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Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s political profile grows as it fights Proposition 15, local measures

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It has spent more than $100,000 to derail a statewide property tax measure.

It’s the lead funder and home base for a campaign against another measure that would bolster local law enforcement oversight.

And it’s the lead agency in a push by a phalanx of business interests to defeat all tax increases on local voters’ ballots this November.

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s rise to local political prominence has come almost overnight, a sudden shift for an organization that has already spent more this election cycle than the past five election cycles combined.

The moves, officials say, are both an orchestrated effort to revive lagging advocacy efforts, and a direct response to tax measures they see as attacks on farming and business during a year of pandemic-induced financial hardship.

“When farmers are hanging on by a thread, the last thing they need is to pay more taxes,” said Cynthia Murray, executive director of the North Bay Leadership Council, which is partnering with the Farm Bureau to oppose eight local tax measures. “This is very much a defensive move.”

The rise for the group led by prominent agriculture and business interests coincides with Executive Director Tawny Tesconi’s arrival in March 2018, the organization’s longterm planning in 2019 and a statewide ballot measure that Tesconi says would be especially painful for farmers. But it also fills a glaring gap in political spending that might normally come from the Sonoma County Alliance, the county’s preeminent business coalition that chose to remain on the sidelines this year while reeling from a racial reckoning this past summer, when its former president sparked controversy with his remarks about Black Lives Matter protests.

Since 2014, The Sonoma County Alliance’s political action committee has outspent the Farm Bureau and its Family Farmers Alliance PAC by at least 3-to-1 annually, including outspending the group 10-to-1 in 2017.

But this year is different.

Sonoma County Alliance Executive Director Brian Ling said the group’s political action committee decided in August to limit spending and avoid making endorsements. Ling would not provide a motive for the decision or confirm its connection to the entity’s decimated membership list following the controversy.

The Alliance has limited spending to $17,000 so far this election cycle, compared to the more than $80,000 it spent to influence voters ahead of the 2016 election.

But where Alliance spending has cratered, the Farm Bureau’s donations have grown, ballooning to $153,000 this cycle, more than double the agency’s combined spending from 2014-19.

Tesconi pooh-poohed the connection, and said “filling a gap” was never part of the Farm Bureau Board of Directors’ calculus in deciding to get more involved this year.

“Other groups were doing a lot more from an advocacy standpoint,” Tesconi said. “They were getting heard. And we weren’t getting heard as much as we wanted to get heard. So we started to ramp up…”

In many ways, the Farm Bureau’s newfound direction is tied to Tesconi, who spent 30 years as a fair manager throughout the state and served as Sonoma County’s General Services director before accepting her current position at the Farm Bureau. Tesconi said she told leadership there she wouldn’t take the job unless the organization agreed to fund more advocacy.

In 2019, the Farm Bureau conducted long-term planning that enshrined a newfound, stronger commitment to politics, a shift Tesconi said was important to ensure the organization’s members have a seat at the table. She expects that to continue.

“You’re seeing that, and I believe you’ll continue to see that over the next several years; we’re the voice for agriculture,” Tesconi said.

Led by the $113,000 the Farm Bureau has spent to defeat Proposition 15, which would raise taxes on commercial and agriculture properties, the organization’s political muscle has been flexed like no time since 2006.

That year, farmers were working to defeat a proposed 10-year ban on genetically modified crops. And farm-related groups spent heavily to fend off that challenge. In the ensuing years, though, spending has tapered off, averaging less than $10,000 per year since 2014, including the last presidential election year, when the group spent just $6,000, according to available campaign finance records.

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau maintained memberships in other prominent organizations, like the Sonoma County Alliance and the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, but Tesconi sensed the group could — and should — do more.

Brian Sobel, a political analyst from Petaluma, said the calculation is simple.

“The Farm Bureau has figured out that if they aren’t involved in these elections, they’ll be decided without their input,” Sobel said. “I’m guessing their members decided, ‘Hey, we have to be more involved.’”

That involvement, this year, has strayed beyond what many would consider the typical purview of farmers and their Sonoma County Farm Bureau. It includes spending $20,000 to defeat Measure P, which seeks to bolster oversight of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. And it means installing Tesconi as the lead agent on an anti-tax coalition that also received $20,000 from the group to fight eight local tax measures, including Measure O, a countywide sales tax increase to fund mental health and homelessness services.

But Tesconi defended her group’s involvement in opposing local tax measures.

“People might say a city sales tax doesn’t affect the Farm Bureau, but it does,” Tesconi said. “We have members in every city. We’re very diverse.”

As for the campaign against Measure P, which the Farm Bureau has bankrolled while serving as a hub for yard sign pickups, Tesconi said the Sheriff’s Office “has done an excellent job in supporting agriculture,” and questioned the need for additional oversight spending.

But the Farm Bureau’s increasing involvement, and its partnership with the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, of which Ling is a part, has also prompted its share of political backlash.

“I had a meeting with Brian Ling the other day, I said, ‘OK, before we talk, I have something to get off my chest,’” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board’s senior incumbent and longtime beneficiary of donations from the groups. “I said I thought they blew it on Measure O. I told him how unhappy I was. I said the same thing to Tawny too.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to describe Brian Sobel's work more precisely as that of a political analyst.

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

For stories about what is on the local ballot, go here.

For the PD editorial board voter guide, go here.

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