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OPINION: Strange Bedfellows: A Look at Hyper-Local Politics


OPINION: Strange Bedfellows: A Look at Hyper-Local Politics

By Jonah Raskin

Charles Dudley Warner, the nineteenth-century American writer, coined two memorable quips: “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it; and “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” Campaigns, causes, elections and parties bring together individuals who wouldn’t normally be together. 

Hey, strange isn’t necessarily bad. Except for the Indians, Americans are strangers in a strange land. Nor is strangeness something that can be quantified. Still, it’s the very stuff of politics that by its very nature creates alliances that bridge individuals and communities often isolated and even divided from one another. 

Moreover, while issues are vitally important, they’re not the only vital factor in local and national politics. Many citizens who have chosen Sanders over Clinton say they do so because they trust him more than they trust her. 

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore insists, “The biggest thing with voters isn’t where you stand on the issues, but are you responsible.” Still, he cares about clean water, clean politics, clear channels of communication and transparency in government.

So far, however, local media has largely missed the elusive yet tangible trust factor in a heated contest in which five rivals — Marion Chase, Noreen Evans, Lynda Hopkins, Tom Lynch and Tim Sergent seek a seat on the Sonoma Board of Supervisors. 

Frontrunner Evans asks voters a critical question, “Do we want Sonoma County to be a place where only the wealthy can afford to live and raise a family?” Her answer is a resounding “No.” Her “sponsors,” as she calls them, don’t belong to a single economic class, but rather to a generation (largely boomers) and perhaps to a tribe that values liberalism, environmentalism and pragmatism. 

Her sponsors recently rallied at a fundraiser in the Graton backyard of former supervisor Ernie Carpenter where she framed herself as the authentic voice of West County and its near perfect representative. “You can get angry, or you can get involved,” she said. 

Then, she guided the crowd through her career: from Santa Rosa councilwoman, to member of the State Assembly and then the State Senate. “I spent ten brutal years in Sacramento,” she said. “I’m excited to be running for supervisor in the Fifth. I love this place.” 

Sponsors fired questions about many of the same sorts of issues that bedevil citizens in Flint, Michigan, Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere: community oversight of the police, clean water, healthcare, climate change and more. 

“I’ve been around,” Evans said. “I understand what a general plan is and I know zoning codes.” She added that, ”leadership starts at the top.” Still, she didn’t venture far out on a political limb. “I don’t want to criticize anyone,” she said. “I wouldn’t say no to all development.” 

At the end of the afternoon, in response to a question about Lynda Hopkins, Evans said that, ”The people who support Lynda are the same people who have fought me the whole way. We keep very different company.”

When they share the same platform, Evans and Hopkins play nice and even echo one another. At an event titled “Beyond the Vote” that took place at the Sebastopol Grange and that was sponsored by several groups, including the Farmers Guild, Evans and Hopkins agreed that citizens were often unable to contribute in meaningful ways to the political process itself. 

For Tim Sergent, a 19-year resident of the 5th, life has almost always been one campaign or another. In the U.S. Infantry during the Contra Wars of the 1980s, he volunteered for a mission that brought food and supplies to an orphanage in Honduras. When he served in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, Sergent was part of a team that engineered humanitarian operations in Bosnia. 

Now, he teaches at Maria Carrillo High School, speaks Spanish fluently to students and their family members, opposes GMO’s, clamors for rent control and a permanent center for the homeless. Quietly and calmly outspoken, he urges monitoring of ground water and the updating and streamlining of the permitting process. Plus, he wants Sonoma County to move to zero waste, recycle everything that can be recycled and bring back composting in a big way. 

Jovial Tom Lynch, a West County resident for 37 years, has never accepted as gospel Jim Morrison’s line, “When you’re strange no one remembers your name.” In fact, Lynch argues the opposite. “You stand out if you’re strange,” he said. In 1985, after 750 million gallons of sewage spilled into the Russian River, Lynch got angry. 

He bought a load of manure from Grab ‘n’ Grow, rented a tractor and spreader from Warren Dutton in Sebastopol, drove it to Santa Rosa and distributed it over four city blocks, beginning at The Press Democrat building on Mendocino and ending at City Hall. He has never ben arrested; in West County and elsewhere, he’s a folk hero.

Lynch wants to reform the pension system, create housing for the homeless, nurture a sense of community that cuts across generations, and bridge social and economic inequalities. “I love Sonoma County,” he said. “We’re probably more tolerant and progressive here than in many parts of the U.S. Guerneville has long been a haven for gays and lesbians. Sonoma County is a candle in a dark age.” 

When former supervisor Eric Koenigshofer introduced Hopkins at the Sonoma County Alliance he depicted the Fifth as a place of small towns and villages: Jenner, Freestone and Valley Ford. In her talk, that began as stand-up comedy and that ended as a serious power-point presentation, Hopkins emphasized her role as an organic farmer with a small business and mother of two daughters. 

“I want a New Deal for Sonoma County,” she told the audience of about 250. She added, “Agriculture is part of our environment. We need to protect and encourage small farms in farm belts that grow food for cities and we need to bring down the price of farmland.” When asked about marijuana, she said that she wanted to help small growers and distributors and prevent the corporate take-over of pot. 

Of all the candidates running for supervisor in the 5th, Marion Chase is the only one who was born and raised in the 5th. A graduate of Santa Rosa’s Montgomery High School, she attended SRJC on a Doyle Scholarship and received an A.A. degree in 1985. Now, as an eligibility worker in Human Services for Sonoma County, she sees thousands of clients every year who are unemployed, underemployed, homeless, hungry and who suffer from poor mental health.  

 “For me, the phrase ‘politics makes strange bedfellows’ means that people ordinarily not together find common cause,” she explained. “That’s what the Fifth does best. When the Russian River flooded in 1986, I saw strangers pull together to help one another.” 

Chase knows that she’s the underdog in the race. “I’m under the radar, but make no mistake about, I’m running to win and to raise awareness, too,” she said. “I know that women outside political elites have done amazing things in this county, like stop the construction of the nuclear power plant in Bodega Bay.” 

If all politics is local, as Democratic Congressman Tip O’Neill famously observed, then politics in Sonoma County, is hyper-local, though it also offers a window into twenty-first century America itself. Taking the pulse of the Fifth might be a very good way to take the pulse of the U.S.A.

Jonah Raskin has lived in Sonoma County since 1976. He taught in the English and the communication studies departments at SSU for 30 years.

Candidates Nights:

April 22   “Bodega Bay Meet the Candidates.” 6:00 p.m.- 9:00 p.m. Bodega Bay Grange. 1370 Bodega Ave. Bodega.

April 27  “Candidate Forum,” League of Women Voters, Graton Community Clubhouse. 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. 8996 Graton Road. Graton.

April 28   Sonoma County Lodging Association. 3:00 p.m – 5:00 p.m. Flamingo Hotel. 2777 Fourth St. Santa Rosa.

April 28   Preserve Rural Sonoma. 6:00 p.m.- 8:00 p.m. Sebastopol Center for the Arts. 282 S. High Street. Sebastopol.

May 5   SOS Roads Candidate Night. 4:30PM-6:00PM. Hessel Grange. 5400 Hessel Road. Sebastopol

May 6   Friends of Monte Rio. 6:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. Monte Rio Recreation and Park. 20488 CA-116. Monte Rio, CA.