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The Press Democrat Poll: Sonoma County sheriff’s race

If the election for Sonoma County sheriff were held today, who would be your first choice?

Mark Essick: 24 percent

John Mutz: 10 percent

Ernesto Olivares: 24 percent

Survey respondents by age

Under 35: 19 percent

35-44: 14 percent

45-44: 11 percent

55-64: 21 percent

65 and over: 32 percent

Prefer not to say: 3 percent

Survey respondents by ethnicity or race:

White or Caucasian: 76 percent

Latino, Hispanic or Mexican: 11 percent

Mixed race: 6 percent

Native American: 2 percent

Black: 2 percent

Prefer not to say: 2 percent

Asian or Pacific Islander: 1 percent

SOURCE: The Press Democrat Poll/David Binder Research

Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick and Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares have emerged as the front-runners in a three-way race to become the next sheriff of Sonoma County, according to The Press Democrat Poll.

Essick and Olivares each drew the same amount of support — 24 percent — among respondents in the telephone poll, which surveyed 500 registered Sonoma County voters in the first week of May.

The third candidate in the race, retired Los Angeles Police Capt. John Mutz, trailed with just 10 percent of those surveyed saying he was their top choice for sheriff.

The largest group of respondents, 28 percent, said they were still unsure which of the three candidates would earn their vote in the June 5 primary.

The results indicate the first contested race for sheriff in Sonoma County in a quarter century is likely headed for a runoff in November. To win outright next month, a candidate would need at least 50 percent plus one vote, and the poll results suggest that won’t happen, said David Binder, whose San Francisco-based firm conducted the survey for the newspaper.

“When nobody has 30 percent of the vote, you still have to say it’s wide open,” Binder said. “Clearly Olivares and Essick are the front-runners.”

The Press Democrat Poll surveyed voters on a series of issues crucial to Sonoma County, including the race to lead the county’s largest law enforcement agency. It is the newspaper’s first poll since 2003, when The Press Democrat surveyed local voters one month before a historic statewide vote to recall then-Gov. Gray Davis.

The new poll, conducted May 2 to May 7, connected with 500 Sonoma County voters by landline and cellphone. It targeted voters who had cast ballots in the November 2016 election and at least one other election since November 2012.

It had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

In the sheriff’s race, voters will choose between three men who are all campaigning to improve police-community relationships and uphold the department’s work with the county’s 2-year-old Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. But the men have disparate backgrounds and visions for leadership of the Sheriff’s Office.

Essick, 48, is a veteran of the Sheriff’s Office who started in 1994 as a correctional deputy and rose through the ranks, serving the bulk of his career in the field services division working as a detective, patrol sergeant and since 2015 as a captain overseeing some of the agency’s core functions including its patrol, dispatch and court divisions, as well as the Windsor and Sonoma city police departments staffed by deputies.

Olivares, 60, has served on the Santa Rosa City Council since 2008 when he retired as a lieutenant with the Santa Rosa Police Department. He travels around the state to help communities convene discussions about violence prevention and keeping youth out of gangs.

Mutz, 69, retired as a captain with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1999, after serving as station commander of some of the city’s central bureaus. In the last 20 years, he has worked as an executive coach for private industries such as banking. He has also worked as a mediator and facilitator for agencies dealing with community conflict, such as the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.

Petaluma-based political analyst Brian Sobel said he has observed strong support for Mutz among community groups looking for a candidate who vows to make big changes to Sheriff’s Office practices. But the poll results suggest voters are drawn to Olivares’ experience with the city of Santa Rosa and Essick’s 24 years working in the agency he’d like to lead, Sobel said.

“It looks like people in Sonoma County are saying, ‘We have two people we know and the third person we don’t know very well,’ ” he said.

Support for Olivares inched past Essick when undecided voters were asked who they would pick if forced to vote that day. Including those respondents, support for Olivares rose to 29 percent, with Essick at 27 percent. Under the same scenario, Mutz’s support grew to 12 percent.

