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City of Sonoma Councilmember Jack Ding. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Who represents Sonoma County? A wave of diverse officeholders elected last year marks shift in local politics

For Healdsburg native Skylaer Palacios, the times she put together boxes of toiletries for homeless people, volunteered at food pantries through her Trinity Baptist Church or coached the high school’s Bulldogs cheerleading team were when she felt most connected to her community.

For much of her youth, she said, she felt like a “shadow community member” because of her Black, Latino and Native American roots.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re from here,’ or, ‘What are you doing here?’ energy,” Palacios said. “That feeling of being othered, it made me feel my voice at that time was not important.”

Palacios is part of a wave of racially, ethnically and generationally (among other characteristics) diverse candidates who, after the November elections, were sworn into city council seats throughout Sonoma County.

Skylaer Palacios poses for a portrait in front of a retail store on Healdsburg Avenue in Healdsburg on Friday, June 19, 2020. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Skylaer Palacios poses for a portrait in front of a retail store on Healdsburg Avenue in Healdsburg on Friday, June 19, 2020. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

She and her fellow fledgling leaders are at the center of a shift in the local political landscape, which has historically been dominated by people who were mostly white, affluent and male.

Last year, Palacios was one of at least eight diverse candidates in Sonoma County who celebrated campaign victories. She decided to run after she emerged as a leading opposition voice to the way Healdsburg’s then-Mayor Leah Gold handled public calls for police reform amid local and national protests after the May 2020 death of George Floyd.

Gold had dismissed demonstrators’ calls for a formal discussion about the Healdsburg Police Department’s use-of-force policies after the death of Floyd, a Black man killed by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is serving a 22½-year prison sentence for Floyd’s murder.

The subsequent public backlash over Gold’s response prompted her to resign as mayor in June 2020.

Both Healdsburg’s then-Vice Mayor Shaun McCaffery and Tony Geraldi, who at the time was the secretary and treasurer for Miss Sonoma County, reached out to Palacios and encouraged her to consider a run for public office soon after Gold’s departure, Palacios said.

“If it wasn't for him, I’m not sure if I would have done it,” Palacios said of Geraldi’s support.

Former Healdsburg Mayor Leah Gold gets in to a pointed exchange at the Healdsburg Plaza with protesters during a demonstration/rally against racial inequity and police mistreatment, Thursday, June 11, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Former Healdsburg Mayor Leah Gold gets in to a pointed exchange at the Healdsburg Plaza with protesters during a demonstration/rally against racial inequity and police mistreatment, Thursday, June 11, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Geraldi stepped down from Miss Sonoma County on Wednesday, saying he was too busy to fulfill his roles.

Fundamental change and challenges

This political paradigm shift bookended a year shaped by the coronavirus pandemic and the societal reckoning that followed Floyd’s death — events that not only highlighted centuries-old systemic barriers in this country, but also sparked conversations about how to eliminate those roadblocks for good.

While discussions about the need for more diverse local representation are not new to Sonoma County, concrete steps to achieve the goal are starting to take shape, with change makers targeting the hurdles that make public service harder to reach for underrepresented community leaders.

White residents are the largest racial demographic in Sonoma County, with Latinos making up the second biggest group at 27%, U.S. Census data showed. Asian residents accounted for nearly 5% the county, while Black residents made up 2%, according to the data.

Topping the list is a lack of money for political campaigns, followed by too few opportunities to gain much-needed experience through appointments to non-elected boards or commissions.

In addition, many of these new officeholders say they feel they are under more scrutiny than their peers, and are therefore more susceptible to becoming targets of hate speech.

In March, Rohnert Park Vice Mayor Jackie Elward, 41, who is Black and was raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, received a call from an anonymous person who called her racial slurs and told her to “go back to Africa.” The caller also voiced displeasure with Elward’s support for a fireworks ban in that city.

The first Black woman to serve on the Rohnert Park City Council, Elward was elected in November, along with fellow first-time officeholders Willy Linares, 36, and Gerard Giudice, 60.

Rohnert Park Councilman Willy Linares, who represents District 1. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Rohnert Park Councilman Willy Linares, who represents District 1. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Linares, who is of Guatemalan descent, was recently the victim of an act of vandalism that authorities say stems from his support for the fireworks ban.

