A candidate running for Merced County Sheriff received a hefty endorsement Wednesday, which he said lit a new spark in his quest to become the county’s next sheriff.
The Merced County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, which represents 101 employees including deputy sheriffs, dispatchers and coroners, announced an endorsement for Vern Warnke as sheriff.
Warnke, 55, a retired senior sergeant and part-time deputy for the Sheriff’s Department, pulled papers to run for sheriff at the end of December. Warnke spent 35 years working for the department.
Also on Wednesday, another candidate for Merced County Sheriff announced he is pulling out of the race. Senior Sgt. Rich Howard, 43, a supervisor of the Merced County Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force, confirmed to the Merced Sun-Star he was no longer a candidate for sheriff.
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“Trying to manage my commitment with my current job and my personal life – it was becoming too much to manage,” Howard said. “More than that, I want to respect who our labor unions wanted. There’s no shortage of qualified candidates.”
Howard said he’ll help Warnke in the upcoming election season. As of Wednesday, three other candidates remained in the race: Frank Swiggart, 47, Pat Lunney, 66, and Jim Soria, 45.
Phillip Brooks, president of the Merced County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said the union’s board of directors met with all five candidates in a monthlong interview process. In the end, the directors narrowed it down to two choices – Lunney and Warnke.
All five candidates were invited to introduce themselves to the union’s members and answer questions before members cast their votes in a weeklong process. About 73 percent of the membership turned out to vote, Brooks said.
Warnke received 55.4 percent of the membership’s vote; Lunney received 35.1 percent.
“Vern Warnke’s experience can’t be questioned. He spent more than 30 years in this department and knows how things should go,” Brooks said. “We are the backbone of the Sheriff’s Department, so the endorsement is huge. No one is more qualified to say who’s going to lead us than we are.”
Warnke said the recommendation from a large portion of Sheriff’s Department employees is vital for him because they are the reason he decided to run for sheriff.
“Without their endorsement I doubt I would have continued the race, because it was for them that I threw my hat in the ring,” Warnke said.
Teamsters Local Union No. 856, which represents correctional officers in the Sheriff’s Department, has not yet announced an endorsement. The candidates recently completed endorsement questionnaires about their backgrounds, key priorities and views on jail safety as well as collective bargaining.
President Chris Navarro did not return calls for comment Wednesday.
Those running for sheriff have until 5 p.m. March 12 to complete filing for their candidacy, including nomination signatures, paperwork and filing fees, according to the Merced County elections office.
Swiggart is head of the Merced Community College Police Department, which is operated by the Sheriff’s Department.
Lunney has been chief of investigations for the Merced County District Attorney’s Office since 2008. He also served as chief of the Merced Police Department for 15 years.
Soria is an elected Livingston City Councilman and security supervisor with Guardsmark, assigned to the Livingston Gallo Winery.