Saturday, January 08, 2005

Forget the politics, they're gay and black

(This is an updated version of an item posted 11/6/04 at The Other Santa Rosa)

White businessmen who lived in the Northeast quadrant dominated the City Council for many years, and appointed their friends, neighbors, and business associates to City boards and commissions. But all that has changed. In recent years, the voters have also elected white businesswomen who live in the Northeast quadrant, ...

Last year the local business establishment ran an informal slate for the four open Council seats. The Sonoma County Alliance--to which most of the Councilmembers belonged, and which previously employed Councilmembers Sharon Wright and Mike Martini to run it--paid for a slate mailer for all four candidates.

The four were two incumbents--Jane Bender and Mike Martini--and two City Hall insiders who ran for Council in 2002, but failed to get elected: John Sawyer and Lee Pierce. Sawyer owns Sawyer's News on Fourth Street, and is an outspoken advocate for the Downtown/Railroad Square business community. He's held a variety of minor appointed positions at City Hall.

Mayor Sharon Wright, who retired in December after 12 years on the Council, endorsed Pierce to replace her on the Council. He owns Tavalite Enterprises of Sonoma, a jewelry company that distributes natural minerals that have been "enhanced" into gemstones. He once worked for Hewlett-Packard, where he may have met Dan and Janet Condron, and Councilmember Condron appointed him to the Planning Commission in 2003.

Press Democrat publisher Mike Parman and his editorial page team said last November that the 2004 campaign for City Council was "well-run, informative and, ultimately, historic" (11/5, "SR campaign/City Council race was as historic as it was informative").

Historic? There's nothing historic ("having great and lasting importance") about the voters electing well-financed and pro-business incumbents and newcomers. That happens every two years.

No, the PD was talking about "Diversity". The price of a Council seat today can be over $80,000, and fat cat contributors only give to pro-business candidates, so a visible lack of diversity has been a major image problem for the Council.

Thus the "historic" difference between Sawyer and Pierce and the previous Council majority was not their political priorities. Their differences were sexual preference and race:

"The outcome saw the re-election of two incumbents, Jane Bender and Mike Martini, and the election of two newcomers, John Sawyer and Lee Pierce. Pierce, whose election awaits a final count of absentee ballots, would be the first black man ever elected to the City Council in Santa Rosa. Sawyer is the first openly gay man elected to the council."

But it's unlikely many voters knew Sawyer was gay, and he didn't make it a campaign issue. Two days after the election, a PD story more or less outed him (11/4, "Pierce, Sawyer join SR Council"):

"For the first time in Santa Rosa's 136-year history, a black man and an openly gay man have been elected to the City Council. 'I think the city has made progress,' Councilwoman Jane Bender said Wednesday, alluding to the most diverse group of City Council candidates ever elected in Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa voters elected gem stone distributor Lee Pierce, who is black and lives on the west side of town, and news store owner John Sawyer, who is gay, to the council Tuesday. Voters also returned incumbents Mike Martini and Bender to office."

Not that Sawyer's sexual preference was a secret. A PD profile of Sawyer and his Fourth Street business four years ago said (6/11/00, "Keeper of the news"):

"Sawyer admits he has difficulty 'getting away from' a retail business opened 15 hours a day, seven days a week. One way he manages is through the support of his business partner and life companion, Dan Potts. 'I'd be hard pressed to run (Sawyer's) without him', Sawyer says. ... The two live in a three-bedroom Hugh Codding-built home on Midway Drive, minutes from Talbot Avenue, where Sawyer grew up and where his parents still live."

That story also commented on Sawyer's City Hall connections:

"Despite his business and personal obligations, Sawyer still makes time to attend at least five civic-related committee or board meetings a month. In addition, he spends countless hours on the phone assisting with community or volunteer activities. He has served on the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens Board, leaving as chairman, and was part of City Vision, an attempt to guide the long-term development of downtown Santa Rosa.

Sawyer currently is chairman of both the police advisory board and the City of Santa Rosa Merit Award, which recognizes the efforts of community volunteers. He also serves on Santa Rosa Mayor Janet Condron's Downtown Parking Advisory Committee."

At the same time Sawyer held appointed positions at City Hall, he was also active in CityVision--a private organization sponsored and funded by the City Council, but run by Downtown/Railroad Square business people for their own benefit. Santa Rosa Main Street is the successor to CityVision. Organized by Councilmember Condron, Main Street is also funded by the Council and privately run. Its website says Sawyer is on the Board of Directors.

So what the PD said was "historic" about the 2004 Council race, is that a a gay City Hall insider who was not identified as gay during the campaign, and a black City Hall insider who did not make an issue of his race, were elected along with Bender (now Mayor) and Martini to join two-like-minded incumbents (Bob Blanchard and Condron) and Steve Rabinowitsh.

A letter to the PD editor commented (11/6, "Small-mindedness"),

"It was a grave disappointment to me to read in the Nov. 4 paper that a black and a gay man were elected to the Santa Rosa City Council. These are two good men I voted for. I knew Pierce is black. I did not know that Sawyer is gay, openly or not, a fact not only irrelevant, but also none of my business.

Now you have put these men in boxes, labels that will affix themselves to their names whenever they are mentioned or quoted. So somehow an article that purports to celebrate a breakthrough backhandedly reinforces small-mindedness."

So much for diversity at City Hall as 2005 begins.


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