Some of the trailblazers in Sonoma County politics

1956: Joan McGrath Waterhouse, Sonoma’s first woman to serve as mayor

1974: Armando Flores, first Latino to serve on the Rohnert Park City Council, who’d serve several terms as mayor

1976: Helen Rudee, Sonoma County’s first female supervisor

1978: Gwen Anderson, Sebastopol’s first female mayor

1978: Donna Born, Santa Rosa’s first female mayor

1980: Helen Putnam, Petaluma’s first female mayor

2004: Lee Pierce, the first Black man to sit on the Santa Rosa City Council

2008: Efren Carrillo, the first Latino elected into the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors*

2008: Ernesto Olivares, the first Latino to serve on the Santa Rosa City Council

2010: Jill Ravitch, the first woman elected district attorney

2015: Amy O. Ahanotu, the first Black man to serve as mayor of Rohnert Park

2018: Esther Lemus, the first Latina on the Windsor Town Council

2018: Marta Cruz, the first Latina on the Cloverdale City Council, who later became the city’s first Latina vice mayor and mayor

*Carrillo served two terms but did not seek reelection after he was arrested in 2013, when he was found mostly undressed near the home of a neighbor who said he had put his hand through her bedroom window. A jury found him not guilty of a misdemeanor charge, but he admitted mistakes and attributed the incident to problems with drinking and ego.

On July 4, someone set fire to a garbage can filled with fireworks in front of Linares’ home.

It had “much to do with the color of my skin,” he told The Press Democrat days after the incident.

Public promises to end these kinds of incidents are becoming more common. Increasingly, they are coming from leaders who have, at one time or another, benefited from the status quo.

In March, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ Chair Lynda Hopkins hosted an anti-racism news conference where several elected officials vowed to do more to confront hate in their own lives and support up-and-coming leaders of color.

“I think at the end of the day, the decks are stacked and we have to try to make the hands that people are dealt a little bit more equitable,” Hopkins said in a recent interview.

Neophytes and ‘a heavy weight’

During the past six decades, Sonoma County has seen plenty of firsts when it comes to elected office, though much of that change has happened slowly and sporadically.

Palacios, who is 25, is the second-youngest person to win a council seat in Healdsburg, as well as the first Latina and member of the Black community to serve in the role. The addition of Ariel Kelley, a lawyer who is Jewish, to the council last year paired with incumbent Mayor Evelyn Mitchell led to the council’s first all-female majority.

Business owner Ozzy Jimenez, who is of Mexican decent and the Healdsburg council’s second openly gay member, became the first person of color on the council in nearly three decades when he was selected by the council in July 2020 to fill the seat vacated by Gold.

Ozzy Jimenez, 33, was unanimously appointed to the Healdsburg City Council in July 2020, making him just the third Latino resident to serve in the role in the city’s 153-history. Jimenez is the chief executive officer of Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar, which has locations on the Healdsburg Plaza and downtown Santa Rosa, where he’s pictured here, on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat, 2019)
Ozzy Jimenez, 33, was unanimously appointed to the Healdsburg City Council in July 2020, making him just the third Latino resident to serve in the role in the city’s 153-history. Jimenez is the chief executive officer of Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar, which has locations on the Healdsburg Plaza and downtown Santa Rosa, where he’s pictured here, on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat, 2019)

In Rohnert Park, Elward and Linares filled two of three vacant seats on the previous all-white council after the city switched to district elections to avoid the threat of a lawsuit that accused the city of historically under-representing people of color.

Santa Rosa approved a similar switch to districts in 2018, resulting in a new council seat to represent residents of Roseland, which is more heavily Latino than other parts of the city. The spot was filled by dispensary owner Eddie Alvarez, who is Latino. Natalie Rogers, a Black marriage and family therapist, picked up one of the other four open seats.

Voters in the city of Sonoma elected Jack Ding last year. A tax practitioner who immigrated to the U.S. in 1993 from China, Ding became the first Asian American on the Sonoma City Council.

Arthur Chaney, the Sonoma County chapter president of 100 Black Men, believes the significant amount of diverse candidates elected to public office last year was part of a slow, but steady progression he said he’s seen since he moved to this region about 40 years ago.

He also pointed to Floyd’s death as a landmark moment in the country’s history that raised public consciousness about police brutality.

“I’m not saying it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it was a heavy weight. It hits (people) to the point that they feel like they need to take action, they need to move.” — Arthur Chaney, Sonoma County chapter president of 100 Black Men

Its impact, he said, was as effective as the horror and outrage caused by the images of protesters peacefully marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, only to be violently attacked by state troopers on “Bloody Sunday” March 7, 1965.

The images of that confrontation were seared into the nation’s consciousness and helped to shore up support for the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“I’m not saying it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it was a heavy weight,” Chaney said. “It hits (people) to the point that they feel like they need to take action, they need to move.”

