Nov 21, 2017
by David Abbott
Photo above: James Gore with Cal Fire
When Fourth District Supervisor James Gore takes the reins as Chair of the Board of Supervisors this month, he follows in the footsteps of young Sonoma County leaders who have changed the face and complexion of the region from the coast to the inland valleys.
Gore, a Healdsburger and sixth generation Sonoma County resident, elected at the age of 36 in 2014, was joined on the board this year by Lynda Hopkins, who was 33 at the time of her election.
“The next generation of leadership is on the cusp,” Gore said. “I deal with a lot of people who fought the battles of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s who bring that in as a prologue of how we can do better.”
But, he worries some people are still “fighting those same fights” from 30 years ago.
“The battles they fought and the scars they developed … I respect the hell out of that.” Gore said. “But at the same time, my question is, ‘is it useful to achieve progress?’”
Both Hopkins and Gore won by healthy margins over longtime local leaders Noreen Evans and Deb Fudge, respectively. They see their mission as maintaining the integrity of what has been fought for and won, while addressing pressing issues—many of which are the same as those that have gone before—in a world that is rapidly changing, both within the boundaries of the county and without. Changes due in part to the accelerated intensity of the technological age.
In the wake of the fires that destroyed entire communities and 5 percent of the housing stock in an already constricted market, their youth and vitality will be sorely needed in a region already facing daunting challenges.
“Since I came into office, we’ve had floods, fire, homelessness and I’m expecting locusts,” Hopkins said. “We had Saturday problems—the ones we woke up with on Oct. 7—and on Monday there was a whole new set of them. And there will be a secondary wave.”
While maintaining agricultural land, greenbelts and open spaces is a top priority for them, Sonoma County’s storied wildlands—and its emergence as a top wine growing region on the planet—might not even exist, had it not been for the youth and idealism that swept the nation in the late-1960s.
Thanks to the General Plan put in place in 1978 after a contentious political battle that saw a change from the “old guard” to members of the budding environmental movement, Sonoma County may very well have looked like San Jose and its environs.
The sea change began in the mid-’60s, when a flood of hippies moved to the communes of West County from Haight Ashbury, and disillusioned youths from around the country flocked here in the “back to the land” movement.
Residents of Morning Star and Wheeler ranches began butting heads with longtime landowners and a multi-generational power structure poised to break the county into profitable parcels to sell off to a wave of immigrants from the Bay Area seeking asylum from a population explosion to the south.
But the political tipping point came in 1976, when a 26-year-old Navy veteran from Los Angeles by the name of Eric Koenigshofer was elected to the fifth district by a 368-vote margin.
“My win was a complete surprise to everyone, even me,” he said. “The only time I ever led was the final count.”
Koenigshofer came to Sonoma County to attend Sonoma State University in 1972 after serving a tour in Vietnam. He earned his B.A. in Political Science in 1974, and jumped into the middle of a very contentious and often confusing supervisorial battle that featured recalls and a Fifth District race that at one point had eight candidates.
To top that off, two supervisors, local environmental legend Bill Kortum, who spearheaded the movement to kill a nuclear power plant on Bodega Head, and Chuck Hinkle, were successfully recalled in an election organized by the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association.
The recall left a “pro-growth” majority on the board after a third supervisor, Ig Vella resigned to take a position as manager of the Sonoma County Fair, although Vella would have likely faced recall as well.
The board was now comprised of men ready to undo hard-won progress made protecting the coastline and rural aspect of the county. They began what they thought would be a solid hold on power by slashing staffing and protections for the coast. In hindsight, they overplayed their hand.
“It was a regular election cycle, so they didn’t have to do it. They could have waited,” Koenigshofer said. “George DeLong replaced Kortum and immediately cut general plan staff and parks staff, which focused attention on them. They overstepped.”
Koenigshofer eventually beat out popular Sebastopol resident Bob Theiler and joined Helen Rudy and Brian Kahn to complete the changing of the guard.
“Then it was settled,” he said. “We adopted the General Plan in 1978. It was an intense process and my seat was the swing vote.”
Although they were on different sides of the issues, Koenigshofer looks back on the pro-growth contingency with sympathy. It was a generation, after all, that survived both the Great Depression and World War II. They returned from the war to a completely different world, with a booming economy and relationships at home that were evolving, due to the wartime labor and sacrifices of women and people of color.
“They were not anti-environment, they just wanted a good life,” Koenigshofer said. “But I think the change came about because of the hippies, Nixon, Watergate and a universal desire to clean house by a group of outsiders.”
The general plan effort took a lot out of Koenigshofer who, on the night of his 1980 campaign rollout, announced he would not seek re-election. The decision sent a shock through his supporters, so in order to carry on the momentum, his campaign manager Ernie Carpenter was tagged to be his successor.
Carpenter came to Sonoma County in 1969, during the hippie migration to the hills of West County. Morning Star and Wheeler were at the height of the infamous run that pitted a handful of idealistic or idle refugees against a staid and conservative population distrustful of the naked, hairy interlopers in their midst.
It was Carpenter who was able harness the energy and desire for change from that demographic that led to Koenigshofer’s slim victory four years before.
Seven years Koenigshofer’s senior, Carpenter had recently graduated with a B.A. from San Francisco State and Master of Social Work from Berkeley in 1969.
He grew up in Pittsburg, California and was familiar with Sonoma County from his jaunts to a youth music camp in Cazadero.
“In 1966, I was living in the Haight, working with the Diggers, so I hitchhiked to Mendocino one day,” he said. “I found Morning Star and decided to sleep in the woods. There were a bunch of naked people—90 percent of them were men—and what I remember the most was the noise and racket. Lou (Gottleib) was playing the piano and I heard gunshots. Nobody was getting killed, they were just celebrating something.”
