One September day in 2012, Stanislaus County sheriff’s Deputy Tom Letras set up a meeting with Sheriff Adam Christianson. They agreed to talk over coffee away from the office.
When Christianson and Undersheriff Mick Hardenbrook arrived at the Starbucks on Crows Landing Road, Letras told him, “Sheriff, out of respect, I just want you to hear it from me directly. I intend to run for your job.”
Letras said Christianson gave a tight-lipped smile and replied, “All right, well, good luck.”
“I think he was amused by it, to be honest,” Letras said. “He has all of the money, all of the endorsements, all the power. If we couldn’t beat him, why run? (His reaction) was like swatting a gnat away.”
As the June election nears, Christianson is a two-term incumbent facing an upstart opponent – an employee with no management experience and, one might think, everything to fear by challenging the boss.
No one should understand that concept better than Christianson. He was a sheriff’s lieutenant in 2006 when he ran against his boss, then-Assistant Sheriff Mark Puthuff, in one of the most bitter and ugly local campaigns in recent memory. Puthuff took over when longtime Sheriff Les Weidman retired in August 2005. But his intimidating management style quickly divided the department and caused concerns among the Board of Supervisors. They refused to give Puthuff the title of interim sheriff for the remainder of Weidman’s term, even though Weidman endorsed him for the job. Puthuff’s brief time in charge compelled some department employees, Letras among them, to support Christianson as an alternative.
“After I announced my candidacy, I was summoned up to Mark’s office,” Christianson said. “He said something like, ‘So, you don’t trust my leadership?’ And it went downhill from there.”
Like, way downhill. Christianson led the sheriff’s Salida substation when California Highway Patrol Officer Earl Scott was murdered in February 2006, less than five months before the election. The Salida fire station served as the incident command and media center. Puthuff temporarily reassigned Christianson, keeping him away from the reporters, TV cameras and media exposure.
“It was a direct order,” Christianson said. “He told me to go find something else to do.”
Then more way downhill. Shortly after Christianson declared, Weidman withdrew his endorsement of Puthuff and gave it to Christianson. Puthuff went on the attack, campaigning against Weidman, who wasn’t running. When he finally remembered Christianson was the opponent, Puthuff mocked his challenger’s weight by calling Christianson a “chubby Pinocchio.” (The insult compelled Christianson to go on a diet and drop 50 pounds.) Christianson knew if he lost the election, he’d be looking for work elsewhere. So he spent $50,000 to hire veteran political consultant Richie Ross, who advised him to go on the attack against Puthuff.
But why go negative when the opponent kept unraveling in public?
“Mark self-destructed,” Christianson said. “It was his race to lose, and he lost it.”
The morning after the election, Christianson arrived at the sheriff’s office on East Hackett Road, asking to meet with the clearly agitated Puthuff to begin transitioning to the new administration.
“I was scared to death,” Christianson said. “I was very cautious, and that’s why I took someone (Detective Lydell Wall) and the media with me. I specifically wanted witnesses.”
In a short, tense moment, Puthuff told him, “You go back to Salida. I’ll call you when I need you.”
“There was no reason to treat anyone like that,” Christianson said.
So does Letras – who backed Turlock police Capt. (and now Chief) Rob Jackson unsuccessfully against Christianson in 2010 – have anything to fear by running against his boss?
“His future is as bright today as it will be,” Christianson said, assuming he wins a third term. “Tom will be considered for any advancements he puts in for. There will be no negative effects whatsoever because he’s running for sheriff.”
Letras isn’t so sure. He said the image Christianson projects during the campaigns by complimenting his foes and avoiding the negative is staged. About a month ago, a member of Letras’ campaign asked the pro-gun Madison Society if Letras could address the group. John Horton, a member of the club, scheduled the appearance. Christianson then asked another member if he, too, could speak on that date. No, the other member told him, but he could speak to the group in May. Christianson then asked if he could attend the meeting and listen to Letras.
“I’d have been furious if I were (Letras),” Horton said. “We contacted the woman who contacted us. We didn’t want him to think we were blindsiding him.”
Letras opened by, and I paraphrase, thanking the sheriff for coming to show his support, which got a laugh out of the crowd. Horton said he felt Letras reined in his comments because Christianson sat in the audience “stone-faced,” as Horton put it.
Both candidates have claimed that the other distorts facts. After all, it is a campaign, and one Christianson likely will win rather easily.
In fact, the outcome in June might not be much of an issue.
“If I wake up still a deputy on June 4, my parents will still love me. My kids will still love me. My girlfriend will still love me,” Letras said. “If he beats me in the election, I’m not going anywhere.”