Where to start?
It is a familiar feeling for most people who follow politics closely. Watching the numbers dribble in on election night, seeing a few pleasing results and then being blown away by that one decision that makes no sense at all, that makes you question the rationality and intelligence of slightly more than a majority of everyone in your community.
(New numbers expected at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Latest local results here)
I’m not talking about Howard Gustafson’s apparent re-election to the Marina Coast Water District board. I expected that one. He’s been around so long that people in that small district vote for him out of habit. Bad habit. The remarkable thing this time around is that he managed to get the endorsement of my former employer, the Monterey Herald. It is my sincere hope that some of the brighter lights in the community are letting the current Herald leadership know how wrong-headed that was.
I’m not talking about Alvin Edwards’ apparent defeat in Seaside. Excusing him from the City Council makes no sense except there is a good side, the apparent victory of Jason Campbell. Jason has a little to learn about diplomacy, but he will be a great councilman who will be of particular importance as the powers that be try to get the council to rubber stamp the ill-conceived Monterey Downs horse track development.
And I’m not talking about what happened in Monterey, where a relatively unknown and untested progressive, Timothy Barrett, apparently has displaced a known and tested progressive, Councilwoman Nancy Selfridge.
Not talking about the national results. Mitch McConnell will be his own undoing. National politics are a hopeless mess and will be until a new Supreme Court rules that passing money around in expensive briefcases does not constitute free speech.
No, not those results. I’m talking, of course, about what looks to be the outcome of the sheriff’s race, in which the experienced professional incumbent, Scott Miller, may have lost to the inexperienced, ethically challenged GOP front man, Steve Bernal. Enough absentee ballots remain uncounted to possibly turn this one around, but it’s not looking good at the moment.
As my colleague Larry Parsons tweeted earlier, the candidates at the end made this all about the media. The Bernal people say the media were out to get the young deputy, so much so that reporters were turned away from Bernal’s election night party. Miller says the media failed to focus on Bernal’s lack of qualifications and his deceptive and negative campaigning. As with many things political, there are grains of truth to both versions but this stunner wasn’t about the media.
Now that I am no longer toiling in the trenches of daily journalism, I have a different take on the definition of “the media,” but Bernal and Miller were talking about different arms of the octopus. Yes, the understaffed Herald and the Salinas Californian were highly reluctant to challenge the distortions offered up by Bernal’s handlers, Brandon Gesicki et al. Simple he said/she said journalism is easier and it plays into the hands of a campaign that decides to go with the big lie technique, a Gesicki specialty. But the Monterey County Weekly never fell for Gesicki’s schtick and this loud but undersized platform, the Partisan, was not at all shy about focusing on Bernal’s pathetic resume’ and Gesicki’s devotion to deception. KSBW did its part by reporting on Bernal losing his car to repossession during the primary campaign and losing his house to foreclosure, neither of which demonstrate enough financial prowess to help him understand how to hold a budget right-side up.
The winning strategy consisted largely of harping on the legal troubles of Miller’s son and manipulating the deputies’ union, the Deputy Sheriffs Association, into endorsing Bernal. I’m not enough of a social scientist to understand why so many sons and daughters of sheriffs and police chiefs get into trouble the way Miller’s son did. Fair game to a degree. But the Bernal/Gesicki crew managed to convince quite a few voters that Miller had countenanced the young man’s drug use and sales. The evidence of that? Not a shred. But when you say something enough times, some folks are prone to see things that aren’t there.
The Gesicki gang turned the DSA against Miller by having Bernal promise things he can’t deliver, like free lunches and veto power over deputy scheduling. The campaign also took advantage of a cultural rift between Miller and the deputies. In an era of increasing militarization of law enforcement agencies, Miller isn’t a typical gung-ho, grrr, grunt kind of sheriff. He’s a relative sophisticate, someone who grew up in Pacific Grove, went to college, learned to speak Spanish. He doesn’t wear a cowboy hat, doesn’t hunt, doesn’t go four-wheeling with the boys every weekend.
In Bernal, the younger deputies see themselves, and I suspect that many of them see the next four years as time to let it all hang out. That is not a good thing. Bernal said during his campaign that he would eliminate internal affairs investigations except in cases of likely criminal wrongdoing. What about cases of incompetence or dereliction of duty? What about sexist or racist behavior? Don’t sweat it boys, the boss has your back.