Black Lives Matter protesters observe a moment of silence in front of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department, Saturday, June 6, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Black Lives Matter protesters observe a moment of silence in front of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department, Saturday, June 6, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

The importance of being open

Hopkins, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chair, said her own experiences have shown her why there’s a need for greater diversity.

“I can’t tell you how many times I have sat in a room where I was the only woman or where I was the only person under the age of 50, or how many times I was mistaken as somebody else’s aide rather than an elected official,” she said.

“I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to face both overt and covert racism when you’re trying to engage in politics, but the stories that I’ve heard from friends that have experienced and faced that just make me more motivated to help them.”

Hopkins said she’s opened up her donor’s lists to local candidates from under-represented communities, such as Natalie Rogers in Santa Rosa, to help her overcome one of the biggest challenges in campaigning — fundraising.

Santa Rosa Councilmember Natalie Rogers at A Place to Play, which sits in the heart of her district in Santa Rosa on Dec. 7, 2020. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat, 2020)
Santa Rosa Councilmember Natalie Rogers at A Place to Play, which sits in the heart of her district in Santa Rosa on Dec. 7, 2020. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat, 2020)

Hopkins said she has also leveraged her social networks to make personal introductions between candidates she supports and organizations and donors who may want to endorse them or contribute to their campaigns.

Diversity on county-appointed boards and commissions has been another focus of hers. She knows those slots often help future candidates gain experience and expand their network of people who can boost their campaign down the road.

The local chapter of the NAACP broached the topic of county-appointed commissions in early July, when it published a letter objecting to the appointees selected to serve on Sonoma County’s Advisory Redistricting Commission. The chapter argued the slate of appointees did not equitably represent all of the county’s residents.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors ultimately decided to expand the number of seats on its redistricting commission to include four additional applicants, all women of color, and a man who previously served as Santa Rosa’s mayor.

“I think it’s important to be open to new voices and be open to new people that you haven’t met,” Hopkins said. “It’s really easy to default to people you’re friends with, and those people are more likely to be people that look like you and that don’t necessarily challenge your beliefs.”

Sebastopol Councilwoman Diana Rich, who spoke about finding qualified people of color to run for elected office in Hopkins’ March meeting, said she’s kept her “eyes and ears peeled” for potential candidates that would bring different experiences to the city’s council should they choose to run.

Currently, Sebastopol’s council is all white and represents a community U.S. census data shows is 85% white. About 22% of the city’s residents are older than 65, notably higher than the state’s average, which is 15%, census data shows.

Sebastopol Councilwoman Diana Rich
Sebastopol Councilwoman Diana Rich

Part of Rich’s interest in encouraging diverse candidates has to do with her childhood, in which her mother, an artistic, creative type, would introduce Rich and her brother to people from all different backgrounds, Rich said.

The experience made her more aware of the diversity that exists in the world, and showed her own privilege as a white woman, she said.

Having a diverse set of people around her also made an impact in her professional life, when she worked as a public defender and then in corporate law before getting into nonprofit work, Rich said.

“Some of the most amazing ideas have come to me when I sat down and listened to the perspective of others, and heard about the different ideas and concerns that I had not thought of but resonated with me,” Rich said.

So far, Rich said, she’s talked to two people who have expressed an interest in public office. She said they have discussed what it would take to serve on the City Council.

She described one of those people as a person of color, and the other as a woman who is raising a family. Both are younger than 40, representing a younger generation than those on the council today.

“They are really qualified people,” Rich said. “If you eliminate the diversity piece and look at their resumes, it’s clear that they would make excellent choices for the City Council.”

Rich later clarified that she is “a complete fan” of the three Sebastopol council members whose terms expire next year and whose bids for reelection, should that happen, she would support.

“They are excellent leaders who are compassionate and hard-working, and who actively examine their decisions from an equity perspective,” Rich said. “Why is this relevant? Because unless one of them decides not to run for another term, there’s no way I can get behind a new candidate for City Council.”

“It’s really about trying to build increased capacity in the community, and by that we mean more people that would be engaged and comfortable taking on leadership roles. Sometimes people might not participate as much as they might if they are intimidated by the process or the issues.” ― Rohnert Park Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz

On a broader scale, local governments have recognized a need for greater representation among their workers’ ranks and on the city commissions.

Diverse hiring and representation within Petaluma’s city government and boards was one of several proposed focuses for the city’s Community Advisory Committee. However, the committee’s members ultimately chose to focus on other issues, such as civilian police oversight and community engagement.

