Adam Christianson hardly talks about his opponent, except to say, "Rob's a good guy and a good police leader."
Pressed recently by Bee editors to identify Turlock police Capt. Rob Jackson's most outrageous accusation, Christianson put his arm around Jackson's shoulder, smiled at a video camera and said simply, "I don't have any disagreements with Rob."
Christianson insists he won't sling mud and consistently steers campaign talk toward community partnerships, low crime rates and his "record of success." He says his department is "healthy and strong" and needs his steady hand to steer through turbulent economic challenges.
What a difference from four years ago. No one was more surprised than him, Christianson said, when he survived a bloody campaign against former Assistant Sheriff Mark Puthuff, capturing nearly 62 percent of the vote.
"The organization was shredded from top to bottom from the campaign," Christianson recalled, as employees lined up behind either candidate. He vowed not to retaliate against Puthuff's supporters and will do the same for Jackson's, he said.
Christianson, who lives in Modesto, acts and talks the role of confident incumbent, but says he's not making the mistake of taking Jackson lightly. The sheriff acknowledges having amassed far more campaign money -- and is quick to note that he is "humbled" and "very grateful for broad-based commu- nity support."
His list of endorsements includes many office holders on all levels of government, the local custodial deputies' union and former Sheriff Les Weidman.
But none of the county's five supervisors has endorsed Christianson. And he's had public disputes with Supervisor Jim DeMartini, an occasionally sharp-tongued critic.
The sheriff recently said he would re-evaluate policy allowing 72 staff members to take county cars home after a captain rear-ended another car while heading to his second home in Pacific Grove, 140 miles from Modesto.
The economy has not been kind to Christianson's four years in office. He rates department morale "just below a 3" on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being highest, saying employees can't help but feel anxiety with layoff notices going out this week.
When the sheriff took office in July 2006, one of his top concerns was finding enough qualified applicants to fill 23 vacancies. Four years later, his heaviest burden is "going the other direction" with layoffs, he said.
"It's very personal and painful for me," Christianson said.
In recent months he's closed the Salida substation he commanded during the 2006 campaign as well as the Waterford substation that Jackson once led, and suspended academy courses that trained officers for many agencies. Budget cuts also forced him to idle helicopters and close three of four barracks at the county Honor Farm.
Yet the department has made strides during his administration, Christianson said, including several big-ticket equipment and building upgrades. He credits partnerships with other law enforcement agencies for driving down crime rates in several significant categories.
The sheriff said he's close to making public a pitch to take over the county's animal control services, which recently joined with five cities in building a new animal shelter next to Christianson's public safety complex west of Ceres. He could use inmate labor from the jail next door to cut salaries and provide convicts with "another opportunity to get out of cycles of violence," he said.
Legal troubles have dogged the Sheriff's Department over the past few years, with 10 challenges filed by women who work or used to work for Christianson. The county in October agreed to pay three of them $545,000 to settle one case; it later won a trial triggered by a former employee's claim that her supervisor sexually harassed her. Christianson was called on the stand in that case.
He blames many of those troubles on his commitment to make people responsible for their mistakes.
"I committed to run a department that is accountable and transparent," the sheriff said in a recent interview, "and we've maintained that commitment."
Shortly after announcing to a pro-gun group that he will lower the bar for gun permit applicants, Christianson said the pledge he signed is but a "reaffirmation" of support for Second Amendment rights and does not signal a change in policy.
An internal poll, according to his re-election camp, recently showed Christianson leading his challenger by 30 percentage points and pummeling Jackson in name recognition.
But the sheriff likes to say he's learned that he can't please everyone.
In a recent two-day span, he said to three audiences, "I don't have all the secrets to success, but I've learned that the secret to failure is trying to keep everybody happy."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.