Another factor that hasn’t been discussed is that leadership of the DSA sees personal opportunities in a Bernal regime. Change at the top usually means considerable change in the upper reaches of the department. Quite a few higher-ranking employees loyal to Miller will pull the plug on their careers, opening promotional spots for a like number of Bernal cronies. Judging from my email, the jockeying and backstabbing began on Election Night.
The media may be partly to blame for all this, but there is plenty of blame to go around. The starting point is the Republican Party as operated locally by chairman Peter Newman. This entity is so hell-bent on keeping score of the number of elected Republicans that it cynically and selfishly created Bernal as a candidate and helped finance his shameless campaign. Newman tried to get Miller to change his registration from independent to Republican, promising to support no one else if he did so. When Miller declined, Newman helped create Bernal and even supported other challengers in the primary last spring.
In other words, Newman and pals are not concerned that an extremely important public-safety agency populated by heavily armed men and women could soon be managed by a fellow who has never been a manager, a deputy who apparently couldn’t pass the sergeants’ test.
Among the passengers on Newman’s wrong-way bus are former Carmel city officials Sue McCloud and Paula Hazdovac, Republicans both, who endorsed Bernal but not because they know anything about sheriffs. I believe they were getting back at Miller’s wife, Jane, who beat Carmel City Hall in a sexual harassment case after her time as the city’s personnel director. (Former Councilman Gerard Rose was on that bus as well but I understand he got off at an early stop.)
Where were the judges and prosecutors on this one? In order to do their jobs, prosecutors need good police work. Individually, they praise Miller highly for his work within the Sheriff’s Department and previously at the Pacific Grove and Salinas police departments, saying his investigators consistently presented quality work enabling them to convict the bad guys. Bernal’s never even been a detective and hasn’t trained anyone to do anything. Why weren’t the prosecutors making commercials for Miller? Monterey County DA Dean Flippo was at Miller’s gathering Tuesday night. He told others that he can’t make endorsements in such a race because he has to work with the winner no matter who that is. The problem is that the public also has to work with the winner, no matter who that is.
How about the county supervisors, who deal with the Sheriff’s Department daily and are often left to clean up its messes. Jane Parker went with Miller but the others chickened out. Supervisor and dairyman Lou Calcagno, who is about to leave office, said he didn’t want to take sides because he had bought hay from Bernal’s family. Let me repeat that. Supervisor and dairyman Lou Calcagno, who is about to leave office, said he didn’t want to take sides because he had bought hay from Bernal’s family. Maybe they gave him a great deal or some great hay.
Supervisors Dave Potter, Fernando Armenta and Simon Salinas were silent, too, even though I don’t think they bought any hay. One explanation is that their lists of campaign contributions line up closely with Bernal’s list.
Another Bernal accomplice is the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and its political tentacles. It didn’t endorse Miller because Gesicki told chamber officials privately that Miller would soon be charged with a crime of some sort. That’s how he works and the chamber should have known that.
Finally, some of the blame has to go to Miller, not for his work as sheriff but for his decision to essentially run his own campaign. Gesicki is one of the least principled campaign managers I have dealt with in my 40 years in journalism, but that’s what he does for a living. He has run many campaigns, a couple successfully, and he understands spin and deception as well as anyone. The GOP brought in enough money to bring in an equally ruthless group of mercenaries to work with him.
Miller, meanwhile, made an early mistake by naming an ex-DEA agent as his campaign spokesman without realizing said spokesman had made some very politically incorrect statements in the past. After they parted ways, Miller was a staff of one. While he has been a good sheriff, and a fair poker player, he is not a campaign professional. He produced relatively little campaign literature and depended on overworked reporters to pierce Bernal’s messaging. You can see how that worked out.
The bright side, if there is one, is that maybe Bernal learned something from the campaign and will realize that the people he puts around him are exceedingly important. It is my fervent hope that none of them will be anything like Gesicki but perhaps he will attempt to reward competence over loyalty. Mary Duan, editor of the Weekly, dubbed Gustafson and the Marina Coast Water District board as the “Insane Clown Posse.” Here’s hoping that the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t become even more worthy of the name.