Incumbent, challenger set cordial tone in race for Stanislaus County sheriff

04/12/2014 5:46 PM

04/12/2014 11:01 PM

Those paying attention aren’t likely to confuse the two candidates for Stanislaus County sheriff, even if both are white, middle-aged, longtime department employees with impressive public-speaking skills.

Incumbent Adam Christianson has far more education, leadership experience, endorsements and campaign money. After eight years as sheriff, he cites accomplishments on his track record, while deputy Tom Letras points to “a culture of distrust and dysfunction” that he says results in lawsuits and difficulty retaining workers.

The awkwardness that might arise when a worker publicly seeks his boss’s job – especially in a paramilitary organization, where orders are followed and authority rarely questioned – has been kept to a minimum, both say.

“If Tom is doing his job and serving the people, good for him; he has a right to run,” Christianson said. “It’s what we call democracy. That’s OK. I have no reason to speak disparagingly of Tom. But the people get to decide who they want to be their sheriff.”

Letras, who spends most of his work time away from headquarters, serving evictions and other civil-process documents, said it’s been “civil and cordial” when they do bump into each other.

“I don’t want to attack him and be nasty,” he said, “but if I can’t point out the department’s problems, why am I running for sheriff? If it’s just to be the boss and have a title, then I’m doing it for the wrong reasons. To be successful, I have to point out the issues we’ve had.”

Letras, 41, had been an enthusiastic part of Christianson’s 2006 campaign team in a bloody race against then-Assistant Sheriff Mark Puthuff. After Christianson won, Letras said he became disaffected by a series of leadership decisions, including mass layoffs as the sheriff struggled to balance the department’s budget during recession cuts. Like all county workers, remaining deputies agreed to 6 percent wage reductions.

“Morale within the department has been at an all-time low,” Letras said, blaming Christianson’s “bullying” leadership style, which he says devalues the rank and file and leaves the agency vulnerable to legal challenges.

Last fall, The Modesto Bee found that lawsuits against the department during Christianson’s tenure had cost taxpayers $9.4 million. Most of that – $5 million – was spent defending several lawsuits brought by the sheriff’s own workers, one leading to a trial that exposed the department’s “limp, lame and lazy” list of injured workers. The county won the case, but the lawsuit prompted a public apology from the sheriff and an investigation by county leaders.

Challenger’s criticisims

Since summer, Letras has maintained an online blog. One entry criticized the sheriff for sending a department helicopter to drop golf balls at a charity event in Calaveras County at the request of a political donor and concluded that Christianson was motivated by “self promotion.”

“This is a serious abuse of his authority and reeks of corruption,” Letras wrote.

In another posting, he called Christianson “hypocritical” for firing off a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, accusing him of political grandstanding on a gun-control issue – while sharing the letter with gun-rights activists. Letras also used the blog to deny rumors that he was being used “as a decoy to stir up dirt against Adam Christianson” while Tori Hughes, a department lieutenant assigned as police chief in Patterson, quietly gathered steam to run.

With administrative experience of her own, Hughes entered the race and raised four times as much money as Letras in 2013, but withdrew early this year, citing unspecified health problems. Neither challenger could match Christianson, whose campaign attracted nearly three times their combined total as of last month.

“When you’re trying to compete with a political machine, you’re not going to raise as much money,” Letras said.

Christianson, 51, had a long head start, having pummeled Puthuff in 2006 and warding off a challenge in 2010 from Rob Jackson, a former department administrator who since has ascended to police chief in Turlock.

In eight years at the helm, Christianson is proud of partnerships with community organizations and having introduced several technological advances despite limited funds. “We have successfully navigated a very, very difficult time in the history of our organization,” he said, including downsizing and the deaths of crime technician Mary Donahou in late 2011, as well as deputy Bob Paris, who was gunned down with locksmith Glendon Engert in April 2012.

The sheriff serves on a lengthy list of local and state boards, councils and organizations, most having to do with law enforcement. A former outspoken critic of corrections realignment – which shifted responsibility for tens of thousands of inmates from state prisons to county jails, overseen here by Christianson’s custodial deputies – he now talks about personal cooperation with Gov. Jerry Brown and was photographed with him during Brown’s February visit to the Central Valley.

Christianson joined other county executives in a successful pitch for new jail construction that is bringing $120 million to the county – tops among California’s 11 midsize counties. “We are a statewide leader, and I’m very proud of that,” the sheriff said. “We are a benchmark standard. People come here to see what we’re doing.”

Laying off good people three years ago and watching his department shrink by a quarter was incredibly difficult, Christianson said, as was his decision to disband a gang unit – where Letras had been working as a detective – to keep adequate numbers on patrol. The sheriff set aside money 19 months ago to re-establish the gang unit but has lost deputies seeking better pay to other agencies and has not been able to find enough qualified applicants to fill patrol vacancies first.

“We will rebuild,” Christianson said. “We have a plan; we just have to have the bodies.”

The staffing shortage has contributed to the department’s dismal crime-solving rate, with officers clearing only 6 percent of property crimes from 2003 to 2012. The department solved less than 37 percent of violent crimes in 2011 and 2012 – worse than all the sheriff’s departments in the San Joaquin Valley except Madera County.

Gathering clout

Christianson won over many people with a policy change in favor of granting many more gun permits four years ago, coinciding with his first re-election campaign. Jackson and Letras characterized that as a political stunt, while requests continue pouring in by the hundreds. Many firearm advocates praise Christianson, but some have complained at having to wait several months.

“I ask the community to be patient with the process,” the sheriff said, again blaming delays on being short-staffed.

Christianson said he was humbled to receive the endorsement of the Stanislaus Sworn Deputies Association, which represents patrol deputies, after a March debate with Letras before union members and their families. The union supported Christianson’s opponent four years ago, and Letras was in union leadership before announcing his candidacy.

“If they had chosen not to support me, I’m still their biggest fan,” Christianson said. “I’m proud of everyone who works under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.”

Of 144 union members, 90 cast votes; the initial count was 38 for Christianson and 35 for Letras, with 17 preferring that the union endorse neither candidate, Letras said. Meanwhile, a union representing jail guards, the Stanislaus County Deputy Sheriffs Association, endorsed Christianson in the past two elections but is opting to remain neutral this time, Letras said.

“That speaks volumes to what is going on in the department,” Letras said. “The fact that the vote was so close among patrol also validates what I’ve been saying about morale. We really need to change the culture within the Sheriff’s Department.”

But virtually all endorsements have gone to Christianson, as well as most of the money, and he has been generous in sending thousands of dollars from his campaign war chest to a multitude of local nonprofit organizations.

“Tom is a great guy and a great deputy sheriff,” Christianson said. “I wasn’t raised to be vindictive or spiteful. I lead by example. I am grounded in my Christian faith, and there isn’t any reason for me to treat him differently. When Tori decided not to run, we immediately opened the door and said, ‘Let’s get back to work.’ ”

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