A longtime senior sergeant and a veteran law-enforcement administrator emerged as frontrunners Tuesday night in the race to become the next Merced County sheriff.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Vern Warnke and Pat Lunney, the Merced County district attorney’s chief investigator, appeared to be headed for a November runoff with 100 percent of the vote counted.
Warnke led the way late Tuesday with 34.2 percent to Lunney’s 33.0 percent.
The first wave of ballots showed Lunney almost 8 percentage points ahead of Warnke, but as the night wore on, Warnke closed the gap and pulled ahead by more than 200 votes.
“I’m looking forward to round two,” Warnke said. “I’m excited it looks like Pat and I for November. He’s a stand-up guy, and I respect him tremendously. But we’re very different people and that gives the voters an actual choice.”
The results did not surprise Lunney, 66, who said he was pleased with the early results.
“I’d thought almost from the very beginning there was a good chance it’d be a run-off with Vern,” Lunney said late Tuesday.
Sgt. Frank Swiggart, 47, was third just over 26 percent of the vote.
Livingston City Councilman Jim Soria was a distant fourth, with just over 6 percent. Soria, 45, did not return numerous phone calls seeking comment.
Lunney picked up a key endorsement from the correctional officers union, which was also his largest contributor. He also collected endorsements from the district attorney, city police union and every police chief in Merced County.
The chief investigator recorded the second-highest fundraising total, $54,594, and spent the most, $49,684.45.
He campaigned heavily on his administrative experience, which includes more than 15 years as Merced police chief and eight at the state Justice Department, including four years as the law enforcement director. He has been chief of the investigations unit of the Merced County District Attorney’s Office since 2008.
Lunney said his experience would help him oversee the nearly 300-employee department and operate its more than $43 million budget.
Warnke, 55, received the endorsement of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, which also contributed more than $3,000 to his campaign. Many of its members were the first to encourage Warnke to get into the race.
The veteran senior sergeant spent his entire career in the Merced County Sheriff’s Department, from 1979 to his partial retirement in 2008.
Warnke’s fundraising picked up steam in the second half of the race, bringing in $44,234.12. He spent $29,052 between January and May 22.
Warnke said he would “surely explore” the “tent city” model of jail housing made famous by Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom Warnke called a “personal hero.”
Frequently during the primary campaign, Swiggart compared his relative youth to his opponents. He pledged to stay in office for up to 20 years or more. Swiggart said Merced County voters do not believe that two decades is too long to be on top.
Swiggart downplayed the importance of endorsements in the campaign – calling them “special interests” – after the major law enforcement unions endorsed other candidates.
He picked up significant endorsements and donations from the business community.
Swiggart raised the most money during the primary, $56,436 and spent a total of $38,275.7 – second highest in the race, behind Lunney.
Soria campaigned to be the county’s first Latino sheriff. Diversity was his central talking point on the campaign trail. He frequently criticized the Sheriff’s Department’s lack of racial diversity in top management jobs.
The Livingston city councilman was the only candidate with a criminal record. Soria pleaded guilty in 2006 to a misdemeanor charge of failing to arrest a man wanted by the court. The conviction was later expunged from his record.
Soria raised just $3,750 during the campaign. His camp struggled with financial disclosures throughout the race, missing a filing deadline by more than a month and reporting numbers that did not add up, elections officials confirmed.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission confirmed plans to investigate Soria’s fundraising activities after the election.