In Rohnert Park, a program launched in 2019 to develop local civic leaders resulted in all but one of the 20 participants reporting they felt more capable of being a leader in their community, Rohnert Park Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz said.

Of the people selected to be part of the city-sponsored program, which is gearing up for a second year after the coronavirus pandemic forced the city to put it on hold, one person, Elward, won election to a seat on the Rohnert Park City Council. Three others were appointed to city commissions and one was appointed to a regional board.

“It’s really about trying to build increased capacity in the community, and by that we mean more people that would be engaged and comfortable taking on leadership roles,” Schwartz said. “Sometimes people might not participate as much as they might if they are intimidated by the process or the issues.”

Rohnert Park Vice Mayor and City Councilmember Jackie Elward. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Rohnert Park Vice Mayor and City Councilmember Jackie Elward. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

'My honor, my first step’

Elward said her participation in the program played a big role in what she thought about politics after her first run for the Rohnert Park City Council in 2018 failed.

She recalled being mocked for her lack of experience in local government, as well as for advocating progressive views during that campaign that were not typically represented on the council at that time, she said.

The program taught her the ins and outs of the city’s government, finances and history, and connected her with a wider net of locals, all of whom helped her in her second — successful — bid for public office, Elward said.

Since being elected in 2020, Elward said she has felt supported by most of her constituents, though there have been a number of instances when she’s faced setbacks.

In a previous interview, Elward said those involved online comments from people who have made fun of her accent or questioned her level of education, remarks she believes were directed at her because of her race.

“If we want people of color to take those challenging seats, we need to feel protected because that’s the No.1 thing people of color fear. We bring to the table things that people don’t want to hear.” ― Rohnert Park City Councilwoman Jackie Elward

While county leaders have stepped into show their support for her and other elected officials who have faced similar situations, Elward said more could be done, particularly when they bring difficult discussions to the table.

“If we want people of color to take those challenging seats, we need to feel protected because that’s the No. 1 thing people of color fear,” Elward said. “We bring to the table things that people don’t want to hear.”

Ding, the Sonoma city councilman, said he wants to see more young people engage in their local governments, though he recognizes many are still establishing themselves financially and might not have the spare time to serve on a City Council or on the local boards and commissions that help build their resumes.

The issue of serving one’s community is one he is passionate about, in part because of his immigrant roots, he said.

“Some people come to America because they want to realize the American dream,” Ding said. “What is the best way? Participate in the democratic process.”

City of Sonoma Councilmember Jack Ding.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
City of Sonoma Councilmember Jack Ding. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

He ran for the City Council last year because he said he felt his financial expertise, through his work as a tax practitioner, would be a benefit to the city, he said.

Among the roles that most helped him prepare for the job were his eight years on the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission.

He said the experience he gained from sitting on the commission, a planning advisory agency for the Sonoma Valley, helped him learn how to review a number of local projects, including facets of those projects ranging from water to traffic.

In 2015, Ding stepped into a leadership role on the commission when he was selected as its chair.

A framed photo from the City Council meeting when he was formally appointed to the commission hangs on a wall in his office, he said.

“I treat it as my honor, my first step,” Ding said.

Kelley, who was elected to her first term on the Healdsburg City Council last year, recalled one instance in 2018 — when she was considering a run for public office — in which a sitting councilman told her it would be very challenging for her to serve on the council because she was a mother.

At the time, Kelley was the CEO of the nonprofit Corazón Healdsburg and was also an appointee on the county’s Planning Commission. Kelley declined to identify the councilman who made the comment.

Ariel Kelley was elected to the Healdsburg City Council in 2020.
Ariel Kelley was elected to the Healdsburg City Council in 2020.

There were also comments from people she met during her campaign. Unaware of her professional background or that she possesses a law degree and an MBA, they questioned whether she had enough experience to understand a city budget.

“I don’t think that everyone would receive those same questions,” Kelley said. “But I used it as an opportunity to open the door and share my credentials.”

Palacios, her fellow newcomer, said she wanted to share with voters that she came from a multiracial family during her campaign, but didn’t want to be seen as an outsider in her own community. She countered by reminding those she spoke with about being raised in the city, she said.

Collecting donations, particularly during the pandemic when fundraising events were difficult to orchestrate, was another hurdle she encountered, Palacios said.

“People are more generous to people that they see fit the position as an elected official,” she said.

She said last year’s election showed her there is growing support for young and diverse candidates.

“It’s super important that younger people get out to commissions and committees in their local governments in every aspect they can,” Palacios said.

“A shift is happening, but the more diverse and young people we can get in there, the quicker the necessary shift will happen.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   

 

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