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Santa Rosa mayor vote falling on Jack Tibbetts’ shoulders

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The two new members of the Santa Rosa City Council will take their seats Tuesday, and they’ll immediately be faced with a decision that may shape their political futures: whom to support for mayor, Tom Schwedhelm or Chris Coursey.

The way it’s shaping up, that decision appears to be falling squarely on the shoulders of Jack Tibbetts, the 26-year-old member of the Board of Utilities who was the top vote getter in his first run for public office. Tibbetts says he’s been bombarded by intense lobbying this past week, receiving dozens of calls and emails daily from supporters of both men in an effort to sway his vote.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook,” Tibbetts said.

He says he finds much to admire in both men, including Schwedhelm’s work ethic and Coursey’s thoughtfulness, and is trying to put political labels aside and focus on who would be the best person to lead the city at this time.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling some trepidation,” Tibbetts said. “But this is what I signed up for.”

He says his decision is being made even more daunting by the bitter disappointment many local Democrats feel over the election of Donald Trump, passions that might color how they feel about having Schwedhelm – a registered Republican – lead the largest city in one of the most heavily Democratic counties in the state.

Hillary Clinton received 69 percent of the vote countywide, Trump 22 percent. Tibbetts and the other new councilman, Chris Rogers, both received the endorsement of the Sonoma County Democratic Party.

Tibbetts said some of his supporters have expressed trepidation about Trump’s immigration politics, and how Santa Rosa would respond with Schwedhelm – the city’s retired police chief – at the helm compared to Coursey, a former Press Democrat columnist and retired spokesman for the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit authority.

Then there’s that thorny issue of rent control.

During the election, Tibbetts offered qualified support of rent control and just cause for eviction in Santa Rosa. Schwedhelm has steadfastly opposed it, calling it an inequitable solution. The law, passed by the council in August, has been suspended by a petition drive, the results of which are pending.

The mayor is a two-year post on the seven-member nonpartisan council paying $1,200 per month, slightly more than council members’ $800 stipend. In addition to the power to set the agenda, the mayor has the power to make committee appointments.

Some have expressed concern that as mayor, Schwedhelm could use that power to thwart future votes on rent control, Tibbett said, adding that he doesn’t share that concern.

If the petition drive is upheld, the council can either repeal rent control or send it to the voters in a special election.

The homelessness problem is another key issue driving Tibbett’s decision. He’s the new executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a homeless services organization, and said he’s worked with closely Schwedhelm on homelessness issues.

Schwedhelm helped formed a group called the Homeless Collective that seeks a communitywide solution to the problem, and Tibbetts said he’s impressed with Schwedhelm’s strategic thinking about the issue.

Then there’s the Erin Carlstrom factor. Carlstrom, who once aspired to state office, courted a variety of progressive people and groups when she successfully ran for council in 2012. But late in the race, prodded by veteran political consultant Herb Williams, she endorsed his client, Ernesto Olivares, a retired police lieutenant. Some called the move a “slap in the face” to progressives. Then once on the council she voted for Scott Bartley over Gary Wysocky for mayor. The decisions alienated her base and stoked resentments on the council. In July, Carlstrom announced she would not seek a second term.

Tibbetts said he’s been told quite plainly that it would be a huge mistake to vote for a law-and-order Republican over a moderate Democrat like Coursey.

“If I wind up going with Tom, I will end up getting burned very badly,” he said.

Council watchers say Mayor John Sawyer and Olivares support Schwedhelm while Julie Combs and Rogers support Coursey, leaving Tibbetts the swing vote on the issue.

Tibbetts said he’s trying to make a decision based on what’s best for the city as a whole, and not out of fear for his “future political viability.”

“As someone who is now a member of the council, and not just a voter, I need to look at the person I’m working with and not the label next to their name,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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