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Realtors spend $156,000 to support incumbent Shirlee Zane in Sonoma County supervisor race

It’s one line on a bland state website, but the 24-hour Independent Expenditure Report announcing the National Association of Realtors’ arrival to a Sonoma County supervisorial race has sent shockwaves through the local electoral ecosystem.

And it has everything to do with the amount.

In a race between incumbent Shirlee Zane and challenger Chris Coursey in which the candidates so far have raised about $120,000, according to current reports, the Realtors on Tuesday dropped $156,000 to support Zane.

The organization spent $16,000 on polling, leaving the rest to fund an organized ground campaign to get out the vote for Zane, who they view as an accessible partner in addressing the housing crisis.

Campaign finance law prohibits candidates from coordinating with independent expenditure committees like the National Association of Realtors Fund, but Clayton Engstrom, the chairman of the North Bay Realtor Association’s political action committee, which flagged the race for a donation from the national organization, was happy to share his group’s motive for getting involved.

“We’re in a housing crisis in Sonoma County like most of California,” Engstrom said. “People who are receptive to understanding how to fix the problems are the people we want to speak to. Chris Coursey has shut us down on every conversation because we did not agree with him on the housing bond and rent control.”

Coursey disagrees with the charge that he won’t meet with the group, saying he honored the only meeting request he recalls from the organization, meeting with a representative over coffee to discuss rent control in 2016.

The group also played in Sonoma County politics in 2017, when it joined with other business interests to oppose Measure C, a ballot measure in Santa Rosa that would have established rent control.

On Ballotpedia’s list of supporters of the measure, Coursey appears at the top of the list, and the National Association of Realtors contributed $332,000, combining with other real estate and business interests to bankroll the “no” campaign to the tune of $859,000. The measure was defeated 51.2% to 48.8%.

A November 2018 measure seeking $124 million in housing bonds also failed.

In a Facebook post late Friday morning, Coursey sounded the alarm on the cash influx into the race for District 3, which covers central Santa Rosa and most of Rohnert Park.

“The National Association of Realtors has a history of laying its heavy hand on the scales of elections in Sonoma County,” he said. “I hope the voters see through this.”

Coursey, a former Press Democrat columnist and former Santa Rosa mayor, ventured a guess at the group’s motives in a phone interview Sunday afternoon.

“My housing position is we need to build affordable housing - denser, residential, downtown,” Coursey said. “And that’s not the kind of housing that Realtors are generally selling.”

By Saturday, the National Association of Realtors already had door hangers in the field matching Zane’s orange and green color scheme. The signage urges voters to re-elect Zane, who it says is “leading wildfire recovery, solving the homelessness crisis and supporting our seniors.”

Zane, who was first elected in 2008, could not be reached for comment.

Santa Rosa City Councilman Chris Rogers took to Facebook late Saturday morning to lament the cash infusion, recalling his own fight against such campaign machinery when he was elected to City Council in 2016.

“When I heard an independent expenditure had paid $150,000 to buy precinct walkers for his opponent, I decided it was time to get back out walking for Chris Coursey for Supervisor,” Rogers said.

In a Sunday phone interview, Rogers said the Realtors group has a particularly contentious relationship with Coursey.

He said the opposite is true for Zane, but he was most aghast at the idea of so much outside money being poured into the race.

“It’s insulting to the public to have one individual or one organization throw that much money into any election,” Rogers said.

Rob Muelrath, a paid political consultant for Zane, said Realtors get involved in almost every local election, and said it’s wrong to insinuate the donations are from outside groups.

When asked why the group would support his client, Muelrath said said it’s because Zane gets things done.

“She does what she says she’s gonna do,” Muelrath said. “She’s tenacious, and she’s passionate about the job.”

Engstrom said Zane doesn’t always agree with local realtors, but he’s happy they’re at least offered a seat at the table.

He added that the $156,000 comes through the National Association of Realtors, but the decisions are made locally. He said he’s not sure whether the group will spend more, saying “it depends on the polling.”

Campaign finance reports for the campaigns so far show about $120,000 raised between the pair, but the July 1, 2019, to Dec. 31, 2019, report is due Jan. 31, and could dramatically increase that total.

Although Coursey kept pace with Zane during the first fundraising cycle, raising about $50,000 to nearly match Zane’s $53,000, his opponent already had $78,000 in her campaign war chest, and donations continue to roll in.

Since Dec. 16, Zane’s campaign has filed more than two dozen 24-hour contribution reports, the kind of reports required for donations of $1,000 or more. Coursey has filed one such notice during the campaign.

Donations continue to roll in for other supervisor candidates, too, albeit at a much slower pace.

Incumbent first district Supervisor Susan Gorin has raised $77,930 to date in her reelection bid, far exceeding her opponent, Sonoma City Councilman David Cook, as the pair battle to represent the district that includes eastern Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents western Santa Rosa and the west county, has raised just $10,850 to date. But her opponent, Michael Hilber, has promised not to raise or spend any money in the election.

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

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