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Ex-Santa Rosa mayor Chris Coursey to run against Supervisor Shirlee Zane for board seat

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Chris Coursey, the former Santa Rosa mayor, plans to run for the seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors held by Supervisor Shirlee Zane, setting up a battle of political heavyweights that is likely to be the most expensive and intriguing local race on the March 3 ballot.

Coursey was a longtime Press Democrat reporter and columnist and spokesman for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system before his election to the City Council in 2014.

His two-year tenure as mayor was dominated by the 2017 wildfires that burned more than 3,000 homes and scores of businesses in the city, thrusting him into an unprecedented disaster and onto an international stage like few Santa Rosa leaders before him.

In an interview Wednesday, Coursey cited rebuilding from the firestorm, finding solutions to address homelessness and building more affordable housing among his top campaign concerns. He pointed to his previous work as a journalist, covering local government and politics, and his tenure as an elected official, as influences behind his bid for the Board of Supervisors.

“I want to cause change for the good,” he said.

Coursey’s entry into the race confronts Zane with perhaps her strongest election challenge since first winning the 3rd District seat in 2008 in a bruising race against Sharon Wright, also a former Santa Rosa mayor.

Two erstwhile challengers to Zane, the longest-serving current board member, bowed out of the race in the past few weeks. Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs announced she would not run on Tuesday and Rohnert Park Mayor Gina Belforte dropped out of the race earlier this month. The 3rd District, the most urban in the county, includes most of Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park.

Coursey, 64, had been widely said to be readying a run for the seat. In an interview Tuesday after Combs’ announcement he would not elaborate on his decision-making process.

But in fact, he had made his decision Monday morning after waking up before his 7 a.m. alarm rang, he said Wednesday. He called Zane to let her know he was going to run for her seat, reversing course from what he’d told her in January, that he would not challenge her.

“And at that time, I wasn’t,” Coursey said. “But I also told her that if I changed my mind, I’d call her.”

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 two both endured the death of their spouses over the past decade. Theresa Coursey died of cancer in 2010 and Peter Kingston took his own life in 2011.

Coursey and Zane dated for about three years, breaking up in 2014, Coursey said. Both were reticent to discuss how their previous relationship might affect the race or say why they separated.

“I’m not going to have a whole lot to say about a personal relationship. That’s why it’s called ‘personal,’ ” Coursey said Wednesday in an interview, adding, “That has not factored into my decision here, other than knowing I would be asked about it.”

Zane, 59, said she hoped their past relationship wouldn’t be a factor in the campaign. “I don’t think it has to be,” she added.

Both said they planned to run positive campaigns.

“I’m not the kind of person that’s going to run a campaign telling people that the other person who’s running is not fit for the job or anything negative,” Coursey said. “I’m going to talk about my attributes.”

Zane did, however, note her surprise when Coursey informed her Monday of his intent to challenge her.

That, she said, was “really painful, because he told me he wasn’t going to run.”

On the campaign trail, Coursey, a 39-year resident of Sonoma County, said he would emphasize the greater need for city-county collaboration to spur new housing development and a new regional approach to funding homelessness projects.

“This will be about how best to address those, what kind of collaborations we create as we do that,” he said, “and I think it’s hugely important that we understand that Sonoma County doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”

Coursey’s bid for higher office sets up a race that will be “a magnet for dollars, resources and controversy,” said David McCuan, chairman of the political science department at Sonoma State University.

To McCuan, the exit of Combs and Belforte clearly signaled that Coursey had an open path to run against Zane.

“He is the only viable candidate that can challenge her,” said McCuan, who framed the race not as an ideological contest but as a question of “trust, integrity, and rebuild and resilience.”

McCuan noted that the filing deadline was more than 200 days away, but assuming nobody other than a few “fly-by-night” candidates enter, the 3rd District race will be settled in March with no need for a November run-off.

“That sets up a gargantuan contest,” he said. “Because right now, there isn’t another contest on the board that matches this.”

Zane, whose campaign kickoff event is Thursday at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens, has said she had raised at least $100,000 and was preparing to “campaign aggressively” and raise up to $300,000 total if that’s what it took.

“It’s a necessary evil of campaigning, raising lots of money,” she said Wednesday. “I’d much rather raise money to build housing and feed seniors and take care of disabled and veterans.”

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, Sonoma County’s senior politician on Capitol Hill, is set to attend Zane’s kickoff as a special guest, raising another question about how the two well-known candidates could split endorsements among elected and civic leaders.

In addition to Thompson, others who’ve backed Zane include state lawmakers Mike McGuire, Bill Dodd and Jim Wood, Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, and Councilmen John Sawyer and Jack Tibbetts.

“I have widespread and deep support because I’ve consistently worked well with people and delivered results,” Zane said, adding that people “might say other things about me, but they’d never say I don’t work hard.”

Coursey’s announcement was not accompanied by endorsements.

He said he has created the basic financial infrastructure for a run but acknowledged he had a lot of catch-up to compete with Zane’s well-funded campaign, including support from the wealthy Jackson wine family.

“It’s up to me to work my butt off between today and March 3 of next year,” Coursey said, adding that he hadn’t yet calculated how much money he’d need for the campaign.

Total spending in the county’s last hotly contested race for the Board of Supervisors — where Lynda Hopkins beat former state Sen. Noreen Evans — topped $1.1 million.

Coursey said more information about endorsements of his candidacy would be forthcoming. He noted that those listed as backing Zane did so before he threw his own hat in the ring.

“Endorsements are great, they’re important,” Coursey said, “but the endorsements I’m after are from the voters of this district.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

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