PD Editorial: A contested race, an uncontested win for democracy

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Sonoma County voters spoke decisively in this week’s election, choosing Mark Essick as the next sheriff by a substantial margin.

A sheriff’s captain running with strong backing from within the department, Essick confounded predictions (including ours) that the three-way race would be decided in a November runoff.

He captured about 57 percent of the vote, according to preliminary returns from Tuesday’s primary, more than the combined support for his opponents — and easily exceeding the simple majority required to win the election outright.

The show of support for Essick can only be seen as a reflection of public confidence in the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

However, that doesn’t translate to support for the status quo.

Neither does Essick’s easy victory undercut the value of a contested election, the first for Sonoma County sheriff since 1990.

To the contrary, a spirited campaign allowed Essick, who was unknown outside law enforcement circles, to introduce himself to local voters and make the case that he has a thorough understanding of the strengths and shortcomings of the Sheriff’s Office — and a vision for its future.

Essick and his rivals, Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares and retired Los Angeles Police Capt. John Mutz, knocked on thousands of doors, spoke to numerous civic organizations and participated in 13 forums and two call-in radio debates over the past several months.

Essick, whose four-year term begins in January, was the “insider” candidate. He made no apologies for his endorsements from other insiders, including outgoing Sheriff Rob Giordano and the union representing sheriff’s deputies. And he disputed contentions that the a sweeping overhaul is needed in the Sheriff’s Office, which received a 70 percent public approval rating in The Press Democrat Poll in May.

But Essick doesn’t dispute the need for change.

The shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez in 2013 strained relations between the Sheriff’s Office and parts of the community and put a spotlight on the lack of diversity in one of the county’s largest departments.

The shooting also resulted in a wrongful death lawsuit pending in federal court. Allegations of brutality at the jail also have been the source of litigation against the Sheriff’s Office.

Essick says he’s committed to ending a controversial method of subduing unruly inmates, and he criticized former Sheriff Steve Freitas for failing to reach out to Andy’s family and the community at large following the shooting. He promises to be more accessible.

“People want to be heard,” Essick told the editorial board in a March interview. “They want to know you’re listening to them.”

He also promised to work cooperatively with the law enforcement oversight agency created on the recommendation of a blue-ribbon commission formed after the shooting, emphasized his support for community policing, reminded voters that he testified against a former deputy accused of brutality and promised to recruit more women and minorities.

Essick probably benefited, as he acknowledged Wednesday, from Giordano’s calm leadership after last year’s wildfires. But his election is primarily a product of a robust campaign with ample opportunities for voters to ask questions, size up the candidates and make an informed choice. That’s how a healthy democracy operates.

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