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Outside spending roils Petaluma election

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They are as ubiquitous this time of year as cornucopia centerpieces and pumpkin spiced lattes. Political advertising touting candidates and ballot measures has littered the landscape and clogged mailboxes this fall, a testament to competitive races up and down the ballot.

But besides candidate-funded advertising, a new element has stirred Petaluma’s top political race this year: An infusion of outside money is seeking to tilt the mayor’s race. A political action committee backed by big oil companies has spent $32,000 to support mayoral candidate Mike Harris and $10,000 backing mayoral candidate Brian Powell.

Harris, a former councilman, and Powell, a political newcomer, are running against Councilwoman Teresa Barrett. Barrett also sits on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which regulates emissions from industries, including oil and gas.

The group, the Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class, Including Energy Companies who Produce Gas, Oil, Jobs and Pay Taxes, has sent mailers in the weeks leading up to the election touting Harris and Powell, despite the candidates’ claims to not welcome the outside support. In a liberal-leaning city like Petaluma, support from a coalition of big oil companies could actually hurt a campaign, political observers said.

“I don’t know who they are, but I wish they’d stop,” Harris said. “I think they might be trying to hurt me.”

A message left with attorney Steven Lucas, the registered agent for the coalition, was not returned.

Powell, who did not raise any campaign money or buy any advertising on his own, said the mailers at least help get his name in front of voters.

“Apparently dark money from big oil has sent another flier for me. That’s been interesting,” he said. “I’m not connected to them. Randomly, that’s brought a lot of attention to me.”

Barrett seemed to be taking the outside support for her opponents in stride, though she suggested that we were witnessing the results of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that opened up independent campaign expenditures by corporations and political action committees.

The progressive candidate said that she has focused in the final weeks on talking to voters and sharing her message, which includes developing with denser housing downtown.

“Our community is at a pivotal point right now,” she said. “If we continue to develop in a the way we are going, we will really ruin our town.”

Powell, whose family has been in Petaluma for a century, has taken a more hard line stance on development, preferring to stop all building until the city’s infrastructure needs are met. A first-time candidate, he admitted his odds of winning were long, but he failed to endorse either opponent.

“I don’t see myself pulling this off,” he said. “I feel that if I lose, Petaluma loses.”

Harris, who narrowly lost the 2014 mayoral race to David Glass, said he will be canvassing neighborhoods up until election day, talking to voters about his goals of building the Rainier crosstown connector and adding more affordable housing.

“I feel that I have the right balance that we need,” said Harris, a senior executive for a local financial services company. “My experience would serve Petaluma well.”

Brian Sobel, a former city councilman and Petaluma political consultant, said independent groups have a history of trying to influence local elections, but it is usually unions or other groups with a clear connection to Petaluma. The mailers from the oil company coalition is the first instance he can recall of a truly outside group infiltrating Petaluma politics.

“Petaluma hasn’t seen a lot of independent expenditures,” he said. “It’s a change in how Petaluma politics are viewed from the outside and what’s at stake.”

He said that political advertising — mailers and campaign signs — don’t necessarily translate into votes, but help build an impression in the minds of voters. With less than a week to go before the Nov. 6 election, those signs, for nearly every candidate and issue on the ballot, won’t be up much longer.

Voters in the Petaluma area will see the following races on their ballots:

Harris, Barrett and Powell are running to replace retiring mayor David Glass. Petaluma is the only city in Sonoma County that directly elects its mayor, who has about the same power as the other city council members.

Seven candidates are running for three seats on the city council. Incumbent Dave King is seeking a second term. Challengers are Kevin McDonnell, Scott Alonso, Michael Regan, D’Lynda Fischer, Robert Conklin and Dennis Pocekay.

The Petaluma Joint Union High School District has seven candidates running for three seats. Incumbents Mike Baddeley, Sheri Chlebowski and Phoebe Ellis face Mady Cloud, Caitlin Quinn, Joanna Paun and Kimy Ruiz Seitz.

Voters in east Petaluma will elect three board members to the Old Adobe Union School District from among incumbents Michael Fung, Patsy Knight and Anthony Bendik and challenger Kimberly Shaver. District voters will also decide the fate of Measure L, a $38.5 million bond for school improvements.

In the Petaluma Health Care District, incumbent Joe Stern faces challengers Crista Barnett Chelemedos and Gabriella Ambrosi for two open seats.

Besides statewide races like the governor’s race and 11 state propositions, voters in Petaluma will choose a U.S. representative from between incumbent Democrat Jared Huffman and his Republican challenger Dale Mensing. The State Assembly district features two Democrats, incumbent Marc Levine and challenger Dan Monte. Voters west of Petaluma will elect either incumbent Mike McGuire or challenger Roni Jacobi, both Democrats, to the State Senate.

Voters in the Shoreline School District west of Petaluma will decide on Measure I, a $19.5 million bond for Tomales High School and other district campuses.

Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District voters will see Measure W, a $300 annual parcel tax. Countywide voters will decide on Measure M, an eighth-cent sales tax increase for Sonoma County Regional Parks.

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)