Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick scored a surprising outright victory Tuesday in a three-way race to lead the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, building an insurmountable lead in what had been seen as a rare, tightly contested referendum on the department’s leadership.
In a field featuring two outsiders critical of the agency’s public image and some of its policies, a solid majority of Sonoma County voters selected a 24-year department veteran to lead the Sheriff’s Office for the next four years.
Essick earned 57 percent of the vote, more than twice the support of his next closest competitor, according to the latest results Wednesday from the county elections office.
The outcome eliminates the need for a November runoff, a step that even Essick said he expected would be necessary to decide the top job for the county’s largest law enforcement agency, responsible for policing 1,550 square miles of territory and running the county jail.
But after a roughly yearlong campaign, the captain from Cloverdale convinced most voters in the first contested election for sheriff in a quarter century that he could be both a steady hand and a change agent at the helm of the 650-employee department. He saw the outcome as an affirmation of Sheriff’s Office leadership.
“Do we need to make some changes? Of course we do. We always have to be current,” Essick said Wednesday. “But overall this election shows the men and women of the Sheriff’s Office do a damn good job. People support us and people are willing to support us as we go through change.”
Voters selected Essick over rivals John Mutz, a retired Los Angeles Police Department captain who earned 24 percent of the vote, and three-term Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares, a retired Santa Rosa police lieutenant who received 18 percent of the vote.
Seasoned local political observers called it a resounding victory.
“It is not only a surprising margin, it’s a butt-whooping margin,” said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.
All three candidates agreed that a leadership change was needed at the department to build better relationships with diverse communities in Sonoma County, particularly ties with immigrants and people of color. Essick cast himself as the candidate who would enact reforms from within, while Mutz and Olivares argued the Sheriff’s Office needed to bring in the fresh perspective of an outsider to the top job.
Mutz said the election results underscore the community’s expectations for greater accountability from the Sheriff’s Office, and that starts at the top.
“Over 40 percent of our community — by voting for Ernesto or myself — believe the system isn’t working and doesn’t reflect their values,” Mutz said. “That’s the part I look at.”
Olivares said he was disappointed in the loss and in the low voter turnout — about 26 percent of eligible voters so far, according to the county elections office. Election officials said turnout could rise to 40 percent when all mail-in ballots are counted.
But Olivares said the campaign process was valuable and he believes it will give Essick a better foundation from which to bring community values into his leadership of the Sheriff’s Office.