McShane faces expensive climb Also, Marina duplicity and the silence of the sheriff


By Royal Calkins

Correction: This column initially misreported that McShane had received a $2,000 contribution from RBC Wealth Management. He did not.

There’s some deep thinking going on in the Salinas Valley today, deeper than the $1 million-plus wells growers are drilling everywhere between Castroville and King City.

The cause for reflection is Tuesday’s balloting for a new Monterey County supervisor in District 4, that awkward district that runs from Marina into Salinas. Wendy Root Askew, the candidate from the coastal side of the district, finished in first place with some 45 percent of the vote. It was a strong showing for Askew, who hopes to replace her boss, Jane Parker, as the District 4 supervisor. Though it remains a real possibility that the large pile of uncounted votes could propel her to an outright victory, there probably will be a runoff in November. The magic number for an outright victory in a primary election is 50 percent plus 1 vote.

Her chief opponent, Salinas City Council Member Steve McShane, did OK, with around 36 percent of the vote. Then again, maybe he didn’t do OK, considering that he outspent Askew almost 2-1 and many of his supporters demand a return on their investments. Those are the same people who spent a bundle on former Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue’s losing race against Parker four years ago, leading Donohue to go negative at the end of the campaign. It backfired.

McShane ran to the left for this campaign, trying mightily to appeal to the progressives and environmentalists who supported Parker first and Askew now. He may have fooled some folks, but almost all of his support comes from agriculture and other business interests in the Salinas Valley.

Someone the other day called McShane a Trojan horse, hoping to be let into the west side of the district so he can help his friends in agribiz and development do what they will.

The McShane campaign flooded social media with smiling Steve at every save-the-whales event he could find, every march for social justice,  union and even Democratic Party gatherings. He was hoping that most voters don’t know he came up through the Republican ranks and became a Democrat only just now.

Here’s where the deep-thinking comes in. McShane’s well-heeled supporters need to decide soon whether to start writing checks again. For at least some of them, this election wasn’t about good government.  Their thinking was this. Help give the Salinas Valley a 4-1 majority on the Board of Supervisors and watch those general plan amendments and building permits roll in. Watch the supervisors continue loosening regulations on the county’s large cannabis industry and ignore the need to control all that well drilling before the basin below the farms and subdivisions runs dry. Two outnumbered supervisors can protect their districts and make a difference on some votes. One outnumbered supervisor might as well stay home.

The question now is whether those who wrote checks to McShane will write more. He spent more than $400,000 for the primary. He’ll need at least that for the general. Making the question mark larger for his supporters are two things. Given the configuration of the district, it may not be possible for him to win in November. And there are those two current investigations by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

One FPPC inquiry focuses on allegations that local business-based political action committees illegally coordinated their activities with the campaigns of county Supervisors John Phillips and Chris Lopez. McShane isn’t directly implicated in that one though he has received donations from the political action committees and, until recently, always received big support from one of the PACs targeted by the investigators, the Salinas Valley Leadership Group.

The other FPPC investigation involves donations to McShane and others from the Salinas Valley Building Exchange PAC, run by Salinas City Council Member Christy Cromeenes. The FPPC wants to know whether the PAC was used to mask the identity of some donors, a campaign no-no.

McShane received more than $30,000 in late contributions in the final weeks of the campaign, compared to almost nothing for Askew. But some of those contributors are sophisticated enough to crunch Tuesday’s numbers  to calculate whether he has a chance in the fall. None of those late contributions came from Seaside or Marina, the core of the district.

Reform, yes, but not for me

Speaking of money in politics, it was nice to see the Marina City Council decide earlier this month to put a cap on campaign contributions. Just $200 per contributor, which seemingly will take the big money out of Marina politics. But a couple of the council members who supported the new restrictions managed to disappoint along the way.

This had already been reported by the Weekly, but it was only a short Squid Fry item so you might have missed it. Here it is again as a courtesy to you, the busy reader.

The day before the $200 limit went into effect, Council Member Lisa Berkley sent an email out to her supporters urging them to beat the deadline by making larger contributions to Council Member Gail Morton, who is seeking re-election in November.

