For the last time, the Windsor Town Council chose its mayor and vice mayor at its meeting on Dec. 4.
Following a heated discussion, Mayor Dominic Foppoli was reinstated as mayor and Esther Lemus was voted in as vice mayor.
This action had become pro-forma over the years, but with the change to district elections looming in 2020, this is the last time the mayor will not be voted on directly by the people.
Usually, there is an order to the proceedings, but at this meeting, two factions made their wishes known.
Councilmember Sam Salmon started the proceedings by asking if there was a way to do a straw poll ahead of the actual motion to reorganize, as he stated he didn’t like the feeling of having to vote no on someone.
“I’ve had to vote no and I find that unsettling because anyone who wants to do the work shouldn’t have me vote against them,” he said.
While his intentions were good, the plan didn’t end up avoiding acrimony all together. Vice Mayor Deborah Fudge kicked things off with an impassioned speech about why she believed Foppoli should remain at the top job for another year.
“I’d like to make a motion to nominate Mayor Foppoli again,” she said. “He led us through Kincade Fire in an absolutely stellar way, but more important than that, he gave his passion to the whole town the whole year. As someone who has been here for a long time and feels a great deal of pride for this town, I feel like Dominic added more heart to Windsor.
“He brings connections and resources to the town that none of the rest of us do, with people he knows and friends and his charitable work. During the next year as we work on building the downtown and other projects, we really need Dominic at the helm.”
This was followed by Bruce Okrepkie giving an equally strong case to promote Esther Lemus — the top vote getter in 2018 — to the post.
“This one person has come on board and done tremendous job. She’s sharp, articulate, very good at everything she’s done, and it would be great to represent 33% of the population of Windsor. I would like to see the first Latino mayor in the county of Sonoma be Esther Lemus,” Okrepkie said, adding that Lemus is the only councilmember who hasn’t served as mayor.
“See why I didn’t want to have to vote no,” cracked Salmon before following up with an endorsement of Foppoli, noting that while they were often far apart on issues, he admired his dedication and work ethic.
“Dominic and I don’t see eye to eye a lot of the time, and I think a lot of that is generational,” he admitted. “But I’ve received letters from people that Dominic helped in the fire and Dominic has that skill. Because he had that skill and he did the work he did, I am going to support him for mayor. I realize that Esther is a terrific councilperson, and brings a lot to the council and we’ll see what happens down the road. But, its not based on Dominic being in my camp or whatever, but on the tenor of his work. It’s not an easy choice to make.”
Lemus and Foppoli then each had their say on their own behalf.
“I’ve thought you did an extraordinary job, over the past year,” Lemus said to Foppoli. “(But) I’m looking at this from a larger picture and (there is an issue) with the under representation of women and people of color in leadership positions and that applies to public and private sector. It’s the life that I’ve lived, the experience I’ve had and the observations I’ve made regarding the obstacles that women face and people of color face and the barriers to advancement.”
Lemus pointed out her experience in a leadership role as Windsor Unified School District (WUSD) Board of Trustees president during the Tubbs Fire, and continued by sharing the importance of representation to all the groups she is a part of.
“(I have) a unique voice, one that is rarely seen in these positions, not just in Sonoma County but throughout state and nation,” she said. “That is the voice of a female of color, a working mother, a worker — one who is not retired, one who is not self employed and not independently wealthy — and one who works hard to serve in the role. I’m a non-traditional elected official, but I work hard because I believe this voice is very important.”
She concluded with a pointed message: “I believe I’m the right person for the last appointed mayor. Obviously, it would be historic not just for Windsor but for the county of Sonoma and I think it would be important for children of color to see someone who looks like me in this role, something I never had as a child. I never aspired to be an elected official or an attorney, when I looked around no one ever looked like me. I would love to change that.”
Foppoli’s speech started with him reiterating that serving as mayor has been the “greatest honor” of his life, and sympathizing with Lemus — whose extended family was attending — as he remembered being able to share his own victory with his Nicaraguan grandmother. He then offered up what he would bring to the council in the coming year.
“It’s a huge honor to serve with all four of you, and Esther I look forward to supporting you in government for many years to come,” Foppoli said. “There are several reasons I would like to continue on. One is that I am working with large entities from outside of the town looking for projects with workforce housing, and that’s something we need, and the other is the U.S. Conference of Mayors. We can get major grants for being a shining example of environmental leadership on the west coast, but that process is more difficult to navigate with new leadership.”
The floor was then opened for public comment, and the gloves came off.
“Everybody worked hard during the fires; I didn’t see my wife during the evacuation at all,” said Lemus’ husband Doug Parker. “We all left and she stayed here. She didn’t see her kids, her pet — which we lost — we all worked our tails off, so to say we should just re-elect for that is missing the point. This is an opportunity; the last time you have a chance to chose on your own … I think Sam, you’re going to regret this, if you don’t think about how much it means to the county and town.”
“I’ve lived here since 1996, and when I walk in here I never see pictures that look like me,” George Valenzuela, president of the WUSD Board of Trustees said. “She was able to win, I told her she was crazy to run and she beat three incumbents and it was so exciting for the community. And she got nothing. She was the top vote getter and she was voted for across racial and ethnic boundaries, and all she got was a pat on back. It’s not good enough. It’s interesting to hear Dominic talk about his Nicaraguan roots; I always thought he was Italian. It’s interesting how people want to be Latino when it helps them.
