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Breaking Down Napa County's Board of Supervisors Election

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Vineyard near Oakville Grade, Napa Valley. (Resveratrol/Flickr)

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In Napa County, 3 out of the 5 seats on the Board of Supervisors are on the ballot, in nonpartisan races that will be decided in the March 5 primary. (In these races, nobody is advancing to November— voters will pick the winner in this election!)

The wine industry looms large, but so do issues about housing, wildfire protection, and environmental conservation. KQED’s Carlos Cabrera-Lomeli tells us about the stakes, and focuses on the race in District 5.


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Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

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Alan  Hey, this is Alan Montecillo. Just reminding you that tomorrow is the last day to vote in the March primary. If you still need to read up on the issues and candidates, KQED has a handy voter guide. You can find it at KQED.org/VoterGuide tomorrow night as results come in, you can check out KQED.org/Election and we’ll also share a few episodes about some of the different races in today’s show notes. Happy voting.

Alan Montecillo: I’m Alan Montecillo in for Ericka Cruz Guevarra. And welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. Napa County voters could change the direction of their local government in a big way. Three of the five seats on the Board of Supervisors are up in a nonpartisan race that will be decided in the primary tomorrow. Now, of course, Napa is world famous for its wine industry, but voters are also worried about the same issues as everyone else.

Alan Montecillo: Things like housing, wildfires, inequality. Napa is in danger of becoming mostly a playground for the wealthy. We need a durable funding source to fund wildfire mitigation efforts and strike a balance between the economic growth that the wine industry provides and the human aspect of the labor force that we need to make that work. Today, the race for Board of Supervisors in Napa County.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: Napa County is, population wise, the smallest county in the Bay area. It doesn’t even make it to a million people.

Alan Montecillo: Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí is a community engagement reporter for KQED.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: However, size wise, it’s huge. You could fit several San Francisco’s inside of there. And just because there’s a, you know, a lot of people doesn’t mean that things don’t get heated. The wine industry is definitely a huge factor, a huge contributor to investment, to employment and everything.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: But you also have a lot, a lot of folks who, you know, work in other things, have been living there their whole lives and, you know, kind of have to live with this industry that brings millions of people a year and they have to share resources. This balancing game between the needs of the wine industry and the needs of residents is one of the many reasons it makes politics in Napa really, really interesting.

Alan Montecillo: So there’s an election coming. The last day to vote is tomorrow.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: Tuesday.

Alan Montecillo: Yes. What is it going to be decided in Napa County this week?

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: Yeah, I would say that for locals, this is a big year in Napa. There’s five people sitting on the board of supervisors of the county. These five people get to decide and supervise the budget. The county prison, the county airport, regulating wineries, wildfire protection plans. And three of those seats on the board, with three out of five majority, will be decided on Tuesday. You know, in other parts of the state, the results of Tuesday are like they’re a primary, right? Like it’s kind of like we’re getting ready for what’s going to happen in November. Napa. It’s what happens on Tuesday. Who wins on Tuesday? That’s it. This is final results.

Alan Montecillo: Yeah. Let’s dive more into the big issues in Napa County politics. I have to imagine there’s some overlap with the rest of the bay, like housing. But what else.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: In Napa County? We’re trying to figure out housing, how? We’re trying to figure out how to boost the supply of housing. We’re also figuring out wildfire protection, how to make it financially sustainable for the future as climate change gets more and more intense. We’re also dealing with issues of transportation, especially in the southern part of the county.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: A lot of folks, you know, they got to go to Vallejo, they got to go to Solano, Contra Costa County and to work. And getting in and out of Napa is pretty tough during the week. Cost of living. Also investment in the sense of like, you know, you have a county that depends on tourism, on people traveling. They’re still catching up. They’re still recovering from the pandemic when it was so hard to make it out there.

Alan Montecillo: And what about the wine industry? What are the ways that it comes up in local politics?

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: So over the years, if you if you look at candidates pages, who supports them? Who endorses them? The Napa Wine Growers Association, the Farm Bureau, there will always be a candidate that has their endorsement. They always have something to say. This is an industry that represents millions and millions of dollars. And of course, they want to support a candidate that you know is going to make things a lot easier for them, right? Whether that’s the new vineyard in the works, the it has to go to the Board of Supervisors. And having folks on the Board of Supervisors friendly to the wine industry makes things a lot easier, and they’re very keen on that.

