Much has happened in the races for the District 1 and District 5 seats on the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors, as well as the world, since the March 3 primary election.
A global pandemic that has devastated the local, state, and national economies; civil unrest across the United States over long-standing racial tensions; a grueling budget process that resulted in deep cuts to some popular county services; and a two-term incumbent’s unexpected decision to drop out are among the events that have contributed to one of the most contentious and closely watched election seasons in recent memory.
The primary saw newcomers to the local political scene finish ahead of the incumbents in both races, but whether they can repeat that success in the Nov. 3 general election remains to be seen.
County supervisors are elected to four-year terms and receive an annual salary of $51,958 plus health and retirement benefits.
Decisions made by the five-member board can have a profound impact on the future direction and priorities of the county with regard to land-use planning and fiscal policy.
All four candidates who are actively running for the position spoke to The Union Democrat by telephone over the past week to reflect on the campaign and what has changed since the primary.
District 1 includes the City of Sonora, Apple Valley, most of Shaw’s Flat, and areas south of Big Hill Road and Phoenix Lake, while District 5 includes Jamestown, Columbia, Tuttletown, Gold Springs, and surrounding areas.
District 1 hopeful David Goldemberg is facing a well-funded opponent in the general election, just not the one he expected after finishing with the most votes in the primary.
Incumbent County Supervisor Sherri Brennan, who has represented the district since 2013, announced on Aug. 19 that she was ending her campaign for a third term without giving a specific reason for the surprise decision.
Brennan was the second-place finisher in the three-person primary with 1,515 votes, or 37.8 percent. Goldemberg finished on top with 1,932 votes, or 48.2 percent, though it was just shy of the required 50 percent plus one vote needed to win the seat outright.
The top-two finishers advanced to a runoff in the general election before Brennan decided to drop out, though her name will still be on the ballot.
Enter Cody Ritts, who officially announced in early September that he would run for the seat against Goldemberg as a write-in candidate and has since received support from many who were previously backing Brennan.
Campaign finance documents that cover through Sept. 19 show Ritts amassed $18,448 in total donations since late August, including $1,627 out of his own pocket and $3,782 in non-monetary contributions, of which he had spent $10,044.
Goldemberg said Brennan’s exit and Ritts’ quick emergence took him by surprise, but he’s continued to campaign as he has since announcing his bid in the summer of 2019.
“I made the decision right after the primary that I was going to continue campaigning hard as I have been all along,” he said. “When Sherri Brennan discontinued her campaign, that didn’t change my mind about what I was going to do.”
The COVID-19 pandemic that took hold within a couple of weeks after the primary has made Goldemberg’s preferred style of door-to-door campaigning more difficult, but he said he’s used Facebook, his website and mailings to stay connected with voters.
Goldemberg, 66, of Sonora, is a retired firefighter who spent the final years of his career as a deputy chief for Cal Fire at the agency’s headquarters in Sacramento, where he managed statewide projects with multi-million-dollar budgets.
The key issues of Goldemberg’s platform are fire safety and budget transparency given the potential threat communities in the county continue to face from wildfire, in addition to the ongoing fiscal woes within county government.
“The county had a lot of financial problems before COVID came to visit us,” he said. “People want to see a good recovery, they want to see the jobs come in and businesses thriving, and also want to have culture in their community as well.”
Goldemberg has been subjected to attacks due to support he’s received from Tuolumne County Indivisible, a local branch of a national organization formed after the election of President Donald Trump to help promote progressive causes and candidates.
A website was launched in August by a person or group of people who have kept their identity concealed to portray Goldemberg and other local candidates supported by members of Indivisible as radical leftists, though he described it as slander and lies.
While being supported by members of the group, Goldemberg said he’s never accepted a formal endorsement and doesn’t support all of the positions promoted by the national Indivisible organization such as defunding the police.
Goldemberg said he switched his registration from Democrat to no-party preference in 2018 after becoming dissatisfied with partisan politics and has voted for people from both parties in the past.
“My campaign is built on people from all walks of life and party preferences,” he said. “I’ve got Republicans, Democrats, and NPP who are all strongly part of my team and helping me in this effort because they all want the same thing. They want to see our county healthy and see it improve.”
Ritts, 40, is a Sonora native who has lived in the district for the past four years with his wife and two children, ages 5 and 8. He works as the IT director for Calaveras Telephone based in Copperopolis and currently serves on the Sonora Elementary School District Board of Trustees.
The tenets of Ritts’ platform are removing biomass from forests and woodlands to reduce the threat of fire and working to get the county’s ordinances in line with the newly updated General Plan, both of which he believes would help to create family-wage jobs.
“I want to be a good steward of our future,” he said. “I don’t want drastic changes for the county, but I would like to see economic prosperity.”
