Most popular man in Merced wears a badge

Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke addresses the crowd inside Elks Lodge in 2017.
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke addresses the crowd inside Elks Lodge in 2017. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

Who’s the most popular person in Merced County? That’s a good topic for debate, but we’re saying it’s Sheriff Vern Warnke – and we have proof.

Four people were unopposed in the June 5 election; of those four, Warnke was far and away the leading vote-getter.

Some 18,192 people – and still counting – felt strongly enough about Warnke’s performance to vote for him even though he was the only one on the ballot. No one – not tax collector Karen Adams (17,172 votes), auditor Lisa Cardella-Presto (16,139) or Assemblyman Adam Gray (15,697) came close to getting Warnke’s vote of confidence.

When there’s only one person to vote for, it’s basically a popularity contest. And Warnke proved very, very popular.

He wasn’t aware of his numbers Wednesday afternoon, but it gave him a modest laugh when it was pointed out. Does that popularity give Warnke the freedom to try new things? To make changes? To experiment?

“It gives me the freedom to keep working my butt off,” replied Warnke in his typical fashion. “The people deserve to have anyone they elect working their butts off for them every single day.

“As far as freedom, it’s not really a freedom thing. … We’re able to do some scheduling changes because I’m getting deputies back (due to salary increases approved by the Board of Supervisors). That’s been a blessing.”

When Warnke took office in 2014, his department had 28 vacancies among the deputy ranks; on many nights there were only five or six deputies patrolling the entire county. Now, on any given night, 21 deputies are on patrol supervised by two sergeants.

More deputies haven’t resulted in more arrests, but it has meant less crime.

“We’ve noticed a decrease in a lot of criminal activity. With guys going out and hitting these areas really hard it’s causing the bad guys not to want to be around. … We’ve seen a significant drop in homicides and gang activity. And we’re going to to continue to pound away at that.”

A few other take-aways from the election:

Red Ripple – Like much of the San Joaquin Valley, Merced experienced “red wave,” not a blue one as predicted by the national media. John Cox, the Republican candidate for governor, was far more popular in Merced than statewide winner Gavin Newsom. In fact, the top two Republicans polled 46 percent of the local vote while the top two Democrats split 36. Republicans Steve Bailey (attorney general) and Cole Harris (Lt. Governor) also won here, but were far behind statewide.

That’s not to say there weren’t popular Democrats. Gray didn’t even rate an opponent, and U.S. Rep. Jim Costa got over 50 percent of the vote. Tom Hallinan – who promises to try to kill the Board of Equalization – looks on pace to win a seat. Betty Yee was as popular in Merced, with 52 percent of votes, as she was across the state.

Measuring excitement – People in Los Banos decided to continue taxing themselves for better schools. Measure X – which phases in new bonds as old ones phase out –got 68 percent. Measure Y, which gives the city of Merced authority to establish marijuana taxes and rules, won with 77.5 percent.

Statewide measures all passed in Merced, even the one that hardly anyone else in the state voted for. Measure 70, which would require a two-thirds vote for spending cap-and-trade money after 2024, failed statewide but not in Merced. Go figure.

Re-Do – We get to do all this over again in just four short months. But don’t expect any of the candidates on the November ballot to do as well as Warnke.