Frank Damrell III says he’s running hard for a Stanislaus County board seat, holding fundraisers and walking precincts every weekend.
The strange thing is: He never sees his opponent.
State Sen. Tom Berryhill, who terms out of the Senate in December, missed the Legislative session in July and August. And he has failed to show up for the run-off election that will choose the next county supervisor in District 4 in November.
Earlier this week, a Berryhill staff member released a letter bearing the senator’s signature that explains his absence.
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Berryhill, 64, began suffering from intense back pain early this year, the letter says, and then fractured a hip July 1. The senator was diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease in August, which was causing the back pain.
It is well known that Berryhill underwent a heart transplant in 2001. The Sept. 10 letter, addressed to friends and supporters, does not mention any complications from the organ transplant.
Berryhill wrote that he’s excited to be running for supervisor and that experts in Parkinson’s disease told him there’s no reason to stop seeking office.
“The treatment that I’m on has shown real promise, and quite frankly, it’s my hip that’s been slow in healing,” Berryhill’s letter says. “The doctors tell me to be patient, just as I’m asking for your patience, as we work through this challenging time.”
Berryhill did not respond to numerous messages from The Modesto Bee in the past week.
“I hope he gets well,” Damrell said. “His years of service are commendable. I cannot say if he is healthy enough to serve on the (Board of Supervisors). It does not appear he is well enough to campaign.”
Berryhill, who logged 12 years in the Assembly and state Senate, was slowed by physical pain before the June primary but managed to win the county primary with 42 percent of the vote. Damrell with 33 percent finished second to qualify for the runoff. Former Modesto Councilwoman Janice Keating was third with 24 percent.
Berryhill did not respond to requests for an interview last spring and missed the traditional League of Women Voters candidates forum before the primary. Berryhill appeared in poor health during a Bee editorial board meeting in April.
Damrell, 56, said he has asked for a seat on the dais for the League of Women Voters forum set for Wednesday, even if his opponent is absent.
Marsha Blomquist, in charge of voter services for the League, said Thursday that Berryhill had not responded to three communications that asked if he will participate in the forum. “I have had no response, and so I mailed a letter to his home and still have not heard from him,” Blomquist said.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive illness characterized by motor dysfunction. According to the Parkinson’s Foundation website, the early stage symptoms may include tremor on one side of the body and changes in posture, progressing to muscle rigidity, problems with walking, loss of balance and inability to stand without assistance in later stages.
Medications are designed to treat the symptoms, and some patients are able to keep working for years after the diagnosis. A famous example is actor Michael J. Fox.
Damrell, a Democrat, and his Republican opponent are from influential families.
Damrell’s father, Frank Damrell Jr., is a former federal district court judge. Berryhill, and his brother Bill, who served in the Assembly, are the sons of Clare Berryhill, a former state legislator and California agriculture secretary, who died in 1996.
Four years ago, Berryhill and the Stanislaus County Republican Central Committee were ordered to pay a $40,000 fine for violation of campaign finance law. Berryhill exceeded a contribution limit in shifting $40,000 from his campaign fund to help his brother’s campaign for Assembly in 2008.
The Tom Berryhill for Supervisor campaign has raised $52,800 this year and can receive support from state office campaign committees controlled by the candidate. Contributions for Damrell have topped $100,000 this year.
Despite his health issues, Berryhill has endorsements from District 4 incumbent and former state senator Dick Monteith, who’s retiring, and supervisors Jim DeMartini, Vito Chiesa and Kristin Olsen, as well as Sheriff Adam Christianson.
Damrell has received contributions from Gallo family members and is endorsed by Modesto council members Mani Grewal, Kristi Ah You and Jenny Kenoyer and Assemblyman Adam Gray of Merced.
Damrell, a field representative for state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, said his current job has prepared him well for serving county constituents. Working out of a downtown Modesto office, Damrell listens to the concerns and needs of people of different political stripes, helping some to navigate public services if needed.
In Damrell’s opinion, homelessness is the top issue in the race and will demand the attention of the next supervisor in District 4. The boundaries for the district encompass most of Modesto, Del Rio and a small part of Ceres.
Damrell said a proposed low-barrier facility is needed to add shelter space for the homeless. A proposal to use former county hospital buildings on Scenic Drive would provide shelter without a large commitment for upfront costs. Damrell said he is waiting to hear the final opinion of a neighborhood committee.
“When knocking on doors and meeting with people in neighborhoods, people talk about vagrants and drug use in parks, petty theft on doorsteps and problems for businesses,” Damrell said. “There’s a common feeling out there that people are under siege, that their parks are under siege. They don’t feel safe.”
The candidate vows to work on behavioral health issues that contribute to homelessness and help remove obstacles to conservatorship, so families can get help for homeless loved ones with untreated mental illness.
County leaders also are battling the “water grab”, a much-disputed state proposal for irrigation districts to leave more water in rivers for fish.
Damrell sees economic development as a priority. The county should further explore an idea for a green energy research facility at the former Navy airfield near Crows Landing, he said.
According to a 16-second spot on the Tom Berryhill for Supervisor Facebook page, Berryhill wants to fully fund public safety, ensure the homeless are sheltered and taken off the streets and supports traffic relief projects.
Damrell doubted that Berryhill has had much contact with the homeless.
“I have lived, worked and raised my family near Modesto Junior College and played with my kids in Enslen and Graceada parks,” Damrell said. “I don’t know if he ever comes down McHenry Avenue and sees the homeless people and the methadone clinic. He has not lived this.”