A lot has happened since my last column ran in January, before I took a sabbatical to join several local political campaigns.
Now that the June 5 primary election is over, it’s time to reflect on lessons learned and messages received — or not.
For the first time in memory, mental health awareness and jailhouse attitude reform are common topics of discussion around kitchen tables and at coffee klatches and brew pubs across the county. The inherent connections between mental health, addiction, homelessness and our criminal justice system are out of the closet — and our personal and civic responses to those issues are being openly talked about and debated. Let’s thank the primary election campaign for that.
Yes, there’s a long way to go before anyone can claim San Luis Obispo County’s political and business elite are enlightened — that they’ve found compassion for those less fortunate than themselves. Still, there’s movement.
Locally, there was no great flood of political change. No “blue wave” was evident here or anywhere in California, despite the strong showing of Democrats nationwide in response to Trump’s continued affronts. Local Democrats and progressives did generate excitement for their chosen candidates, but that didn’t materialize into significantly larger voter turnout than in prior off-year primary elections. Perhaps the wave will happen in November, when the General Election ballot will be shorter, simpler and offer more defined philosophical choices. We’ll see.
Second District Supervisor Bruce Gibson was easily re-elected to his fourth term. He received more than 59 percent of the vote as currently counted. That’s a big margin by any standard, especially against two challengers.
My take: Overwhelmingly, District 2 voters want Gibson to continue representing their environmental and coastal protection values on a dysfunctional Board of Supervisors controlled by a majority of doctrinaire Tea Party ideologues.
Given that two of those ideologues actively recruited and sought to fund candidates to oppose Gibson, this is a sweet victory. Yes, I served on the campaign.
Because Gibson earned more than 50 percent of the vote, he took the seat outright, avoiding a runoff in November, which might have given Republicans a shot at the seat. They’d have had more resources after being bogged down in the primary with Democrats unexpectedly challenging for sheriff, district attorney, two judgeships and the District 4 supervisor’s seat.
I wasn’t involved with the South County race between incumbent supervisor Lynn Compton and challenger Jimmy Paulding, but I watched with as much excitement as anyone. As of this writing, the vote is still too close to call. Regardless of the outcome, D4 voters sent a clear message: Compton’s style of rank partisanship and weak grasp of public policy are not widely respected among South County voters.
If she ends up winning re-election, she’ll have no mandate to continue catering to campaign donors and known political supporters and treating everyone else like hostiles. If Paulding wins, he’ll need to bridge a deep political divide in the community and assure Compton’s voters he intends to represent them as much as those who supported him.
My take: It’s possible for an insurgent to credibly challenge the status quo in any part of SLO County, no matter the party registration numbers. It can be done, as Paulding has shown. That fact can’t be ignored by current District 5 supervisor Debbie Arnold, up for re-election in 2020.
As for county Superior Court races, the lesson learned is that if you challenge a sitting judge or court commissioner, you’ll probably lose. I was involved in court commissioner Tim Covello’s race for the open Superior Court seat, and he soundly defeated challenger Ilan Funke-Bilu. Ironically, Funke-Bilu, a career criminal defense attorney, got lots of Republican support, perhaps for his spirited but unsuccessful defense of local Republican operative Edie Knight, convicted of 2016 polling place electioneering.
Finally, the race for sheriff and district attorney: I worked the campaigns of Greg Clayton for Sheriff and Judge Mike Cummins for DA. Both honorable and brave men were soundly defeated.
It would be easy to snark that voters are OK with 12 jailhouse deaths in five years, including the horrific death of Andrew Holland, and that they don’t mind the incumbent sheriff and his staff blaming everyone but themselves, and lying about the timeline of events, and having a general culture of indifference among jail staff toward human suffering and mental illness.
But I don’t think that’s the message voters sent. I think voters want things fixed at the jail, and they want “the system” to do it by allowing it a second chance.
My take: The status quo had better fix things or there will be reckoning. The FBI is still investigating those jailhouse deaths. While voters may have given the incumbents a pass, the FBI may not. And that will be the final word.
So onward we go to November. Since I have no dogs in that hunt, I’ll be sticking around here.
Liberal columnist Tom Fulks serves on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee. His column runs every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Andrea Seastrand.