Five law enforcement veterans have declared their interest in becoming Sonoma County’s next sheriff to rank-and-file deputies, a sign of the extraordinary political jockeying now happening for an elected post that has not had a contested race in more than 25 years.
In uniforms and plainclothes, about 80 Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association members packed a union hall earlier this month in northwest Santa Rosa to hear from the prospective candidates at a standing-room-only meeting unlike any other in the group’s recent history.
The May 10 gathering came about six weeks after Sheriff Steve Freitas, 54, announced he plans to retire in December 2018 and will not seek a third term. Since he took office in 2011, Freitas has led the department during a tumultuous era of recession-fueled budget cuts and public scrutiny spurred by high-profile cases such as the 2013 shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez and challenges to jail policies governing undocumented immigrants.
The primary would be held in June 2018, with a runoff in November.
Three of those vying to succeed Freitas come from the department’s ranks: Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick, Windsor Police Chief Carlos Basurto and retired Capt. Dave Edmonds, who left in 2013.
Two come from outside the department: Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares, who retired as a lieutenant from the Santa Rosa Police Department in 2008, and John Mutz, who retired in 1999 as a captain from the Los Angeles Police Department and has since worked as an executive coach and in mediation.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Sgt. Andy Salas, executive board member of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association. “Never, in my entire time in law enforcement have I seen a contested race like this.”
The private union-only meeting two weeks ago was the requisite first stop for candidates to seek support from the politically influential association, which represents about 230 deputies in the department of roughly 600 employees, including jail and administrative staff. Members begin voting this week through an online balloting system, with the final tally expected Friday.
An endorsement from the union would immediately bestow on a candidate an advantage in seeking campaign donors and other endorsements. The window to officially enter the race doesn’t open until next year.
Olivares, 59, who has served on the Santa Rosa City Council since 2008, was the first to declare his intent to run for sheriff. He is the only one in the group with significant political experience, and his biggest endorsement so far is from Sonoma County’s senior congressman, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena.
There also may be additional candidates waiting in the wings.
Jay Foxworthy, a San Francisco sheriff’s deputy and a Sonoma County native who lives in Santa Rosa with his husband and their two children, said he’s also considering running for office. Foxworthy was not at the deputies’ meeting and said he hadn’t reached out to the group because he’s still in the early stages of considering a bid for office.
The next sheriff will take charge of the county’s largest law enforcement department, with a $159 million annual budget and responsibility for a patrol area spanning 1,550 square miles, the coroner’s division and two jails. The agency has struggled with a multi-year staffing shortage, caused in part by an atypically large departure of many veteran deputies and difficulty recruiting quality candidates to fill vacant positions.