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Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins a near lock to win reelection to 5th District seat

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5th District candidates

Lynda Hopkins

Age: 36

Experience: incumbent on Sonoma County Board of Supervisors; co-owner of an organic farm; former journalist

Family: Husband Emmett and three children

Residence: Forestville

Michael Hilber

Age: 60

Work: Self-employed electrical engineer; former employee for a defense contractor

Residence: Roseland

It has been a quick three years in office for Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.

She was sworn in amid major Russian River flooding in January 2017. The October wildfires that year marked the worst natural disaster in county history, and the county saw record-breaking floods and fires return in 2019, book-ending another tumultuous year for county residents and leaders.

Hopkins, 36, of Forestville, is running for her second term on the Board of Supervisors representing the county’s 5th District, including west Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, the lower Russian River, all of the Sonoma Coast and northwestern hills from Cazadero to Annapolis.

She launched her first bid for the seat five years ago as a virtual political unknown — an organic farm owner and former newspaper reporter who prevailed in 2016 over a seasoned legislator, former state Sen. Noreen Evans. She ran for office then, she said, because she felt local government wasn’t doing enough outreach with residents, citing her own experience in a land-use case.

“I was pissed,” she said.

She is running for reelection, “Because there’s so much work still to be done.

“I really want to see it through.” she said. “I love my job, and I want to keep doing it, and I want to keep serving the community.”

She is the overwhelming front-runner in a low-key race against fellow Stanford alumnus and Santa Rosa-area resident, Michael Hilber, 60, who is known for opposing local tax measures.

He wrote the opposition ballot statement against a proposed 2015 countywide tax to support road repairs that was defeated. He also penned the opposition statement for the March ballot against Measure G, the half-cent countywide sales tax to support fire services, which Hopkins has championed.

But Hilber, a self-employed electrical engineer, hasn’t mounted any organized campaign, has made few public appearances and has done no fundraising. He said he doesn’t see any value in it.

“I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning,” Hilber said. “Signs are wasted money, and they pollute the environment.”

So Hopkins, a popular and well-respected incumbent, appears to be a near lock to win reelection. She has had little interaction with Hilber in her time in office and the two have rarely crossed paths on the campaign trail.

Wednesday night’s sparsely attended League of Women Voters debate at the Roseland Library was one of those instances.

The candidates offered a sharp contrast in style, preparation and knowledge of the county, its most pressing issues and key constituencies. Hopkins fared better on all counts, a point Hilber later conceded —offering afterward that it “didn’t go too well” for him.

The biggest gap came in the two candidates’ familiarity with the massive, diverse 5th District. They were asked to discuss their handle on the region in a question about representation of the LGBTQ community and Latino residents.

Hopkins touched on everything from the “sainthood” bestowed upon her by the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the drag queen philanthropy group, to the county’s improved bilingual communication in emergencies with Latino residents, thousands of whom live in the 5th District.

“It’s critical that we stand up for all communities,” she said. “I have faced criticism for supporting the pride flag that flies in downtown Guerneville on county property.”

5th District candidates

Lynda Hopkins

Age: 36

Experience: incumbent on Sonoma County Board of Supervisors; co-owner of an organic farm; former journalist

Family: Husband Emmett and three children

Residence: Forestville

Michael Hilber

Age: 60

Work: Self-employed electrical engineer; former employee for a defense contractor

Residence: Roseland

Hilber, in his answer, said he used to do some work in Guerneville.

“I guess I love the area,” he said. “That’s all I have to say.”

Where Hilber said he was loath to get involved in issues like immigration policy, saying he would defer to the sheriff, Hopkins touted her leadership in getting a resolution passed to discourage county investment in companies that profit from immigrant detention centers.

“It’s not acceptable to have kids in cages,” she said. “Now more than ever, we need to stand up.”

Engagement with public

Hopkins’ primary goal when she ran for her first office remains the same today: to give west county residents a greater say in local government.

“I think there’s a general frustration in unincorporated communities about lack of voice,” she said in an interview two years ago. “They have only me. Essentially, there’s a structural disempowerment of rural communities.”

That deficit of representation in the county’s largest supervisorial district drove what Hopkins considers the signature accomplishment of her first term: establishment of two municipal advisory councils that can speak for the Lower Russian River and Sonoma Coast.

When the Russian River flooded in early 2019, the Lower Russian River Municipal Advisory Council hosted a special meeting to provide information to residents. And the Sonoma Coast Municipal Advisory Council responded to community concerns over a planned footrace on Highway 1, initially envisioned as a marathon but then halved and shelved last year amid lingering regulatory hurdles.

And it’s not that Hopkins would be without input or exchange with constituents without the appointed panels. She gets credit in her district for showing up at all manner of public events, from pie contests and chili cook-offs to the Russian River Pride Parade and multitude of crab feeds this time of year.

And she is a rigorous correspondent on social media, including Facebook, where she offers near daily dispatches about policy, political issues or kitchen-table topics like the skimpy attire and racy performance of Jennifer Lopez and Shakira in this year’s Super Bowl halftime show.

She readily admits she has a hard time unplugging, and that those online interactions often eat away at her well into the night. But she said the benefits of social media are too important to sidestep.

“Social media means someone who is up at The Sea Ranch can reach me,” Hopkins said.

The digital outreach was notable recently as the county sought to combat a crisis over an uncontrolled, illegal homeless camp that took over the Joe Rodota Trail in Hopkins’ district. The camp population skyrocketed last year to 250 people sleeping in tents and makeshift shelters strung out along more than a mile of the trail.

As the crisis reached its peak, critics of Hopkins launched a recall effort against her that didn’t gain any steam and died Thursday after missing a deadline.

