When Adam Christianson ran for Stanislaus County sheriff in 2006, he executed a well-proven campaign strategy:
Win simply by not being the other guy.
Christianson became sheriff because his opponent, then-Assistant Sheriff Mark Puthuff, self-destructed during the campaign.
Now, Christianson faces re-election and a challenge by Rob Jackson, who spent 20 years in the Sheriff's Department before leaving two years ago to become a captain in the Turlock Police Department.
Incumbents rarely lose in races involving law enforcement jobs. Former Sheriff Les Weidman ran three times unopposed after winning the job in 1992.
District Attorney Birgit Fladager, who beat Michael Cummins four years ago, is thus far unopposed for a second term.
But Christianson's first term has been a challenging one marred by three deaths at the county jail over a five-month period last year, along with several gender-based lawsuits filed against his department.
That leaves this question: Can Jackson win simply by not being Christianson?
Every election offers different circumstances and personalities that sway voters or turn them off entirely. Puthuff guided the Sheriff's Department for a year after Weidman resigned in June 2005 to work for Gov. Schwarzenegger. Puthuff immediately declared he would seek the office, and most political observers considered the June 2006 election his to lose even though he was not an elected incumbent.
Christianson later announced his candidacy, saying many in the Sheriff's Department urged him to run because of dissatisfaction with Puthuff's management style.
Puthuff then skipped a forum hosted by a Latino organization, which offended many in the Latino community. He routinely trashed Christianson in public meetings and in the press.
Weidman, who initially endorsed Puthuff, switched his allegiance to Christianson three months before the election. Puthuff responded by calling Weidman "an unhappy man" and a "diva."
Puthuff was accused of prohibiting Christianson, then a sheriff's lieutenant overseeing the Salida substation, from talking to the media when California Highway Patrol officer Earl Scott was shot to death along Highway 99 four months before the election. Claiming Puthuff used Scott's death for political gain, his detractors said he avoided the Salida command center for 12 hours after Scott's death, arriving just in time to go on camera for the evening news.
And after losing, Puthuff called Christianson "a chubby Pinocchio" and Weidman "Gepetto."
The chubby line stung Christianson, who has lost 50 pounds since becoming sheriff.
"It was a little motivating," the slimmer, trimmer Christianson said.
Ultimately, Christianson didn't win on his record because he hadn't yet established one. He won in no small part because of Puthuff's behavior.
Now Christianson has a record as he campaigns for a second term.
Under his watch, the county settled one gender-based lawsuit last fall, agreeing to pay $545,000 to three women to avoid trial. The county is fighting another in a case now in trial; a third lawsuit was filed in January. Several of the plaintiffs have been represented by the same law firm.
In court two weeks ago, Christianson testified that he didn't review the results of the investigation into claims of sexual harassment by a former records clerk against one of his longtime co-workers.
And the Sheriff's Department is the only one of 27 county departments that maintains its own sexual harassment training program.
At least five times since becoming sheriff, Christianson has been quoted in The Bee saying it wouldn't "be appropriate to comment" when asked about events that involved actions of members of his department.
Commenting on these cases probably wouldn't have been appropriate. The public relations problem is that he's had to decline comment so many times.
And finally, Jackson said he opted to run against Christianson for one of the same reasons Christianson ran against Puthuff: divisions within the department. The newest of the deputies' unions recently endorsed Jackson, who has a growing list of supporters.
Christianson's Web site, meanwhile, touts improvements and changes he instituted. It also includes a long list of endorsements from politicians, law enforcement officials and groups, and business and community leaders.
As an elected official and a politician, Christianson knows he can claim credit for everything that goes well, but also will get the blame for everything that doesn't.
All of it is fair campaign fodder.
The difference between two sheriff's candidates, it seems, is the same as it was four years ago.
One has a record to run on. The other has his opponent's record to run against.
And the funny thing is, should Jackson pull off the upset and beat an incumbent, four years from now he'd be the guy with the record and the target on his back.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or email@example.com.