Taking the 5th

Can Lynda Hopkins bust up the West County boys' club?

Hunter S. Thompson, the mad genius of gonzo journalism, saw fear and loathing in Las Vegas, Miami, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. He also recognized it at the Kentucky Derby and in the horse race known as electoral politics, especially in the race for the White House, but on the local level as well.

This spring, he’d probably notice much the same phenomenon around the country and in the 5th District in Sonoma County, where two women candidates face off against one another furiously, while undecided voters smile politely and say, “Have a nice day.”

With steep mountains, lush valleys, a rugged coastline, the meandering Russian River, plus vineyards, wineries, marijuana gardens and award-winning restaurants, the 5th offers a rich cultural mix to locals and tourists who come year-round and who have made it a popular destination.

The 5th is also a complex political landscape with fierce loyalties and deep-seated rivalries that, insiders say, offers a glimpse into the new profile of the California electorate and the decisive role that millennials and Mexican-Americans will likely play in selecting office holders and defining issues and solutions.

Efren Carrillo, the incumbent, currently represents the district on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors that does double duty as the board of directors of the Sonoma County Water Agency, which has increased responsibilities for conservation in a time of drought.

Arrested twice in the last five years and dragged through the mud in the media, Carrillo has chosen not to run for reelection and risk further embarrassment and injury to his image. In 2012, he was arrested at a nightclub in San Diego and charged with battery and disturbing the peace. In 2013, police officers took him into custody in Santa Rosa and charged him with burglary and prowling while under the influence of alcohol.

What’s at stake in the race for Carrillo’s replacement isn’t only the political future of the 5th, but also the direction of Sonoma County and, one might say, its very identity. The two leading candidates, Noreen Evans and Lynda Hopkins, offer alternative visions and approaches, in much the same way that those two Democrats, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, offer alternative visions and approaches on the national level, though it’s probably not fair to compare Noreen and Lynda to Hillary and Bernie. The representative from the 5th will be the swing vote on the five-member board and in a position to shape matters that affect water, land use, housing and more.

On the surface, the 5th might not seem ripe for “fear and loathing,” a term which could be translated as “the dark side.” Still, staff members in county offices, and veteran political pundits such as Sonoma State University professor David McCuan, say the 5th is indeed Thompson territory and that his brand of gonzo journalism is sorely needed today.

“Hunter was about honesty with oneself and one’s psyche,” McCuan says from his office on campus. “He was also about taking risks and challenging the status quo, with the potential to flame out in a blaze of glory.” Indeed, he put a gun to his head and took his own life at the age of 67.

Forty-three years after he published Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72—the book in which he dissects Richard Nixon, George McGovern and Edward Kennedy—Thompson sounds spot on. In fact, he might have been talking about 2016, not 1972, when he observed that “Covering a presidential campaign is not a hell of a lot different from an assignment to cover a newly elected district attorney. You find unexpected friends on both sides, and in order to protect them you wind up knowing a lot of things you can’t print, or which you can only say without hinting where they come from.”

Frank Robertson knows what Thompson means. A longtime journalist who has written insightfully about West County politics for more than three decades, Robertson says that politicians and their aides often insist that their comments are off the record, though, as he points out, “off the record is a movable definition.” Part of the story of almost any campaign is the invisible side that’s rarely if ever covered in the media.

Indeed, politicians and reporters, for different reasons, collude with one another and keep vital information from the public. “Sad but true,” a veteran editor who has worked for Esquire, Life and Bloomberg News told me.

Reporters, especially those with a beat at a daily paper, tell me they’re bound by the rules of newsgathering and can’t disclose their sources or reveal information because it’s protected under the rubric of confidentiality. What made much of Thompson’s reporting so compelling was that he stretched the rules. Robertson does, too, in his own way, and he’s kept his job for decades.

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West County candidates, he says, have suggested that, in his role as a journalist, he smear their rivals, even as they mean to keep their own hands clean. Robertson tells me he’s declined to do their bidding. In fact, he could write a history about fear and loathing in the 5th that would go back to the days of Congressman Doug Bosco and the “Bosco boys,” otherwise known behind closed doors as the “Bosco mafia.”

