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Rival campaigns pour record $2.3 million into SMART sales tax extension

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The Sonoma County donor bankrolling the campaign against SMART’s sales tax renewal poured an additional $187,000 into the opposition coffers Wednesday, cementing the fight over Measure I, with more $2.35 million raised by both sides, as the most expensive contest in local political history.

The newest contribution from Molly Gallaher Flater — daughter of prominent developer Bill Gallaher and chief operating officer at Windsor-based Gallaher Homes — increased her donations to $1,234,542, according to the latest campaign filings. It comes on the heels of a $198,000 contribution reported earlier this week. She previously committed to spending up to $1 million to defeat Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s quarter-cent tax extension.

“Voters are outraged and it has implications beyond just this election,” Novato Councilman Eric Lucan, chairman of the SMART board of directors, said in a written statement. “One family continues to use their wealth to influence local matters … and now they want to take away the SMART train. What’s next?”

All but about $4,500 reported by the No on Measure I campaign comes from Flater, according to campaign records.

Messages left Thursday for Flater, 35, went unreturned. She has yet to respond to repeat requests for an interview over the past month to address her interest in the campaign.

In a written statement last month, she said SMART has failed to meet the main objectives pitched to voters who launched the system in 2008: relieving Highway 101 congestion and reducing greenhouse gas emissions tied to traffic in Sonoma and Marin counties.

SMART released figures last month that showed progress on both fronts.

Supporters of the commuter rail system that began service in 2017 have, after a late start, sought to keep pace in the money race. Relying on a $1 million donation from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the “Stay Green, Keep SMART” campaign shows total contributions of $1,116,350.

Greg Sarris, chairman of the Graton tribe, reiterated Thursday that he was not interested in waging a political war. But if the Yes on Measure I campaign needed more funding, he said, they know how to reach him.

“I’m not playing any games here,” Sarris said. “If the SMART train needs more money, they can come ask for it.” The tribe owns the Graton Resort & Casino outside Rohnert Park.

Other major contributors to the Yes on Measure I campaign include a pair of construction firms — Stacy and Witbeck, Inc. and Santa Rosa-based Ghilotti Construction — that have handled work on SMART’s current 45-mile line and two labor unions.

Together, the rival campaigns have smashed records for fundraising in a local political contest. The $2,355,367 total — most of it reported in the past month — makes the two-county race “unprecedented,” said Brian Sobel, a political analyst and former Petaluma councilman.

“It’s just a massive amount of money for a tax extension. I can’t think of another initiative or measure in the region that has raised this kind of money, and raised it so quickly,” Sobel said. “Just the rapid nature of these huge amounts of money coming with so little time left in the campaign, I’d go as far as to say it’s unprecedented.”

Several races for Sonoma County supervisor have surpassed a combined $1 million in spending. The previous spending record for a local ballot measure is thought to be a heated battle over rent control in Santa Rosa in 2017, where spending also topped $1 million. Measure C failed, with 51% of voters scuttling the city’s rent control ordinance.

Before that, an unsuccessful ballot measure in 2005 that would have banned genetically modified organisms in Sonoma County saw a combined $850,000 in spending.

Since mid-January, the opposition group rolled out television, radio and internet advertisements, with campaign flyers hitting mailboxes this week. SMART supporters, now flush with cash, have responded with their own wave of mailers, with plans in place for broadcast spots in the coming days, according to Lucan, co-chairman of the Yes on Measure I campaign.

Mail-in ballots for the March 3 election began arriving this week to the more than 441,000 registered voters in Sonoma and Marin counties. Measure I, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass, would extend SMART’s current quarter-cent sale tax into 2059.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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