He also developed a lasting relationship with Bill Wheeler and often picked him up hitchhiking. His turquoise Willie’s Jeep was one of the few hardy vehicles that could navigate the treacherous road into the commune at the top of Coleman Valley Road.
It was after a failed run for the Forestville school board that Carpenter met Koenigshofer and future supervisor Tim Smith. But his election to the board in 1980, where he served until 1997, was the seminal moment in his long political career.
“I was 37 when I was elected,” he said. “Eric was burned out and not interested in running for higher office, but he didn’t want to be a curmudgeon on the board either.”
The Carpenter era was different from anything that came before. Prop 13 reduced revenues for the county, but the 1980s and ’90s were times of great strides in the preservation of open spaces.
“When we came here, it was the old guard, but there was an attitude shift,” he said. “Before, (the supervisors) practically died in office and they were lawyers and bankers.”
He tried, and failed to create an historic district out of Wheeler Ranch, but his successes included creating a community forum for the General Plan that was updated in 1989.
“We were committed to a forum to maintain the rural aspect of our community.” Carpenter said. “We created the West County Trail and fixed the sewer and water systems, and preserved the Laguna by zoning by combining districts that morphed into restoration.”
Throughout the years, the issues faced by the county have not changed that much: the cost of housing; whether to expand the scope of development into open spaces and, of course, the condition of Sonoma County roads.
Yet while many issues have been rehashed and continue to be under scrutiny, there is one thing different than before that will have an effect moving forward.
“We’re seeing gross inequity like we’ve never seen,” Gore said. “We’re in a fluctuation point, which demands leadership.”
That leadership is in the youthful hands of Gore and Hopkins and will be one of the biggest challenges to their political lives and the legacies they leave behind.
Despite his relative youth, Gore brings national policy experience from his service in the Obama Administration as Assistant Chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
On a local scale, Hopkins helped guide Sonoma County Farm Trails through a tumultuous period and has also farmed along the banks of the Russian River in Gore’s district with her husband Emmitt. They moved to Forestville the year before Hopkins decided to run, which led to charges of “carpetbagger” among Evans’ supporters.
Hopkins still won the district handily, many of her supporters charging Evans with carpetbagging as well.
All politics aside, both Gore and Hopkins performed admirably during the crisis. While part can be attributed to the energy of youth, they also ably utilized modern tools not available to previous generations.
“The younger generation has the ability to work outside of government, but we are passionate about government,” Hopkins said. “We’re also social media savvy, although government is not quite ready to embrace and utilize social media. It’s going to take government awhile to get up to speed.”
During the fires, both Hopkins and Gore posted information and updates as needed. Through texting, they were able to maintain 24/7 communications, even in parts of the county that had bad service because of crippled infrastructure.
They have also been able to effectively work together when issues affecting both districts demand.
“James and I share when we see a need,” she said. “We don’t need an institution or bureaucracy.”
Which leads to a discussion about the structure of government in the future.
“Our biggest issues: housing, workforce and resource management, i.e. water, are regional issues,” Gore said. “And we are still dealing with them as jurisdictions. Which is dead wrong. So the fire, in a horrific way, reminded us that jurisdictions don’t matter.”
In the wake of the firestorm there will be many challenges from rebuilding to the allocation of resources. While West County was not affected, resources are going to be needed in three other districts and housing is going to be a major challenge countywide.
Hopkins cited fatigue as one of the problems going forward after the “feel-good spirit,” is past and the long slog towards rebuilding drags on for years, if not decades.
“One of my concerns is, as much as I want to do for my district, I have to look at countywide needs, and those are away from my district,” she concluded. “I love them and want to work for them, but we’re in triage mode for the foreseeable future.”
To this day, Carpenter continues his work as a consultant on environment and government and to be a “political muckraker,” ready to call out what he sees as attempts to undermine the spirit and intent of the General Plan.
Koenigshofer has been vilified as a traitor to the environmental cause by some in the community, but Sonoma County overall and the Fifth District in particular, would be far different places were it not for his efforts to push environmental momentum and help shape the general plan.
He also had a hand in redrawing the district map in 1976, removing Cotati from the fifth and consolidating the coast into one district.
As to why he has received such a negative reaction, Koenigshofer cites forging a working relationship with the Farm Bureau and his work on Preservation Ranch, a proposed vineyard in West County that dragged on for years, but was finally killed, and 20,000 acres purchased by the county for open space.
“We found places of policy agreement and moved the Farm Bureau,” he said. “The Farm Bureau does not advocate for runaway development. It was a good outcome.”
As to Preservation Ranch, Koenigshofer said the devil is in the details and that he took on the project to get the best possible deal for the county, a place that he has spent his entire adult life trying to protect.
He is currently working to stop a large development in Freestone that is “out of all proportion” for the tiny settlement on the Bohemian Highway.
Both Koenigshofer and Carpenter dallied with a return to the board of supervisors.
Carpenter jumped into the race in 2012 in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat former supervisor Efren Carrillo—who declined to be interviewed for this report—and again in 2016 against Hopkins.
Koenigshofer almost ran against Evans, who served as a Santa Rosa councilmember from 1996-2004 and ran unsuccessfully against Tim Smith for the third district seat in 2000. She also served in the state Assembly and one term as Senator of the Second District. Evans chose not to run for the Senate seat, which allowed another young Sonoma County politician, Mike McGuire, to ascend after serving on as Fourth district Supervisor before Gore.
Koenigshofer instead supported Hopkins when she entered the race.
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