The 2014 Merced County sheriff’s campaign is already starting to take shape, with three candidates in the mix.
Flanked on both sides by more than a dozen top law enforcement and elected community officials on Thursday, law enforcement veteran Pat Lunney formally announced his candidacy for Merced County sheriff on the steps of the Merced County courthouse museum.
Sgt. Frank Swiggart and Sr. Sgt. Rich Howard, both of the Merced County Sheriff’s Department, have also confirmed their intention to seek the office.
Swiggart, 47, and Howard, 43, are both veterans of the sheriff’s department. For the last three years, Swiggart has been head of the Merced Community College Police Department, which is operated by the sheriff’s department. Howard is the supervisor of the Merced County Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force.
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Undersheriff Tom Cavallero was appointed earlier this week to finish the term of the outgoing sheriff, Mark Pazin. Pazin was appointed last week to head the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services Law Enforcement Branch. Cavallero has said he does not intend to run for the office in 2014.
The three candidates have said addressing street-gang crime and inmate housing issues should be among the top priorities of the next sheriff. The candidates have pointed to two recent unsolved gang-related murders in Planada on one block of Bigler Avenue along with a near record-level murder rate in 2013 as evidence of a need look for new solutions.
Lunney, 66, said the move of addressing criminal street gang in Merced County would be “the first I’d do,” if elected. “It has escalated to the point that it cries out for us to do something about it,” Lunney said.
Lunney began his career in law enforcement in Merced and was eventually appointed chief of the Merced Police Department, a post he held for more than 15 years. In 1999, Lunney was appointed to the California Department of Justice and served eight years there, including more than four as director of the law enforcement division and its 1,400 personnel.
He has been chief of investigations for the Merced County District Attorney’s Office since 2008.
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said that Lunney was the youngest police chief in California during his tenure at the helm of the city police department. Morse introduced and endorsed Lunney as a candidate on Thursday, calling him “a leader, innovator, problem solver and steadying influence.”
Along with Morse, more than a dozen area law enforcement leaders, elected officials and community members stood by Lunney on Thursday, including Merced Police Chief Norman Andrade, Merced City Councilman Kevin Blake, Dos Palos Police Chief Barry Mann, Gustine Police Chief Doug Dunford and Livingston Police Chief Ruben Chavez.
Chavez called Lunney a “strategic thinker” and “good collaborator” who would help improve communication between the sheriff’s department and the other law enforcement agencies in Merced County, which he said has been an issue in recent years.
“The sheriff’s department is the largest (law enforcement) agency in the county, and there needs to be more communication with all the agencies to deal with the issues of gangs and narcotics,” Chavez said. “I think he would would do a great job.”
Blake joined in endorsing Lunney. Blake works as a sergeant in the Merced County Sheriff’s Department but was careful to note that he was only endorsing Lunney in his capacity as a city councilman and not speaking on behalf of the sheriff’s department. Blake’s father, retired Merced County undersheriff, also endorsed Lunney on Thursday.
Howard and Swiggart said Thursday they plan to formally announce their candidacies in the coming weeks, though specific dates have not been scheduled. Both men said it will be important for Merced voters to have multiple qualified candidates from which to choose during the upcoming election.