Unbowed by the threat, Hopkins joined the Facebook group promoting the recall.

In exchanges with constituents, she has defended her actions related to the encampment.

“It seems that a handful of people are starting a recall because, in the three years I’ve been in office, I have failed to single-handedly turn back decades of failed policies at the federal, state, and local level,” Hopkins said in a Facebook post in early January. “Namely, I haven’t managed to eliminate homelessness in Sonoma County. And this failure is extremely evident in the encampment that is currently sprawled along the Joe Rodota Trail.”

Homeless policy at issue

The trail was cleared in late January, dispersing dozens of homeless people across the city. Sixty were placed in a temporary sanctioned camp in east Santa Rosa, part of the county’s nearly $12 million emergency effort to address the trail camp.

Hopkins and Supervisor Shirlee Zane were the most aggressive in pushing the county into shorter-term action, leading to the temporary camp on the county’s Los Guilicos juvenile justice campus.

Hilber, in interviews and in the Wednesday debate, criticized the county’s strategy of establishing small, dispersed sanctioned camps. He said he doesn’t like the idea of far-flung shelters serving a few dozen residents, preferring a large commercial or industrial building on south Santa Rosa Avenue to house 200 or more people at lesser cost.

“So we can empower law enforcement to say, ‘We have shelter capacity for you,’ ” Hilber said.

Hopkins said warehouse-style bunks, like those in the Sam Jones homeless shelter in Santa Rosa, don’t appeal to many in the county’s homeless population.

“It’s why there are empty beds at Sam Jones and why Los Guilicos filled up,” Hopkins said. “Some people require privacy or their own space for mental health reasons.”

Still, at Wednesday’s debate, Hopkins said she believes in what she called “tough love,” saying the county can no longer allow large encampments to take root.

In a follow-up interview, Hopkins admitted the county doesn’t have enough shelter for all of its homeless population. But not everybody is accepting that shelter, either.

“We do still have shelter-bed capacity, and we’re still able to help people,” Hopkins said. “Folks do need to respond to our outreach efforts. I wish we had more folks coming in and saying they want help.”

Hilber did not fault Hopkins’ efforts to engage the community on homelessness and other issues, and he has no intention of aligning himself with those proposing her recall, saying the group is “too strident.”

“If a summer squash was running against Hopkins, they would vote for the summer squash,” he said.

Outlook for 2nd term

Hopkins first became involved in politics as a demonstrator in protests during President George W. Bush’s tenure. She then volunteered on Barack Obama’s first campaign for president. She and her husband, Emmett, own and operate a small organic farm west of Healdsburg and have three young children.

She has been endorsed by all of her board colleagues and the full slate of elected officials and civic leaders across the county. Her campaign coffers reflect the low-key tenor of the race. She reported raising little more than $10,000, a small amount compared to the war chests marshaled by fellowing incumbents running against more formidable rivals.

After she put out a call on Facebook, she secured seven donations of $1,000 or more, including contributions from the Sonoma Alliance for Vineyards and the Environment, Dutton Ranch and state Sen. Mike McGuire’s reelection fund.

Hopkins, the board vice chairwoman, singled out three key issues that will keep her focused in the next four years, should she be reelected.

First, she wants to continue to spur action on homelessness and housing. She wants to empower the Home Leadership Council, a homeless services entity composed of county, Santa Rosa and Petaluma officials.

The council shied from taking action amid the recent trail crisis, Hopkins said, and though it is responsible for disbursing millions from state, federal and local sources, it has no strategic plan nor any wider buy-in from other cities.

“I have been having meetings with (other governments) to build that body into the leadership body,” Hopkins said, emphasizing the word “the.” “I think it has to be.”

Second, Hopkins would also focus on climate change, including disaster preparedness and long-term planning for sea level rise. The 2020 census, and coming supervisorial redistricting, could help with that. Hopkins said she would welcome redistricting that would see her share the coastline with another supervisor, giving greater weight to coastal issues.

Finally, Hopkins said she’d continue to focus on infrastructure issues, including upgrades to roads and rural septic systems, which face a mandate to clean up their act in the Russian River watershed, potentially putting low- or fixed-income residents in a tight spot.

Clashing visions of county

Hilber grew up in a corner of Roseland that remains outside Santa Rosa city limits. He went to UC Davis for an undergraduate degree in engineering, then got his master’s from Stanford in electrical engineering.

In recent years he has stuck mostly to survey work in the North Bay after working for about a decade in the defense industry in Southern California.

Hilber ticked off a long list of grievances undergirding his bid for public office, from the slow pace of housing creation and the county’s “irresponsible” handling of tax dollars, to the feeling that business interests supporting his opponent simply have too much sway over county government.

“My intention is to give voters a choice — the ones who are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs,” Hilber said.

While he’s not running a campaign, he does have a website. Visitors must type in mikehilber.com, which brings up an error message, then click the “search” button, which takes you to a Wordpress site laying out his priorities and policy positions.

He said voters who align with his anti-tax message form his biggest base of supporters.

“The government has this attitude that every issue that comes along needs a tax,” Hilber said. “A lot of people agree with that message. I think I’ll get support from ordinary, working-class people who don’t want to be taxed to death.”

At the Wednesday debate, Hilber painted a mostly bleak picture of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, touching on crime and drugs and speculating without evidence that a stabbing he had heard about was carried out by someone using methamphetamines.

“The quality of life is in decline,” Hilber said. “Crime. Drugs...When you go to vote, understand that I live here, and I see the problems firsthand.”

Hopkins struck a more positive tone even when she referenced her disaster-marked first term. She highlighted the county’s investment in west county road upgrades, her work on homelessness and her commitment to helping underserved populations.

“It’s critical that we stand up for all communities,” Hopkins said.

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

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