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Sonoma County district attorney recall fails as voters back keeping Jill Ravitch

Press Democrat reporters recap the recall election in a Facebook Live video at bit.ly/2VKTyUD

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch triumphed Tuesday in a recall election seeking her ouster, as an overwhelming majority of voters rejected the campaign bankrolled by a wealthy local developer who Ravitch’s office sued over the abandonment of elderly residents in a pair of Santa Rosa care homes in the 2017 Tubbs fire.

Ravitch hailed the end of a bruising and deeply personal effort to end her 11-year tenure as the county’s top prosecutor. The recall campaign, exclusively funded by Bill Gallaher to the tune of at least $1.7 million, criticized Ravitch’s record and singled out her supporters and relatives in a barrage of attack ads that flooded the airwaves, social media and mailboxes in recent months.

“When Bill Gallaher looks at himself in the mirror, I hope he is embarrassed with what he sees,” Ravitch said after the first, decisive, results arrived at her campaign watch party in Santa Rosa.

“This was one angry man who was held accountable — and he had a tantrum,” she said. “Fortunately, Sonoma County saw through it and I am so honored, so absolutely honored, that the people in this community said ‘We don’t buy it.’”

It was the most expensive campaign of its kind in Sonoma County history and an exceptionally rare recall — the first targeting a county elected official in four decades.

“This is vindication for my family,” Ravitch said, hugging her sister Amy Friedricks, both in tears.

“She’s been under so much pressure all these months,” said Friedricks, of Marin County. “It’s nice to have it over. Truth prevails, that’s the most important thing.”

In results as Wednesday morning with 100% of precincts reporting, 79.95% of voters favored keeping Ravitch to the 20.05% that supported her recall.

When the first results flashed on the wall-mounted big screen TV at Teamsters union hall on Neotomas Avenue, the crowd of several dozen Ravitch supporters erupted in cheers.

“Yes,” Ravitch exclaimed, pumping her fist in the air, before grabbing a phone to call her brother John Ravitch, who Gallaher targeted in multiple campaign ads insinuating Ravitch improperly influenced the outcome of his 2015 vehicular manslaughter case in Napa County.

“This says to people like Bill Gallaher that money can’t buy power, not with elected officials,” Ravitch said.

Since Gallaher launched the recall effort last year — after one of his companies settled with Ravitch’s office over the Tubbs fire case — the recall campaign has accused Ravitch of misdeeds including corrupt hiring practices and failure to disclose conviction rates.

Ravitch, 63, a career county prosecutor who was first elected district attorney in 2010, has denied all accusations.

Tuesday night, recall campaign officials declined to comment beyond a written statement touting the importance of accountability and sending a “clear signal that self-serving politicians who put their own interests above those of the people they represent, will no longer be tolerated in Sonoma County.”

“Every so often, it is critical to our democracy that elected officials are reminded of who exactly they serve,” read the unsigned statement. “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.”

Gallaher has repeatedly declined through campaign officials to answer questions about the recall and his political motivations since its inception.

Gallaher was the sole financier of the recall, according to campaign finance disclosure forms. He spent at least $1.7 million on the campaign, launched less than two months after one of his companies settled with Ravitch’s office and state prosecutors over the abandonment of about 100 elderly residents in two Fountaingrove care homes, Oakmont of Varenna and Villa Capri. They are owned by Oakmont Senior Living, Gallaher’s retirement home company that has built around 50 senior homes and assisted living facilties in California and Nevada.

The residents survived with the help of friends, family and first responders, who evacuated them after Gallaher’s staff members fled the facilities without making sure their patients were safe. Gallaher and his companies paid $500,000 to settle the suit. He and his family launched the recall two months later, shortly after Ravitch announced she plans to retire at the end of her third four-year term next year.

Ravitch’s campaign raised about $142,000 from more than 600 donors, the vast majority of whom gave less than $100.

Roseland residents Ruth Ann and Leon Wilmot, husband and wife, voted against the Ravitch recall.

Press Democrat reporters recap the recall election in a Facebook Live video at bit.ly/2VKTyUD

“The reasons behind trying to get rid of her are bogus,” Ruth Ann said, referring to Gallaher’s campaign.

Her husband agreed. “It’s just a giant smear campaign,” he said.

The recall campaign lashed into Ravitch through a series of social media ads, radio spots and mailers, the latest of which called out over a dozen Sonoma County lawmakers who have endorsed Ravitch, including state Sen. Mike McGuire, Supervisors Lynda Hopkins, Chris Coursey, Susan Gorin and James Gore, as well as mayors and council members in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Windsor and Sebastopol.

Michelle Kralovec, who flagged down a Press Democrat reporter in Petaluma to express her strong disapproval of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who also prevailed Tuesday, referred to the Ravitch recall campaign’s ads when explaining her reasons for supporting the recall.

She cited the recall campaign’s false implication that Ravitch’s brother was treated lightly in a criminal prosecution over a fatal car crash. Napa County authorities, who prosecuted the case, said Ravitch had nothing to do with her brother’s sentence and Ravitch called the insinuation “immoral” and unfounded.

Such attacks and the negative tone of the recall campaign’s efforts are reflective of a broader shift in local politics likely here to stay, said professor David McCuan, chair of political science at Sonoma State University.

Its lasting effects will be to establish recalls as a regular tool of politics, “a gun behind the door” for elected officials, McCuan said.

It galvanized the political community like no other race has, uniting nearly every local elected official in Sonoma County’s nine cities and the county in support of Ravitch.

“I wasn’t running against anyone. I was running against anger and lies. This wasn’t about who is the best person to run the DA’s office, it’s ‘Do you believe the lies somebody spent $1.7 million to spread?’” Ravitch said.

Still, she said she understands voters who may be tired and angry after the coronavirus pandemic, lockdowns, mask restrictions, economic struggles and the political upheaval over the past several years.

“I understand the ‘Throw the bums out mentality.’ But if he really cared about the DA’s office, why didn’t he put a candidate in? It wasn’t that, it was ‘Who am I to go after him?’”

Staff Writer Andrew Graham contributed to this story.

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