Sonoma County Alliance president to resign amid backlash over race, protest message
The president of one of the region’s most influential business groups, the Sonoma County Alliance, has submitted his resignation following fierce backlash to a letter he penned last week addressing issues of race and protest.
The decision follows a whirlwind 24 hours during which the Alliance posted the letter to its website, removed it and then published an apology amid a backdrop of angry calls and threats of canceled memberships.
“Needless to say, I got it horribly wrong,” said Sonoma County Alliance President Doug Hilberman, who is also president of Santa Rosa-based AXIA Architects. “I did not mean to create any harm, but I know I’ve done terrible harm to the community.”
Hilberman began his letter with the phrase “ALL lives matter,” criticized vandalism of downtown businesses, including his own, during recent Black Lives Matter protests and then delved into a breakdown of which protests throughout history were worth the economic costs involved.
The phrase “All Lives Matter” is viewed by supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement as a criticism, one that ignores or dismisses systemic racism that has devalued the lives of Black people.
“I thought it was horrifically offensive, and even disgusting, when I read it,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board’s senior incumbent and member of the Sonoma County Alliance. “His letter was anecdotal proof of what white privilege looks like.”
Brian Ling, executive director of the Sonoma County Alliance, acknowledged the organization has suffered some membership cancellations, but deferred further comment until after an emergency board meeting scheduled for 8 a.m. Monday.
“I think we will try to keep our membership losses to a minimum,” Ling said.
The board will meet Monday to consider Hilberman’s resignation letter, which he submitted Sunday. Hilberman said he expects the board will accept his resignation.
As the county’s preeminent business networking and political advocacy group, the Sonoma County Alliance has spent more than $250,000 in the past five years to influence local politics, and its membership list is a rundown of the county’s top public and private powerbrokers.
Zane’s Board of Supervisors colleague James Gore joins District Attorney Jill Ravitch and Santa Rosa City Council members John Sawyer, Jack Tibbetts and Mayor Tom Schwedhelm as members of the group. Developer Hugh Futrell, Santa Rosa Junior College President Frank Chong, Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi and Santa Rosa Metro Chamber President Peter Rumble are also members.
The county’s two top cops, Santa Rosa Police Chief Rainer Navarro and Sheriff Mark Essick, are also members of the influential body.
But fractures emerged swiftly when Hilberman’s piece was published and sent via email to members.
Herman G. Hernandez, who is involved in a variety of nonprofit activities, was one of the first to push back, taking to Facebook to announce he would forgo his $25 monthly membership dues and instead donate $30 per month to the Sonoma County chapter of the NAACP.
Barbara Grasseschi, owner of Healdsburg-based Puma Springs Vineyards and a major Democratic presidential fundraiser, renounced her membership on the group’s website and on Facebook, a move she confirmed via text message Sunday.
In a phone interview Sunday, Hernandez called on elected officials who are members of the organization or who have received donations from the group to cancel their memberships and speak out. He warned, too, that candidates who take money from the organization in the next election cycle risk being painted as “as a candidate supported by a white supremacist, all-lives-matter organization.”
“I’m a young person, I’m on the school board, I just started my own business — I have everything to lose, yet I’m not going to allow an organization like the Sonoma County Alliance to come out with a statement that is blatantly racist,” Hernandez said. “I’m tired of this stuff. I’m tired of it.”
Zane acknowledged the group’s longstanding support for her political career, but she was quick to point to her own criticisms of the organization’s tradition of white, male leadership. Eight of the organization’s last 11 board presidents were white men.
Hilberman became the 46th president of the Sonoma County Alliance in January, and promised in the group’s 2019 annual publication to be a leader amid the region’s ongoing housing crisis. He provides monthly updates to the membership via a President’s Message, which he said mostly hews to news of the day.
“Needless to say, a number of the previous months have been related to COVID-19,” he said. “This is the first month that I pivoted off of that topic.”
Hilberman acknowledges now he pivoted directly into a misstep, and has vowed to embark on a personal journey of listening and learning. An apology note was posted Saturday morning. But the note, claiming the initial message did not represent the views of the Sonoma County Alliance or its members, contrasted with the opening words of Hilberman’s letter: “Speaking for the Sonoma County Alliance …”
Hernandez said Hilberman’s resignation isn’t enough. The apology didn’t meet the mark, either, he said, adding that the group has not yet acknowledged that Black lives matter.
In Sunday’s phone interview, Hilberman emphasized his insensitivity in writing “All lives matter,” and said his resignation letter, which contains a much more detailed apology, will be posted online Monday.
“That is something I’m incredibly sorry for, and I’m working hard to educate myself and understand the difference much better,” he said.
Zane called the resignation a first, “baby” step. She acknowledged the tens of thousands of dollars the group has contributed to her campaigns through the years, saying she has been highly critical of the Sonoma County Alliance for its reliance on white male leadership. She called for the organization to examine its biases and privileges, to develop a concrete plan to become more inclusive and diverse.
“This is an opportunity for them to grow,” Zane said.
You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @tylersilvy