Quality of life issues dominate Sonoma County 2nd District supervisor race

Throughout California, elected officials are contending with rising pressure to resolve quality of life issues like increasing housing costs, drought and public transportation needs. The 2nd District is no different.|

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.

Rabbitt noted he has held a number of town halls and public Zoom calls with constituents throughout the pandemic; before 2020, he also held regular open-office style events in downtown Petaluma.

He said Hooper’s attacks were a distraction from his own resume, one Rabbitt said was short on experience.

“I think what you have is someone who needs a job and is a professional politician who has not been elected,” Rabbitt said.

Hooper has benefited from name recognition and political networks many first-time office seekers don’t have. A graduate of UC Santa Cruz, with master’s degree in public administration from the University of San Francisco, he worked nearly 3 years in Huffman’s office as a field representative and constituent case worker. Since 2019, he’s worked been a legislative consultant in the state Senate and he was appointed to the Petaluma Planning Commission in 2020.

His list of endorsements includes the majority of current council members in Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Cotati ‒ evidence of frustration with Rabbitt’s leadership, Hooper said.

Some of the county’s main progressive interest groups also have rallied behind him, including the Sonoma County Democratic Party, the North Bay Labor Council and Sonoma County Conservation Action.

But Rabbitt has lock on endorsements from the county’s state lawmakers, unions representing deputy sheriff’s and firefighters, trade groups for builders and real estate interests, and support from the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and Santa Rosa Metro Chamber.

He continues to outpace Hooper in fundraising. Rabbitt’s campaign received $111,459 from donors between Jan. 1 and April 23, according to the latest county reports, more than twice the $50,000 in monetary donations that Hooper’s campaign amassed during the same period.

“If you can’t raise money you walk,” said McCuan, the SSU political scientist. “You walk early and often, and that's where a young upstart is going to go to make up for less resources.”

For Hayenga, 52, the challenge is even greater given his commitment to run for office without accepting donations.

“I’ve never liked asking for money because you’re essentially asking for money to apply for a job,” Hayenga said. “I’m giving it a shot because I want to make a difference here.”

Hayenga, who attended UC Santa Cruz and San Francisco State, noted that he would have been outfunded by his opponents anyway and acknowledged that he also has his sights on the race for Petaluma City Council in November.

“I’m not defeating myself right now, but I’m not going to have any illusions,” Hayenga said.

With three candidates in the field, there is a chance the June 7 election could result in a November runoff featuring the two top vote-getters.

“With a three-way race, we would anticipate that there will be a runoff into November, so that gives a challenger an opportunity to take two bites of the apple,” said McCuan.

Mail ballots for next month’s election are set to go out to voters starting Monday, and the first voting centers open May 28. Here are several issues dominating the 2nd District race:

Affordable housing and transportation needs

Failed efforts to push through a joint housing-SMART station development in Petaluma are at the crux of the candidates’ housing and transportation debate.

In 2021 deadlock at the Petaluma City Council helped sink a project that would have created 131 affordable units at the corner of Corona Road and North McDowell Boulevard and a 402-unit apartment project near the downtown station. The project was tied to funding for a long-sought east-side SMART station.

The major sticking point for city council members at the time was the desire for the developer to include affordable units in the downtown apartment projects.

Hooper said he agrees with those on the City Council who voted to reject the project.

“The issue is not that the city turned down a bad project, the issue is that the city was not able to get the help to get a good project,” said Hooper, laying responsibility at Rabbitt’s feet.

Hooper added that Petaluma and the rest of the county need housing projects in cities that target housing density and bring in scaled incomes.

Rabbitt, who has championed the second SMART station, said local leaders dealing with developers need to understand how the financing works and where the tipping point is for developers.

“I’m pro housing,” Rabbitt said. “People let perfect be the enemy of good, and don’t understand then that we have a housing crisis.”

Hayenga said he dislikes how Rabbitt and Hooper are approaching housing development because he believes they are not supporting the right projects and holding developers to account.

“You’re not building something for low income housing. You’re saying it’s low income but it’s $3,000 a month,” Hayenga said.

Drought and groundwater fees

Sonoma County is facing its third year of drought, with little relief brought by welcome April rains. The region’s two reservoirs are at historically low levels for this time of year, and rampant wildfire is increasingly a year-round concern.

The drought has placed a particular burden on the county’s rural and agricultural communities. Residential well water users in the 46,661-acre Petaluma Valley basin are facing proposed regulatory fees from $115 to $200 a year. Commercial operators are facing a separate set of charges. The proposed fees are tied to a state law that requires local jurisdictions to develop and implement plans to sustain groundwater resources for the next 50 years.

Rabbitt and Hooper both believe the county should cover the costs of the fees for rural residents who use wells.

“How do you do that to someone who has drilled their own well, paid for the electricity, paid for the upkeep, paid to do the treatments?” Rabbitt said. “And now you’re going to slap them with a significant bill to file paperwork with Sacramento?”

Hayenga differed somewhat. While he does not think residents should be charged the fees, farmers and others using wells for commercial purposes should cost of groundwater management for their shared benefit, including monitoring and studies.

“Residents who just have a well, they’re not profiting from having a well,” Hayenga said.

Racial bias in Sonoma County

Last year, the departures of two county department heads, both Black women, spotlighted the racial bias and microaggressions that people of color say they face working in county government. The departures amplified a call on supervisors and county administrators to bolster support of the county workforce.

“I think the board went quickly when made aware of what was happening and was proactive in reaching out, having those discussions, communicating, listening, learning,” said Rabbitt.

The work to instill change “takes time,” Rabbitt said, adding that the county’s Office of Equity is leading the effort with additional training, while a team of county employees, the Core Team, has been launched to broaden engagement on such issues.

“We have the Office of Equity that I think is trying to chart its path and we have a resource there that we need to capitalize on internally,” Rabbitt said.

In April, Alegria De La Cruz, director of the Office of Equity, reported “attrition” on the Core Team from employees in leadership positions, and “insufficient resources” to support the Office of Equity’s three-person staff.

In June, the board will decide whether to increase the office’s budget and staff for the upcoming fiscal year.

Hooper called the board’s response “utterly abysmal.”

“This county is in the place where if you get hired here, you are now joining a county that has been branded as being a complicated, if not a poor place to work, if you are a person of color in the workforce,” Hooper said.

Hooper argued for the Office of Equity to be given a larger budget and “statutory ability” to weigh in on county policies and programs beyond making recommendations.

Hayenga said he learned of the county’s struggle to address racism during a candidates’ forum hosted in April by Los Cien, the Latino leadership group.

“I was not aware of how bad it was and I’m so against that,” Hayenga said.

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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