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Fighting Trim

[whitespace] Jane Hamilton
Michael Amsler

Eyes on the Prize: In five years, Jane Hamilton has built solid support from Petaluma's progressive and environmental communities. Now she has set her sights on the soon-to-be-vacated 2nd District supervisorial seat.

Petaluma Councilwoman Jane Hamilton ready to spar with the good ol' boys

By Paula Harris

JANE HAMILTON SITS at the oversized, wooden table in her cozy, rambling kitchen as the rain drizzles outside. The scent of citrus wafts sweetly in the air as Petaluma's vice mayor--and aspiring county supervisor--peels herself an orange for lunch.

Outside, Hamilton's old West Side house near the Foundry Wharf along the Petaluma River has a funky feel, punctuated by peeling paint and rangy plants. Inside, it's a warm cluttered haven. A piano peeks from the corner, a sleepy Siamese cat reclines on a stuffed armchair, and the country kitchen is decorated with strands of dried chili and garlic, ripe plump persimmons, and ancient pans. On the wall hangs a huge, intricate quilt--in copper, blue, and olive--made by Jane herself.

The scene is a study in peaceful homeyness.

But that impression is belied by a large, solid punching bag hanging in one room. It serves notice that Hamilton, 47, has recently taken up the assertive sport of kick boxing.

"I love it," she says of the sport. "That's how I'm going to get through this campaign," she adds with a laugh, her eyes glinting in semi-seriousness.

To make her point, Hamilton delivers an impromptu kick, an ideal photo op. "I just have to change out of my skirt ... ," she offers until her son Jay, 17, rapidly intervenes to dissuade her.

"I don't think Sonoma County is ready for that," he remarks, a tinge of worry in his voice. His mother shrugs good-naturedly. "I asked Jay to show me how to throw a punch one day. Now I can do it and it feels great," she explains. "It's very therapeutic."

Hamilton is mentally, if not physically, preparing for combat. On June 2, as a candidate for the 2nd Supervisorial District, she will take on an established old-boy network in a bid to become only the third woman ever to grace the male-dominated Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. To do so, she must beat fellow challengers Dave King, ex-Petaluma City Councilwoman Bonnie Nelson (who has just announced her candidacy), and any other candidates yet to be announced.

In a surprise twist, Hamilton will not face the challenge of unseating veteran incumbent Jim Harberson, who has held the seat since 1984. In the past three elections, Harberson has faced only modest opposition, from such rivals as an eccentric pig farmer and a construction worker. On Tuesday, Harberson bowed out of the race, citing a bad back and other health problems.

Hamilton, who has strong support from the city's increasingly influential progressive and environmental communities, is convinced her five-year tenure on the Petaluma City Council will stand her in good stead for the supervisorial race, something she's been thinking about for the last year. "I want a different level of responsiveness and accessibility to the county," she says. "As a Petaluma councilperson, I've found county government to be unresponsive, hard to reach, and hard to communicate with through our current supervisor. I want that to change."

Hamilton pulls no punches when talking about Harberson's record. "I think Harberson [was] working on a different level. He [had] been there for some time and [was] looking so much at the big picture that [he'd] lost touch with ... the 2nd District," she says, adding that if elected she would open up communications by regularly attending Cotati and Petaluma city council meetings, setting regular office hours in Petaluma for south county residents on an appointment and drop-in basis, and acting as liaison for small neighborhood groups within the area.

"This is common fare," Harberson says of the accusations. "When someone is aspiring to office they always say things like this all the time. ... I was not afraid of who is running and, yes, I could win, but I don't know if I could hold up physically."

Petaluma Councilman Matt Maguire is among those who applaud Hamilton's candidacy. "I've termed Harberson 'Casper the Ghost' because he can't be found at critical junctures. Jane, on the other hand, is very capable and accessible and has the right priorities and values for the 2nd District," he says.

"And it's an added benefit that she's a woman, because the board is all male and it can do nothing but benefit from her perspectives."

A purchasing manager for a local data communications company, Hamilton hopes to bring her experience as a working mom to the all-male board.

"It's a deep commitment of mine to have a working mother on that board, because I know that my perspective on every policy issue comes from my life experience and my life experience is completely different from that of any male," says Hamilton.

"It's important that something as powerful as the Board of Supervisors not be all men. A lot of things that are considered women's issues are really human issues, but it's just important to have female representation."

Among her concerns are the poor track records of the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Department in handling domestic violence and sexual assault cases, as well as numerous sexual harassment charges within the Sheriff's Department. "We need more women in positions of power [in this county], so those things aren't tolerated anymore," she says. "In the area of domestic violence, we need a victim's advocate in the south county. I know the south county doesn't have a [battered women's] shelter, and also I'd like to see the domestic violence court extended to Petaluma."

BUT THE TOPIC that seems to rile Hamilton most is the ill-fated proposal to swap city-owned Lafferty Ranch for an old dude ranch owned by millionaire Peter Pfendler. The failed swap, which Hamilton battled, caused a political rift that nearly paralyzed city government for five years. In 1996, local voters defeated the swap, but not before a huge voter-fraud scandal that led to the indictment of Harberson's longtime aide Marion Hodge and several others.

"Lafferty cost us our innocence," steams Hamilton. "Lafferty was symbolic of how issues were handled [under the previous council majority], and that in itself became eye-opening."

More recently, Hamilton has openly blasted Harberson for his support of the Lafferty swap and for his actions in the ensuing months. "Once the fraud was exposed, and both he and Supervisor Paul Kelley knew that their aides were deeply involved, [Harberson] needed to take the lead in the investigation to restore public trust. Instead he sat in silence, hoping to get by just saying nothing," she says. "It should have been a major concern of his--after all, his aide was working on illegally distorting the election process--but Harberson was forcefully trying to make his own agenda work, as well as Peter Pfendler's agenda.

"And Pfendler was a major contributor toward [Harberson's] campaign," she says with a hollow laugh.

Harberson has since denied any wrongdoing or any knowledge of illegal activity that spawned a 16-month state voter-fraud investigation, and he insists that his decision not to run wasn't influenced by the fallout from the scandal.

Meanwhile, Hamilton [was] busy "distilling" the barrage of background on all kinds of county issues, including the preservation of open space and agricultural lands, and the need for more youth services. And she's gradually getting used to the idea that she has entered the ring and can throw a punch or two.

"It feels strange being a candidate, because I'm no good at self-promotion," she confides. "I'm cautious and receptive.

"I listen to people and I'm really terrible at B.S."

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From the January 8-14, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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