For the first time in eight years, people who live in District 3 will have a new representative on the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors when the clock strikes noon on Jan. 7.
That’s when the four-year term officially begins for whoever is going to replace outgoing County Supervisor Evan Royce, according to the official candidate handbook from the county Elections Office.
District 3 voters will select from a field of four candidates in the June 5 primary election that includes a former District 3 supervisor and college instructor, a corrections counselor, a military veteran and an elementary school teacher.
If one of the candidates doesn’t receive more than 50 percent of the vote cast in the primary, the two who received the most will face each other in a runoff on Nov. 6.
The district has a population of about 10,800 and covers an economically significant stretch of the Highway 108 corridor thanks to popular outdoor tourism draws like Pinecrest Reservoir, Dodge Ridge Ski Area and Kennedy Meadows.
Communities in District 3 include the township of Tuolumne, Twain Harte, and high-country hamlets like Mi-Wuk Village, Sierra Village, Long Barn and Strawberry.
Many of the residents are homegrown and have stayed or returned to raise their own children, while many others have retired to the area in search of a more peaceful and tranquil way of life.
For the past several months, the four candidates vying to represent the district have traversed the large and mostly undeveloped terrain to get their names out and hear about the needs that people say aren’t currently being met.
They have also sparred with each other at candidate forums, debates and in the press.
Here’s some of what each say they’ve seen, heard, and learned throughout the race that has at times gotten more personal and contentious than others underway in the county (by the order in which they entered the race).
Laurie Sylwester says she’s often contemplated mounting a return campaign for the past 15 years since leaving office in 2003.
Sylwester, 61, of Tuolumne, served a single four-year term starting in 1999 and didn’t seek re-election after being hired to teach ceramics and art history at Columbia College, a job she had coveted for 26 years.
“I’ve felt this would be my only opportunity,” she said of the position at the college that opened up following the retirement of a former longtime instructor.
After leaving the board, Sylwester said she continued to receive calls throughout the years from people in District 3 looking for her to help them navigate the system.
Sylwester decided to run for office again last year after attending public meetings about a proposal to build a multi-million-dollar community center in Tuolumne with federal funding for places affected by the 2013 Rim Fire.
“When I saw there wasn’t representation for the district (at the meetings), I felt it was the right time,” she said.
Sylwester’s message since launching the campaign late last year is that she will dedicate all of her time to the position and would retire from her teaching career if elected.
She believes the challenges in front of the county now are greater than those when she previously served, in particular when it comes to the economy.
Something that took Sylwester by surprise in this campaign was the difference in the way people engage with the political process than when she first ran for office.
Sylwester said people now seem to be more polarized and quick to pick a side without considering the other options, a shift that political experts would say extends far beyond the county’s borders.
That’s also the reason why this time Sylwester said she has been less inclined to publicize her endorsements.
“It causes rifts in the community,” she said. “I have support from Republicans, Democrats and nonpartisans, but I know people could get grief if they endorse me.”
Sylwester also says she hasn’t aggressively solicited donations to her campaign, though she’s managed to receive more than $10,000 in contributions from supporters.
Rather than staking out firm positions on certain issues, Sylwester said she’s tried to listen to what the people want while she’s out meeting with them on the campaign trail.
“It’s important for me to meet with people,” she said. “Some have urged me to write about certain issues, but you need to keep an open mind.”
Fixing the district’s crumbling roads is the issue that people have told her is most important to them, second only to the ongoing crisis of tree mortality affecting the timber-rich region.
One of the strengths that Sylwester says she possesses is the ability to do the necessary research and work with the various entities to accomplish results.
As an example, Sylwester has frequently pointed to her role in working out an agreement between the county and Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians during her last term as supervisor that led to the development of the Black Oak Casino Resort in Tuolumne.
Many have credited the casino with helping the town stay economically viable following the decline of the logging and mining industries.
She also said she wants to promote a more collaborative approach to working with state and federal agencies that can help on key issues.
“We rely on state and federal money,” she said. “I’m concerned that when we posture against the state, we might make our conditions worse.”
