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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.

The deputies group asked each prospective candidate to discuss his leadership approach, how he would engage with the public and the media and how he would tackle key issues such as the staffing shortage, according to Mike Vail, Deputy Sheriff’s Association president.

“It’s a very diverse field of candidates, and all of them have great talents, “ Vail said. “There is no poor candidate.”

The contenders bring decades of experience in law enforcement.

Essick, 47, heads the Sheriff’s Office field services division, overseeing some of the agency’s core functions such as its patrol, dispatch, court and transportation divisions. He’s also in charge of the cities that contract with the department for policing services — Windsor and Sonoma.

Essick said he considers himself an “internal reform candidate” who will embrace a “strong, compassionate” approach to leadership by inviting more community engagement and engaging in a thorough analysis of the department’s policies to reflect updated police practices. He said deputies’ endorsement is essential for his bid to be sheriff of the agency where he’s worked nearly 24 years.

“I told them, ‘If you don’t want me to be sheriff then I don’t want to do it and I can’t imagine going on without your support,’” Essick said.

Basurto, a 48-year-old lieutenant, was appointed Windsor’s police chief last September. He said he’s been asked to consider a bid for sheriff, but last week said he wasn’t ready to say more about his definitive plans.

Edmonds, 54, the retired captain, said he has for years wanted the job as he’s watched the department’s morale and reputation deteriorate under Freitas’ leadership. Edmonds said he retired in 2013 because he felt pushed out by Freitas.

“The leader’s job is setting the tone. The leader’s job is the morale of the department, and that has fallen flat with the current leader,” Edmonds said.

Freitas has faced criticism, as well, from some of his deputies and the public for his low-key leadership style, which came into sharp focus following Lopez’s 2013 death, after the boy was fatally shot by a veteran sheriff’s deputy.

In March, an effort to recall Freitas was launched by a group of activists, called the Community Action Coalition of Sonoma County. They have been critical of his handling of the aftermath of the Lopez shooting — including his promotion of Erick Gelhaus, the deputy who shot Lopez — and his more conservative stance on how the Sheriff’s Office cooperates with federal immigration authorities.

They have until Sept. 27 to submit about 35,000 valid signatures to get a recall ballot before voters.

Edmonds was the Deputy Sheriff’s Association’s first president when it was founded in 2000, and he helped start the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy Foundation. He also started a police fitness and wellness group called 360Armor Inc.

An endorsement from the Deputy Sheriff’s Association is “very important to me,” Edmonds said. But he won’t be deterred if he doesn’t get it.

“I worked every beat over lots of years. I’ve worked every shift. I know this community really well,” Edmonds said. “I have legitimate credentials for leading this department and this community back into a preeminent organization it once was and I know I can do that.”

Mutz, 68, the retired Los Angeles police captain, moved from Southern California to Sonoma County several years ago with his family and has children attending school at Summerfield Waldorf in west Santa Rosa. He wasn’t available for an interview last week.

In 1991, Mutz was the LAPD commander in charge of the embattled Foothill division where Rodney King was beaten by four police officers. After he retired in 1999, Mutz, developed a mediation program for racial profiling cases for the Los Angeles Police Department, according to an online biography.

Foxworthy, 46, the San Francisco deputy who graduated from Montgomery High School in 1989, is the lowest-ranking person in the group seeking to become sheriff. He’s worked at the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department for 22 years, mostly in the jail system. Unlike the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office which has a robust patrol division, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department runs the jails while police patrol the city.

Foxworthy said he considers himself a left-leaning activist. He and his husband, Bryan Leffew, started a popular YouTube channel to promote marriage equality and oppose California’s now overruled same-sex marriage ban, Proposition 8.

Their adopted son, Daniel Martinez-Leffew, received national attention in 2013 when at age 12 he wrote letter urging Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to vote for marriage equality as the nation’s highest court considered two major same-sex marriage cases. A video of Daniel, now a senior at Santa Rosa High, reading the letter at the time went viral.

Foxworthy said he’s interested in seeking office to push for more progressive policies in a variety of areas, including how the agency handles undocumented immigrants.

“Our local law enforcement community needs to make sure the people working hard and raising families feel protected,” Foxworthy said. “I wouldn’t jump into the race unless I could bring a different perspective and if I could bring a voice that is not represented.”

Vail said the deputies’ association plans to share the results of the union vote with the candidates and their membership at the end of the week. He was not sure when the group would make an endorsement public.

“It’s a big responsibility for us because a lot of people follow our lead, they look to us for guidance,” Vail said. “We’ve never had anything like this before, so the burden is upon us to do this right.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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