The Root of Monterey County Politics Grassroots campaigning prevails in off-year primary election

| ANALYSIS

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect election results following the count of about 29,000 more ballots by the Registrar of Voters on Friday.

By Joe Livernois

I scored a place at La Merienda again last Saturday. The event, commemorating the birthday of Monterey, is always festive and fun: People in costume, strolling mariachis, day drinking and an abundance of politicians.

La Merienda is a high-society event traditionally held in early June, just before primary elections, when every public gathering like La Merienda is thought to be elevated by the presence of political animals. This year was no different. As usual, celebrants wandered through a gauntlet of public servants working the barbecue pits and the serving lines. The politicians were eager to please. (This year, one of the political players, a candidate on the Tuesday ballot, committed the unpardonable faux pas of being too obvious by covering himself with his campaign junk while he served up paella.)

Conspicuously missing from the can’t-miss La Merienda was Tina Nieto, the Marina police chief seeking to replace Sheriff Steve Bernal in this year’s elections. While all the wannabe front-runners were showing up at all the “right places,” like La Merienda, Nieto always seemed to be a no-show. 

Where were her commercials? How can she expect to win if she doesn’t attend La Merienda? How can she expect to make a respectable showing when she was being outspent almost 3-to-1 by sheriff’s Capt. Joe Moses, who seems to be the candidate of choice for business, industry and the old-boy network? 

Instead of La Merienda on Saturday, Nieto got herself invited to a couple of back-yard graduation parties in Castroville. They were big parties, the sorts of events for occasions that naturally draw extended families, and networks of friends and neighbors. 

After the vote count Friday — and after getting badly outspent in the campaign — Nieto had captured 49.7 percent of the vote in a four-person race, compared to Moses’ 26.5 percent. Assuming there are no more votes to count, Nieto is 227 votes shy of the 50-percent-plus-one-vote majority she would have needed to prevent a November runoff. The county registrar’s office released its latest count today. More than 12,000 votes are reportedly left to count.

Nieto’s impressive performance in the primary came after being outspent by a large margin by the Moses juggernaut — and after skipping the can’t-miss events.

Nieto’s volunteer campaign consultant, Cristina Medina, said Nieto’s showing is proof that hard work by a good candidate with little money can prevail over a flawed candidate with tons of money. She described the Nieto campaign in a text: “No tv. No radio. Targeted ads (social). Texting, calling, walking and tell(ing) 20 friends … to tell 10 friends! One supporter pulled over 400 votes for us doing that.”

Anything can happen in the sheriff’s race with so many ballots left to count. Nieto’s margin expanded considerably after the Friday count, at a rate that could mean victory if the trend continues. But if Nieto and Moses end up facing off in the November election, there will be lots of campaigning and lots of money to raise — and spend — during the next five months. 

If that happens, one of the candidates will continue to campaign at backyard barbecues, while the other will continue to accumulate a princely sum to pay a top-notch Berkeley consultant to run a campaign with TV ads nobody watches and mailings nobody reads. Because, let’s face it, the Big Money movers and shakers in Monterey County still haven’t figured it out. They still believe they can buy elections, even after they get their asses handed to them time and time again. 

It’s been that way for the 30 years I’ve been attending La Meriendas.

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Campaign literature from Monterey County District 2 Supervisors race

The sheriff’s race this year really isn’t an anomaly. Monterey County has a long and robust tradition of voting against Big Money during its local elections.

This season’s big supervisorial race is yet another example. Salinas Mayor Kimbley Craig outspent the rest of the field of six candidates in a key race for 2nd District Monterey County Supervisor. The 2nd district represents North Monterey County, including the northern edge of Salinas. Craig amassed a war chest of more than $260,000 for the primary campaign, mostly from the usual Big Money folks. That’s compared to the $160,000 raised by Glenn Church, the Christmas tree farmer. Yet Craig lags far behind Church in the vote count. (Church’s total includes a $20,000 loan he made to his campaign.)

Disclosure: Church’s wife is a co-editor of Voices of Monterey Bay.

At the end of the day Friday, Craig and Regina Gage are lagging well behind Church, who assured a spot in a November runoff with his showing at the polls. He did not take enough votes to win the race outright. Craig and Gage remain neck and neck in the survival race for the November runoff. With the large vote dump by the Registrar of Voters’ office today, Craig is only 65 votes ahead of Gage, a nonprofit executive who received much of her own financial support from labor groups. Results from the final 12,000 ballots will determine the second-place finisher.

Church estimates he personally knocked on 7,000 doors during the primary campaign, and he said he’ll probably show up at those potential voters’ doorsteps again between now and November. He figures that’s how a candidate wins elections in Monterey County.

Meanwhile, one of the most egregious money-wasting political endeavors ever witnessed in Monterey County was found in this year’s 30th District Assembly race. The 30th takes up a long strip of coastal territory from San Luis Obispo County to the Monterey Peninsula. In that race, some shadowy group of realtors, apartment owners and ranchers spent more than $1 million in a non-authorized campaign to destroy Dawn Addis, a Morro Bay councilwoman (as well as another candidate in another Assembly race). The shadowy group called itself Fighting for Our Future, which notes in the small print of the dozens of brochures it sent to voters that it is not authorized by any candidate.

Addis certainly had her own support from another shadowy special interest — a group willing to spend hundreds of thousands to promote charter schools. But what made the Fighting for Our Future campaign so odd — weird? — is that its campaign propped up Zoë Carter, a candidate with a track record so inadequate that she finished fifth in a five-person race for Monterey City Council just two years ago. 

As of Thursday, with 62,000+ votes counted in the 30th Assembly race, Carter had picked up a measly 5,347 votes. 

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

One thought on “The Root of Monterey County Politics Grassroots campaigning prevails in off-year primary election

  1. Monterey County will always be sending the same people to represent us. Lots of “Daddy’s Boys” being guaranteed election, and anyone without a D next to their name has little to no chance to represent, no matter how much better they may (or may not) be. Talking Heads said it best.. Same as it ever was, Same As It Ever Was

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