Story David Bolling
Photos Steven Krause
Amy Harrington is flat out in love with Sonoma.
“I would say I fell in love with Sonoma, like with a person. When I was working in the city, I would think about it all the time. I always just wanted to be here.”
The arc of Amy Harrington’s life seems to have been formed by that romance, that tug at the heart, that need to be here. If there were a song, “Sonoma,” she would be singing it.
It’s a familiar story. She, her then-husband and two young children lived in San Francisco, found a three-acre ranchette in Schellville, near the Fremont Diner, with a tiny, tiny house, lots of room for a pool, and a price that would be laughably low today. So they bought it, and put in the pool, and Sonoma became their weekend retreat.
“Over time, we had goats, and sheep, and chickens, and turkeys and big gardens. Friends would come every weekend from the city to swim, and be outside, and help in the garden. I like being outside with stars every night, tons of birds. Kids were just riding their bikes, climbing trees. I was born in 1976, so I had like a tail-end ‘70s childhood. It was like a new ‘70s childhood for my kids, which I really like. With no TV, lots of books, and it was just really ideal.”
Two years in, they decided they were committed, so they reversed their commute and settled in Sonoma, “in our tiny, tiny house.”
Time passed, the recession hit, and they found a house in town, on East Napa Street, right across from the Sonoma Community Center, that was on the market for another laughably low price. So they bought it, moved in and became legal Sonomans.
Love came and went, as it will, Amy and her husband split up, and the Sonoma hook was firmly set. So she started looking around, as a citizen now, not a visitor, and a deep natural instinct took over.
“I love government. It’s just a natural interest. When I was in high school, I was in Junior Statesmen of America. My ex-husband was on the board of supervisors in San Francisco. When I was like 25 or 26, I was elected to the Democratic Central Committee in San Francisco, and I was working, and living out on my farm, and having little kids, so I didn’t do anything really political there.”
But now she could.
“So I applied to be on the Sonoma Planning Commission, and there was a kind of brouhaha over Michael Coleman getting on the commission, and that was about me. I was the woman (City Council member) Gary Edwards was trying to get on there.”
She pauses briefly, reflecting. “I really wanted to be on the planning commission, very badly, because I wanted to be part of the decision- making about what would be built here. But they picked someone with no professional experience related to planning, which is unusual. So, I hadn’t been focused on the City Council at all, but it kind of brought the City Council into focus. And I still wasn’t thinking about running, but I got an email from Gary Edwards saying, ‘You should think about running.’”
So, of course, she did. She won, and two years later, she’s mayor.
At this point, Harrington seems to want to back up and explain herself a little more clearly, to put her political interests in context.
“So basically, I consider myself a really regular person. My dad was a mailman, my mom was a legal secretary, a pretty normal person. I grew up going to the park, and ice skating. But I happened to go to good schools, and I’m a lawyer, and so I just take a real delight in having regular people represented, with the bonus that I had all this really wonderful education, and I’m an attorney. And before I was an attorney, I was a union organizer, so I’ve done like a million elections, and contract fights, and stuff like that.
“So, I feel like I’m sort of naturally aligned with just normal folks who go to work every day. Those are kind of like my people. But, on the other hand, I’ve been lucky enough to have this skill set where I’m very good at getting stuff done.”
There’s no evidence of false pride in the statement, it’s more like she’s simply describing her height (about 6 feet). And she’s humble enough to appreciate that the deep vein of professional expertise in Sonoma is a rare learning opportunity.
“The depth of expertise of the public here is phenomenal. And one big principle I have is really involving people in what’s going on. There are so many tremendous people I can consult with, on any topic, so instead of only relying on the city staff, I really value being educated by these professionals who live in town. It’s really important to me that we not shut people out, that we don’t assume the staff runs everything. And that goes along with the idea that this is the people’s government. Everything we do is supposed to be for the people here.”
Well and good. But where is Sonoma headed, and what should be done about it?
“In terms of where the city is going, obviously we’re subject to all the national forces, and we cannot control them. So, I care a lot about having a middle class, I think it’s really important to have people who can go to work, and then coach a little league team after work, because they don’t have three jobs, and that they have some of their needs met, they aren’t super stressed out, and can participate. All that stuff is really, really important for communities. And we can work on it through housing, and also, maybe some subsidized recreation, so that kids have opportunities and stuff. That’s really hard to figure out. But I care a lot about it.”
But, it must be asked, with an issue like affordable housing, what specifically can the City Council do?
“Well, the conventional wisdom is that it’s a supply and demand problem. I actually don’t think that we can think in those terms, because there is essentially unlimited demand. So, the amount of supply we would have to produce to begin to affect prices would be radical. If we add 20 units of housing, we still have a housing crisis. So, we would have to add, like, 5,000 units of housing. And we only have 10,000 people living here. So that would fundamentally change the nature of the town. So, in terms of building our way out of this problem, I don’t think it’s practically possible. But I definitely don’t think that means that we should do nothing.”
So what would she do?
“So, I just started with the simplest part of the problem, which is we don’t have any money. So I did propose last year that we increase the hotel tax by 1 percent and dedicate it only to affordable housing. That would give us $250,000 or $350,000 a year to work on housing.”
There are no easy answers in Amy Harrington’s political toolbox. But there is a compelling desire to find them, to fashion policies and strategies that preserve the Sonoma she fell in love with when she was still on the outside looking in.