Proprietor’s note: To the surprise of many veteran political observers in Monterey County, sheriff’s deputy Steve Bernal upset the incumbent, Sheriff Scott Miller, in the Nov. 4 election. Residents of Monterey County are left with an unusually inexperienced young deputy to lead the largest law enforcement agency on the Central Coast, which has prompted some to call for taking the sheriff’s position out of electoral politics and making it subject to appointment. When asked by reporters to explain what happened and what it means for the county, Miller responded with this post mortem)
While many contributing factors appear to have influenced voters in the election for Monterey County sheriff, the results of the race can be traced, in large part, to two major factors unrelated to the qualifications of either candidate to hold the office: 1) strategic phone polling and 2) campaign contributions, in the form of special interest money and one very rich relative.
On a quiet evening last summer during the lull between the primary and general elections I received a phone call at home from a political research pollster working for the Bernal campaign. I was asked a series of questions all prefaced with the phrase: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for a candidate if you knew…?”
There were questions related to endorsements: ”Would you be more or less likely to vote for a candidate if they were endorsed by former Sheriff Kanalakis? Former Sheriff Gordon Sonne? Governor Jerry Brown?” There was a Bernal campaign favorite: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Sheriff Miller if you knew there had been eleven claims of discrimination or harassment filed against him?
Sheriff Scott Miller
And perhaps the pivotal question and the pivotal moment in the 2014 campaign for sheriff: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Sheriff Miller if you knew he had received a vote of no confidence from the deputy sheriff association?”
I asked the pollster if Sheriff Miller had actually received a vote of no confidence. The pollster ignored my question and repeated the one he had originally asked: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Sheriff Miller if you knew he had received a vote of no confidence?” After several more attempts to clarify whether such a vote had actually taken place and several more rebuffs by the pollster, I gave my answer: “I would be MORE likely to vote for Sheriff Miller if I knew he had received a vote of no confidence.”
In actuality, I just wanted to move on to see what the rest of the questions were like. I mean, who in their right mind would actually be more likely to vote for a sheriff candidate who had received a vote of no confidence? Is that a condition or attribute that engenders confidence in a candidate for sheriff? Perhaps I’d be neutral on the issue if I had other information that would override the impact of a no confidence vote, but the pollster didn’t provide “neutral” as an option. It struck me that “less likely” was virtually assured of a response near 100%, unless you were the candidate in question.
Coincidentally, they were speaking to the candidate in question. I’m Sheriff Scott Miller. I thought at the time that I was really glad I hadn’t received a vote of no confidence. That would be powerful stuff. Good thing, I thought, that I hadn’t done a thing to merit such a vote.
This polling conversation took place months before I actually received a vote of no confidence from the Monterey County Deputy Sheriff Association (DSA). At the time of the phone call no one had mentioned the possibility of such a vote taking place. Even with the typical political murmuring taking place within the Sheriff’s Office during campaign season, everything seemed to be moving along reasonably well. Positive progress during my first term as sheriff had been steady and, in some cases, remarkable when compared to the work of previous sheriffs.
Most importantly, the lines of communication between the DSA and my administration were solidly in place. There were few, if any, complaints being voiced by the DSA leadership during our regular monthly meetings about any job-related issues under my control that weren’t already addressed or being addressed. Under my watch, training had doubled, special units had been restored, better equipment had been provided, staffing had been added and patrol deputies had been moved from fatiguing 12- hour shifts to 10-hour shifts. I had obtained funding to construct a critically needed jail expansion that would improve staff safety, funding that had been sought unsuccessfully by my predecessors. I had treated staff with respect, dignity and support and had participated in every department-sponsored social event to which I had been invited. In short, none of the conditions existed that normally lead to no confidence votes.
About two months after the phone poll, I heard a rumor that the DSA board was going to press the membership to conduct a no-confidence vote on me. (They had previously voted to endorse my opponent in the general election, Deputy Steve Bernal, in a secretive and equally dubious process). I learned the no-confidence vote movement was triggered at a DSA meeting attended by only 17 members of the 300-plus member DSA and, by special invitation, my opponent, Deputy Bernal, and one of his campaign handlers, Brandon Gesicki. According to individuals present, Bernal and Gesicki addressed the group for half an hour, encouraging them to conduct a vote of no confidence, advising them (based on the results of their phone polling) of the power such an action could have in the race for sheriff and of the relevance the DSA could regain by impacting the race. At the end of their presentation the members present voted 12 to 5 to hold such a vote.
