The Carrillo Quandary

Elected in 2008, Efren Carrillo has been every bit the consummate politician with a bright career ahead of him. But the impending June 5 election has literally been keeping me awake at night. I’ll tell you why.

I was born and raised here in Sonoma County, which, when I was young, used to be called the Redwood Empire. Over the years, however, due to development and tourism, the region has come to be known instead as wine country.

What’s the difference? Redwoods are part of an ecosystem; grapevines are part of an economy. The Redwood Empire was a place that out-of-towners came in order to enjoy nature, for free; wine country is where everything has a price tag, and not an insignificant one at that. The transformation has been beneficial to lifestyle marketers, I suppose, but to born-and-raised locals who have lived here their whole life, like myself, it’s incredibly disheartening.

For me, when it comes to cutting down redwood trees, you might as well be talking about burning a church. Remember being told as a child that you shouldn’t pick California poppies? Why, I wonder, shouldn’t the same morals apply to cutting down redwoods?

And, boy, do we cut down redwoods. In recent years, we’ve seen the mighty trees chopped down even along Highway 101, once known as the Redwood Highway. This year, citing disruptive root systems, the Sonoma County Fairgrounds chopped down a stand of redwoods lining what used to be called the Redwood Theater.

But the project that’s drawn the most ire has been the Preservation Ranch, a proposed development in Carrillo’s district that would cut down 1,769 acres of redwood trees to plant approximately 1,100 acres of vineyards. Despite the blizzard of spin on the project meant to assuage the casual observer’s discomfort, the simple fact is that, if approved, even more redwood trees in Sonoma County would be cut down to make way for wine grapes.

I’m tired of it, and I would hope Carrillo, who is six years my junior and who also grew up in Santa Rosa, would be, too. Carrillo has publicly criticized winemaker Paul Hobbs for cutting down redwoods without a permit—but refuses to state a position on Preservation Ranch. He’s repeatedly said that after the EIR is released, the public will have a chance to comment, and he’ll decide in accordance with due process.

I wish I could rest easy trusting that Carrillo will do the right thing. But his previous swing vote approving the Dutra asphalt plant across the Petaluma River from Shollenberger Park in Petaluma indicates the developer interests backing him hold some amount of power over his choices. Two people have told me that Carrillo intimated to them, in person, that he’d vote against the Dutra plant. At the last minute, he changed his vote to green-light a project that many, even the Press Democrat, were against.

Could it have had something to do with the large campaign donations Carrillo has received from Berg Holdings and Syar Industries—both gravel-mining interests—or from the Sonoma County Alliance, the North Coast Builders Exchange and Doug Bosco?

Carrillo’s most serious opponent is Ernie Carpenter, who served in the Fifth District from 1980 to 1996 and whose main activity in the race has been holding Carrillo’s feet to the environmental fire. I like Carpenter, and he has some good ideas, but let’s face it: the job he’s reapplying for has changed significantly over the past 16 years.

Herein lies the dilemma: to vote based solely on a candidates’ stated environmental commitment, or to vote based on overall job performance?

Because of the voting system, enough votes for Carpenter could mean a runoff election in November—which would mean five more months of pressure on Carrillo’s environmental record. I’d welcome that pressure, but I wouldn’t welcome the campaign spending involved when I’d be advocating ultimately, but with a great deal of hesitation, for Carrillo.

Carrillo knows the job well, and he’s good at it. His constant schedule of community meetings can be described by some as glad-handing, but I call it listening to and representing his community. Despite his Dutra vote, I’m willing to give him another shot, and it’s our job as the public to remind him at every turn that Preservation Ranch—which, keep in mind, employs Carrillo’s former campaign manager Eric Koenigshofer as spokesperson—is an unwelcome project.

So my decision is this: vote for Efren Carrillo. But if Carrillo votes for Preservation Ranch, I will never vote for him again.