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Sheriff-Elect Mark Essick said election win shows deputies ‘do a pretty damn good job’

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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.

“I think he’s going to do a good job because he had the opportunity to listen firsthand to not just one segment of the community but many segments of the community,” Olivares said. “I think it’s very important for the community to understand we have an obligation to help Mark succeed. He can’t do it alone and the Sheriff’s Office can’t do it alone.”

Sonoma County voters haven’t had a choice for sheriff since 1990. Momentum for a competitive race began when in July 2017, then-Sheriff Steve Freitas announced he would retire earlier than planned. Rob Giordano, who filled the post on an interim basis before being elevated to the job by the Board of Supervisors, held to his pledge that he would not run for the position.

So in many ways, the election focused on the ripples of Freitas’ 6½-year tenure at the Sheriff’s Office, a period marked by the fallout from the recession, punishing budget cuts and the 2013 Andy Lopez shooting. Critics accused Freitas of weak leadership in the aftermath of the Lopez shooting, when a sheriff’s deputy mistook the 13-year-old’s airsoft BB gun and fatally shot the boy in a southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood.

Lopez’s death exposed a wide rift in trust between minority communities and local law enforcement. It led to the formation of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, an auditor program that is now responsible for monitoring the Sheriff’s Office.

Also, on Saturday, Sonoma County unveiled a new $3.7 million park at what was once an empty lot where Lopez was shot and died.

But the October firestorm put deputies and other law enforcement officers on the front line of an unprecedented local crisis, showcasing the heroism and service of first responders across the county and North Bay. Giordano was a highly visible face of the county during the disaster, garnering strong support with his forthright public presence.

If he had run, many department leaders and political observers said he would have won, perhaps without any opposition. But in bowing out of the race he threw his support behind Essick, his longtime colleague, who as a captain has broad responsibilities in the department overseeing the department’s field divisions, which includes patrol and detectives.

The campaign, which kicked off in earnest last spring, involved more than a dozen public forums, on-air radio debates and countless public appearances. Olivares was first to announce, followed by a handful of other men declaring their candidacy. The field narrowed to three candidates in December when Lt. Carlos Basurto, an early favorite who serves as the Windsor police chief, dropped out.

Polling in May by The Press Democrat showed Essick and Olivares appeared neck and neck, with each getting support from 24 percent of those surveyed. Mutz trailed with 10 percent.

But the largest group, 28 percent, said they were still unsure which of the candidates they’d choose.

The discrepancy between polling figures and Tuesday’s results was disappointing but not altogether surprising because the matter involved a primary election, which historically has low voter engagement and turnout, pollster David Binder said. Surveys tend to be less precise for low-profile races for positions like sheriff or state Assembly, which don’t attract the same level of voter interest as campaigns for high-profile offices such as governor or president.

“Voters didn’t know much about them and there was late-breaking movement at the end,” Binder said.

Essick said polling conducted by his campaign showed he had a chance he could win outright, but given the margin of error, he had expected a runoff.

McCuan said the election results indicate voters were unsure of Mutz and Olivares, who have been retired from law enforcement for 10 and 20 years respectively and were unable to muster the resources necessary to build energized campaigns. The most surprising results were the low votes for Olivares, who has a long history in the community from his 30 years with the Police Department to his decade on the City Council, he said.

“The challenge moving forward is the degree to which Essick can steward the department through any crises that erupt in the jail or in the department or in union negotiations — and then back to a place that is as community partner and not a community agitator,” McCuan said.

Essick’s supporters took his victory to mean Sonoma County voters believe the Sheriff’s Office is on a good path.

“The deputies that work here for the first time in a long time are truly feeling that this place is on the right path,” said Mike Vail, president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association. “It’s vindicating to see the community agrees with this assessment by the way they voted.”

Rick Walker, president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, a union representing correctional deputies and dispatchers, said his union members were concerned Mutz and Olivares had “unrealistic goals” for the role of sheriff because they are unfamiliar with what it’s like to run a law enforcement agency in the current age.

The jail has been under scrutiny over the last few years, with a $1.25 million settlement for the tasering of a man and an ongoing civil rights lawsuit alleging the jail policy allows correctional deputies to systematically abuse unruly inmates. Essick has said he will immediately change the policy and end the practice when he takes office.

Walker said his membership has faith Essick can meet the challenges ahead.

“We’re all ready to work with him,” Walker said.

Essick said he will take two weeks off to be with his family, then he will begin succession training under Giordano.

When he takes the helm of the Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 7, Essick said his top priorities will be to improve diversity among new hires, build a strong community policing program and create an outward-facing role for the sheriff by fostering close ties to a variety of diverse communities in Sonoma County — one of the most important and challenging mandates he heard from people during the campaign.

“The sheriff’s responsibility is to keep the peace and run the jail,” Essick said. “But it’s very clear the county of Sonoma wants more. They want a sheriff who is involved with the pressing issues we face, such as homelessness, mental illness and use-of-force.”

Staff Writer Mary Callahan contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220.