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Veteran Sonoma County Sheriff's Capt. Mark Essick raced to a decisive win in Tuesday's primary vote in the first contested race for sheriff in a quarter century.

Essick shot ahead of his two opponents with 57 percent of the vote, according to election results released by the county Registrar of Voters Office.

Former Los Angeles Police Capt. John Mutz had 24 percent of the vote and Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares trailed with 18 percent of the vote, according to returns posted early Wednesday with all 405 precincts reporting.

Essick had 36,501 votes, Mutz 15,448 and Olivares 11,399.

“I am super excited. I’m glad that the message I had about my experience and willingness to change and moving us forward — it seems that really resonated with folks,” said Essick, who celebrated Tuesday night with family and supporters at the Flamingo Hotel ballroom in east Santa Rosa. “I’m optimistic and excited about the future.”

To win outright and avoid a November runoff, a candidate needed to get at least 50 percent plus one vote.

Essick, 48, of Cloverdale was backed by current Sheriff Rob Giordano and the unions representing sworn staff in the jail and the field. He has worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 24 years, starting in the jail and moving through a variety of assignments including internal affairs. He currently oversees some of the department’s core functions, such as patrol and dispatch.

Tuesday’s primary was the first contested election for Sonoma County sheriff in more than a quarter century, and the three candidates vying for the job all ran on platforms of improving police-community relations.

“He has a significant lead,” said Olivares, who was with supporters at the Epicenter sports and entertainment complex in west Santa Rosa. “I don’t know what else might change (in the vote). But I think the important thing I see from this is there was a dialogue about the Sheriff’s Office that hasn’t been had since 1990.”

Several voters who cast their ballots at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in north Santa Rosa Tuesday said they chose Essick because he was highly regarded by people they trust or they believed someone already working for the Sheriff’s Office is better prepared to become sheriff than anyone else.

“He seems like the best guy for the job,” said Chris Tower, 39, an engineer who lives in Larkfield. “He already knows the system.”

Essick said he is committed to increasing transparency about police practices, improving the diversity of Sheriff’s Office personnel and ending a controversial method of subduing unruly jail inmates that is the focus of an ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit.

Trailing behind was Mutz, 69, an unfamiliar name before the campaign who has lived in Sonoma County for about seven years. He retired as a captain with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1999 and then worked as an executive coach for the private sector.

Mutz campaigned on a promise to bring a culture shift to the department, and he drew endorsements from the Sonoma County Democratic Party and local progressives such as Santa Rosa attorney and former state Sen. Noreen Evans and Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs. He also was backed by key Latino community leaders including Santa Rosa attorney Alicia Roman, who served on a community board advising the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach.

“I think (my campaign) really brought the question of ‘Do we want status quo or do we want change?’ into focus,” said Mutz, who spent Tuesday night with supporters at Stout Brothers off Old Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa. “We need to see more numbers and see where we’re going.”

Outside the polling station at Luther Burbank Center, Emily Stock, 38, of Santa Rosa said she looked for a candidate who showed empathy and found it in Mutz.

“I’m more interested in someone interested in solving problems than carrying out the status quo,” Stock said.

Tuesday night’s surprise was the low voter support for Olivares, a familiar name from a decade of service on the City Council following 30 years with the Santa Rosa Police Department.

Olivares, 60, had received endorsements from Sonoma County’s senior congressman, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and fellow council members Jack Tibbitts, Chris Rogers and Tom Schwedhelm, former Santa Rosa police chief.

Several voters outside the polling place at Sheppard Accelerated Elementary on West Avenue Tuesday afternoon said they cast votes for Olivares because he was a familiar name and a Latino community leader.

Unlocking his bike after voting, James Aviles, 60, of Santa Rosa said he felt Olivares would bring a Latino perspective to the department, which he said is needed after the 2013 death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy who mistook the boy’s airsoft BB gun for an AK-47.

“Given what happened with that kid, let’s get someone new in there,” Aviles said. “So I figure: Olivares. He came from the community.”

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

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