Alan Montecillo: All right, Carlos, so there are three races for the Napa County Board of Supervisors that could reshape big issues like how the wine industry is regulated. And really, this question of what should be done with land in the county. One race where we’re seeing this is in district five, which I know that you followed closely. Tell me a little bit more about district five.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: So I’d say the district five challenges a lot of the preconceptions we have about Napa County. Majority of Napa County is white. The biggest city in district five is American Canyon. American Canyon is actually really, really diverse. It’s overwhelmingly Latino. It’s overwhelmingly Asian, very middle class, very family. A lot of folks work in Vallejo. Work at Six Flags have been there for a while and been able to, like, make a life in the southern part of Napa. You don’t see that many folks going to work in a vineyard or a winery. Economy is a little more varied here, which makes, I think, more integrated with the rest of the bay as well.

Alan Montecillo: Let’s talk about the candidates for district five, starting with the incumbent, Belia Ramos.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: So there are two candidates in the race and it’s rematch. They’ve actually faced off in 2020. Bailey Ramos who’s currently supervisor won in 2020. And now she’s going against Mariam Aboudamous again, who is a city council member for American Canyon.

Belia Ramos: I’m as homegrown as it gets.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: Ramos definitely emphasizes that she’s born and raised like Napa, like how how rooted she is in Napa County.

Belia Ramos: I was born at Queen of the Valley Hospital, and I moved over to unincorporated Napa County outside of Saint Helena.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: Folks, take that pride in that small town connection, right? And she definitely emphasizes that she’s representing the interests of, like, middle class Napa residents.

Belia Ramos: This calling for me, it’s about improving people’s lives.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: Part of her story is that she’s a single mom. You know, she had to raise, kids by herself for a moment. She also dealt with housing insecurity. Not even that there is enough affordable housing in Napa. Just that there’s not enough housing in Napa, period.

Alan Montecillo: How does Supervisor Ramos brand herself, like, when she is talking about what kind of leader she is and wants to be? What does she talk about?

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: She has been chair of the board. She’s very, very involved. She knows how the county works really, really well because she’s been on the board since 2016. She’s been involved in a lot of the recovery efforts from wildfire season.

Belia Ramos: We were brought to our meetings with fires in 2017, the first Mega Fire Tahoe. So when you ask me, what am I most proud of? I’m proud of the investments we’ve made to make our community more resilient.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: She’s very well connected with Congressman Mike Thompson’s office, with labor groups throughout the county. And she’s also she’s involved with the Association of Bay Area Governments, a bag so, you know, well connected.

Alan Montecillo: As you said, this is a rematch. Let’s talk about the challenger, Mariam Aboudamous. Who is she? And why is she running again?

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: Mariam Aboudamous is currently a city council member for American Canyon.

Mariam Aboudamous: I actually looked up at the county almost my entire life, and when I was just one year old, we moved to Brownes Valley Nampa. And then when I was to come from this valley to American Canyon. And I’ve lived there ever since.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: She’s been in city council for several years now, and what got her into politics, public service was one of the issues that we’ve been talking about. Traffic congestion, mobility.

Mariam Aboudamous: I was driving home from my office, and it was literally less than two miles on a drive, but it took me 45 minutes to get home. And I said, this is ridiculous. I should be in San Francisco by now. What’s our city Council doing about traffic? And that’s actually when I ran in 2016.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: I was critical in something that I think was really, really cool that a city like American Canyon passed in a pandemic. So the city had actually decided to require, grocery stores to provide hazard pay to its workers during the 2020 pandemic.

Mariam Aboudamous: Way that I like to do things is I like to talk to both sides and reach a happy medium in the middle where both parties can agree.

Alan Montecillo: And who is supporting her?

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: So she’ll tell you that she has support from all over Napa County, from every industry. I will point out that the first people also came out to support her. Are all groups related to agriculture? The Napa County Farm Bureau, winegrowers of Napa County, the Napa Chamber of Commerce. So groups associated with these, multimillion dollar businesses and industries.

Alan Montecillo: Coming up, where these two candidates stand on the big issues facing Napa County. Stay with us.

Alan Montecillo: So two candidates, both with public service experience. How different are these two candidates?

