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Meet the Mayor: Amy Harrington has firm grip on the gavel

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When Mayor Amy Harrington moved from San Francisco to Sonoma she became deeply committed to keeping it as she considers it to be: the best place in the world to live.

Elected to the Sonoma City Council in 2016, she is serving as mayor during 2019 and has a clear vision of what she intends to accomplish – raising the minimum wage, earmarking money for affordable housing and finding one, city-approved location for cannabis distribution.

“People are making $11 an hour. We can do better than that,” she said of the current minimum wage, pointing out that the statewide minimum is the same here as it is in cities with a much lower cost of living. “Obviously you need to make more than that here. We can’t talk about affordable housing without talking about the fact that many of the people who work here can’t afford to live here.”

The city council will hear a UC Berkeley study in February to help determine what the wage increase should be. “We need to meet employers somewhere in the middle,” she said, adding that workers who can’t afford to live here have no political power.

In the election last November Sonoma voters approved a 2 percent increase to the transient occupancy tax, a ballot measure that would also allow the city council to add an additional 1 percent if it so chooses. Harrington wants to add that 1 percent and then allocate it to a dedicated fund to be used for affordable housing.

“What’s the best use of our money?” she asked, pointing out that with the loss of state redevelopment funding, the city has to address how it can raise money for affordable housing.

Harrington is also concerned about the proposed 2020 Sonoma ballot measure that, if it passes, would allow unlimited dispensaries within the city limits as long as they meet zoning regulations.

“That’s a really bad idea,” she said. “Prior to 2020 it makes sense to find some reasonable location that the city would hand-pick.”

She recognizes that some people have expressed a desire for a dispensary, “but I don’t think people want unlimited dispensaries.”

Harrington, 42, is a probate attorney with offices in San Francisco and Sonoma. A San Francisco native, she grew up in the upstairs flat of a Victorian building right across the street from housing projects where there was always “lots of noise and sirens.”

Her father, a mailman, and her mother, a legal secretary, placed a high priority on their children’s educations, sending Harrington to the prestigious and pricey Hamlin School, which was then a girls school, almost all of whom were from much wealthier families than hers.

She was accepted to Lowell High School where, at that time, “95 percent of the kids were Asian,” she said – and she was tall, blondish and dyslectic. Raised in diverse environments, she always learned to fit it. She majored in political science and sociology at UC Davis, working full time during her senior year for the Health Care Workers Union, (now SEIU.) She helped organize service staff in five hospitals in Sacramento, continuing in that job for four years after college.

She then moved to Spain for a year, traveling throughout Europe before returning to San Francisco and becoming the campaign manager for Geraldo Sandoval, who she helped elect to the San Francisco board of supervisors in 2000. “I fell in love with the candidate,” she said. They married and Harrington started law school at UC Hastings, passing the bar in 2005.

She also worked on her husband’s reelection campaign in 2004 and they lived in the Excelsior neighborhood, which he represented. When their two daughters were very young they took a day trip to Sonoma to escape the fog and felt instantly at home.

“We wanted a place here so badly,” she said, explaining that in 2007 they bought “a lot with a shack” off Fremont Drive. They came every weekend, “and every Sunday night we were heartbroken when we would have to leave.” It wasn’t long before they decided to take on the daily commute, moving to Sonoma full time and eventually to Napa Street within the city limits.

In 2011 Harrington was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer, undergoing surgery and chemotherapy and a very difficult year. Finishing chemotherapy on Halloween, she read about a challenge to run one mile a day every day from Thanksgiving to New Years, and “although it was very difficult for me to run a mile at that point,” she did it. She is now an avid runner and cyclist and is completely committed to her fitness routine. “I feel a responsibility to my family to do everything I can to never be sick again because it is so harrowing,” she said.

“My number one priority is my children,” she said about her daughters, Natalie, 15, and Julia, 12. She and Sandoval, who is now a San Francisco superior court judge, amicably divorced last year. Harrington continues to work full time as an attorney, and enjoys that her work gives her the opportunity to help families, particularly the elderly. “People come to you, often in a time of conflict or crisis, and I’m able to help. I find it very satisfying.”

She first became interested in local politics because of her love of Sonoma. “It has always felt so special to me. It is beautiful and has such a wonderful mix of people.” She first applied for an open position on the planning commission “because I wanted to be part of the decision making process for what gets built here.” She felt her legal background and the fact that she is a licensed real estate appraiser qualified her, “but I did not get picked,” she said, still believing she was the more qualified applicant.

She then decided to run for city council in 2016, receiving 2,637 votes, 35 percent of the vote in a field of four, the most ever by a woman candidate at that time and the first woman to come in first in 20 years, according to Harrington. She was chosen unanimously by her fellow council members to be mayor this year.

“Honestly, my most fun job is being on city council. The things we do are really important to the daily lives of our neighbors. We have high accountability because we are so visible and I think that’s great.”

She said she will “probably” run again in two years, her only slight hesitation being that it is a huge time commitment, estimating she spends about 20 hours a week on council-related issues, and that she will likely commit even more time this year in her role as mayor.

Whether she continues to pursue a political career or not, one thing she does know for sure is that she is deeply rooted in Sonoma.

“I love it here. It is where I’m supposed to be.”

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