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Longtime political foes Gorin, Sawyer now election rivals

Susan Gorin; John Sawyer.

(BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
Published: Saturday, October 20, 2012 at 6:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 20, 2012 at 3:41 p.m.

Susan Gorin and John Sawyer long have been rivals on the Santa Rosa City Council, staking out contrasting positions on land use, fiscal issues and neighborhood involvement.

But the election to decide who takes over the 1st District seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, held for 10 years by Valerie Brown, marks the first time the political opposites have become opponents on the ballot.

The bruising runoff, now more than a year old, is being fought along familiar fronts for the candidates and their dueling political camps.

Gorin is the more liberal figure, supported by the county's largest environmental and labor groups.

Sawyer is the more conservative politician, with support from business and agriculture interests, as well as law enforcement and firefighter unions.

Both claim credentials across that divide, but Gorin accuses Sawyer of “greenwashing” his environmental record, while Sawyer says Gorin's votes against some development have been “short-sighted.”

Their rivalry has been bitter at times, factoring in power shifts on the Santa Rosa council and sparking protests by their supporters on the steps of City Hall.

What's different in the race for Brown's seat is that the fight is being waged in what is mostly new geographic terrain for the two candidates.

Both are well-known within Santa Rosa city limits, but the 1st District encompasses a much wider swath of the county to the east and south, including the city of Sonoma and Sonoma Valley.

Since June, when they topped a primary field of four other challengers, all of them from Sonoma Valley or Sonoma, Gorin and Sawyer have been in a high-octane scramble to broaden their bases.

“I think the numbers would show that it's the voters south of Santa Rosa city limits that are going to determine the next supervisor,” said Sawyer, 57, who was first elected to the council in 2004 and ran his family's downtown news store for decades until it closed in 2010.

Santa Rosa residents make up 52 percent of the 1st District's voters, but those in Sonoma and Sonoma Valley are more likely to be undecided, the candidates said.

“Santa Rosa voters know the records of John and me, for the most part” said Gorin, 60, a councilmember since being elected in 2006 and a former city planning commissioner and school board member. “Sonoma folks, less so. They're still trying to figure out our core values and voting records.”

The campaigns have filled the region's mailboxes, radio waves and farm fields with their messages, an election-season blitz escalating what is already the biggest showdown among local government races.

No other county seats are on the ballot this fall. Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Efren Carrillo easily claimed second terms in the June primary. The Board of Supervisors' two other seats, held by first-term members Mike McGuire and David Rabbitt, are not up for re-election until 2014.

All eyes have turned on the Gorin-Sawyer race, seen as pivotal in determining the direction of county government during a critical period.

It could produce the swing vote on controversial land-use issues and factor heavily in decisions about economic development, pension system overhaul and spending on county services, including roads, parks and open space and aid programs.

“There is a dramatic difference in the direction of the board based on who wins between these two candidates,” said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.

The winner will join a board reconstituted over the past four years. Gorin's victory could lead to a more liberal majority on some issues, joining Zane and McGuire. Sawyer's victory would assure a solid moderate-to-conservative majority, joining Carrillo and Rabbitt, as well as McGuire, who can swing right on some issues.

Either board makeup could stand for years, with their policy reverberating even longer.

“I wouldn't expect this board to look exactly the same in 10 years,” McCuan said. “But the direction of the board will be projected forward a decade.”

The stakes for the 1st District are especially high.

This election marks the first time since 1980 that 1st District voters get to decide who fills a vacant seat on the county board. Both Brown, who is retiring, and Mike Cale, her predecessor, were appointed to fill vacancies.

Whoever wins also has a good chance of keeping their seat: It's been 28 years since a sitting supervisor was ousted in Sonoma County.

“I would expect that whoever wins that race, I would think they would be there for a while,” said McCuan.

Regardless of who wins, however, it will be a Santa Rosa resident representing the 1st District — and joining two others from the city, Zane and Carrillo, on the county board. Brown, who is retiring after two decades in state and local politics, lives near Kenwood.

