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Candidates for Sonoma County sheriff return to campaign trail after break during fires

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The four declared candidates for Sonoma County sheriff have refocused their efforts after the devastating wildfires in October triggered the unofficial suspension of active campaigning.

While there are no public forums or campaign stops scheduled in December, candidates plan to attend community and holiday events to shake hands, meet people and make their case for becoming the county’s top lawman.

“With how much the fire has changed the county, (our) dialogue and questions coming from the community have also changed,” said candidate and Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick.

Two other candidates, Santa Rosa City Councilman and retired Santa Rosa Police Lt. Ernesto Olivares and retired Los Angeles Police Capt. John Mutz, agreed the trauma of the fires and efforts to rebuild in their aftermath will influence the sheriff’s race.

Also leaving his imprint on the race is Sheriff Rob Giordano, who became a national face of Sonoma County during the fires and garnered praise for his straight talk and transparency during the emergency.

Giordano reaffirmed he has no plans to run for sheriff and will retire when his term is over in January 2019, sticking to a position he voiced in August when he took over for former Sheriff Steve Freitas halfway through his second term. Giordano has been praised by the candidates who seek to replace him and emulate his accessibility.

When the firestorm struck Oct. 8 there was no time for campaigning as Essick and another internal candidate, Lt. Carlos Basurto, who serves as Windsor’s police chief, were part of the emergency response effort at the Sheriff’s Office. Olivares also had an emergency response role as a city councilman.

Mutz took it upon himself to become a full-time volunteer at shelters and relief centers, he said.

“Without any communication between us it was obvious that all candidates had to suspend their campaigns,” Olivares said.

But as the county moves forward so does the political campaigning. The Sonoma Valley Democrats and the Sonoma County Democratic Party co-hosted the first candidate forum since the fires last Wednesday. Essick, Mutz and Olivares attended the event, which brought roughly 50 people to the Sonoma Springs Community Hall in Boyes Hot Springs.

Basurto said he was not invited because he is not a registered Democrat and said he was not aware of the forum beforehand. Basurto, who officially entered the sheriff’s race when he filed papers with the county in July, did not offer additional comments. Both his campaign website and Facebook page have been taken offline.

Moving forward, both Essick and Mutz plan to raise campaign funds throughout the holiday season, preparing for what could become an expensive campaign ahead of the primary election in June.

Olivares said fundraising has “taken a back seat” until the New Year as there are many nonprofits serving fire victims in need of donations.

Both Essick and Olivares said their campaign fund could exceed $100,000 for the primary and increase to $200,000 if a November runoff is needed.

Candidates are required to submit campaign finance reports for the second half of 2016 by Jan. 31. According to filings submitted over the summer, only Mutz had taken campaign contributions, raising nearly $7,500.

With campaign funds for mailers and advertisements, public appearances and the occasional debate, candidates will seek to differentiate themselves in the first competitive election for Sonoma County sheriff since 1992.

“Number one, it’s about people getting to know me,” said Mutz, who has advocated for police reform since he retired from the Los Angeles police force after the Rodney King beatings in 1992.

“It’s a really unique opportunity for conversations about what people are looking for in a sheriff and how could we improve the office,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or nick.rahaim@pressdemocrat.com.

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