When it comes to incumbents being challenged in local elections, it has been our tradition to give the benefit of the doubt to those incumbents.
Barring a scandal or some major policy failure, we figure, the burden is heavy on a challenger to say why change is necessary. This is especially true for the board of supervisors, which handles a vast array of issues that are largely invisible to the public, including a huge health and human services infrastructure and extensive public safety system. The learning curve for a new supervisor is steep and even the best members of the board will admit that they had little idea how big the job was when they started.
This year, two of the three incumbents on the ballot face challengers. In District Four, which sprawls from downtown Napa eastward over Atlas Peak and Lake Berryessa, Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza is challenged by environmental scientist Amber Manfree. In District Five, which includes American Canyon and points north to the airport and Coombsville, Supervisor Belia Ramos is challenged by American Canyon City Council member Mariam Aboudamous.
Something is profoundly wrong when our only choice is to die in a fiery conflagration or be plunged into extended darkness that would be an embarrassment to a Third World power grid operator.
The two races present different challenges in deciding how to proceed. In District Four, the story is fairly conventional: A well-funded incumbent with ties to well-heeled segments of the wine industry is challenged by a candidate who is critical of the county’s land use policies and has the backing of the slow-growth coalition represented by Vision 2050. We’ve seen this story play out in every election since 2016.
In this case, we find Manfree to be intelligent, personable, and passionate about her work. There is a certain whimsy and refreshing authenticity to her. Meeting her, as we did earlier this month, helps explain why she has a playful cartoon of a running quail on all her campaign literature.
She is a scientist by training and a mapmaker by profession, and has therefore been involved in many regional studies and land use decisions. She seems to understand the issues at stake in development of wild lands as well as anyone on the board. But land use is just a small part of what the supervisors do, and on questions of other services and policies, she was hazy.
Pedroza on the other hand, relishes those details. He is a fountain of ideas and policy points, particularly on traffic issues. He sits on the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission and has been successful in getting unusual attention – and money — for Napa at the MTC. Pedroza argues convincingly that after six years on the board, he is now at a level of knowledge and relationship building that puts him at the peak of his game.
Not only do we owe a moral debt of gratitude to all the veterans who served, and to their survivors, we owe a literal debt of service.
We agree and therefore endorse him for another term, though we encourage Manfree to remain active in politics and believe she is a potential rising star. And we caution Pedroza, who is an increasingly polished politician with a bright potential future, to be wary of the danger of coming to love the game of politics too much lest he lose an authentic connection to his voters.
The Fifth District presents a different picture.
There appear to be a variety of personal and policy agendas playing out here, the outlines of which are very difficult to discern from the outside. The race has warped the normal fabric of the county’s political establishment and created some strange bedfellows.
For example, the conservative Farm Bureau finds itself on the same team with Vision 2050 in endorsing Aboudamous. This is an alliance that seemed unimaginable after the acrimonious clash between the two organizations over Measure C in 2018.
Also, both Third District Supervisor Diane Dillon and State Sen. Bill Dodd have pointedly withdrawn their endorsements of Ramos, who otherwise enjoys solid endorsements from most of the county establishment, and thrown their weight behind the challenger. They have said little publicly beyond the fact that they believe the challenger is a better candidate.
We met with both candidates earlier this month.
If you’ve been around government for very long, it is easy to sigh and say “Great, just what we need – another study.” But sometimes, we really do.
We found Aboudamous bright, aggressive, and policy-oriented. We were impressed by her accomplishments on the city council, particularly her efforts to bring the endless negotiations over the Watson Ranch development to a successful conclusion. It was clear, however, that she is a reluctant politician who remained equivocal about running right up to the filing deadline.
Ramos, meanwhile, had difficulty articulating clearly why she needed a second term. She seemed subdued and distracted in our meeting, almost morose. Her recitation of her accomplishments had a funereal air, like a candidate delivering her final speech on a job she was departing.
We were perplexed by her presentation and concerned that much of the discussion of her accomplishments was framed in terms of how the experience shaped her character rather than how it had shaped the county. This, to us, supported her critics’ contention that she tends to be self-centered and aloof.
What’s going on here? It’s difficult to say for certain, but it is quite clear that Ramos is a polarizing person and has made powerful enemies. While having a dissenting voice on a governing board is not a bad thing, having a divisive figure on there can be quite destructive.
It is with pleasure that we note that the new city council and city manager have decided to pause the city hall project and try to come up with a more grounded, concrete plan.
At the same time, Ramos has not committed any egregious errors, at least publicly, and she does have the benefit of four years of experience on the board, which would be a shame to lose.
In the end, our board came away from our meetings cautiously impressed by Aboudamous and disappointed by Ramos.
But like the county establishment itself, the board was split and was unable to reach a strong consensus about an endorsement. Therefore, we have no recommendation for the voters of District Five.
Editor’s Note: Board member Ed Shenk did not participate in the interviews or drafting process related to District Five since he had previously endorsed the challenger.
The Napa Valley Register Editorial Board consists of Publisher Davis Taylor, Editor Sean Scully, and public members Cindy Webber, Ed Shenk, Mary Jean Mclaughlin and Chris Hammaker.
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