The change in board composition has more than a few 1st District voters dismayed about their choices. The district's geopolitical center has historically been Sonoma Valley, they argue.

“Neither one of them (Gorin and Sawyer) showed their face around here until they started running for supervisor,” said Gina Cuclis, a Boyes Hot Springs resident who was the top vote-getter in the June primary among the Sonoma-based candidates. “Do they really care about us or not? That's the bigger context.”

Both candidates, of course, say they are dedicated to serving the district.

Gorin cites her present service as a local government representative on regional boards and panels overseeing planning, air quality, and water. Other roles have dealt with county libraries, youth issues and bicycle and pedestrian safety countywide.

“I started out as a community volunteer representing the entire county,” Gorin said. “Did I do this thinking ‘Gee, I'm going to be elected supervisor?' No, I did that because of who I am.”

Sawyer, who also serves on countywide panels overseeing solid waste and airports, cites the connections he has made with valley interests in the past year, including farmers and ranchers, as evidence that he would be an effective representative. He lives in the Santa Rosa portion of Bennett Valley on the 1st District's west side, but will have no problem getting to know the entire district, he said.

“It's no different for me than how I serve on the council,” he said. “It's a matter of access and seeking the right people out.”

Of the two, Gorin is most vulnerable to the outsider complaint. Her former Fountaingrove home is four blocks outside the 1st District boundary so she had to move into the district to run.

Sawyer has pounced on that move, saying it “smacks of political gamesmanship” and runs counter to Gorin's support for district elections, currently proposed for Santa Rosa.

“I don't believe she wants to be the supervisor for the 1st District,” Sawyer said last week in an interview. “I believe she wants to be a supervisor.”

But Gorin, who is leasing a home in Oakmont, said her opponent is just trying to score political points. Sawyer himself lives just inside the district, she noted.

“When I made the commitment to run for this seat, I moved as far into the district as I could,” she said. “It reflects my commitment to serving this district.”

While the territory is fresh for the two candidates and the battlelines familiar, the issues they would face as a county supervisor are a blend of old and new.

They range from such hot-button topics as where to allow new medical marijuana dispensaries, the county proposal to serve as a power supplier to homes and businesses and decisions that could determine the spread of new wineries and vineyards in the region.

Asked for his immediate priorities, Sawyer advanced a long-held complaint of building interests — that county land-use regulations are stifling business growth.

He called the county planning department “broken,” saying it too often approaches development projects with an adversarial attitude.

“They are the gatekeepers and I believe their job should be to find the key to success, not slamming it in your face,” he said.

Gorin, who generally favors tighter land-use oversight, said improvements were needed in county permitting. But she cited current measures to improve customer service at the planning department, saying those efforts ought to be given more time to work.

“John just wants to slash and burn everything,” Gorin said.

Not true, said Sawyer, saying he favored “meaningful regulation” that is “consistent and fair.” Asked what he would change, he said “it's not the regulation that necessarily needs to change, but the process and attitude.”

The debate on land use involves past and future county votes on a long list of projects, including two currently in litigation — the Roblar Road quarry west of Cotati, and the the Dutra Materials asphalt plant south of Petaluma — and Preservation Ranch, the large forest-to-vineyard conversion proposal outside Annapolis.

Both candidates declined to publicly stake out positions on those projects, saying they would not do so until presented with a vote on the county board.

But supporters have lined up on both sides based on how they see the candidates' decisions.

Building interests have backed Sawyer for what they call his “balance” of economic needs and environmental protection.

“We really believe that (Gorin) has a history of not being what we would call business-friendly,” said Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group. “John fits that bill so much better than (her) that it was a slam dunk for us to endorse him.”

Environmental groups, meanwhile, have assailed Sawyer for what they say is his failing grade on land-use and neighborhood issues.

“John Sawyer consistently scores Fs and Ds,” said Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, the largest local green group. Gorin, he said, consistently gets top ratings. “Susan's record stands for itself,” he said.

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