Primary considerations

A look at the local candidates and measures facing voters—and whom and what we endorse

So much for crossover voting and trying to sabotage the other party’s races. After two truly “open” California primary elections, the incumbents realized that giving voters total choice could be disastrous for political longevity. Thus we are pretty much back to the old system, which more or less forces you to vote for only those candidates within your party—unless, that is, you reregistered in another party or as “decline to state.” In the latter case, you can choose which party’s primary to vote in when you arrive at the polls.

Be that as it may, we have some dandy local county elections that are “nonpartisan,” which means, wink-wink, that party politics don’t matter at this level. After the fireworks we’ve had with the Butte County Board of Supervisors over the past half-year, we would expect voter interest to be higher than normal. And we certainly hope that, no matter what side of the debate you’re on, you’ll exercise that very precious right to vote.

If you fail to do so, don’t come crying to us later.

County offices

Perry Reniff vs. Scott Mackenzie

As much as we think he’d like to, Sheriff Scott Mackenzie just can’t ignore Perry Reniff.

And the race between the two has been virtually impossible for the rest of us to ignore, too. And who, really, would want to? It’s got drama, pathos, seething animosity, allegations of corruption and rumors of an impending coup against Mackenzie by the department’s rank and file.

Who needs movies when you can watch these two bicker?

And bicker they have, for months.

Reniff, currently a department sergeant who served as the No. 2 man under former Sheriff Mick Grey’s administration, has brought forth example after example of cases of what he considers administrative blunders and missteps by Mackenzie—mainly budgetary. He’s pointed out inconsistencies in invoices for rented helicopters, noted that Mackenzie has overspent his budget every year since elected in 1998, that the department is understaffed with street deputies (a fact Mackenzie doesn’t deny), and that those positions have remained vacant while Mackenzie has hired a slew of new support and administrative personnel.

Reniff has complained that under Mackenzie the department has appeared more interested in the high-profile, headline-grabbing busts of foothill marijuana gardens than in the more dangerous and violently protected meth labs that plague Butte County.

Mackenzie says he’s “tried to take the high road,” ignoring Reniff’s complaints. He’s overspent his budget, he says, simply because the budget he inherited is inadequate. But it’s obvious that Reniff’s campaign is getting under Mackenzie’s skin. After a particularly pointed debate at the Republican Central Committee meeting on Feb. 14, Mackenzie barely managed to shake Reniff’s hand before stalking out of the room in a huff.

Reniff is obviously relishing watching Mackenzie squirm. While the two men have equal experience in law enforcement (they’ve both worked at the department for about 30 years), their personalities are worlds apart. Reniff worked his way up to assistant sheriff under Grey and was essentially running the 131-deputy department whenever Grey was out of county. Reniff looks like the cop he is; suspicious by nature, lean and weathered, he’s a straight-talker and seems much more relaxed in this his second campaign for sheriff.

Mackenzie, on the other hand, was a longtime middle-management sergeant stuck in that position years ago with apparently no hope for promotion save a run for sheriff. He was assigned to patrol the Paradise area when he ran against Reniff for the first time in 1998. He’s round, polished and slick, delivers a great speech, can cry on cue and seems to savor campaigning.

He ran on the platform that he would be a breath of fresh air to a department that had stagnated under Grey’s administration, essentially attacking his boss’ management in the process. He proposed a dramatic management shift in his administration, which demoted Grey’s three assistant sheriffs—including Reniff and the popular Larry Estes, who was ambushed and shot to death last summer in the mountain town of Inskip—and installed a pyramid-style management team, with himself at the top. He won the race by a relatively wide margin, demoting Reniff and the two other assistant sheriffs right away. Soon after, Reniff filed a claim complaining about the treatment and was transferred out of the department for a one-year assignment with the District Attorney’s Office.

But while Reniff is 80 percent cop and 20 percent politician, Mackenzie seems to be 20 percent cop and 80 percent politician. Reniff is a cop who’s proven to be an effective administrator. We have nothing but controversy bordering on embarrassment with Mackenzie at the helm.

We strongly recommend Reniff for sheriff.

Board of Supervisors: District 2
Jane Dolan vs. John Merrifield

Since when is experience a liability?

That’s a good question, given the context of the race for the District 2 supervisor’s seat.

Jane Dolan, in office since 1979, has worked during her tenure for major land-use and planning decisions that, we would argue, have made life in Butte County better for nearly everyone. She was the major organizing force behind the Greenline and is known for her almost nit-picky meeting preparations (the background materials given to the supervisors for each meeting are voluminous and chock-full of confusing government-speak).

Her opponents have become so tired of her effectiveness and popularity within her district that last summer they adopted a reckless plan to drain her support and oust her from office. At last count that plan has cost the county more than $100,000 and soiled the good name of a number of county officials.