In West County, journalists find friends and enemies on all sides of the political divide. Thompson would probably hear strictly confidential comments about Noreen Evans, 60, Lynda Hopkins, 32, the two frontrunners in the race. Jack Piccinini, a Santa Rosa firefighter who added his name to the list of candidates when he learned that Evans was running, dropped out of the race. “I didn’t want a professional politician to engineer their way into the 5th District,” he said.

Three other candidates, Timothy Sergent, a Forestville resident and special-education teacher; Lew Brown, a Guerneville resident and attorney; and Marion Chase, a West County resident and county eligibility worker, are in the running but for now considered long shots.

From the start, mudslinging has defined much of the campaign. It went front and center when opponents of Evans pointed out that she bought a house in Sebastopol so that she’d be eligible to run for office in the 5th. Bennett Valley had been her home. Voters wonder who truly belongs to West County and who will best represent its interests. Even Evans’ supporters describe her as a “carpetbagger.”

A lawyer, two-term Santa Rosa City Council member and Sacramento insider, Evans served in the California State Assembly for six years. With endorsements from three members of the current board of supervisors, she’s probably the candidate of the establishment and big labor too. Unions like her and she likes them.

Hopkins has never held elected office, though she was the executive director of Sonoma County Farm Trails. Transparency in government is one of her rallying cries. A Stanford graduate, organic farmer—with her husband at Foggy River Farm west of Windsor—and author of The Wisdom of the Radish, she’s been called “a spoiler” by some. Indeed, her grassroots campaign threatens to upset Evans’ road to what looked like a shoo-in victory at the June primary.

It’s not the presence of two women that brings the element of fear and loathing to the 5th, though two women front-runners offers a big change for the district. For the most part, the 5th has been dominated for decades by testosterone-rich wheeler-dealers.

Before the current supervisor, Carrillo, there was Mike Reilly; before Reilly, there was Ernie Carpenter, and before Carpenter there was Eric Koenigshofer, the new kid on the block when he was first elected in 1976. Now he’s a kind of behind-the-scenes decisionmaker—an éminence grise, the French would say—and the lawyer for the Ratto Group, which handles most of the county’s lucrative garbage and recycling business.

At first, Koenigshofer tried to persuade Hopkins not to run for office on the grounds that she couldn’t defeat Evans. Then, when he didn’t succeed, he endorsed her. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Ever since Koenigshofer’s election 40 years ago, an old boys’ club (with a few women added to the mix) has dominated the political landscape in the 5th. It might well be on the way out. Either Hopkins or Evans will join Susan Gorin, from the 1st District, and Shirlee Zane from the 3rd, and give women a majority on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. That would be a first, though Helen Rudee, now 98, broke the glass ceiling in 1976 when she was elected to the board of supervisors and shifted the conversation about gender and power.

Women between the ages of 50 and 70 tend to support Evans. Here and elsewhere they also tend to support Hillary Clinton rather than Bernie Sanders. In December 2015 at Foggy River Farm, Hopkins described herself in a conversation with me as a Sanders supporter and “a change-the-world and shake-my-fist kind of person.” She’s feisty, spunky and radiates a kind of folky glamour.

Sebastopol mayor Sarah Glade Gurney, 63, stands firmly with Evans, though so far, she has not broadcast her affiliation. She identifies more with boomers in her own generation than with millennials, and, though she has heard no end of complaints from citizens during her 12 years in government, she likes to think of Sebastopol as a friendly town where everyone knows everyone else and gets along just fine.

“I have a good sense of humor,” she tells me at her office just off the plaza. “Humor makes it possible not to take disagreements too personally.”
Hopkins is too new to the political game to not take the comments that she hears about her and her campaign personally. She can be defensive when she feels herself under attack, but she’s also outspoken about a political system that she insists has failed the democratic process and abandoned transparency on the national and local level.

More than anything, it’s probably the lack of transparency, as she sees it, that has motivated her campaign. Then, too, she’s fired up by the lingering influence of old-school rules. The glass ceiling, she argues, wasn’t broken once and for all, and that an old boys’ network continues to operate in Sonoma County.