I was never notified of the pending vote by DSA leadership. I was never given an opportunity to address the membership regarding the vote or provide a rebuttal to the one-sided, inflammatory and inaccurate information given to DSA voters in support of the vote, which was apparently scripted by the Bernal team. Points made as grounds for the no-confidence vote centered largely on actions, real and imagined, of my adult son and his friends, not on my actual performance as sheriff. I didn’t learn the specifics of what DSA members were being told until after the vote had concluded, when I read the information in a newspaper account.
Having heard that a vote of no confidence might be pending, I distributed an email to department employees reminding them of the many accomplishments we had achieved together during my term as sheriff, which amounted to three single-spaced pages of meaningful organizational improvements. As a result of my email I was threatened by the DSA board with legal action for “campaigning on duty;” not directly, but through a press release they and their attorneys issued to all media outlets. DSA leadership and their lawyers had morphed from a union-like organization interested in protecting the rights of their membership to an arm of the Bernal campaign. Not only was I denied the opportunity to address the allegations made in support of the vote of no confidence, I was threatened for distributing a generic list of achievements. They wanted to block any communication between the DSA membership and me, while they and Bernal’s team had unfettered access to them. This didn’t exactly amount to a democratic process or level playing field.
I was given no opportunity to have anyone from my side participate in monitoring the vote, which was purportedly done electronically. The votes were tabulated by the DSA president and his designees, who were already in my opponent’s camp. Ultimately the DSA president reported that, based on the secret vote conducted by him, approximately a third of the membership eligible to vote had voted to support the vote of no confidence. No mention was made that two-thirds of those eligible to vote either chose not to vote or voted to support me. Also not addressed was whether the vote actually qualified as an official vote under DSA bylaws, since the amount of votes received did not amount to a majority of eligible DSA voters, a contention that in 1998 helped propel detective Gordon Sonne into office as sheriff.
Regardless of the process used to obtain it, there can be no denying that the wielding of this “vote of no confidence” became a critical element in the campaign for sheriff. There was a top-of-the-fold headline in a local newspaper trumpeting the fact that there was going to be a no confidence vote, before the vote was actually conducted, followed by top-of-the-fold headlines following the vote. It became the centerpiece for every piece of campaign material coming from the Bernal camp from that point forward. A barrage of television commercials centered on the vote, (along with my alleged responsibility for all gang violence in the county, rising property crime rates and graffiti on the former Fort Ord). The Bernal message largely became the no confidence vote. Their message reflected the strategic direction of their phone polling.
Of course, such a message would have been limited in its effectiveness without the means to distribute it to the largely uninformed masses. Deputy Bernal, who couldn’t find the money to pay his monthly mortgage or car payments, managed to amass the largest campaign treasury to run for the Office of the Sheriff in the history of Monterey County. He bragged about raising $65,000 in one evening, actually suggesting at a forum that he could do the same to help fund any shortfalls in the Sheriff’s Office budget if he were elected, (such being his naiveté regarding the office and the budget process).
Much of his funding came by way of Margaret Duflock, a ranching and oil magnate, who is the mother-in-law of Bernal’s brother. She gave Bernal hundreds of thousands of dollars, via direct donations, loans and contributions to political action committees (PACS), which then steered the money to Bernal. She reportedly gave $25,000 to the DSA, which has usually been strapped for money, following its endorsement of Bernal and the no-confidence vote, as if to pay them for their actions. With her bottomless checkbook and ability to influence other donors, the Bernal campaign was able to run near-constant campaign attack ads on every local television station, day and night, seven days a week, throughout the month leading up to Election Day.
The lack of any limitations on campaign donations in Monterey County clearly facilitated the metamorphosis of a candidate who, by any objective measure, lacked the bona fides to serve as an executive or manager in any law enforcement organization in the United States, into sheriff-elect of the largest law enforcement agency on the Central Coast. In military terms, the Army private has managed to become the commanding general overnight. What I had diligently prepared for through education, training, experience and performance over the course of 38 years, Bernal achieved by attending Thanksgiving dinner with his brother’s mother-in-law. In other words, Bernal and his donors, with the assistance of the co-opted president of the Deputy Sheriff Association, were able to buy the Monterey County Office of the Sheriff as if it were a very expensive truckload of alfalfa hay.
Those of us who care about public safety in these parts should be troubled, not only with how this campaign was won, but with the troubling thought that this may now become the model as to how sheriffs in this county are elected going forward.
