Sen. Noreen Evans’ recent announcement that she would not run for re-election sent shock waves through the Capitol. In an era of term limits, where legislators’ time is limited in the state Capitol, it’s rare that a member decides to bow out early.
But representing the 2nd Senate District can be quite an arduous task.
“We have to so many great people that are making their way through local office, through local politics and it’s time to give someone else a chance to serve,” said Evans, D-Santa Rosa.
The district includes over one-third of California’s coastline. Traveling from the northern reaches of the district to Sacramento is a five- to seven-hour drive and covering the district as the senator at various events requires nearly two homes, dissuading many local politicians from running for the job. And in the southern portion of the district county supervisors are paid significantly more than legislators.
“When I was running there was a number of county supervisors at the southern end of the district that looked at the job and considered the job and decided not to run because of the amount of time required to work when you get elected to this district and a lot of people didn’t want to work that hard,” said Assembly Member Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata. “If you are a county supervisor in Marin and Sonoma County you get to go home every night and you get paid considerably better than a legislator. A supervisor job is a better job in both a personal and financial way.”
Evans said she never planned on serving in the state Legislature for so long in the first place. When Pat Wiggins was termed out of the Assembly in 2004 she was recruited to run.
“My predecessor Pat Wiggins and I had a real good working relationship and she was termed out as the Assembly Member and she asked me to run and at that point in my life it sounded interesting,” said Evans.
Wiggins was expected to serve two full terms in the Senate from 2006-2014, but when she chose not to run for re-election in 2010 it opened the door for Evans who was termed out of the Assembly. Had Wiggins chose to run for re-election Evans said she would have not run for Senate after Wiggins.
In the North Bay and North Coast, local politicians are proud of their communities and the interest in serving in Sacramento or Washington is less attractive. In 1998 Wes Chesbro was elected to the Senate, because local Assembly Members Valerie Brown and Dan Hauser chose not to move up to higher office. Many of the legislators from this region have also come from never having served in local elected office, including Virginia Strom-Martin and Patty Berg.
“The North Coast is such a wonderful place to live,” said Evans. “It is difficult to live here and to come to the Capitol. It’s hard to convince people to leave their home and the pay is a lot less than it is in local office.”
The voting population and the geography of the district is divided into three distinct regions with suburban Marin County encompassing about 30 percent of the voters, Sonoma County 36 percent and the rural counties of Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity and Del Norte encompassing 35 percent of the voters.
Sonoma County is at the crossroads between the North Bay and North Coast, a county that touches the San Pablo Bay, has urban interests in Santa Rosa, but also rural concerns in the western and northern portions of the county.
“Wherever the next representative is from the population base is in Sonoma and Marin and that is just the reality and they will have to have a strong presence in those counties,” said Evans.
Turnout in the district is significantly higher than most other areas of the state and Marin and Sonoma Counties stand out with extremely high turnout levels compared to other urban and suburban counties.
The line where the North Bay ends and the North Coast begins is open to discussion. Del Norte, Trinity, Humboldt and Mendocino are undoubtedly part of the North Coast, while Sonoma and Marin are part of the nine county Bay Area region, but some would say are also are part of the North Coast, a region that extends from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border.
“Marin and Sonoma are Bay Area counties,” said Evans. “I consider the whole area as the North Coast. It shares common issues, which are different than the Central Coast. The North Coast starts at Golden Gate Bridge.”
Every corner of the district has concerns that they might not have representative in Sacramento or Washington, DC. Congressman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) of Marin represents the region in Washington, but there is some concern that the rural North Coast and Santa Rosa might not have representation with the departure of both Wes Chesbro and Noreen Evans in Sacramento, without knowing their replacements.
“There is a real sense due to redistricting, of a shift where that level of representation is pretty much at risk. The possibility that all three seats would all be held by people in the southern end of the district has created some sensitivity in Humboldt,” said Chesbro.
