Battling the Blanas machine

Bret Daniels’ biggest political asset? He’s not John McGinness.

Bret Daniels is waging a poor man’s campaign for Sacramento County sheriff.

Bret Daniels is waging a poor man’s campaign for Sacramento County sheriff.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Remember that story about David and Goliath? Imagine that David couldn’t get his slingshot to work, and Goliath stomped his guts out. Then David came back and got his guts stomped out again. So, when David comes back for another rematch, you almost can’t bear to look.

So goes the story of Bret Daniels (the David in this tale of woe) versus the political machine of Sacramento Sheriff Lou Blanas and his protégé, Undersheriff John McGinness. So it goes, unless there’s a surprise ending at the polls on June 6.

McGinness has the name recognition, $200,000 in the bank and the backing of Sacramento’s political establishment.

Daniels has guts to spare and the support of activist groups who say the sheriff’s administration has been a disaster for people of color.

“The sheriffs have been kicking butt on the minority community for years,” explained the Rev. Ashiya Odeye, with the Jail Reform Coalition—an umbrella organization of activist and church groups pushing for civilian oversight of the jail and the sheriff’s department.

“Daniels is our only alternative.”

Blanas’ tenure as sheriff has been marked by a series of crises—each drawing more media attention and public ire than the last. In 2002, it was a string of suicides in the county jail that brought Blanas’ management of the department under intense scrutiny.

Over the next three years, Sacramento County paid millions to settle a series of lawsuits against Blanas’ department, including over $1 million for suits alleging excessive force and $15 million for a class-action suit against demeaning and illegal strip searches inside the jail. Most recently, more allegations of police brutality inside the jail—accompanied by some disturbing jailhouse video—have prompted increasingly urgent calls for some sort of civilian oversight to monitor the department.

And in February, an independent audit found the sheriff’s department does not properly document incidents of use of force against inmates, that the jail is understaffed and that the whole department suffers from a lack of “critical thinking.” Those are just the initial findings. The independent auditor’s full report is due in late June, after the election.

Whenever the local media has brought these problems to the public’s attention, or has been perceived as too unflattering of the department’s policies and procedures, the sheriff’s department under Blanas and McGinness has reacted with hostility.

Following an investigation by SN&R into the treatment of transgender inmates at the main jail, SN&R was banned from interviewing inmates “until further notice” by then jail commander Jim Cooper—because the newspaper printed photos of the transgender prisoners provided to the paper by their attorneys.

In some instances, requests for interviews and basic information have been denied unless written on company letterhead and sent by mail. When the most recent rash of jail brutality lawsuits surfaced, the department tried to impose similar restrictions on The Sacramento Bee. Perhaps fearing an expensive and high-profile lawsuit from the deep-pocketed daily paper, the department changed course. Today, SN&R reporters are sometimes able to get answers to questions within a week—sometimes not.

(Likewise, McGinness has not responded to any of several phone calls and e-mails over the last month asking him to participate in this story.)

Although the suicides, the lawsuits and the allegations of mismanagement all happened on Blanas’ watch, Daniels said his opponent, McGinness, shares responsibility for the department’s troubles.

“John [McGinness] can’t step away from all that and say, ‘Oh, those are Lou’s policies,’” Daniels said, adding that while Lou Blanas is the political face of the sheriff’s department, it’s John McGinness who runs the department every day. “It’s been John’s management failure that has led us to where we are today.”

Most of Daniels’ support is coming from advocates of civilian oversight for the sheriff’s department—the kind of independent review body that is standard in major urban areas in California but has been resisted by Blanas.

Blanas frequently dismissed the idea, saying that an election every four years is all the oversight the public needs.

Today, McGinness is reportedly negotiating what form an oversight body might take with the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.

Daniels says there’s nothing to negotiate. “It’s a crock. You don’t need permission from the union.” Daniels said he supports an oversight body similar to the one in Los Angeles County that was initiated by the L.A. sheriff. “There, six people have keys to the jail system. They can come and go as they please.”

Daniels said he also would take a close look at how the jail is staffed. “You can’t look at those tapes and not see that something is seriously wrong,” Daniels said, adding that he’s concerned that shifts in the jail booking area are too long and too frequent. “You just get sour; you forget how to treat human beings after a while.” He also has supported taking the jail out of the control of the sheriff’s department altogether.

Even with the problems plaguing the Blanas administration, his handpicked successor, McGinness, is still far and away the establishment candidate. He boasts the endorsements of several area legislators and county supervisors and has taken in more than $230,000—much of it from big real-estate developers, like Angelo Tsakopoulos and Christo Bardis, who supported Blanas during his time in office.

What Daniels does have in his corner are a few passionate groups who have been loudly calling for reform of the department and are hoping Daniels can shake things up.

Efren Gutierrez is among Daniels’ supporters. Gutierrez is director of the Sacramento Chicano Consortium. Earlier this year, he resigned in frustration from Blanas’ Citizen Advisory Board (CAB). Gutierrez said he was not aware at the time that the CAB’s director, Clyde Raintree, was receiving $75,000 a year as a paid consultant. When allegations of brutality inside the jail broke open, and when Gutierrez felt his own suggestions for dealing with mentally ill suspects were being ignored, he quit. “It was a total farce, a front for the sheriff,” and not truly intended to influence the sheriff’s policy, Gutierrez said.

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also has been demanding reform of jail operations. The organization doesn’t endorse political candidates, but chapter President Betty Williams said she’s frustrated that the race isn’t getting more attention among communities of color.

“I am going to let my community know that there are two people on that ballot. They already know what one of them is about. But I don’t think they know enough about the other.”

As a sheriff’s deputy, Daniels ran against Blanas in 1998. But in 2000, Blanas fired him, for allegedly using a police computer to look up a personal acquaintance while on vacation in Arizona. Daniels fought the charges and eventually was cleared of the accusation by the county civil-service commission.

But his termination stuck because the department determined that he had lied to internal-affairs investigators about the incident. “They asked me all these minor, really picayune questions. I was never asked a question where I said yes when the answer was no,” Daniels said. “They just threw as much as they could against the wall, to see what would stick.” Daniels appealed the firing, but the Superior Court sided with the sheriff’s department. “And a 20-year career went down the drain,” Daniels said.

Daniels jumped back into the sheriff’s race in 2002, and Blanas defeated him easily. Daniels was more successful getting elected as a city-council member and mayor in Citrus Heights, where he served until 2005. He’s been working for the Transportation Security Administration at the Sacramento International Airport since then.

The firing has been something of an albatross for Daniels. But it doesn’t faze his supporters. “Daniels had the guts to step up. So we’re going to roll up our sleeves and see what we can do for the man,” said Gutierrez. McGinness might have overwhelming advantage, he said, “but let’s at least give him a scare.”