On Jan. 9 of this year, Anaiah Kirk addressed the Board of Supervisors for his first time at a special public meeting in the Sonora Opera Hall.
The topic of the meeting was whether the county should consider allowing the commercial cultivation of cannabis, which Kirk believes would have a devastating effect on quality of life.
“I don’t want to see our way of life changed,” Kirk said in an interview Wednesday.
Kirk, 33, of Twain Harte, has said throughout the campaign that he would fight against any attempt at legalizing the cannabis-growing industry in the county if he’s elected.
He believes his clear and consistent views on the subject will help propel him to victory in June, even if some in the district may disagree with him.
“It’s not that I’m not listening to the other people,” he said. “I’m listening, but at the end of the day I think it’s fair that people know where I stand.”
Royce, meanwhile, has served as the loudest voice on the board in favor of allowing some industry as a way to generate revenue for the county and apply downward pressure on the black market.
Kirk said he consulted with his wife and two children before launching his campaign after being unable to convince Royce to change his position on cannabis cultivation.
“I had no plan on running for office, but once I noticed we were going down that path, I knew I had to stop this trainwreck from happening,” he said.
Kirk pulled papers to run just days before Royce announced he would not seek a third term in office.
Royce, 35, said he decided not run for re-election because he could no longer juggle the responsibilities of being a supervisor, growing his construction business and spending quality time with his family and friends.
Kirk has been criticized by both Royce and some of his opponents for saying he would keep his job as a supervising correctional counselor at Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, a position that pays him nearly twice as much as the $50,000 salary he would receive as a supervisor.
Royce publicly questioned Kirk’s ability to effectively do both jobs at the same time in an op-ed published in The Union Democrat.
“I don’t know why he went personal,” Kirk said of Royce’s op-ed. “I voted for Evan twice, I think he’s a great guy, but I just don’t agree with his views on marijuana cultivation.”
Since February, Kirk said he’s spent two to four hours knocking on doors each evening after he gets off work during the week. He then goes home, spends some time with his family, and continues work on his campaign before going to sleep.
Kirk said he believes being an elected supervisor while holding down a full-time job is something voters will view as a strength as opposed to a weakness.
“Really, people don’t care if I have a job,” he said. “A lot of people think it’s a real bonus to have a young person who is working and who is in government.”
Kirk has received the endorsement of District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer, though he’s presented himself as an outsider in local politics.
At a candidate forum last month, Kirk accused his opponent Merv Cancio of being part of the “good old boy network” because of Cancio’s work on local political campaigns over the years.
“I didn’t run Karl’s campaign,” Kirk said. “I did nothing for him and all he’s done for me is say he likes who I am, what I stand for, and that I do my research.”
Aaron Rasmussen previously saw himself running for county supervisor four to eight years from now.
However, the surprise announcement by Royce that he would be leaving office when his current term ends sped up the 34-year-old Iraq War veteran’s plans.
“I’m hoping that District 3 will carry the legacy of being the young guy on the board,” Rasmussen said in reference to Royce being younger than all other sitting supervisors by more than 20 years.
Rasmussen, of Tuolumne, said another catalyst for him deciding to run was a dispute over the management of Tuolumne Veterans Memorial Hall.
The hall is managed by Tuolumne Park and Recreation District under a contract with the county, but Rasmussen believes that veterans in the community are the rightful keepers.
While the county’s Veterans Committee manages the use and rentals of the Veterans Memorial Hall and Military Museum in Sonora, that responsibility falls to TPRD when it comes to the hall in Tuolumne.
Rasmussen, who serves as commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4748 in Tuolumne, said the dispute surfaced through his efforts to erect a 9/11 memorial on the grounds of the Tuolumne Veterans Memorial Hall.
“The biggest thing that really upset me about the process was that there are people out there who think the veterans memorial halls are community halls now,” he said.
Rasmussen grew up in Tuolumne with dreams of serving his country. He joined the U.S. Army following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.
After returning from war, he and his wife, Monica, lived in Riverside before moving back to Tuolumne in 2013 following the birth of their son.