“In a democratic society, we rotate the president and the mayorship, and I think should rotate the mayor position. I can’t vote, but I think it’s a mistake for Dominic to serve for two years. (Esther) deserves that right. I think it’s an old boys, white, network. You should vote for her for all the reasons she mentioned.”
One thing continually referenced was that Lemus said she had been told on election night that the tradition in Windsor was for the top vote-getter to become mayor, and it was clear from some comments that the perceived slight had rankled for the last year.
However, the veteran councilmembers all stated that this was not the case or tradition. Salmon pointed out he hadn’t been mayor in 14 years, regardless of his vote numbers. Foppoli said he’d been the number two vote getter twice before he made vice mayor.
Tension in the room continued to rise as more comments from councilmembers came forward.
“I may regret how I’m going to say this. I can appreciate the comments and trying to go for a goal, but I don’t appreciate the tone in this room,” Fudge said. “I’m having a hard time with the comment about ‘some are retired and it’s easier.’ I worked full-time and had three board positions, it’s been very difficult. I think judgment is going both ways and it makes me uncomfortable because that’s not who we are as this town.
“It’s a very hard decision, it’s not easy,” she continued, adding that had she known about the vocal opposition she would have articulated her views to a greater degree in her opening nomination. “I’m very proud of the Windsor we created, the spirit during fire, and I feel like that tone is breaking down tonight and that makes me sad.”
“You have someone on council that represents a vast majority of the people in the town. Voting them down will be a black eye for Windsor,” Okrepkie said.
“I want to move past this,” said Foppoli. “We are a strong, unified council.”
“I apologize for what’s been said and George I understand what you’re saying and Lemus family, I understand where you are coming from,” Salmon said. “I can only apologize for what my vote will be. It’s not a black eye, because (my vote) comes from the amount of work. I’ve been impressed with Dominic.”
In the end, Foppoli retained the top spot by a vote of 3–2. It was then time to choose a vice-mayor. Foppoli floundered momentarily, stating he’d hoped to keep Fudge at his side, but in the wake of the previous discussion he’d do whatever the others wanted.
Fudge then took herself out of the running, and Lemus was given the vice mayor job 5-0.
Foppoli expressed a desire to move past the discussion and return to a united front.
The next morning, Lemus congratulated Foppoli on social media and said she looked forward to working with him. However, she also posted a photo of civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, one of the first children to be a part of desegregation in the 1960s. She also posted the following comment.
“The more things change, the more they remain the same, even in 2019 and with those who claim to want to advance progress and the principles of equality in our country.
“Hoping for more future progress, opportunities for advancement, and more positive change for women and communities of color in both the private and public sectors. Unfortunately, we still have a lot of work ahead of us and so many doors still remain closed.
“Thank you to all of you who have been supportive in this fight. You know who you are.”
When asked about the post and the events of the meeting, Lemus said the following in an email:
“The mayor position has been, historically, a rotated position not only in Windsor but throughout other cities in Sonoma County and the state of California. Given that this was the Windsor Town Council’s last chance to choose a rotated mayor and all of the current councilmembers had already previously served in this role, reason would lead one to the logical and equitable decision of selecting the councilmember who had not yet served as mayor as the last council-elected mayor for the Town of Windsor.
“Such an outcome would have communicated to the town’s constituents that Windsor values representative government and is a county leader for fairness and equity. Councilmember Salmon relegated the mayor role as primarily ‘ceremonial.’ However, to have the only non-mayor councilmember who is also Latina serve as the final rotated mayor would have made a statement beyond ‘ceremonial’; it would have been symbolic of the council’s commitment to Windsor’s Latino residents who now comprise 33% of Windsor, and would have been an authentic validation of the constituency as based on the 2018 council election results.
Unfortunately, the recent council decision sheds light on and validates the position of the Shenkman law firm as it relates to district elections and the many barriers that have been in place historically to electing candidates of color. In my own election to council, I defeated the second highest vote getter by over 1000 votes. I won first place in a field of ten candidates by close to 20% of the total votes, upending all incumbents including the current mayor and Councilmember Salmon.
“In assessing the potential Shenkman lawsuit, we were informed by the town’s consultant that I beat the statistical odds in light of my background as a candidate of color and that I would be viewed as an ‘exceptional and extraordinary candidate’ in a court of law based on my professional background and many qualifications. Unfortunately, even with ‘exceptional and extraordinary’ qualifications, the barriers persist and they were exemplified at the Windsor Town Council meeting on Wednesday.
“I continue to work hard to try to remove the structural barriers faced by so many so that we may truly have a true shot at equal opportunity in both the public and private sectors and on elected bodies. I will continue to work hard and hope to pave the path of entry for future generations of all genders and ethnic backgrounds.
“Windsor had an opportunity to put in place its first Latina mayor, a leader who came in first place in the last election in a crowded field of ten candidates and who beat all incumbents, winning by approximately 20% of all votes. Unfortunately, three of five councilmembers apparently, through their votes, did not believe we were ready for this.
“However, I accept my colleagues’ decision and will move forward in unity to continue to serve the residents of our diverse and beautiful town.”