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Sonoma County supervisor candidates Shirlee Zane, Chris Coursey trade jabs during debate

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It took fewer than 10 minutes before Sonoma County supervisor candidate Chris Coursey said “the gloves are off,” during a rollicking debate Wednesday that featured blame, booing and pot pie on paper plates at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building.

To read Coursey’s cues, the gloves came off a few minutes earlier, when incumbent third district Supervisor Shirlee Zane turned toward him and boasted that the majority of the City Council members Coursey had worked with as Santa Rosa mayor were endorsing her third reelection bid.

They stayed off as the pair of candidates who once dated sparred over housing, homelessness, mental health and more, agreeing on policy more often than not but disagreeing on process. Coursey, 65, the clear underdog who is seeking to be the first challenger to unseat an incumbent Sonoma County supervisor since 1984, sought to crack Zane’s incumbent advantage by attacking her on leadership.

“When things go right, Supervisor Zane always will take the credit; when things go wrong, it’s the staff’s fault,” Coursey said.

Zane, 60, is the senior incumbent on the Board of Supervisors, first winning office in 2008, and she is seeking her fourth term by touting a laundry list of accomplishments and homing in on an even longer list of endorsements.

The debate’s most heated moment came during a tense exchange related to the county-owned Chanate Road hospital complex, which has become an albatross around county leaders’ necks — but has most impacted Zane, who was targeted for fierce criticism as a key proponent of a now-defunct project that would have put nearly 900  housing units on the site.

The county is seeking to restart the deal with a new prospective buyer.

Coursey referenced the county’s initial decision to award the property to Santa Rosa developer Bill Gallaher, who along with his family members, employees and employees’ family members has contributed at least $134,967 to county supervisors’ campaigns, with Zane getting $63,000 as the biggest beneficiary.

When Zane got the opportunity to hit back, the volley went too far —at least for some in the crowd.

“You actually told me you thought Chanate should be a big park,” Zane said. “You never supported housing on it. You never spoke up for housing, not one bit — never when you were in public office, which wasn’t very long.”

Crowd members booed and hissed, with some shouting “rude!” before Santa Rosa Democratic Club debate moderator Alix Shor stepped in to seek calm.

It was necessary, particularly after Zane’s microphone stopped working, forcing the pair who sat back-to-back during dinner to pass the microphone back and forth between responses — answers which often mirrored each other on policy.

Both agreed, for example, that housing and homelessness are the top two issues in 2020. Both agreed that they have a lot more than two issues on their minds.

“But you only gave me two,” Zane quipped, drawing a laugh from the crowd. “I can work on more than two at one time. I’ve proven that.”

Coursey, meanwhile, used Zane’s lengthy tenure to pick out groups of failures centering on what he says is Zane’s inability to listen or involve the public in decisions.

He repeated a well-worn criticism about the Chanate property, saying the city of Santa Rosa always conducts public outreach for development projects, glossing over the fact that Chanate is a complex transaction featuring a land sale — something the city doesn’t regularly do public outreach for.

Coursey was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Press Democrat, and was elected to the Santa Rosa City Council in 2015, his fellow council members voting to make him mayor in 2016. By 2018, he decided to step down rather than run for reelection in a newly created district, something Zane continued to press to her advantage during Wednesday’s debate, all the way to her closing remarks.

“You say, ‘It’s so important! This is such a great job! Public service!’ ” Zane said, gesturing while miming Coursey’s words. “But you left — after one term. And I’ve been doing this day after day through some of the hardest times, never abandoning those people who lost their homes in the fire.”

Coursey has readied a reply to Zane’s regular criticism, that he wasn’t around for the rebuild following the deadly 2017 wildfires, which killed 24 people and destroyed more than 5,300  homes in Sonoma County.

Government, Coursey said, doesn’t build houses.

“While it may have only been 2% (of the rebuild) was done when I left office, there are thousands of houses that have been built since then, and neither you nor I have pounded one of those nails,” Coursey said.

The two have a personal history. Coursey wrote about Zane for The Press Democrat as far back as 1996, when she was leader of Sonoma County’s now-closed Hospital Chaplaincy Services.

The pair also dated for about three years, breaking up in 2014.

Coursey’s team has billed the race as a referendum on the status quo, accusing Zane of being out of touch with the residents of her district and sending surrogates to highlight his opponent’s high-priced, fundraisers hosted by prominent wine families well outside of the Santa Rosa-centric third district.

“In case you hadn’t noticed I’m a white man, of a certain age,” Coursey said. “But in this election, I represent change and I represent innovation.”

Although Coursey kept pace with Zane during the first fundraising cycle, raising about $50,000 to nearly match Zane’s $53,000 haul, his opponent already had $78,000 in her campaign war chest, and donations continue to roll in.

Since Dec. 16, 2019, Zane’s campaign has filed more than two dozen 24-hour contribution reports, the kind of reports required for donations of $1,000 or more. Among her megadonors, Zane counts E. & J. Gallo Winery, Balletto Vineyards and members of the Jackson Family Wine Empire.

Coursey has filed one such notice during the campaign, earning a single $1,000 check from Fred Euphrat, a one-time county supervisor candidate.

The next campaign finance filings are due at the end of the day Thursday.

While Coursey continues his quest to typecast his opponent, Zane offered in her closing remarks a simple defense of her incumbency.

“Public service isn’t about political rhetoric,” she said. “It’s about hard work. At the end of the day, it should be about results, and getting things done. I get things done.”

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

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