The timing was perfect for the type of campaign that relies on smoke screens and misdirection. Bernal’s handlers wisely kept the candidate sequestered from direct media access whenever possible. They cancelled his attendance at public forums after seeing how poorly he performed in them. They repeatedly made claims that were without merit and easily refutable, but who stepped up to question the veracity of these claims?
Our community’s historic fact-checkers–seasoned journalists with a thirst for the truth–have largely gone the way of the dinosaur. Daily coverage of the sheriff’s race was delegated largely to inexperienced reporters who often seemed to receive little guidance from editors who, in fairness, likely had more important things to do, like figuring out how to save their newspapers.
After months-long hesitation, the local daily newspapers finally came on board. The Monterey County Herald and Salinas Californian issued strong and unequivocal endorsements for my re-election in late September. (To their credit, Californian political columnist Jeff Mitchell, Mary Duan and her staff at the Monterey County Weekly and Royal Calkins of the Monterey Bay Partisan had it right from the beginning). The endorsements used phrases like “the choice for sheriff is so clear, even the Herald got this one right;” “thankfully, this choice is an easy one;” and “Bernal is unqualified to be sheriff.” Bernal’s campaign and his handlers were categorized in various press reports as “slimy,” and “liars.” Obviously, the results of this election leave us with questions as to how many voters actually still read daily newspapers and the overall impact of (late-arriving) editorial endorsements.
Oddly, the only real issue germane to my bid for re-election–my performance as sheriff–was virtually ignored by the press. Instead, I was battered almost daily by press releases from the Bernal camp over largely nonsensical, trivial and irrelevant issues. These press releases, which in years past would have been tossed in the trash can by discerning newspaper editors, were usually published on the top of the fold after I was asked for a comment. While I provided copies of my resume, future strategic plans and accomplishments as sheriff to local media, they seemed to prefer dealing in the raucous allegations fed to them by my opponent. This strategy skillfully distracted the public from the real issues.
Broadcast news was largely missing in action, save an excellent profile piece on both candidates by Felix Cortez of KSBW, which was so revealing and instructive of the contrast between candidates that we posted it on our campaign website. KCBA Fox News doesn’t broadcast a local version of the news anymore, using instead an Oakland-based news show. Their sister station, KION News, who does, never contacted me about the election until they asked for an urgent sound bite—at 10 PM on election night, after all the polls had closed. If they ever covered the race, it was without my participation.
(After being contacted recently by a reporter from KION looking for my reaction to the latest election update, I asked her if the station had made a conscious decision to avoid covering the sheriff’s race. She told me KION station management had decided not to cover any local races, other than the fracking measure in San Benito County, because of the impact fracking might eventually have on Monterey County.)
I’ve been accorded the respect of my peers in the ranks of Monterey County law enforcement executives, who twice elected me president of our county law chief’s group and who unanimously endorsed my campaign for reelection. They universally praise the level of teamwork we have enjoyed the past four years, particularly compared to the relationship they had with my predecessor. Our interaction with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and the cities in Monterey County has never been better. I have superior working relationships with every elected official who holds any sway on county issues, from the governor to local mayors. Many of them are mourning the pending change of leadership to an individual they have never met.
But while many may consider me an effective law enforcement executive, I certainly wouldn’t be mistaken for a formidable campaign manager or campaigner, at least not based on the results of this race. I made several decisions early on in this campaign that I was determined to follow, win or lose, which ultimately figured in the outcome:
First, I was asked to register as a Republican by the local party godfather-figure. (I am registered as a “decline to state” voter). I was told if I would do so, the Monterey County Republican Party would endorse and support only me, even though two of the candidates running against me in the primary, including Bernal, were Republicans. I was told the party would do their best to talk the others into dropping out of the race. I was offered the campaign management services of Brandon Gesicki, who ultimately ended up working with Deputy Bernal. I declined the proposal, choosing instead to remain independent, thus motivating county Republicans to work against me throughout the campaign.
In retrospect, if I had registered as a Republican I may have won the race in the June primary, but I didn’t want to feel compromised by a group who didn’t care about my skills as sheriff, but solely my party affiliation. Strategically, accepting the invitation would have been the smart campaign move. Of course, I wasn’t thinking like a politician. I was thinking like a cop who didn’t want to be led by the nose.