Santa Rosa had been duly represented while Evans was in the Assembly and Wiggins was in the Senate. When Evans moved to the Senate her Assembly seat was won by fellow Santa Rosan Michael Allen. With her departure and Allen’s loss last year in an Assembly race there is a vacuum that could leave Santa Rosa without a representative in Sacramento or Washington.
“I think we are not going to be the centerpiece unless someone decides to run. We are not going to be the hometown of the district and that is an end of the era,” said Evans.
Chesbro served this region for over a decade in the Legislature. One of his first tasks when deciding to run for Senate in 1998 was driving down to Sonoma and Napa Counties to introduce himself to voters. From 1991 to 2011 Napa County was in this Senate District, but in 2011 the Redistricting Commission replaced it with Marin County.
“I showed up in Sonoma and Napa and asked those people to endorse me and support me and that was the biggest challenge because they didn’t relate to me,” said Chesbro.
Former Assembly Member Valerie Brown (D-Sonoma), a self described policy wonk represented portions of Sonoma County from 1992-1998 understands the geographical and economic divisions of the district but doesn’t underestimate the power of any candidate to address issues across the district.
“There will be allies of candidates and supporters of candidates, but the vast majority of people I believe look at a candidate,” said Brown. “If they get an answer that this person has the background and is up to the challenge to take Humboldt where they want to go it doesn’t matter if they are from Humboldt or vice versa. They want to someone to show deliverables.”
Just one Democrat has made the official announcement that he is in the race. Chris Lehman was born and raised in Arcata and runs his own public affairs and political consulting business. He is well connected to Sacramento having worked for Senate pro Tem leaders Darrell Steinberg and Don Perata. He has already received the endorsements of Steinberg and many rural North Coast politicians, including Wes Chesbro, Patty Berg and most of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors.
Lehman is focused on education, natural resources and expanding access and affordability of health care. “I’m trying to figure out the obstacles that are sitting in the way of people and their communities in achieving success and how government can remove or improve those obstacles and provide a leg up and that is in every single issue area,” Lehman said.
The other Democrats mentioned are all from the southern end of the district most from Sonoma County, including former Assembly Member Mike Allen, D-Santa Rosa; Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom, San Rafael City Councilman Damon Connolly and Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire.
Politically, this is one of the most unique districts in the state. The senator from here is both an outsider in the Legislature and Democratic Party, which tend to be driven by urban, suburban and minority interests. Nowhere else in the state is there such a sparsely populated, liberal, white district such as this. Even Marin County, a suburban Bay Area county, is best known for it’s limited growth policies.
“We have seven unique counties but we are all pulled together and we all live on the North Coast, all of us. As anyone knows who lives in the North Coast what we lack in actual diversity, we have political diversity,” said Lehman. “We have people who are devoted to the environment and others who make their living on the environment. Everyone will tell you they need pragmatic solutions that work with all stakeholders that try to achieve positive results for their communities. We don’t have a lot of time for posturing and we need to work together.”
The North Coast is affected by unique rural policy issues that are foreign to the rest of the state. Just a few years ago, the only fiber optic cable that reached the North Coast ran north to south along Highway 101. Outages with this cable prevented access to the web, shut down cell phones, ATMs, navigation equipment, credit card machines, something most Californians take for granted. In 2011 a second cable was installed that runs east to west from Humboldt to Shasta County to provide some cover if one of the cables goes out.
The area is also home to the Emerald Triangle, the largest cannabis producing region in the entire country, encompassing Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity Counties, and a major economic engine in the district. Although medical marijuana is legal in California, federal law still renders the drug illegal. This has created problems in the North Coast, with illegal growers involved in car chases, criminal activity and environmental damage.
“I want to get to the answer to that,” said Lehman “I want to bring stakeholders together and figure it out. How do we not destroy the environment and how to we have safe neighborhoods to tuck your kids in at night?”
Ed’s Note: Nik Bonovich, who has written extensively on state politics, is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.