Rasmussen has run a nontraditional campaign in which he has avoided knocking on doors, making phone calls to potential voters, sending out mailers, running newspaper or radio ads and posting campaign signs.
Most of the roughly $2,000 that Rasmussen said he’s spent so far has gone toward filing fees and advertising on social media.
“Social media has been my greatest achievement,” he said, adding that one of his posts had a reach of over 7,000 people. “I’ve been able to spend minimal amounts of money and reach thousands of people in the county.”
One of Rasmussen’s campaign promises is that he will donate 27 percent of his salary as supervisor to charity if he’s elected in protest of the raise the board gave to itself in an equal amount last year.
Rasmussen has also said he would be in favor of slashing funding from the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau and shutting down the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Center if it fails to break even.
Most of the bureau’s funding comes from 25 percent of the revenue the county collects from a 10-percent tax on the rates charged for short-term rentals.
A recent report from the California Travel and Tourism Commission stated that travel spending generated $253 million and supported 2,480 jobs in the county last year.
With the county facing a $5 million budget deficit that could grow to $12 million in two years if left unchecked, Rasmussen said he believes the money that the bureau receives can be put to better use.
“I’m not going to cut something in favor of the visitors bureau,” he said. “You’re going to lay off these employees, but you’ve got a million bucks going over here to the visitors bureau? That’s not me, I’m never going to do that.”
Being a schoolteacher was always more important to Merv Cancio than his contributions to the successful political campaigns of local elected leaders.
Cancio, 59, of Twain Harte, said he instructed candidates that he helped over the past 20 years to never acknowledge his involvement publicly.
“I wanted to be known only as a teacher because that’s the persona I’ve always had and enjoyed and wanted to protect,” he said.
Over the years, Cancio said he’s worked on the campaigns of Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele, Superior Court Judge Donald Segerstrom, Assessor-Recorder Kaenan Whitman and Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin.
Cancio said he views his political work, which has all been voluntary and unpaid, as a civic duty to help get “good people elected to government.”
“Good people in government means good government,” Cancio said.
Cancio’s involvement in local politics made him a target at a candidate forum last month when Kirk made the suggestion that he was part of a “good old boy network.”
Cancio said he was caught off guard by the comment at the time, but he didn’t want to “re-litigate” the matter when asked about it.
“It’s water under the bridge,” Cancio said.
For 34 years, Cancio has worked as a teacher at Curtis Creek Elementary School.
Cancio was originally from the Philippines and moved with his mother and siblings to Big Oak Flat at age 11 after his father immigrated to the United States and earned his teaching credential under a federal program that was in place at the time.
He’s lived in Twain Harte for the past 27 years where he raised his son, Garyn, 27, a former U.S. Army Ranger who’s training to become a private helicopter pilot.
Cancio was the last to enter the race after Royce decided not to run again and said that he’s enjoyed his time at the forefront of a campaign as opposed to working behind the scenes.
Putting himself out there for scrutiny is something that Cancio referred to as the “cost of making a difference.”
“I’ve gotten to the point in life where I’m done being a teacher with little kids and it’s time to put myself in the forefront,” he said.
Cancio said the most important tenet of his message is his focus on building relationships among various stakeholders in the community to find common ground on solutions.
He likened government to a child learning how to read in that progress occurs slowly over time as opposed to all at once.
“I teach kids how to read and it’s a little bit at a time,” he said. “They start learning through little sounds and simple words.”
One aspect of Cancio’s campaign that’s unique from the others is that it’s largely financed by himself and his wife, Rose.
The couple contributed more than 80 percent of the $18,150 he raised through late April.
“I’m paying my own campaign finances, which means I’m not beholden to anybody,” he said.
Cancio is excited about a number of developments for District 3 that he would like to be involved with if elected, including the development of the proposed community resilience center in Tuolumne.
However, he’s concerned about the county becoming older and gentrified due to the lack of young, working families choosing to stay. He believes affordable housing and good paying jobs are keys to turning the trend around.
“It’s great that retirees and seniors are coming here to enjoy the peace and beauty of our community, but it’s not sustainable,” he said. “It doesn’t take a genius to solve the problem, it takes a team.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.