Second, I was determined to run on my qualifications and accomplishments. I was determined not to run attack ads or conduct negative campaigning against my opponent. I focused on Bernal’s lack of qualifications and experience, but avoided attacking the many vulnerable areas of his personal life and those of his campaign team. I believed my accomplishments as sheriff were substantial enough to carry the day. If the public didn’t agree, that was their call, but I wasn’t going to sling mud.
I kept this commitment, although in retrospect attack ads would have likely been more effective. I wasn’t willing to win at all costs, not being a true politician.
Third, I was determined to spend no more on my campaign than I could raise from donors. During the campaign for sheriff in 2010 I spent $122,500 of my own funds. Raising campaign funds is more difficult for some than it is for others, particularly when you are running for the office of the chief law enforcement officer in the county and you refuse to take money from people who expect favors in return. That severely limits the pool of potential major donors. I mean, who gives a candidate for sheriff thousands of dollars because of their winning smile? In any event, it became evident to me early on that I’d never be able to compete with the half million dollars or so that Bernal raised from relatives and special interests without selling my soul. I wasn’t willing to pay that price. Ultimately I spent another $40,000 of my personal funds on this race. Instead of raising campaign funds the past four years while in office, I chose instead to put my effort into running the Sheriff’s Office. Strategically, raising campaign funds through the years would have been the smart political play. Starting with an empty campaign treasury versus a bottomless checkbook obviously made the task of running a vibrant campaign an uphill climb.
My purpose in writing this piece is an attempt to provide some insight from my perspective to those who seemed baffled as to how a deputy with no leadership or management experience, no formal education beyond high school, no job development of any kind beyond entry level deputy, can win an election over an experienced, educated and highly qualified incumbent who, by most objective accounts, had accomplished more in four years as sheriff than my four predecessors combined. I invite an objective examination of my term in office to see if others agree with that conclusion. Otherwise, I’ll leave my efforts to be judged by history.
I wish the best for the people of Monterey County, particularly those who will suffer as a result of this election. Individuals who supported my administration are already being threatened with removal and intimidation by the camp of the sheriff-elect. He has looked into the personnel records of excellent current employees specifically to see if they are on probation and has intimated he will fire them, regardless of their performance, so he can replace them with his cronies. Rumors are he wants to hire family members, though he would have to violate county policy to accomplish that. He will come into office beholden to a large number of special interests and large donors, along with the architects of his largely unexpected victory, their clients and the mysterious business PACs who materialized to donate thousands to him.
My successor is unlikely to continue the community outreach efforts I had undertaken with the supporters of jail inmates, immigrant rights advocates and small neighborhood groups of Spanish-speakers in Castroville, Chualar and Pajaro. He has never participated in the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace in Salinas, the Monterey County Gang Violence Program, or any other community-based organization in Monterey County. He declined to attend a forum held by LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and, to my knowledge, has never attended a meeting of any civil rights group in Monterey County.
The sheriff-elect may not yet even realize how much he doesn’t know about the current state of the Sheriff’s Office, having overlooked reality to instead maintain his focus on campaign rhetoric. During an initial press interview with (now that the pesky fracking issue has been decided) KION News, Bernal said he will kick his administration off by improving relationships with other county police departments and communities, opening lines of communication, and so forth. He has no idea how strongly those ties already exist, albeit with an administration that will be leaving. He says he will strengthen the existing gang task force, apparently unaware that the task force is already the largest such team in California outside of Los Angeles. He says he will establish a violent crimes unit, again unaware of the mission and capabilities already in place.
And he certainly doesn’t know how he’ll pay for any of his plans, having little familiarity managing budgets, household or otherwise. The future outlook of the Sheriff’s Office budget looks pretty grim in the coming years, with expenses constantly escalating and revenues stagnant. The fact that he has never supervised a single employee means his learning curve will be immense, now that he will be responsible for more than 420 public safety employees, He will find that his new reality isn’t taking an occasional crime report and patrolling the fields of southern Monterey County; it’s now litigation, risk management, policy development, municipal budget management, managing complex human resources issues, crisis management and strategic planning, domains he knows absolutely nothing about. With luck, he’ll have the wisdom to bring in a team of experts to handle these critical issues, but they aren’t growing on trees and even the best advisors require executive oversight so as not to run amok. For the sake of public safety in Monterey County, let’s hope he chooses wisely.
I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to serve as your sheriff. I’m proud to have been in the fraternity of law enforcement professionals for thirty-one years. I will miss the profession, but I’m confident I will find other meaningful pursuits to fill my time. I wish you all the best.