When asked about qualities they’d like to see in the next sheriff, 74 percent of those surveyed felt it was “very important” or “somewhat important” for a sheriff to have “experience in other cities,” an opinion that would seem to benefit Mutz and Olivares.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents said it was very important or somewhat important for the next sheriff to be a current member of the Sheriff’s Office, a stance that would favor Essick.

The candidates’ support for community policing was “important” to 89 percent of respondents, while strict gun control was important for 75 percent of people surveyed.

“Those (percentages) are so much higher, and that tells me those factors are critical for voters,” Binder said.

Poll respondent Andrea Michelsen, 71, of Healdsburg said she intends to vote for Mutz.

“He’s an outsider,” she said. “I think he’ll bring a fresh perspective to the department and doesn’t have baggage.”

The fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a sheriff’s deputy five years ago left “a real scar” on the community, Michelsen said. “I think more could be done to build back the trust and I’m not sure the Sheriff’s Office has taken a real leadership stand in that.”

Rohnert Park resident Angela Coffman was among the poll participants who has yet to back a candidate in the sheriff’s race. Coffman, 45, said she planned to sit down soon and study the candidates’ biographies included in the Sonoma County voter guide recently mailed to her home.

She’s most interested in the candidates’ statements about homelessness and substance abuse, particularly problems with people abusing drugs in public.

“The drug problem that’s going on and the homeless problem are huge concerns, and I think that directly affects the sheriff’s department,” Coffman said in an interview.

“I think there need to be multiple offices involved in fixing it, and I don’t see that happening.”

For Cloverdale resident Joseph Voss, another undecided voter who participated in the poll, immigration is one of the most important issues.

Voss, 57, said he’s looking for a lawman who will support the rights of Dreamers — young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally when they were children — and other undocumented residents.

Voss said he doesn’t think the Sheriff’s Office should help enforce the immigration laws of the federal government, which under President Donald Trump is ramping up efforts to crack down on people who enter or remain in the country illegally.

“The sentiments here, of the people that live here, is to be more inclusive than the heavy-handed rhetoric coming out of Washington,” Voss said. “We should do whatever we can at the local and state levels to stop the oppression of a jack-booted federal government that takes people that live here peaceably and constructively and forces their families apart.”

All three of the candidates have said that they support maintaining the Sheriff’s Office policy — one that mirrors the state’s sanctuary law — that limits jail officials’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Respondent Andie Barcelo, 51, of Santa Rosa said she will vote for Olivares.

“I feel a little more familiar with him,” she said, based on hearing Olivares speak at public events and watching him on cable television coverage of City Council meetings.

Barcelo said she feels Olivares has a good connection with the communities policed by the Sheriff’s Office, and did not want to vote for anyone from that agency.

“The Sheriff’s Office has a historic culture that I have never loved,” she said.

Respondent David Sereni, 77, of Santa Rosa said he plans to vote for Essick.

“I thought that he looked like the best candidate for the job and had the most experience and background knowledge of the sheriff’s department and the general area here,” Sereni said.

Sereni was skeptical about Mutz, whose law enforcement experience is centered in Southern California. Sereni said he sees a “disconnect” between the politics and priorities of Sonoma County and the areas where Mutz built his law enforcement career, in the state’s largest city and its biggest police department.

Current Sheriff Rob Giordano’s decision not to run for election to the job also disappointed Sereni.

“He was pretty impressive during the fire,” Sereni said of Giordano’s public appearances during the October wildfires. “The way he controlled everything and let the public know what was actually going on and the way he dispatched the sheriff’s deputies, I thought was very effective.”

Staff Writer Guy Kovner contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writers Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com, and J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com.

Editor’s note: In his current role in the Sheriff’s Office, Mark Essick oversees some of the agency’s core functions including the field services division, which includes the Windsor and Sonoma city police departments staffed by deputies. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story gave an inaccurate description of that particular job responsibility.

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