The Root of Monterey County Politics – Voices of Monterey Bay


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. 

And, as of Tuesday’s results, Nieto is flirting with an outright victory. If she manages to pull together just enough votes among the 29,000 ballots still to be counted by elections officials, she could exceed the 50%-plus-one-vote majority that would make her the new sheriff in town, preventing a November runoff. 

After the vote count on Tuesday, Nieto had captured 48 percent of the vote in a four-person race, compared to Moses’ 28 percent. The county registrar’s office indicated it would likely release its next count today.

Whether she can claim victory in the next day or so, 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 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.”

Medina is a Marina city councilwoman.

Depending on how the outstanding votes align in the coming days, Nieto and Moses may end up facing off in the November election. There might still 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.



Campaign literature from Monterey County District 2 Supervisors race

The sheriff’s race this year really isn’t an aberration. Monterey County has a long and robust tradition of voting against Big Money during its local elections. In fact, it feels like an anomaly when Big Money manages to win an election on the Central Coast.

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 Tuesday, Craig and Regina Gage are lagging well behind Church, who assured a spot in a November runoff with his showing at the polls. But Craig and Gage are neck and neck in the survival race for the inevitable November runoff. With the large vote dump expected from the Registrar of Voters’ office today, only 97 votes separate Craig from Gage, a nonprofit executive who received much of her own financial support from labor groups. 

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-plus votes counted in the 30th Assembly race, Carter had picked up a measly 5,347 votes. 

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