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: You know, Alan, on a lot of stuff, they do see eye to eye. You know, they both want more housing for now, but they both won a sustainable solution to finance wildfire protection. But I would just say that there’s different ways that they they want to go about it. The big difference is, is when you ask them how we should regulate the wine industry. Take the example of the local nine vineyard. A group of winegrowers came together to open up a new vineyard called Lake Colleen in the north part of the county.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: And it required turning dozens of acres, which were zoned previously for, you know, as like this natural space into a vineyard space. An environmental group actually appeals the process. And it’s like, hey, actually, this vineyard is going to have really bad impacts on the local ecology, on the water, on lake various on your buy. And it had to go to the Board of Supervisors when the time came for a vote. Supervisor Ramos was the tiebreaker vote. Ramos voted to essentially stop the project. Well Aboudamous, she would have acted very differently.

Mariam Aboudamous: Lately, the board has shifted in a way that, you know is not favorable to the industry that’s made the Napa Valley what it is today.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: You know, for her, folks are making an investment in Napa. The county should make it easier for those investments to come through.

Alan Montecillo: So these two candidates for district five appear aligned on many issues. But there are also a few sticking points, including regulation of the wine industry. What would it mean for Ramos to keep this seat or for Aboudamous to defeat her.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: The thing is that, the Lake William project is not the only project in the works. Wine country is a multibillion dollar industry. There’s always something, whether it’s an expansion of an existing vineyard or a new vineyard. It’s just the wine industry is always going to have certain needs, and they need to go to the board and whoever sits on the board, even by just one seat, just change it by one seat.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: It has huge implications on future decisions, on how future vineyards are going to be decided, on how future like permits are going to be, deciding on, hey, whether this plot of land should we make it into housing, or should we make it into a one another vineyard, a new vineyard? Ramos I mean, she’s you know, when I asked her, I mean, I think she just wants there to be a better working relationship between county officials and and the industry.

Belia Ramos: It really goes back to integrity, a core value of the county of Napa, that this is going to require us to engage with our industry partners, at really looking at what, what the concerns are. And, and also listening to our community.

Alan Montecillo: Carlos, when it comes to news coverage of the Bay area, the big cities and counties, you know, San Francisco, Oakland, they get the most attention. And they’re also, I think, sometimes held up as bellwethers for the whole region. We’ve been talking about Napa County, much less populous, but also world famous. Do you think these results will say something about where our broader region is headed?

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: Yeah, I think so, because, for example, San Francisco or San Jose cities where they’re like, hey, we have a booming industry, the tech industry, that industry has needs, but we also have longtime residents being like, hey, what about us? That’s the same in Napa. You have a booming industry that folks take a lot of pride in, but also the needs of residents.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: We’ve seen a shift in the past few years where the county is sitting down and strategizing on how to make the county a place, not just for wine. Wine has brought in a lot of money, millions of dollars. But if you see what the decisions and a lot of the things that the Board of Supervisors has been taking up on ADUs, accessory dwelling units, granny homes, thinking more critically about public transportation and how to make it more widely accessible child care.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: These are all things that you’re like, whoa! Like if you look at the Board of Supervisors 20 years ago, these things weren’t coming up. And now the reality, I mean, that that the cost of living is just too high. It’s gotten to a point where the Board of Supervisors cannot ignore it.

Alan Montecillo: Yeah. And how do you balance all of those things? How do you balance the needs and wants of industry versus the cost of living versus the land? I mean, that’s that’s that’s everybody.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: It’s in it’s it’s in its DNA agriculture. But it’s gotten to a point where like tough decisions need to be made.

Alan Montecillo: I guess we’ll see what happens in this race and many, many others this week in this election.

Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí: Thanks, Carlos. Thank you. Alan.

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Alan Montecillo: That was Carlos Cabrera-Lomeli, community engagement reporter for KQED. This episode was cut down and edited by Ericka Cruz Guevarra, Maria Esquinca scored and added all the tape. Our intern is Ellie Prickett-Morgan. Thanks to KQED’s forum for the calls you heard at the top of the show. Music courtesy of Audio Network. The Bay is a production of member supported KQED public radio in San Francisco. I’m Alan Montecillo in for Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks for listening. Talk to you next time.

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