By contrast, her opponent, John Merrifield, has set about to make his lack of experience his most attractive attribute. A self-professed businessman “who believes that profit is not a dirty word,” Merrifield has shrugged off even the most basic of environmental land-use restrictions. He has said he “personally wouldn’t protect [meadowfoam or fairy shrimp] at all. It’s amazing how we’ve come to a point where we protect these things over people and business. … You think a farmer in Brazil has time to worry about ecosystems?”

Merrifield has acknowledged that his low-budget campaign ("I like to say that I’m supported by my friends and my feet") is a long shot against Dolan’s well-funded and well-organized re-election effort. He has a lot of complaints about Dolan and discusses few of his own approaches to local government.

Still, he has said that it’s “his turn” to represent Chico on the board. We disagree and fully endorse Dolan.

Board of Supervisors: District 3
Steve Bertagna vs Mary Anne Houx

Along with Dolan, Butte County Supervisor Mary Anne Houx has been the target of an ill-advised scheme by the three-member board majority to redraw her district in hopes of diluting her support. Like Dolan, Houx is a veteran supervisor who does her homework and comes to meetings well prepared. She is a moderate conservative who has established important contacts in Sacramento and knows how to get things done.

Bertagna has served on the Chico City Council since 1996, and though he tends to vote with the conservative council majority, he has occasionally shown a streak of independence. We applaud that and in fact endorsed him two years ago when he ran for re-election. But given the circumstances surrounding this election, we feel anything less than a strong endorsement for Houx equates to a stamp of approval for the horrendous and ethically questionable effort by the board majority and its backroom advisors to neutralize the two women on the board.

Houx is tough, open-minded and not an ideologue. We like Bertagna but wish he had sat this one out. We strongly urge a vote for Houx, in part to send a message that sleazy political games will not be tolerated in this county.

District Attorney
Dale Rasmussen vs. Mike Ramsey

Mike Ramsey’s been in office since the late 1980s, and in that time he’s amassed a lot of political power—maybe too much. He reportedly holds some sway over the county’s judges, which if true is unhealthy, though not uncommon in other counties. He’s a grandstander and knows how to play up to and use the press. We know from experience. He’s been challenged for the job only twice. When that happens, rather than campaign Ramsey simply gets himself on TV or the front page of the daily by issuing official statements about particularly disturbing crimes or hand picking high-profile trials to prosecute.

Even when he’s not running for re-election, Butte County’s DA likes to get on TV or the front page of the daily by making a photo-op out of habitual check bouncers or parents who fail to pay child support. And he and his office have dragged their feet over implementing Prop. 215, the medical-marijuana law passed four year ago.

These tendencies are exactly why Dale Rasmussen decided to run for DA. He doesn’t care for Ramsey’s tactics and believes everyone should be treated with some modicum of dignity. Rasmussen is a decent man who has won some Prop. 215-related battles here in Butte County.

But while we applaud Rasmussen’s campaign and echo some of his criticisms of Ramsey, we must give our endorsement to the incumbent. As we said, Rasmussen is a decent man, but he is not cut from the cloth of a prosecutor. Such a person must be hard and emotionally cold to a certain extent, as he or she must deal not only with minor and victimless crimes, but the heinous stuff as well—child abuse, rape and other violent transgressions. We’d rather Rasmussen remain a criminal-defense attorney and, for now, that Ramsey stay on as DA. We also strongly urge Ramsey to take a few pages from Rasmussen’s campaign promises.

Chris Baker vs. Ken Reimers

Ken Reimers first ran for and was elected over opponent Ken Fulton for county assessor in 1994. At the time incumbent assessor Ted Cleveland said, “Much has been made of the fact that Ken [Reimers] is the only appraiser seeking this position. Being an appraiser, just like the ability to put up signs, is not a prerequisite to being a good assessor. I have not personally done an appraisal since I have been assessor.”

Now comes Chris Baker to challenge incumbent Reimers. Baker has served in the Assessor’s Office for more than nine years—five and one-half as an appraisal specialist. Reimers says that’s about six months shy of sufficient training and that Baker has no experience supervising an office. Leaving behind what Cleveland said of the relative importance of appraisal experience, by the end of the year, when Baker would take office if elected, he would have Reimer’s prerequisite of six years’ experience.

We’ve talked with Baker and like his demeanor, intelligence and openness. He is an armed-services veteran and has a degree in public administration and a law degree attained through night classes while working full time in the Assessor’s Office.

We also talked with Reimers, who boasts his office has done more work with fewer and fewer staff members over the years. Reimers owns a number of residences in Chico that he rents to students. He’s been accused of performing less than stellar maintenance on those properties, and in fact one burned to the ground two years ago, reportedly due to a faulty stove, leaving five students homeless. This is not a good mark for a man who is ultimately responsible for assessing property values in the county. We say give Baker a shot at the job.

Don Illa vs. Candace Grubbs

This is easy. We can’t find any reason to criticize Grubbs for the job she’s done over the years she’s been in office. And the way she handled herself after becoming a target of the infamous Board of Supervisors majority makes Grubbs look even better in our eyes. She is a consummate public servant. Illa, on the other hand, is an anti-government ideologue and co-founder of Butte County’s short-lived militia. Vote Grubbs.