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Still, she has backers on nearly all sides and from almost every persuasion, including Janet Nicholas, a Republican and a winery owner who served on the California State Board of Education. (Perhaps there’s an old girls’ network to rival the old boys’.) Hopkins went to college with Nicholas’ daughter and values the encouragement she has received from the mother.

Moreover, in addition to an endorsement from supervisor James Gore, Hopkins has the support of the Sonoma County Alliance, a broad-based organization that includes businessmen and women who are concerned, the website proclaims, “about the economic, social and environmental development of Sonoma County.”

Compared with Evans, Hopkins’ experience is spotty at best. Even Herman G. Hernandez, 30, Hopkins’ handpicked, trusted campaign manager, points to Evans’ long, respectable political record close to home and in Sacramento. “I think she did a great job on the Santa Rosa City Council and when she was in the State Senate,” he says. “She has always acted to protect the coast, and her record on labor is 100 percent.”

Herman G. Hernandez—son of Herman J., founder of the Latino leadership group Los Cien and a Latino mover and shaker—doesn’t dislike Evans as a candidate and private citizen. He doesn’t sling mud in her direction. It’s just that he firmly believes that Hopkins would be much better in office than her principal and principled opponent.

For starters, Hernandez explains that his candidate won’t merely sit in an office, talk on the phone and send emails. Rather, she’ll actually be out and about in the community as a public servant—not just an elected official—working for the good of the whole community, which means protecting the coast and providing services for the homeless.

“Lynda has education, experience and energy,” Hernandez tells citizens when he pounds the pavement and knocks on doors in Roseland, the inner city neighborhood that he knows from the inside out, to Guerneville, where he was raised and where he lives now after college away from home at San Diego State University.

“Lynda is a champion of the environment,” Hernandez adds, “supports sustainable, organic, farming and wants to move agriculture into the 21st century. Then, too, she aims to create jobs, encourage small business and represent the working class. Moreover, as the mother of two toddlers, she understands the importance of early childhood education.”

From his perch at Sonoma State, McCuan keeps a close eye on the race. A realist, he looks at statistics and doesn’t let himself be swayed by political rhetoric.

“I’m a data agnostic,” he says. Still, he admires Bernie Sanders and seems to lean toward Hopkins and Hernandez, though he also argues that they’re probably using one another to advance their own careers. But as he knows, that’s often the norm on the campaign trail.

McCuan watches the 5th to see what the race there might say about the future of politics, not just in Sonoma County, but all across California. Indeed, as the 5th goes, so may the Golden State. “This election offers a window on the changing face of the new electorate,” McCuan says. “In 2016, there might very well be a changing of the guard. In some ways, the race here as elsewhere depends on the hipsters who are age 25 to 35 and who fled from the cities and flocked to the countryside. Their vote is crucial. Kamala Harris, the state’s attorney general, and Gavin Newsom, our lieutenant governor, both appeal to that demographic.”

McCuan doesn’t want to make predictions about the outcome of the campaign in the 5th, but he suggests that Hopkins might not yet be ready for prime time. Occasionally, she seems to share his perceptive. “If I lose, I can still go back to farming,” she told me. Still, she’s not slowing down, and neither is Hernandez. Indeed, they’re both fearless and hopeful and resolved not to turn back or become sidetracked.

“We’re going all out,” Hopkins says. “We’ll spend more energy, knock on more doors and talk to more people than anyone else running in the 5th.” So far that’s been true. A candidate at 32 can almost always out-hustle a candidate at 60. Youthfulness has advantages over experience.

Not long ago, when Hopkins met with Supervisor James Gore, she asked, “Is politics like farming, where you don’t know what you’re getting into until you’re over your head?” Gore laughed and nodded his head yes.

A few months into her campaign, Hopkins is already head over heels in love with politics and eager to go bravely into unknown territory. Maybe Hunter S. Thompson, a bear with a heart, would cheer her all the way to the finish line.

Jonah Raskin lived in West County for 28 years. He’s the author of ‘Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War’ and ‘Field Days:
A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.’

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