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Windsor mayoral appointment stirs talk of race and gender barriers

Windsor’s Town Council could have followed unofficial precedent earlier this month by selecting Vice Mayor Deb Fudge to step up to the mayor’s seat.

Or the five-member council could have chosen Esther Lemus, the top vote-getter in last November’s election, making her the first Latina mayor in the county’s history.

But it did neither in its last chance to select the city’s elected leader before the transition next year to district elections and a directly elected mayor’s post.

Instead, Fudge on Dec. 4 made a motion to give Mayor Dominic Foppoli a second year in that office, and Councilman Sam Salmon joined to form a majority that prevailed in a 3-2 vote.

The split decision capped a tense public discussion touching on the barriers faced by women of color and representation of Windsor’s growing Latino population, which now accounts for a third of the residents in Sonoma County’s fourth-largest city.

Joining Lemus in support of her mayoral bid was Councilman Bruce Okrepkie, who said he wanted to see Windsor make history. Also, everyone else on the council had already served at least one term as mayor, he noted at the time.

Lemus, a deputy district attorney and former Windsor school board member, topped a 10-candidate field in last year’s council race for three seats, outpacing Foppoli by more than 1,000 ?votes. She came away from the meeting with an appointment as vice mayor, but was dismayed, she said, that Windsor had passed on an opportunity to demonstrate the town’s commitment to its Latino residents.

“Unfortunately, three of five council members apparently, through their votes, did not believe we were ready for this,” she wrote in a widely distributed email after the decision.

The note followed a midnight post to her Facebook page the day after the meeting showing a photo of Ruby Bridges, an American civil rights activist who as a child was the first African American to desegregate an all-white elementary school in Louisiana in 1960.

“The more things change, the more they remain the same, even in 2019 and with those who claim to want to advance progress and the principles of equality in our country,” she wrote. “Thank you to all of you who have been supportive in this fight. You know who you are.”

Lemus, in an interview this week, was plainspoken about her disappointment in being passed over, while echoing fellow council members who said they expected to continue working well together.

“It was not the outcome I was hoping for,” she said, noting that other cities rotate the mayoral title from member to member. “I wouldn’t say I expected it. I was hopeful.”

Being named the county’s first Latina mayor “would have been quite an honor,” she said.

The appointment of Foppoli, a winery owner, came in the course of a blunt discussion lasting nearly half an hour before a sparse crowd at the start of the council meeting.

Foppoli, chairing the meeting, appeared uncomfortable. At one point he referred to the discussion as “contentious.”

Lemus said her appointment would be “important for children of color to see someone who looks like me in this role, something I never had as a child.”

Foppoli cited his work on the town’s behalf, saying there is a possibility of obtaining major grants for environmental programs “but that process is more difficult to navigate with new leadership.”

Lemus’ husband, Doug Parker, spoke of his wife’s hard work during the Kincade fire, staying in town while the rest of her family left.

“I think, Sam, you’re going to regret this if you don’t think about how much it means to the county and town,” he said, addressing Salmon.

George Valenzuela, president of the Windsor school board, said he had told Lemus she was “crazy to run” but ended up with more votes than three incumbents.

“She was the top vote-getter and she was voted for across racial and ethnic boundaries, and all she got was a pat on the back. It’s not good enough,” Valenzuela said, backing her nomination as mayor.

Voting against Lemus, Okrepkie suggested, would “be a black eye for Windsor.”

“I want to move past this,” Foppoli responded. “We are a strong, unified council.”

In interviews this week, council members reflected on the decision.

Foppoli, who announced in May his intent to run for the new directly elected mayor post next year, dismissed the split over his appointment.

“There are often surprises on appointment night,” he said. “It’s just how the process works. I didn’t take any offense.”

Fudge, a six-time mayor, said that as the outgoing vice mayor she had made it known she did not want the top post and said she had told Foppoli prior to the meeting that she was going to nominate him to continue as mayor.

Foppoli “did an absolutely stellar job during the Kincade fire (that) helped to bring the community together,” Fudge said. “I believed he would be the best mayor for Windsor in 2020,” she said, adding that she hoped to continue working with him on projects like a new civic center.

Lemus’ bid for the appointment took her “completely” by surprise, Fudge said.

Windsor has no convention that says the top vote-getter is entitled to be mayor, and previous appointed mayors, including Okrepkie, have been awarded two annual terms in a row, she said.

“I’m trying to let this go and not create more rancor,” she said.

Asked about the frank tone of the council’s debate two weeks ago, Lemus said: “Sometimes people don’t like what they’re hearing. When you have honest and real dialogue, sometimes that makes people uncomfortable.”

Lemus said she is not currently considering a bid for the mayor’s seat next year. Foppoli has already started raising money and has secured endorsements from Fudge, Okrepkie - and from Lemus

Asked if she would consider running in 2022, Lemus said “that’s too far in the future,” but added that it is “always an option.”

She acknowledged that people have asked her about running for district attorney, but declined to comment other than saying “there is a buzz.”

Windsor in April became the third local entity to adopt district elections in the face of a threatened lawsuit alleging that citywide balloting violated the state’s Voting Rights Act by diluting Latino political power. Santa Rosa and Santa Rosa City Schools have made the same reluctant choice.

Lemus, Foppoli and former councilman Mark Millan, who lost his seat last year, all claim Latino heritage, but Windsor went along, as the other entities did, rather than risk a costly legal fight.

Windsor council members will continue to serve four-year terms under district elections, while the mayor will be elected at large every two years.

Asked about the prospect that Lemus could have become the county’s first Latina mayor, Foppoli said: “I think she’d make a tremendous district attorney.”

As evidence of their accord, Foppoli said that he and Lemus posted Tuesday on their individual Facebook pages the same photograph of them at a Windsor restaurant opening smiling and signaling thumbs-up with Foppoli’s arm around Lemus’ shoulder.

Okrepkie, a three-time mayor, said he thought selecting Lemus as mayor “just made sense given the great job she’s done this year” and because everyone else had been named by their elected peers to the post.

“This would be a step in the right direction,” Okrepkie said, considering that Latinos comprise one-third of Windsor’s population of about 28,600.

Salmon, a three-time mayor who cast the deciding vote for Foppoli, said he also was surprised by Lemus’ bid for mayor.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” he said, noting that he and Foppoli are from different generations and “live our lives differently.” But Foppoli’s dedication to the council job impressed him, and Salmon said Foppoli had indicated an interest in the mayor’s seat.

“I didn’t vote against Esther, I voted for Dominic,” he said, adding that he hopes Lemus will consider running for mayor.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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