In the shadow of Tuesday's fast- approaching ballot, it's tempting to lose sight of June's election for Stanislaus County sheriff, despite recent developments that could play into campaigns.
Whether those moves prove significant might not become clear for months, some political watchers suggest.
On Monday, a newly formed deputies' union snubbed its boss, Sheriff Adam Christianson, by endorsing challenger Rob Jackson, a Turlock police captain.
The next day, county leaders settled a potentially explosive discrimination lawsuit brought by three of Christianson's female employees.
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Both generated media attention, while a federal judge's order in another case, also Monday, flew under the radar. That judge dismissed Christianson personally from discrimination and wrongful firing complaints in a nasty lawsuit brought by another woman while allowing it to go forward with sexual harassment claims against one of his sergeants, as well as two due-process complaints against the sheriff.
The county's lawyer acknowledged the "political implications" of Tuesday's settlement, but said politics did not influence his team's negotiating. Christianson refused to discuss the lawsuits, while Jackson decried "seven figures' worth of expenses to the county."
Meanwhile, the endorsement evoked memories of a bruising campaign that divided the Sheriff's Department four years ago. But political commentators say it's probably not as important to voters, who might not even remember come June.
"These things are never determinative. But they are all contributory," said University of the Pacific political studies professor Bob Benedetti, speaking generically about the many moving pieces of any campaign.
Leadership scrutinized in campaigns
Accountability of leaders often surfaces in campaign warfare.
One need look no further than the last sheriff's race, when Christianson took on unelected Assistant Sheriff Mark Puthuff, heir apparent to former Sheriff Les Weidman, in the first true campaign for that post since 1990.
In the last week of October -- sound familiar? -- four years ago, The Bee broke news of a disgruntled former deputy suing the department and Puthuff, with allegations of an affair. Puthuff and his attorney questioned the timing, at the beginning of campaign season.
Christianson, then a lieutenant, also was second-guessed about his role in a controversy over 15 deputies posing with a helicopter in a private catalog photo shoot. And both candidates confronted prickly questions about their public and private lives.
In July 2008, Christianson initially was accused of calling two female employees "bitches" when four records clerks sued him and the county. But a month ago, a judge released Christianson from the lawsuit, and attorneys settled the rest out of court Tuesday.
The deal cancels a trial scheduled to start this week pitting Christianson's office against remaining defendants Jackie Bernal, Charmaine Morad-Daniel and Marlena Younan. County leaders agreed to pay the three a combined $545,000, without admitting wrongdoing. The county has spent about $310,000 more on its legal fees, plus more dealing with two other discrimination lawsuits brought by former female employees of the department.
"To settle like that, there had to be some wrongdoing," said Jackson, who worked nearly 20 years for the Sheriff's Department and was chief of police for Waterford, whose unit is staffed by deputies, before he left for Turlock in November 2007. "That tells me there was some level of culpability. What's troubling to me is spending that money at a time when the sheriff's office is so fiscally strapped."
Asked if the settlement has become a campaign issue, Jackson said: "I don't want to go negative. I don't want to sling mud. I am going to be critical because I don't think Adam has done the job he's been asked to do."
County Counsel John Doering said: "I won't deny the political implications in this; Sheriff Christianson needs to discuss those. But from our perspective, politics was not an issue (in settling)."
Christianson has told The Bee he lobbied county supervisors to go to trial "because the sheriff and the Sheriff's Department have done nothing wrong."
That stance "comes off as protecting taxpayers," said Jack Heinsius, a Modesto Junior College instructor. "I think he had more to gain than to lose from what he said."
Former county Democratic leader Sandy Lucas said the settlement could prove to be "a two-edged sword. There won't be an open trial where all the caca doo-doo comes out. But people will always say, 'Where there's smoke, there's fire.' "
In Monday's ruling, Fresno's U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence O'Neill saw a distinction in federal discrimination law between an employer, who can be sued, and a supervisor, who can't, and decided Christianson is the latter.
But the sheriff still must defend accusations that his department tried to cover up complaints brought by former employee Valine Sarmas, the judge ruled. Sarmas accuses Sgt. Pedro Beltran of kissing and groping her and showing her a video on his cell phone of him having sex with another department employee.
In a third case, records department employee Lydia Lopez says she was subjected to physical and verbal sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation by Lt. Bill Pooley. That trial is expected to begin Jan. 26.
Union schism complicates matters
Until recently, most sheriff's employees were represented by one labor union. In his race against Puthuff, Christianson was proud that law enforcement units supported him, once saying, "The deputy sheriff's association, the men and women who serve and protect us, have shown confidence in me and they voted to endorse me."
Christianson and Jackson previously were heavily involved in union work on several levels, including contract negotiations.
But a schism took place several months ago when 180 sworn deputies, including detectives and patrol officers, split from 220 jail officers. The latter group supports Christianson, while the former endorsed Jackson on Monday.
"It's almost a vote of no confidence," Jackson said Thursday. "These are the ones who actually have police powers, who attend the academy and are on the streets. To have them stand behind me, it's hugely important."
The new Stanislaus Sworn Deputies Association has no resources for political contributions, said President Vince Bizzini. The voting majority does not agree with Christianson's recent move to decentralize command, Bizzini said, requiring many deputies to report to outlying satellite stations instead of the central command in south Modesto. The change created confusion and resentment, he said.
Christianson said fewer than two-thirds of the new union's members cast votes, and of those, 56 chose him while 59 preferred Jackson.
"They basically endorsed him on a three-vote margin with only 63 percent voting. That's what they didn't tell you," the sheriff said.
Christianson said his department has enjoyed positive feedback on decentralization from residents. His lengthy list of endorsements includes the Stanislaus County Custodial Deputy Sheriff's Association, whose officers did not return several calls seeking comment.
Larry Giventer, professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, said internal endorsements can "make a significant impression on the public. We want to know what the rank and file think of their leader."
But MJC's Heinsius said, "I think people pay less and less attention to endorsements anymore. It's like a choir saying something nice about their minister."
Rift within department lingers
Jackson acknowledged that he supported Puthuff in the last sheriff's race. "Mark was better prepared to lead the organization at that point of his career," he said. "I didn't think Adam was ready to be the sheriff.
"(Christianson's) charisma and enthusiasm have carried him to this point, but his lack of experience has hurt him. (Deputies) are hungry for some leadership direction."
Christianson said he has promoted former Puthuff supporters and is proud of his management team.
"If Mr. Jackson was really concerned about the success of the organization and the direction it was headed," Christianson said, "why didn't he stay and continue to work with us?"
Lucas said divisions among employee groups suggest that the rift four years ago has not entirely been repaired.
"There is still tremendous animosity," she said. "You still have people talking about that election. Wounds have not totally healed."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.