CAMPAIGN MAIL Flyers received at a Healdsburg home this month from or about candidates Rusty Hicks, Ariel Kelley, Frankie Myers and Chris Rogers

In early February, about the time vote-by-mail ballots began arriving at registered voters’ homes, political mailers began appearing as well—glossy, eye-catching, attention-grabbing, oversized postcards. Most promoted their candidate of choice by touting community endorsements, grassroots support, party or labor connections.

But during the past three weeks open conflict between two candidates, Rusty Hicks and Ariel Kelley, erupted into hit advertising through direct mail and targeted video. The initial attacks on Hicks pictured him in an L.A. Dodgers baseball cap, a sure-fire trigger for Northern Californians.

CANDIDATES Democratic candidates for State Assembly District 2, from top: Rusty Hicks, Ariel Kelley, Frankie Myers, Chris Rogers, Ted Williams.

The obvious, if not over-stated conclusion is that he is not really a local, but a recent arrival coincident with Jim Woods’ early departure from the 2nd Assembly District seat. Hicks is presented as the definition of carpetbagger, who flew a loopy route up north from Santa Monica to Sacramento just to run for Assembly in Arcata. “He knows little more about our area than a tourist,” the mailer digs.

Hicks is perhaps the best-funded candidate for the District 2 seat, with the endorsement and support of a battalion of labor groups. He is simultaneously continuing to serve as the chair of the California Democratic Party, as he has since 2019. He currently lives in Humboldt County and teaches at the nearby federal penitentiary, Pelican Bay.

He is endorsed by Jim Wood, the man he is running to replace, as well as by Gov. Gavin Newsom (whose endorsement is infrequently mentioned), several previous Assembly persons and labor leader Dolores Huerta, among many other organized labor organizations.

While the North Coast district has not always been a power broker in state politics, the firepower the party has brought to bear on capturing the seat is impressive. Hicks’ campaign’s ending cash balance was $442,405 in early February, far exceeding that of Kelley, Chris Rogers or Frankie Myers combined.

The L.A. Dodger mailers are pointedly unimpressed with these credentials. “We can do better than Rusty Hicks,” the text maintains. Although there’s no specific candidate named, it’s there in the fine print: “Ad paid for by North Coast Neighbors Supporting Ariel Kelley and Opposing Rusty Hicks for Assembly 2024.”

The primary funder for the organization is listed as Shoshana Ungerleider. “Dr. Shoshana,” as she is known to listeners of her 3-year-old podcast, TED Health, is also an internal medicine physician, writer, public speaker, news media consultant and big sister of Ariel Kelley, the Healdsburg City Council member running for the seat.

Keeping the efforts of the North Coast Neighbors at arm’s length, Kelley’s campaign manager Julia Dreher said, “Our campaign does not coordinate, control or communicate with the independent expenditure campaign, so I can’t speak to their strategy or what they have planned going forward. We don’t believe that negative campaigning is ever helpful.”

Kelley’s own campaign marketing is focused on her messages of Results, Wildfire and Women, with tight 30-second videos and informative mailers, but the North Coast Neighbors flyers don’t even mention Kelley. Instead the carpetbagger charge is front-and-center, along with the goofy hat and a frankly xenophobic characterization of the candidate.

Initially the Hicks campaign for California’s District 2 Assembly seat was silent, but last week it threatened legal action against a Humboldt County television station if it aired a North Coast Neighbors video. The Eureka Times-Standard reported that on Feb. 15, the campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter to the general manager of Redwood News, KEIM-TV.

The 30-second spot, again produced by North Coast Neighbors, draws a connection between Hicks and his predecessor as chair of the California Democratic Party, Eric Bauman, who resigned after sexual misconduct allegations. The ad is heavy on innuendo and menacing music.

Hicks pushed back. “These statements are absolutely false and a gross mischaracterization of Mr. Hicks’ actions,” his campaign said in a statement.

In his most recent message to supporters, on Feb. 20, Hicks wrote, “Sadly, in the final stretch of this campaign, an outside SuperPAC for one of my opponents has decided the only way to win is to run misleading and deceptive attacks on me in mailboxes and TV ads… It appears they’ve concluded they can’t run on the record of their own candidate, so they’ve chosen to lie about mine.”

It’s an open secret that North Coast Neighbors is substantially funded by a small group of backers, but takes the majority of its cash from Shoshana Ungerleider. She has contributed $200,000 of the $340,000 total to the Political Action Committee, while hedge fund manager Chris Hansen contributed $60,000 and Santa Rosa developer Bill Gallaher contributed $50,000. There are several other $10,000 donations, including from Barbara Grasseschi of Puma Springs Vineyard.

Efforts to contact Ungerleider through her website have not succeeded, and Dreher said she had never met her. Public records indicate she lives on Russian Hill, which would indeed make her not a resident, but a neighbor of the North Coast.

Healdsburg’s drop box at City Hall is now accepting ballots for the upcoming election. (Christian Kallen)

On Feb. 15, Ariel Kelley contributed another $100,000 to her campaign fund, bringing her personal contribution to a quarter of a million dollars in the campaign to run for the Assembly seat in the fall general election. The other candidates evidently don’t have access to personal funds of that scale. 

Kelley’s contributions come from her considerable investment holding and participation in family trusts, as revealed in Form 700 documents submitted to the Fair Political Practices Commission  (FPPC) for her campaign. Shoshana Ungerleider’s wealth comes in part from venture capital investment funds. Rusty Hicks’ campaign contributions include amounts from a dozen labor unions or PACs ranging from $10,000 to $150,000. 

When asked about the high level of investment in Kelley’s political future, campaign manager Dreher responded, “We’ll be continuing to run a well-rounded campaign that includes digital and TV ads, mail and a lot of voter outreach … In such a large district—and with such a short timeline—we want to make sure that every voter in the district has a chance to interact with our campaign.”

Neighborhood Vote Centers will be open on Election Day, Tuesday, March 5, from 7am to 9pm. Completed ballots are currently being accepted via mail-in or at official drop boxes around the county. There’s one in Healdsburg at the City Hall, 401 Grove St.

Previous articleTEDx Returns With Inspiration
Next articleWrite a ‘Letter’ to the Tribune
Christian Kallen has called Healdsburg home for over 30 years. A former travel writer and web producer, he has worked with Microsoft, Yahoo, MSNBC and other media companies, usually in an editorial capacity. He started reporting locally in 2008, moving from Patch to the Sonoma Index-Tribune to the Kenwood Press before joining the Healdsburg Tribune in 2022.


  1. Sure miss the days when candidates were motivated to run to SERVE their communities, and take the high road during the campaign, focusing on their backgrounds, experience, and skill sets rather than trying to skewer their opponents.
    Those kinds of tactics do make it easier to decide who NOT to vote for…..

    It does make you wonder – why are they so willing to ignore ethics and morals in order to prevail? Is this assembly seat that important to fulfill their ambitions?

    • Please sign me up for the newsletter - Yes


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here