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Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch relieved, ready to refocus after recall’s failure

One day after perhaps the biggest political triumph of her career – and certainly the most emotional – Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch was feeling relieved, heartened, honored, fortified.

And tired. Tired of devoting energy to Bill Gallaher, she said, and his singular pursuit to oust her from the office she’s held since first being elected in 2010.

Voters on Tuesday resoundingly rejected her recall – a $1.7 million effort funded solely by Gallaher, campaign records show – as about 80% of ballots counted by Wednesday were against the recall.

“Reject revenge. I mean, how good is that?” Ravitch said Wednesday, referring to her campaign motto that described what she and others felt was Gallaher’s motivation.

“I’m getting so many messages of support. But the best message was the mood in my office today. Everyone at work is relieved and excited that we can focus even more on the work that we do and not worry about the garbage that was being spread.”

The recall contest was unusual in that Ravitch wasn’t running against another candidate. None filed to be on the ballot as her replacement should the recall have succeeded.

So she had no opposition to show she was the best person for the job. She had no one to debate.

Instead, the recall pitted her campaign against a monthslong broadside launched by Gallaher, a Sonoma County native and politically active developer whose company, Oakmont Senior Living, has built about 50 senior care facilities in California and Nevada. Gallaher also is founder and chairman of the Santa Rosa-based Poppy Bank.

Gallaher launched the recall effort last year nearly two months after one of his companies agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by local and state prosecutors over the abandonment of 100 frail and elderly residents of two Oakmont Senior Living care homes in Fountaingrove as the 2017 Tubbs fire bore down. The seniors escaped with the help of family, friends and first responders. One of the homes burned to the ground.

The recall effort also came less than one week after Ravitch announced she would not run for a fourth term in 2022.

Ravitch and her campaign privately expressed confidence that she would withstand Gallaher’s political strike. Still, when the first returns from Tuesday’s election were released, it set off a wave of astounded whoops, hollers and victorious fist-pumping from her group of supporters assembled at the Teamsters union hall in Santa Rosa.

The surprise came from how conclusive the numbers were. With nearly half of the expected ballots in, the recall campaign was trounced, outpaced at a rate of five votes to one.

All precincts with in-person votes have since reported, but Registrar of Voters Deva Proto said her workers are still going through mail ballots received Tuesday, with more coming in through the mail this week. She expects turnout could reach as high as 70% and could have updates by the end of the week.

The additional ballots aren’t expected to change the outcome in the DA recall.

Gallaher could not be reached for comment Wednesday. His wife, Cindy, who has sometimes served as family spokesperson, declined to comment about the election and what the loss means to the family.

Recall campaign officials could not be reached Wednesday. On Tuesday night, they declined to comment beyond a written statement that touted the importance of accountability for elected officials.

“We are proud of the campaign we have run and the long-term impacts that this movement will have on ensuring accountability and transparency in Sonoma County politics, regardless of the recall’s outcome,” read the unsigned statement.

Together, Gallaher and his daughter Molly Flater, an executive in the family’s development business, have spent more than $3.5 million on two elections in the past two years, according to campaign finance records. Flater reported spending $1.8 million to defeat a 2020 measure that sought an early renewal of the quarter-cent sales tax that supports SMART, the North Bay’s passenger rail system.

The recall campaign targeting Ravitch was the most expensive of its kind in Sonoma County history. The recall election itself also was exceptionally rare — the first targeting a county elected official since the late 1970s.

Ravitch said Gallaher concocted the recall campaign to exact vengeance over her office’s prosecution of the Tubbs fire case and damage her reputation in the community. Gallaher’s campaign targeted Ravitch’s brother in a false insinuation that she intervened on his behalf after he was prosecuted in Napa County in connection with an accidental fatal 2015 car wreck that killed his best friend.

“I had to defend myself against attacks on me as a person, attacks on my brother. It was a campaign to humiliate and destroy me, not a campaign to talk about whether I was the right person to lead the office,” Ravitch said.

A series of last-minute mailers from the recall campaign also singled out local elected officials who had rallied to her defense and opposed the recall, showing them by name and photo.

“The bottom line is, it was a campaign to show me that I was wrong to have gone after him. This was a very personal campaign: ‘You went after me, now I’m going to show you how wrong that was.’ And by the way, to any other elected official, ‘I’m coming after you if you do the same.’”

Gallaher’s willingness to reach into his deep pockets to fund such a singular fight raised some concerns among current and former officeholders over the potential chill cast on local politics.

The recall’s crushing defeat dimmed those worries for some.

“I do not have concerns about Bill Gallaher,” Supervisor Chris Coursey said. “I think if there’s a chill here it should be that $1.7 million can’t buy you any more than 20% of the vote.”

Shirlee Zane, the former county supervisor, said she was not overly concerned given the outcome. Still, as one of Gallaher’s biggest political beneficiaries — she accepted about $63,000 in campaign donations from him, his relatives, his employees and their family members over the years, records show — she was disheartened by the recall and thrilled with Ravitch’s victory.

“I think a lot of us are just appalled that this took place,” she said.

All five Sonoma County supervisors endorsed Ravitch and opposed the recall. None of the supervisors managed to make her watch party Tuesday night, though several other local officials, including Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers and Councilman John Sawyer, were on hand.

Board Chair Lynda Hopkins, an outspoken critic of the recall, said supervisors’ Tuesday meeting ran late and that she had to get home to her kids before they fell asleep.

Hopkins said she was reassured Sonoma County voters saw through Gallaher’s campaign.

“I was really, really happy for District Attorney Jill Ravitch and for the resounding rejection that Sonoma County voters gave the revenge recall.”

Ravitch remains convinced Gallaher intended to intimidate other politicians with the campaign, which he started but didn’t put up a replacement candidate of his own.

“That makes it even more evil,” she said, “when you consider what the motivation was, to humiliate me and to ostracize me from the community that I’ve lived in for 30 years … Ironically, it humiliated him in the process.

“I certainly have my personal opinion about Bill Gallaher, but I will leave it to the community to judge him on his deeds, or misdeeds.”

You can reach Staff Writers Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com and Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com.

Lori A. Carter

 Sonoma County courts and Rohnert Park, The Press Democrat

Local journalism is vital to a community's wellbeing, and that means keeping an eye on what happens in our justice system and our communities. I cover Sonoma County courts, as well as the city of Rohnert Park. In my work, I want to share the stories that affect our daily lives and, yes, maybe even rile us up. 

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