Sonoma County supervisor candidates weigh in on equity, housing during debate
Candidates vying for Sonoma County’s 2nd and 4th District supervisor seats used Thursday night’s virtual debate to sound off on equity issues impacting housing, accountability and the county’s struggle to support its leaders of color.
The debate’s focus reflected the work of its host, Los Cien, a prominent Latino leadership organization in Sonoma County.
Asked to reflect on the complaints of racial bias and discrimination that led to the departures of a pair of county department heads last year, all five candidates denounced discrimination and racism in the county. But 2nd District challenger Blake Hooper was perhaps the most critical.
A Petaluma planning commissioner and former staffer for Rep. Jared Huffman, Hooper said the county’s Office of Equity needs a bigger budget, broader authority and “more teeth.”
He said the office’s mission was beyond the capability of one agency, a relegation that he said set a “horrible” precedent.
The Board of Supervisors established the Office of Equity in 2020 to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion within county government and its policies. It has a five-member staff and a $930,361 budget.
Last year, two department heads — both Black women — left their positions after they said they experienced microaggressions and other forms of racism. That same year, the county’s choice to lead its health services department, Derrick Neal, a Black man, turned down the job over concerns of racism.
The departures spotlighted the discrimination people of color face in Sonoma County and the need for the county to better support such employees.
Both incumbents in the election — 2nd District Supervisor David Rabbitt and 4th District Supervisor James Gore— said there is need for continued learning and improving.
“My goal has to be to provide support to individuals who are marginalized, I’ve learned my lessons,” said Gore.
Gore is seeking a third term, and for first time since his 2014 election he faces an opponent in local businessman Richard “Andy” Springer.
Rabbitt, who is pursuing a fourth term, faced a single challenger during his first run for reelection in 2014. In addition to Hooper, Rabbitt’s other challenger is Kevin Hayenga, a Petaluma resident who is pursuing elected office for the first time.
On housing issues, Rabbitt, Hooper and Hayenga all said they supported extending tenant protections in light of the pandemic’s harsh effects on housing stability and the slow economic recovery.
The California Legislature extended tenant protections Thursday, just hours before they were set to expire. The extension protects tenants from court-ordered evictions for another three months as long they have already applied for government assistance.
Last year, Sonoma County approved an ordinance which prevents all evictions unless a unit is taken off the rental market, a renter causes “an imminent threat to health or safety” or for nonpayment of rent. The ordinance is set to expire on June 30. Local advocates are pushing the county to adopt a permanent just-cause ordinance, but landlords have pushed back saying it would tie their hands when dealing with problem residents.
Rabbitt said he would opt for an extension to tenant protections, noting, “renters are still hurting, people are still disproportionately impacted.”
But noting landlords’ option to pull rental units from the market to pursue an eviction, Rabbitt added that the county needs to work with landlords to ensure the county does not lose any more rental housing stock.
In addition to a temporary two-year extension, Hooper called for a long-term ordinance to help renters in emergency situations.
Springer differed from his fellow candidates on tenant protections and argued instead that government needs to “stay out of the way.”
“Our government needs to stop trying to fix everything and let the people figure it out,” he said.
Springer added that government's primary purpose is public safety and said the county is not properly funding and supporting its safety officials.
Springer, a local business consultant and pastor, is running for elected office for the first time.
Thursday night he said he decided to run because he believes California is no longer the place it once was for residents. His campaign has focused on the high cost of living and high taxes as key issues.
As the discussion turned to accountability, Gore, Rabbitt and Hooper each described the work of an elected leader as a “calling,” one that requires being held to a higher standard. Those sentiments echoed later during their closing statements.
Hooper noted that transparency means seeing elected officials year-round, not just during election season. The comment reflected one the Hooper campaign’s core critiques of Rabbitt: that he is not responsive to constituents.
“We need change in south county,” Hooper said.
Rabbitt hit back during closing statements to say he understands the importance of partnerships with 2nd District cities and touted his experience tackling issues including drought, infrastructure and housing.
“I am an effective member of this board,” said Rabbitt. “I bring a unique skill set.”
Gore also cited his experience overseeing county response to wildfires, road infrastructure and water needs.
“This is not about writing a plan in a vacuum and trying to get it to hit the ground in the community,” Gore said, taking a dig a Springer who said he has drafted plans to address issues like water supply. “This is about trench work in the community.”
Hayenga, another first-time candidate for office, and Springer used their closing statements to describe themselves as “non-politicians.” Hayenga said he was not taking campaign contributions.
Springer said the county falling short of its aspirations to be a national leader on issues like wildfires, drought and housing supply, and he called on the middle class, the working class and property owners, among others, to “take their government back.”
“Government belongs to the people and not us to them, lets make a difference this time,” he said.
Election Day is June 7, and mail ballots will go out to voters in early May.
You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.
County government, politics reporter
The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.