'They know him and trust him': Why SLO County sheriff's election win was so decisive

It may seem unwarranted now — given San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson's overwhelming lead and assured victory over challenger Greg Clayton in Tuesday's election — but there were some worrisome moments for the incumbent's supporters during the campaign.

Longtime local conservative leader Al Fonzi said highly publicized controversial deaths of inmates in County Jail, specifically Atascadero man Andrew Holland early last year, gave some pause. But ultimately, Fonzi and other political insiders told The Tribune, Parkinson leveraged a number of factors in his favor — Republican support in North County, name recognition, money, the promise of reform and Clayton's shortcomings — into an as-of-now big victory.

Parkinson has garnered 61.5 to Clayton's 38.4 percent of the vote, pending 29,732 countywide votes yet to be tallied (56,260 have been counted already).

Parkinson has faced heavy criticism in recent months, including calls for his resignation, for his oversight of the county jail system, where 12 inmates have died since 2012 — including Holland, a 36-year-old suffering from schizophrenia who was strapped to a restraint chair for 46 straight hours before his death from a blood clot, of which The Tribune released surveillance video footage in March.

"A lot of people were worried," Fonzi said. "People were very worried, based on the (media) coverage of the Holland case."

Fonzi said Parkinson "connected with people, especially in the North County" and they believed him when he said that he didn't know about Holland's treatment and death in County Jail until after it took place.

Fonzi also believes in Parkinson's initiatives to help reform a broken system that all too often houses mentally ill inmates in crowded county jails when they should be in hospitals.

"A lot of people know Ian on a personal basis," said Fonzi, a former Republican committee chairman. "They know the work he’s done and the kind of person he is. They know him and trust him and they felt like Clayton used nasty campaign tactics, calling him a liar and things like that, and it backfired on them."

Ian Parkinson, sheriff, speaks at a sheriff's candidate forum at the Board of Supervisors chambers. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

But Nick Andre, whose political consulting company Kumani advised Clayton, said their analysis of the early returns showed voters in North County overwhelmingly voted for Parkinson, at roughly a 75 to 25 percent margin, while voters in San Luis Obispo and on the North Coast tended to favor Clayton, though at a slimmer margin of around 60 to 40 percent in some precincts (others were in the 55 to 45 percent range in favor of Clayton).

"That to me signals that different parts of the county hold different values," Andre said. "To me, it's inconceivable that people could vote for such a dishonest person who lied many times about the Holland case. But some people, whom I respect, said they held their noses and voted for Parkinson because they felt Clayton did not have enough experience."

Clayton, a private investigator who worked as a San Luis Obispo police officer for 13 years, made the Holland case his campaign focal point, saying he would investigate the handling of his custody and expose the facts, as well as reform the system.

Critics of Clayton said he didn't convince voters that he had the breadth of experience to handle the wide range of the sheriff's other duties.

"I believe he was qualified and would have done a fine job," Andre said. "I think you'll see from the remaining votes that Clayton will make up some ground in the race. He can't win, but the margin of victory won't be as much as the first returns."

Andre believes Parkinson covered up the responsibility of his office in Holland's death, saying he misled the public by stating that Holland was kept in a restraint chair because he was combative and refused to take medication, when jail records and surveillance video showed otherwise. He also contends jail staff didn't follow procedure as Parkinson stated.

ksby debate.jpg
Sheriff Ian Parkinson, center, and his challenger, Greg Clayton, left, met for a live televised debate Wednesday night at KSBY's studios. the debate was moderated by Carina Corral and Richard Gearhart. Courtesy KSBY

Andre said his team approached several potential candidates , some retired from law enforcement careers and some not, before the election who said they wouldn't run against Parkinson because it would hurt their careers or personal relationships due to his popularity.

"One officer told me that if he ran and lost, he'd probably have to leave the state of California to work elsewhere," Andre said. "That was before the Holland jail video was released. But I guess it's peer pressure, or whatever you want to call it, but in the law enforcement community you're not supposed to rock the boat."

Ed Waage, the county's Republican Central Committee vice chairman, said Parkinson has a "reservoir of support throughout the county," particularly after taking over the office from Pat Hedges, who was embroiled in controversies that included wiretapping one of his own employees.

"Ian took over from Hedges and left those problems behind," Waage said. "He turned things around and improved the sheriff’s ability to respond to challenges they face. It's tragic what happened to Andrew Holland, but it's a much larger problem than the isolated case. Mental health issues are not adequately addressed in the county. The sheriff was trying to do his best under the circumstances."

Waage credits Parkinson for taking steps, including hiring a medical officer for the jail, to prevent future tragedies.

The race was one of the county's most expensive. Together, both candidates raised more than $555,000 in campaign contributions, with Parkinson receiving at least $336,000 and Clayton at least $219,000, including both monetary and non-monetary contributions.

Parkinson said Tuesday that he raised more money in four months than he did over 22 months in 2010, when he was first elected against a field of seven candidates, including Joe Cortez, a retired Pismo Beach police chief, and Jerry Lenthal, a former District 3 county supervisor.

Tom Fulks, a Clayton campaign adviser, said the analysis of the sheriff's race should be tempered with the remaining votes, saying they could significantly change the final tally. He said Parkinson's fundraising made a big difference.

"It was money and name recognition," Fulks said. "Parkinson has two terms under his belt and, basically, unlimited sums of money... Voters (in the early returns) clearly made a choice and decided that these (jail death) issues weren’t important enough to make a change for them."

Nick Wilson: 805-781-7922, @NickWilsonTrib