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Outside group ramps up anti-Noreen Evans campaign in Sonoma County supervisor race

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An independent campaign supporting Lynda Hopkins in her bid for a seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has launched a series of political attacks against her opponent, former state Sen. Noreen Evans, bashing her record in Sacramento and raising questions about campaign contributions she received during her decade in the state Legislature.

The group behind the mailers is bankrolled by wealthy winery owners, influential business groups and prominent real estate developers, many of whom have also contributed to Hopkins’ campaign.

The ads, including mailers and full-page advertisements in The Press Democrat, challenge Evans’ attendance record, starting in 2009, as a member of the legislative oversight committee for the California Coastal Conservancy, the state agency overseeing coastal conservation and restoration projects. They also highlight past campaign contributions she has received from special interests, including casino operators.

“We can’t just sit by on the sidelines and watch Noreen relentlessly mislead voters and try to dismantle Lynda by saying she’s green-washed, and she’s going to turn loose development and gravel mining interests on Sonoma County,” said Eric Koenigshofer, an Occidental attorney who is running the independent campaign. “That’s just nonsense.”

Donors to the group include John Dyson, proprietor of William Selyem Winery in Healdsburg, the Sonoma County Alliance, the California Real Estate political action committee and William Gallaher, founder of Oakmont Senior Living and a developer of the Bell Village housing project in Windsor.

Altogether, the campaign has raised $163,000 since it was formed on Sept. 29. It has spent more than $66,000 to date on advertisements. The campaign is independent and barred by law from coordinating with Hopkins’ campaign.

Koenigshofer indicated the group will continue to pump out ads in the run-up to the Nov. 8 election to determine who succeeds Supervisor Efren Carrillo. He called out past contributions Evans has taken from banking and oil companies, including Chevron, and multinational corporations such as Georgia Pacific Corp., the Atlanta-based building products and paper maker owned by Koch Industries, controlled by the conservative businessmen Charles and David Koch.

“I like to think what we’re doing is holding up a mirror to Noreen, and applying her standards to herself,” Koenigshofer said. “If who you take money from is some evidence of questionable conduct, then she needs to own up to her own history as a politician.”

Evans, who has been critical of Hopkins’ political backers, called the campaign a “smokescreen” for special interests seeking to influence the outcome of the race for 5th District supervisor.

“This is an obvious attempt to deflect public attention from the big bucks flowing into the Hopkins campaign and that of her supporter, Eric Koenighshofer, and it has absolutely no application to what is going on in this campaign,” Evans said. “It’s a common campaign tactic to claim the other side is doing something that they are in fact doing, and that is taking significant amounts of money from big business interests, groups opposed to rent control and those who want to restart gravel mining in the Russian River. This is nothing more than negative and deceptive campaigning.”

Hopkins, a Forestville organic farmer making her first bid for public office, has touted her desire to remain “positive” in her campaign, but she characterized the attacks against her opponent as warranted.

“There has been a tremendous onslaught against us,” Hopkins said. “Organic farming is not just a label, I’ve devoted my life to this for the past nine years, and I have received money from some of the same campaign contributors as her in the past.”

Evans said the attacks on her record in state office reflect the high stakes in a contest to decide who holds a seat that could determine the board’s direction on high-profile issues, including tighter limits on wineries and development of affordable housing.

Evans defended her record as one of six members of the legislative oversight committee for the state Coastal Conservancy. She acknowledged missing some meetings, but she and others said regular attendance was not expected from the legislative members.

“I wasn’t a voting member, and I wasn’t supposed to go to Coastal Conservancy meetings. Had I attended them, I would have actually missed my work in the state Capitol, where I had voting responsibilities,” Evans said. “So this attack is a complete fabrication and it’s an attempt to smear my reputation with voters, who I have served for 20 years.”

Neal Fishman, a longtime former top official for the Coastal Conservancy and president of Sonoma County Conservation Action, the county’s largest environmental organization, said regular committee attendance was not required of legislators in Evans’ post.

“The oversight committee functioned as another set of eyes over the budget, but legislative members were never expected to show up because they were nonvoting members of the organization,” Fishman said. “Discussions on projects and spending are done prior to the meetings ever taking place. Virtually every person who has ever been on the committee has not attended meetings.”

Evans acknowledged receiving money from Station Casinos of Las Vegas, which operates the Graton Resort and Casino outside Rohnert Park.

Those contributions served as a key point in one of the mailers pumped out by Koenigshofer’s independent campaign, which said that Evans has “spent her career as a professional politician raking in over $180,000 from statewide gambling interests. This includes thousands from Station Casinos.”

Evans pointed out, however, that she voted against the compact that finalized the casino deal between the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria and the state Legislature in 2012 that cleared a final roadblock for the controversial gambling development.

“There was a lot of opposition at the time, and I listened to my constituents and voted my conscience,” Evans said. “My biggest concern was that it was development on the outside of the urban area, and there were issues with the (endangered) tiger salamander and nearby wetlands.”

Evans countered the assertion that she would be favorable to inviting future casinos into Sonoma County. In an interview, she also turned the tables, questioning Hopkins’ political ties to her campaign consultant, Rob Muelrath, who is also the consultant behind a proposed casino development sought by the Cloverdale Rancheria of Pomo Indians. Such developments are generally outside of the Board of Supervisors control beyond deals to mitigate for impacts to public safety, infrastructure and the environment.

“The one opportunity I’ve had to support a casino, I voted ‘no’” Evans said.

The pro-Hopkins group has quickly outraised two independent groups formed earlier in the race to support Evans.

One of those groups, formed in August and backed by environment and labor advocates supporting Evans, has raised nearly $60,000, largely from labor unions, including the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association and the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents the largest group of unionized county workers. The independent campaign has spent nearly $40,000 attacking Hopkins in mailers and on radio waves, according to the latest campaign finance records.

“Don’t let Lynda Hopkins take us back,” one mailer said, pointing out that she has accepted significant campaign cash from developers and business interests.

An additional independent campaign run by SEIU 1021 spent $81,756 leading up to the June primary but has been inactive since.

“We’re trying to play up Noreen’s strengths, which are long-held positions on protecting labor rights and protecting the coast and the environment,” said Jack Buckhorn, the executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, who is helping to run the active pro-Evans independent campaign. “We’re also wondering why this out-of-town investor is pouring so much money into a local race. He apparently cares a lot about winery development and protecting these tasting rooms and event centers.”

Buckhorn was referring to Dyson of William Selyem Winery. He was deputy mayor of New York City under Rudy Giuliani and also owns three other local vineyards, one near Guerneville, one off Olivet Road west of Santa Rosa and one near Larkfield-Wikiup off Mark West Station Road.

Dyson said he is supporting Hopkins, both directly and indirectly through the independent campaign, because he opposes Evans’ long tenure in politics and her strong support of labor unions. Dyson said this election is the first time he has contributed to an outside campaign in Sonoma County. He has made past contributions directly to Efren Carrillo in both of his supervisorial runs, as well as Mike McGuire during his runs for both county supervisor and state Senate.

“Lynda Hopkins comes at this fresh and new, with an open mind,” Dyson said Saturday, from the wine pickup party at his upscale Westside Road winery. “Noreen comes with preset ideas and a nasty attitude and she’s been around too long. And, I don’t think it’s fair to take so much money from labor unions when supervisors negotiate with them at arm’s length.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 707-526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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