Butte County Superintendent of Schools
Don McNelis

When popular, 12-year Superintendent Jerry McGuire announced he’d be retiring and leaving the top job at the Butte County Office of Education, some worried that no one of comparable experience and dedication would step forward. Don McNelis rose to the occasion and is running unopposed.

He is the inside man, having been an assistant superintendent at BCOE since 1998. There, he supervises such services as juvenile court and community schools, migrant education, special education and the Regional Occupational Program.

McNelis said there’s not much he’d change about the way things are handled at BCOE; he’d just like the opportunity to keep things running smoothly. “The No. 1 issue has always got to be student learning,” he said.

Before BCOE, he was a principal and later, superintendent, in Durham for 18 years. He knows what local schools need, and while he may be a little wet behind the ears politically, we confidently recommend making Don McNelis superintendent.

State offices

State Senate, 4th District

Here Republicans have a choice between two Northstate assemblymen who are scrambling for other jobs in the face of term limits. Sam Aanestad of Grass Valley is an inflexible conservative Republican who endeared himself to many in Butte County when he soundly defeated David Reade four years ago. Aanestad is a slick politician who has the big-money support of HMOs and the state dental association.

Dick Dickerson of Redding is a former cop and decidedly unslick politician. Aanestad has criticized Dickerson for voting for the Democratic governor’s budget. In our mind, that is how real politics should work—compromise and flexibility. Otherwise nothing gets done and the citizens suffer. If you’re voting in the Republican primary, we say vote for Dickerson.

On the Democratic side, there is only one candidate, Marianne Smith of Nevada City. We’ve talked with Smith and are very impressed. She is funny, smart, engaging and realistic. Even though this is a decidedly Republican district, Smith could surprise a lot or people come the general election if she can get her message out. Libertarian Robert Underwood rounds out the card.

Assembly, 2nd District

Here the Republicans have four people vying for the nomination: Chico businessman John Byrne; Pat Kight, the mayor of Redding; Woodland Councilmember Dan Ryhal; and Biggs rice farmer Doug LaMalfa.

Byrne, an accountant and sometime lecturer at Chico State University, is a decent fellow whose first dip into the pool of politics has been a chilly one. LaMalfa is a product of the David Reade school of politics, which means vindictive, aggressive and less than honest. LaMalfa is a big recipient of government farming subsidies and a critic of environmental protection. He is, in the words of a man wiser than us, a perfect example of “big hat, no cattle.” He is also David Reade’s vehicle back to power in Sacramento, where he once served as the late Assemblyman Bernie Richter’s chief of staff. LaMalfa has the support of Reade’s cronies, including Butte County Sheriff Scott Mackenzie and Butte County Supervisor Curt Josiassen. Kight is the only Republican candidate who believes in a woman’s right to choose. Thus we give him the nod among the Repubs.

Only one Democrat is running in this contest: Doug Kinyon of Cottonwood. Also standing alone is the Libertarian candidate, Pete Bret of Redding.Assembly, 3rd District

U.S. Congress

2nd District

Republicans get the choice between property owner and Butte College history instructor Dan Ostrander and Rick Keene, Chico councilmember and criminal-defense attorney. Local progressives would like to see Keene off the council and sent to Sacramento, where he would languish in relative obscurity as a member of the minority side of the Assembly.

We find Ostrander troubling. We like his support of the Esplanade House and the Boys & Girls Club but are concerned by his apparent disregard for building codes and city staff. He runs a radio ad criticizing Keene for defending those accused of crimes, which is pretty much what a criminal defender does and the one thing we like most about Keene. The irony here is that, judging from court records, Ostrander has been in the courtroom almost as often as Keene. We uncovered 24 cases of Small Claims Court appearances, civil matters and traffic court hearings.

Vote Keene, we say.

There is only one Democrat in this race—Stuart King, who is employed as a painter at Chico State University. King should prove a worthy candidate come fall.

This year the Democrats have two candidates, Raymond G. Hennemann of Redding and Mike Johnson of Chico, vying to see who can lose to entrenched incumbent Wally Herger in the general election this fall. Criticize us if you wish, you Democrats of eternal optimism, but defeating Herger in this district is no easy task. Even though redrawn, the district remains heavily Republican. We estimate that going one-on-one with Wally is akin to sending a 50-and-over Chico Area Recreation District basketball team up against the Sacramento Kings. Ain’t gonna happen. Still, just to be good sports we endorse Hennemann for the fall slaughter, er, election.

Hennemann is all about protecting seniors, both in health care and Social Security, two issues he says Herger has failed in miserably. We hear Johnson, whom we tried to contact, is all about developing nuclear power. Not in this town, pal. If you’re a Republican candidate, hey, it doesn’t matter. Herger is a nice man and says funny things. A few weeks ago, during a speech from the floor of the House, he told the speaker, “Mr. Speaker, I am an environmentalist.” Uh, yeah.