Upfront: Moderate Marin

The race to replace Steve Kinsey as 4th District Supervisor

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Dennis Rodoni and Dominic Grossi race for Marin’s 4th District Supervisor seat. Both candidates have deep local roots.

By Tom Gogola

The Marin Board of Supervisors last week offered its group support for a few state measures popping up on the November 8 ballot this year—including their backing of ending the death penalty in California and reforming prison sentencing guidelines. Notably, the five-member board did not take a group position on Proposition 64, citing differences of opinion over the measure to legalize cannabis in the state.

The supers’ split on Prop 64 is reflected in the race to replace outgoing supervisor Steve Kinsey in Marin’s 4th District, the largest district in the county, which comprises most of West Marin and, by extension, most of the dairies and farms and remaining open space. Olema construction-company owner Dennis Rodoni supports Prop 64 while Novato fourth-generation dairyman Dominic Grossi is opposed.

It may seem unusual on first blush that the county that birthed the 420 movement and was the long-time home of Jerry Garcia would find individuals running for local office who openly express opposition to legalization. Yet both candidates noted in interviews at their homes last week that the freewheeling hippie-left Marin caricature does not necessarily equate with the facts on the ground, where there are lots of cows and some pretty cranky ranchers. There’s a rancher on the way to Petaluma who has been fastening Donald Trump signage on a tree overhanging the road for the past year.

Grossi, 43, says that his style of political moderation—he is a former Republican who left the party in advance of the supervisors’ race—makes him the better-suited candidate over Rodoni, 64, to represent the district. He doesn’t see his opposition to recreational cannabis as a “conservative” view, but rather a moderate and ethical one, and he’s concerned about kids having access to the plant—he has two school-age children. Grossi supports medical access and is monitoring the rollout of new dispensary applications in Marin. As is Rodoni.

But what about that Trump-supporting rancher? Well, besides being a fellow rancher, Grossi’s moderate views—“fiscally conservative, socially liberal,” by his account—make him well-positioned, he says, to go down the long driveway along the Avenue D Extension and talk to him as his elected representative.

Kinsey has endorsed the political upstart Grossi, who has also gotten endorsement from the Marin County Farm Bureau (he is a past bureau president), and support from the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (where he also served on the board). Rodoni touts his support from most of the Corte Madera Town Council, environmental groups like the Sierra Club, and from fellow West Marinite Norman Solomon, the hyper-progressive Inverness firebrand and author (and congressional candidate). But Rodoni says he doesn’t line up exactly with Solomon’s politics. “I’m a little more moderate,” he says, not quite as liberal as Solomon, “but a little to the left of [U.S. Rep. Jared] Huffman.”

A few of the big-ticket policy items in Marin that jump out are the lack of affordable housing in a county where the median monthly rent is $2,500, outsized legacy pensions that threaten to break the county budget, a new third lane over the Richmond Bridge and an expanding senior population that is not being met with a similar expansion in senior services.

Voters are not necessarily going to find a whole lot of lines of clear separation between the candidates on those fronts: They want to build affordable and workforce housing; they pledge to work on pension reform; they want to build the third lane; and they want to take care of the seniors, preferably by keeping them in their homes for as long as possible.  

It’s the “how do you get there,” especially on affordable housing remedies, where the men’s approaches may diverge and hint at a willingness to go up against the established environmental order of Marin County. Grossi, for example, would let ranchers build second single-units on their property, he says, so that a schoolteacher in Tomales has a place to live and a tolerable commute. “It’s hard to do anything like that out here,” Grossi says, because of tight restrictions on developing agricultural land. In endorsing Grossi, Kinsey pointed to his willingness to look at new solutions to persistent countywide problems.

Beyond the clear division on the legalized-cannabis question, there are a couple of areas where distinctions between the candidates over issues have played out in the district in recent years.

Rodoni was on the shut-it-down side of the recent and bitter battle over the fate of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which was closed through federal action in 2014. In an interview at his Olema home, the candidate says he was never an active opponent of Drakes Bay but believed the company had to abide by the terms of the lease it signed when it took over the operation—which, when it expired, meant the end of Drakes Bay.

Grossi supported continued operations at Drakes Bay and the subsequent push, by former United State Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, to guarantee an extension of long-term leases to the cattle ranchers that occupy parts of the rolling and majestic Point Reyes National Seashore. Those ranchers are now embroiled in a lawsuit that seeks to kick them out.

Rodoni also supports the lease extensions but was knocked in media reports earlier this summer for accepting a $100 contribution from Huey Johnson of the Resource Renewal Institute. The legendary Mill Valley environmentalist spearheaded the latest lawsuit to boot the ranchers, and Rodoni eventually returned the money.

In interviews with a handful of Rodoni supporters from West Marin, the basic gist was that they are willing to look past the Drakes Bay controversy now that Rodoni’s on the side of continued ranching in the park.

The continuing theme among supporters of his is that Rodoni’s a long-time local with deep roots, a known quantity who has served on numerous local boards and committees over a 35-year career of local public service. He’s currently the director of the North Marin Water District and runs a construction company, Rodoni Construction, from his Highway 1 homestead. Rodoni ran a losing campaign against Kinsey in 2004 and believes the outgoing supervisor endorsed his opponent over political and not policy issues.

Grossi, whose ranch spreads out along Novato Boulevard, similarly has deep local roots. The hilltop Grossi homestead in Novato offers a commanding view of Stafford Lake, and during a rainy morning interview he talks about his family’s longstanding ties in the community—multiple generations of Grossi family members have lived on this land, joined by hundreds of cows and, Grossi says, a couple of long-standing employees who live on-premises and raised their own families here.

Grossi is in the process of shifting his farm to an organic operation and was—unsurprisingly—opposed to a recent bill signed by Gov. Brown that extended overtime benefits to farmworkers, including dairy workers.

Rodoni supported the bill but acknowledged the undue burden it might place on cash-strapped small dairies in West Marin. He also noted that because of the rollout timetable enshrined in the bill, dairy farmers wouldn’t have to start paying overtime for several years.

It’s a complicated issue and Rodoni says he can see all sides—even as he supported Brown’s signature on the overtime bill. Then again, “it’s a complicated county.”

We’ll have more on this race in our Nov. 2 endorsement issue.

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