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Women in Leadership: Sonoma's Rachel Hundley

When you leave the big city to try life in a small town, your first move might not be infiltration of that small town’s political structure. But if you’re 30-something Rachel Hundley, a prettily elfin woman with dark, Snow White hair, that’s exactly your play, and you crush it.

Expatriated from the East Coast in 2013, she was elected to the Sonoma City Council with a shoestring campaign that could afford only 25 signs. “I knocked on about a thousand doors,” Hundley said, “and was welcomed more often than not.”

She’s not an extrovert. All that knocking was hard. “Sometimes I would sit in my car for an hour giving myself a pep talk.”

This year Hundley, now 34, is taking a turn as mayor after two years on the council, and has navigated some rocky waters in the past year. Tasting rooms, cannabis, the Wine Country wildfires. There’s been no shortage of controversy or crisis in her tenure. She handles it all with the dispassion of a practiced pol, her public face unfailingly composed.

Even when confronted with condescension from old timers, Hundley remains unperturbed. “My age, my gender, the fact that I didn’t grow up here bothers some people,” Hundley said. “Some people take longer to adjust to change, but change is inevitable.”

She’s a lawyer turned food-truck owner turned politician before 40, a whirling dervish of productivity pulling down 60-hour weeks. “I’ve always been pretty creative and had a lot of diverse interests. I’ve never been prone to focus on just one thing, because I’m interested in everything. That means I’m not great at anything but pretty good at a lot of things,” she said.

Hundley grew up doing art, writing creatively, and playing five musical instruments. When she left New York City, she made a list of new goals, among them a lifestyle that allowed time for hobbies. “There’s no time for hobbies!” Hundley laughs now. “Being mayor is a big jump. I was surprised how different it was from just being on the council, but being mayor has been the most transformational year of my young life.”

Hundley spends about 30 hours each week performing her duties, and is paid a grand total of $300 a month before taxes. “I think about this a lot because I’m not retired, I’m not independently wealthy, and I have to work to pay my very expensive Sonoma rent.” She worries that a large sector of the community is excluded from political participation because of the way politics in Sonoma is structured around volunteerism.

A handful of issues crowd Mayor Hundley’s political agenda: housing, small business, and water sustainability. But economics is the elephant in the room. “The economy is hard to talk about because it’s a very complex thing. We’re hospitality heavy in Sonoma, which brings a lot of benefits but is unstable,” Hundley said. In the wake of October’s devastating fires, you’d be hard pressed to find a local restaurateur or hotelier who would disagree. “Sonoma has an entrepreneurial history, and we have to make space for entrepreneurs to grow themselves. It’s on us to create an environment where we can have a constant turn of new ideas.”

Hundley is a passionate defender of the democratic process, and actively encourages people to find their place within it. “City council meetings are sometimes sparsely attended,” she said. “But I’ve learned that the people who show up and speak, get heard. It’s the people who show up whose ideas are considered. People are sort of gravitating to the bleachers where they can sit and complain and criticize. But in local politics, there is no sideline. This city is what people make it.”

When she has time, perhaps after passing the mayor’s gavel off in December, Hundley plans to learn to play the electric bass. That instrument — with just four strings, played one note at a time — seems simpler than the others Hundley already plays. “But the bass is so important!” she said, suddenly animated. “People don’t notice it, but they can feel it.” A bit like the hard-working, soft-spoken Hundley herself, doggedly tending to a town’s business.

Email Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.