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Rohnert Park marks sea change in leadership as district races empower new council majority

For 2020 election results, go here.

Three challengers for seats on the Rohnert Park City Council rode a wave of pent-up calls for change to Election Night victories in the city’s first district-based elections, which ousted two longtime incumbents and will usher in a new progressive council majority.

In a campaign largely dominated by appeals for greater diversity, voters on Tuesday placed two people of color on the all-white council at the same time. In the process, they delivered a sudden and stinging defeat to six-term Councilman Jake Mackenzie, three-term Councilman Joe Callinan and first-time candidate Dave Soldavini, a nearly lifelong city resident.

In their place, they handed resounding wins to the slate of political underdogs who ran on vows to make City Hall more transparent and inclusive, increase oversight of Rohnert Park’s embattled police department and expand representation of the city’s ethnic minorities, including its growing Latino population.

Now tasked with setting the city’s agenda for at least the next four years are Jackie Elward, 41, and Gerard Giudice, 58, each of whom lost their initial bids for council seats in 2018, and Willy Linares, 36, who has lived in the city for just two years. Beyond Giudice’s background as a longtime city planning commissioner, none has experience inside local government, though each has pledged to listen directly to their constituents in what amounts to a sea change in leadership in Sonoma County’s third-largest city.

“Our City Council didn’t realize how much people started to pay closer attention to the way they’ve been leading our city. That’s when the shift started to happen,” said Elward, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and defeated Mackenzie, 81, by earning support from 56% of voters. “People wanted to be heard. People wanted to move forward. This election is the result of the actions that they did, or the way they voted on things.”

The sweep by challengers follows a contentious transition to district-based seats for the council. The council initiated the change late last year to avert the threat of a lawsuit that contended people of color have been historically underrepresented on Rohnert Park’s five-member elected body. The map of district boundaries and sequencing of the races left one incumbent, three-term Councilwoman Gina Belforte, without a district in which to run as her term expires this year.

The switch to district elections sparked a burst of public scrutiny in a city of 43,000 residents that even Mackenzie, the current vice mayor and one of the county’s most visible elected officials, acknowledged has often shown itself to be politically apathetic.

The council’s moves came under additional review after citizens demanded adjustments to the new set of districts, which were affirmed over objections this summer. So Tuesday served partly as a referendum on that process as well as the council members seeking reelection, including Mackenzie and Callinan, who is serving as mayor.

“This was not a good year to be an incumbent. Obviously it was a lousy year to be mayor and vice mayor in Rohnert Park with the brouhaha over district elections, the Black Lives Matter marches and COVID,” said Mackenzie, who first took office in 1996 and is the council’s leading progressive, with longstanding roles in local and regional public transit bodies. “This is your classic ‘Elections have consequences’ story. I take it at the moment that people wanted change, so they’re going to get change.”

The transition away from at-large voting was one of several factors that contributed to the outcomes, said Callinan. Though he openly criticized the district election system during council meetings, Callinan defended his leadership of the process, one that many residents said lacked transparency.

Callinan noted that he likely was disadvantaged by the switch.

“I have a wide base of Rohnert Park who supports me, and a lot didn’t get to vote for me,” Callinan said. “But I’m not blaming that, I’m not blaming anything. I feel the constituents spoke. I just think there was a big movement for change and it hit us. It came back to bite me, I guess.”

Belforte, who said she was “ecstatic” with Tuesday’s results, counts each of the winners as political allies. She said she would look to rejoin the council with a run in 2022 for one of the two remaining district-based seats to be filled at that time.

“Sometimes we have to sleep in the bed that we make,” Belforte said, “and it doesn’t just go one way.”

Giudice, a local restaurateur and longtime Rotarian, beat Callinan in the head-to-head race, with 60% support, or by about 700 votes, according to the latest returns. He, too, said an undercurrent of frustration over the current council’s unwillingness to apply public feedback helped propel the ouster.

“I don’t know if brewing is the correct word, but I just think it inspired and woke up a whole section of our population,” Giudice said. “So when you have a boost like that and so many other people get involved in the process who have never been involved in the process, then I think you have what you witnessed — that people were ready for some change.”

Brian Sobel, a political analyst and former Petaluma councilman, said the shift the political shift was a long time coming in Rohnert Park. Voters’ choices, he said, will undoubtedly hasten its transformation from a sleepy bastion of more conservative politics.

“Some can accuse Rohnert Park of lagging behind the rest of the county in terms of its progressive views, and this is going to give the progressive point of view a much bigger platform in Rohnert Park, no question about it,” Sobel said. “It’s a new crop of folks who have a different vision of what the future of Rohnert Park is. We’ll have to see what that means.”

For Linares, who grew up in the Sonoma Valley and is of Guatemalan descent, the victory means a chance to represent the city’s 29% Latino population, which he made a cornerstone of his campaign for his district, which has the highest concentration of Latinos. He received 62% of the vote, beating Soldavini by almost 500 votes.

“The residents of Rohnert Park wanted a more diverse City Council. It’s evident by how they came out and voted,” Linares said. “It means so much to me to be Latinx and have a position in City Hall to help elevate our community. I’m so proud they put their trust in me to give them a voice, and I’ll do everything I can to ensure they have a seat at the table.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

For 2020 election results, go here.

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