablo Bay.
Hooper, who rents his home with his wife in downtown Petaluma, said he understands the “direct pains” of district residents.
“It’s quickly becoming a place where it’s harder to raise a family, age in place,” Hooper said.
Rabbitt, also a Petaluma resident, and the lone candidate to have served on a city council, said relationships between the county and cities are better now than at any point in his tenure. He pointed to the county’s main housing agency, the Community Development Commission, and its work to usher in three low-income housing developments in Petaluma.