A conversation with Mayor Joanne Sanders
By DYANN ESPINOSA / Towns Correspondent
It’s 3 p.m. on a damp and gray afternoon. Joanne Sanders is running late for an appointment at Bolt Staffing, the business she and her husband Morgan Sanders founded and manage.
As the rain begins in earnest, Sanders and her daughter Renee park and dash inside. Renee is dressed in a white bunny outfit with pink fringe, a costume that Sanders created and sewed for her school’s Halloween parade.
Sanders stops for a quick check-in with the staff and a brief exchange with Morgan about cars, groceries and house guests (30 adults and kids are converging at their home in two hours). She calls her son, whose water polo sports team has a game in another county tonight, and then sits down to focus on her interview.
This is a small portion of the calendar for Sanders, current mayor of Sonoma who is serving out her second term on the city council. She and Morgan run a staffing business with offices in Sonoma and American Canyon, and have three children — Calvin, age 16, Mathieu, 13, and Renee, 9. They also are hosting a foreign exchange student from Brazil, one of seven who have lived with them over the years.
Explaining the rationale for hosting foreign students, Sanders refers back to her parents.
Her father, a Mexican-American from the Bay Area, was sent to France during the Vietnam War. He met a French woman there who became his wife, and it’s where Joanne was born. A year later, the couple returned to the United States and settled in Santa Clara, where he worked at Moffett Field. The melding of cultures created a household with worldwide ties and interests.
Laughing somewhat ruefully at her schedule, Sanders says that it is part of the reason she decided not to run for office again.
“I love serving in elected office and I like being part of the process, but after four years of a struggling economy in which the staffing industry got hit hard, it’s time to concentrate on our business,” she said.
Prior to the recession Bolt Staffing had taken off, finding early success and being named by Inc. Magazine one of the nation’s fastest-growing businesses.
Family also influenced Sanders’ decision.
“We think that when we first have kids, that’s the time they need us most. But I have come to see that when your children are older, that’s when they need you to be involved in their lives, to understand the ups and downs of their experiences and to be there for them.”
Sanders’ parents moved to Sonoma in 1986 to find the “small town feel” they missed while living on the peninsula before it became “Silicon Valley.” She was already attending Sonoma State University, but began to spend more time in the community. She met Morgan, who was working in the food industry, and after marriage they moved to Pocatello, Idaho, where Morgan was raised. Joanne joined the Pocatello Chamber board of directors but never sought office.
“I always thought Morgan would be the one to run for office,” she said. Utilizing her education and background in staffing, she started an employment agency in 1994 and sold it four years later. The couple was drawn back to Sonoma, where family and business opportunities beckoned.
“When Morgan and I began our family and launched our company in Sonoma, we realized that we did not have the resources to travel, especially overseas,” Sanders said. “Inviting foreign students was a way we could all be exposed to other cultures, other points of view, all in a kind of ‘organic’ way around the kitchen table.”
The “other table” she has gathered around during the past eight years is at City Hall, where she has gained insights into local issues and people. She admits to being more volatile and quick to express her beliefs in those early days and refers to her time in office as “grad school on steroids.”
Since then she has learned to listen more and “flare up” less, she said, though she still erupts with unanticipated opinions and ideas that tend to polarize the community.
“As an entrepreneur, I was used to calling the shots, but in politics I’ve found that we can disagree as long as we debate the issues respectfully. You have to remember that the colleague you’re arguing an issue with today is going to be aligned with you on another issue tomorrow.”
And times have changed. In 2004, when Sanders was first elected, she was 37 and still nursing her daughter, fully 20 years younger than any of her colleagues. It had been 10 years since a woman served on the city council, and she remembers the mayor telling her, “the only reason you were elected is because you are a woman.”
Sanders was taken aback, she said. “I was used to the corporate world where this sort of remark would have been unheard of. But I was new to elected office, and I was too surprised to respond.”
Today, the council is more balanced in terms of gender and Sanders describes a more inclusive attitude toward women and other minorities. She credits Sonoma with having “an engaged electorate with a high voter turnout, where decisions are made by a lot of people, not behind closed doors by a few.”
As she prepares to hand over the gavel, Sanders takes some of the credit. “I believe I was able to provide a voice and perspective that had not been represented before and that opened doors and people’s minds to fresh ways of looking at the issues that face the community.”
What’s next: Build the business.
Most misunderstood action: Changing my political affiliation from Republican to Democrat. I’ve never been a partisan person, and I wanted to be able to vote for Hillary Clinton.
Thoughts about time in office: It has been my privilege to serve this community, and I have benefited from it by growing as a person.
Most important thing on the horizon: My children. Learning to guide them through their teen years in a compassionate way.
What people don’t know: I’m really an earthy sort of person. I love to cook, and I’m very committed to better quality food and good eating habits. That’s why living here is a big plus.