In non-presidential year elections, Northern Californians frequently have very few contests to think about. This November, our governor, senior senator, and congressman will all be Democrats. Dianne Feinstein does have a younger Democratic opponent, but all polls indicate she will dispatch him effortlessly.
But we will have a spirited contest for mayor in St. Helena and some younger new blood for the city council. In reporting on local politics several years ago, I passed on the comment that the British historian Andrew Roberts once gave me, “personality is vital.” That’s especially true in local elections, where we know our candidates as persons and not politicians. One to focus on is a candidate for a new office and the other is a first-timer in city politics.
Using a personality palette, we can see that mayoral challenger Geoff Ellsworth is plenty colorful, while our incumbent exhibits shades of grey. And Ellsworth is a generation younger.
I sat down with Ellsworth (and also went on a country drive with him) to gauge him and his views. A professional artist and stage performer, he is ebullient and effusive in discussing the town where he grew up and is spending his adult life. He won his city council election by winning over voters in person, door-to-door. Undoubtedly, that’s how he’ll run for mayor.
Several St. Helenans have told me they view Ellsworth as anti-winery and not pro-business. He takes issue with that assessment. “I grew up in the wine business,” he says, accompanying his father making deliveries of winery equipment all over the valley. But he says that “like any industry, wine has to stay in balance with its community and with resources like water.”
On downtown business issues, Ellsworth says that, “We need to stimulate an interest in the town by making it as attractive and charming as it can be.” He feels strongly that the “overall economic situation” in the city “is more stable than previously understood, with the highest per capita sales tax in all of Napa and Sonoma and the highest revenue of Upvalley cities.”
He acknowledges that we need to define solutions for the business district, as it’s “an obvious and critical problem.” Yet any such solutions “should factor in limitations and constraints such as roads, water, housing, environment and quality of life concerns.”
Ellsworth was in favor of Measure C, but now that it’s been defeated, he wants to move to an issue he feels all sides should be able to unite on: protecting the quality of the sources of St. Helena’s water. He took me on a drive up Howell Mountain to the lands surrounding Bell Canyon reservoir, the major source of our water. He showed me where tributaries to the reservoir are endangered by agro-industrial (and even medical industrial) run-offs.
A major issue is that we don’t control Bell Canyon; the county does. So he points to relations with the county government as key to protecting our water. At the least, his campaign will focus attention for us on how we protect, use, and pay for our water.
Nearly a generation younger than Ellsworth is our one announced city council candidate, Anna Chouteau, who is set to run along with incumbent Paul Dohring for the two city council seats. (The deadline to file is Wednesday, Aug. 15, after this column’s deadline.) She is energetic and a self-starter. I should know — I’ve worked out with her twice a week at the gym for years. That she has tolerated (and supported) me for so long indicates her strength of character.
Chouteau says the most important thing about her running for office is “how much I care about our community and keeping families here.” She is raising her own young family in St. Helena; by itself, that would give her a perspective unique among our five council members. She has prepped for holding office by serving as vice-chair of the SHAPE committee that evaluated City Hall and the other city-owned properties.
She feels that her varied employment history has also prepared her well for elective office. She ran a marine sanctuary foundation in Santa Barbara and was a business consultant in Dallas, working with Southwest Airlines and a local police force.
If we have just one contested race – the mayoral position – that should be enough to engender a needed debate about resources, business development, and leadership. And we should be able to disagree without being disagreeable. In politics, we can be both combative and positive at the same time.
(Mark G. Epstein moved to St. Helena from the East Coast early this century after a career in international business).