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The Vote in the Hills 

Fifth District race seems to hinge on personality, life experience

Time moves more slowly up in the hills around northern and eastern Humboldt County, and political campaigns run more quietly. The race between businessman Patrick Cleary and insurance agent and tribal leader Ryan Sundberg to replace incumbent Supervisor Jill Duffy has been conducted at a far softer pitch than the race that's centered around urban Eureka.

As in the Fourth District, a three-way race in the primary election has been boiled down to the top two candidates. However, the June contest in the Fifth -- which is anchored by greater McKinleyville -- was much more of a three-way race. Sundberg finished first, with 39 percent of the vote. Cleary lagged behind, with 30.9 percent. Third-place finisher Patrick Higgins, a member of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District, ended not too far behind Cleary, with 26.6 percent. (A fourth candidate, Jeff Lytle, garnered only 2.7 percent.)

Although Sundberg finished first by a fairly large margin, conventional wisdom has Cleary as the front-runner this time around; most of Higgins' left-leaning supporters can be expected to migrate to the similarly progressive-supported Cleary. But Sundberg, a lifelong local and a member of the Trinidad Rancheria's tribal council, is still out pushing his case -- and he only has half the ground to make up.

The candidate's professed positions on issues are far more alike than different. But Cleary said last week that if there is one thing that defines the difference between himself and his opponent, it is his experience both in government and the private sector. He is the president and largest stockholder of Lost Coast Communications Inc., which owns and operates four local FM radio stations, and worked on Wall Street before moving to Humboldt County. In addition to his private sector work, he has served in a variety of community service capacities: He served 10 years on the board of the Big Lagoon Community Services District and seven years on the county's Headwaters Fund Board, and has served as president of the Humboldt Folklife Society and general manager of nonprofit university radio station KHSU.

Cleary said that in going door to door to talk with voters, the economy is almost always part of the conversation. He believes government can best serve the needs of the private sector by relentlessly focusing on infrastructure: sewage, water, roads and a redundant fiber-optic line. He said that he would bring his experience to bear on these problems.

"You look at Valley West -- probably one of the most successful examples of how to create a manufacturing base," Cleary said Monday. "That's the manufacturing capital of Humboldt County right now. But they had land, and they had adequate water and sewer to accommodate industry." Meanwhile, he said, Willow Creek has no municipal sewage system at all, and ever-growing McKinleyville's system is reaching capacity, justifying the many concerns about growth in that town that he hears from voters.

Cleary said that he is dedicated to preserving the county's quality of life and natural beauty, which he believes to be one of its greatest economic assets. In an op-ed published he recently published in the Times-Standard, he particularly called for a countywide program of action to restore the area's river systems.

Cleary is endorsed by the Humboldt Democratic Central Committee, the Humboldt Deputy Sheriffs Organization, the Central Labor Council of Humboldt & Del Norte, Carpenters Local 751, A.F.S.C.M.E. Local 1684 and the Sierra Club.

Perhaps not surprisingly for this vast and rural supervisorial district, Cleary's opponent also emphasized the need to protect rivers -- particularly the Klamath and the Trinity, gravely threatened watersheds that encompass most of the Fifth District's landmass.

"The Klamath river, the Trinity River -- those are near and dear to my heart," said Sundberg, a Native American and a lifelong local, earlier this week. "Getting the salmon back is very important."

Nevertheless, he has grave concerns about the Klamath Settlement Agreement, the omnibus proposal to restore that river that was forged by multiple upstream and downstream interests. Duffy, the current Fifth District Supervisor, sat at the table during those discussions and thoroughly endorses the settlement, but Sundberg said he is concerned about the lack of available funding for the agreement's various provisions, and also about its failure to take Trinity River issues into account.

Sundberg agreed that economic issues are at the forefront of voters' priorities these days, and like Cleary he placed great weight on government's role in providing adequate infrastructure. At the same time, though, he said he didn't want to see too much more growth or urbanization in the McKinleyville area, and marveled at the fact that someone recently told him that the town could look like Portland, Ore. someday.

"I don't want McKinleyville to look like Portland," he said. "I like the semi-rural place I grew up in, and I want my kid to have the same thing."

If elected, Sundberg would be Humboldt County's first Native American Supervisor -- a fact that he says has fired up people in the county's most Native American-heavy region.

Sundberg has been endorsed by the Building & Construction Trades Council of Humboldt & Del Norte Counties, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 551, Operating Engineers Local 3 and several local tribal entities, including the Yurok Tribe, the Big Lagoon Rancheria and the Trinidad Rancheria.  

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