“Today is the last day for campaign contributions before Marina’s campaign finance reform ordinance goes into effect,” Berkley wrote. “Funds are necessary for printed materials, mailers and yard signs. She needs to raise $5,000 by today.”

Limiting campaign donations seems like such a good idea, but it can have lots of unintended consequences. First, it helps incumbents by making it harder for challengers to put on campaigns serious enough to offset the name identification that comes with incumbency. The limits can also give an advantage to the well organized, businesses and others that can round up lots of $200 contributors and even reimburse them. Not that anyone would ever try such a thing.

Morton is being challenged by Cristina Medina Dirksen, who was a Monterey Herald reporter until she and her firefighter husband became the parents of triplets a little over a decade ago.

Color me disappointed

I’m writing this on Wednesday afternoon and hoping it will be out of date by the time this edition of Voices goes online on Thursday. It’s about the important story I wrote last week about the death of Rania Ishak, who was hit by a train in Salinas’ Chinatown last August.

Ishak was a 42-year-old mental patient and addict. She previously lived with her closely knit family in Marina but had been living in Chinatown on and off for years. That morning, she was arrested by Monterey County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Marquez, probably for trespassing. He took her to the county jail in Salinas but the jail staff told him she was suicidal, obviously high on drugs and in need of hospitalization instead of jail.

Tragically, Marquez simply let her go instead. Within an hour or two, she was hit by a Union Pacific train at the railway bridge that crosses North Main Street.

Unfortunately, the coroner’s report written by the Sheriff’s Department concluded the death was an accident rather than a suicide but omitted any information about Ishak’s arrest, her mental state or the decision not to hospitalize her.

Here’s why I’m disappointed. The detective who wrote the coroner’s report referred me to the sheriff’s administration and the sheriff’s administration would not respond to me. No explanation about why Ishak wasn’t given the help she needed. No explanation for why the arrest and the hospital referral weren’t mentioned in the coroner’s report. No comment about why the family wasn’t told about those things. He has failed to comment as well.

The coroner’s report calls Ishak Mexican though she is Egyptian. Maybe someone at the Sheriff’s Department thought no one would notice how her case was mishandled.. But she came from a solid, local family — professors, a teacher, a nurse, people who cared deeply for Rania and who had spent the last decade doing everything they could to help.

Disappointed? Here’s why. Up until now, the Sheriff’s Department has remained under its cone of silence and the local press corps, what is left of it, seems to be fine with that. No follow-up stories. Apparently no calls pressing for answers.

So you can still prove me wrong, press corps. For once, I’d like to be shown up.

I understand that the news outlets of Monterey County are hard-pressed to get the next paper out, to air the next broadcast. I used to be in that biz and it was a tough job even before the ownership class started taking a slash and burn approach to newsroom budgets. Now it’s becoming an almost impossible job.

But Rania Ishak deserves better. Her family deserves an explanation. And the taxpaying public deserves to know whether what happened was standard practice or an anomaly. We all deserve to know anyone’s going to prevent a repeat performance.

So, how about this, curious readers? How about calling Sheriff Steve Bernal and asking him about it. Or maybe you know a county supervisor or someone at the County Administrative Office and can get some answers. Apparently I’ve been unfriended by the county brass. Maybe someone else can get some answers.

What happened to Rania Ishak shouldn’t happen to anyone.

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Royal Calkins

About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. For the past couple of years, he has produced a local news and commentary blog, the Monterey Bay Partisan. He can be reached at

2 thoughts on “McShane faces expensive climb Also, Marina duplicity and the silence of the sheriff

  1. There’s only one thing I want to know about Steve McShane. Several years ago, when he finally stopped putting that godawfully bright beacon light atop his tower at the highway 68 nursery, was it because
    1. He finally grew some common sense and realized what a spectacularly bad idea it was?
    2. He actually got cited (and hopefully stuck with a huge fine!) for creating a major driving hazard?
    I frequently drive into Salinas on 68 from Spreckels and whenever it was night during Christmas season that beacon was so bright I simply couldn’t see ANYthing ahead of me on the road. In order to avoid seeing the light it was necessary to turn my head so far that I wouldn’t be looking at the road. Sun visors were completely useless.
    Anybody with that little common sense has no business being in a position of authority!

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