To make up for lost time since entering the race late in the game, Ritts said he’s been knocking on doors, handing out mailers, and speaking to groups such as the Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment, Association of Realtors, and Tuolumne County Business Council.
Ritts said he’s a registered Republican but has friends on both sides of the aisle. He’s looked at the website attacking his opponent and other candidates, electees and elected officials, but doesn’t know who’s behind it and was turned off by what he viewed as partisan rhetoric.
“It’s fascinating to me there’s so much fighting over it,” he said. “I think it stems from national politics, and also think it’s really easy on social media.”
With regard to the coronavirus crisis, Ritts said he believes that the county can’t afford to stay shut down for a prolonged period of time and should focus on taking measures to protect people who are at a high risk of complications to allow more businesses to operate as normal.
Ritts said he doesn’t believe the county should thumb its nose at the state, which has the ultimate authority of the types of restrictions currently in place, but should work with other rural counties to lobby for exceptions.
“I do think we should be pushing back if some of these things don’t make sense for rural counties and joining with our other rural counties to say some of these rules might make sense in the cities, but not in rural areas where there’s less population,” he said.
The race for the District 5 seat between Jaron Brandon and two-term incumbent County Supervisor Karl Rodefer has perhaps become one of the most heated local contests in the current election.
Rodefer initially announced in July 2019 that he would retire from the board when his second term expires in January next year, but he filed to run in the primary just days before the cutoff in December 2019 after former candidate Steve Arreguin dropped out of the race.
Brandon finished in first place in the primary with 2,038 votes, or about 49 percent, to Rodefer’s 1,429 votes, or about 34.4 percent, though he, too, was just shy of the mark needed to win the seat outright and avoid a runoff.
While much of Brandon’s campaign messaging since the primary has focused on Rodefer’s record in office, Rodefer has centered his around differences in ideology by pointing to Brandon’s background and past political affiliations.
“My opponent realizes he’s not a uniter who brings people together or has a compelling vision for the future,” Brandon said. “Instead, he’s run the most negative and vitriolic campaign in Tuolumne County history.”
Brandon, 28, of Jamestown, is a Tuolumne County native who graduated from the University of California, Merced, with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government and served for a time as president of the student body.
After college, Brandon lived in the Bay Area and worked for a tech company before deciding to quit and move home in September 2018 to help his father run his music store in East Sonora.
One of the criticisms Rodefer has levied against Brandon is his switching from being a registered Democrat to no-party preference before filing to run. Brandon acknowledged the switch, but argued that he’s always been a moderate and centrist.
“Back in student government, I was probably one of the strongest voices in favor of law enforcement,” he said. “I put thousands of dollars of student fee money in the budget to support law enforcement at UC Merced.”
Brandon’s policy initiatives if elected include improving housing by supporting housing diversity such as auxiliary dwelling units, providing job opportunities through promoting entrepreneurship and improving access to high-speed broadband internet, and finding long-term funding solutions for the county’s budget.
One of Brandon’s criticisms against Rodefer was his support for the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, which was dissolved after a Grand Jury report that criticized the agency’s oversight and use of public funds.
“Karl’s role was a proverbial government rubber stamp on a slush fund for economic development,” he said. “To this day, he says there’s nothing wrong that happened, he’s taken no responsibility, and threatened the city council and all people who said they were legitimate problems."
Brandon said he’s got supporters from both sides of the political spectrum who are backing his campaign despite the recent attacks by anonymous websites and doesn’t believe groups like Tuolumne County Indivisible should be vilified and demonized by elected officials.
“For Karl, someone who moved here, to tell a person who grew up here and is – as many others are at their core – a part of this community that they are the outsiders is itself a huge problem,” he said.
Rodefer, 69, of Columbia, said much of the blame for the negative turn the race has taken lies on Brandon’s supporters who have made personal attacks online against him and his wife, Jo, a member of the Columbia Union School District board.
“I am very sad that our wonderful community has gotten to the point that we have the same kind of divisive, destructive vilification of each other as we see on the national level,” he said. “To the extent that they attack me, I’m going to defend myself. You don’t do that by crouching and covering our head. I’m going to punch back.”
The reasons that Rodefer said he jumped back in the race before the primary election was because he fears what could happen if the wrong people get on the board.
Despite the criticisms, Rodefer said he’s proud of his record over his nearly eight years in office and pointed to his support for law enforcement by not reducing the budget for the Sheriff’s Office and helping move forward the construction of the county’s nearly completed $51 million new jail.
“The sheriff is a big chunk of our budget,” he said. “The temptation is there. You can get a lot of money out of the sheriff’s budget, while the other budgets are like squeezing raisins to get grape juice. I mean, you’ve got a national defund the police movement going on. I don’t want that to make its way to Tuolumne County.”
Rodefer said people should go to the anonymous website attacking Goldemberg, Brandon and others for evidence of Brandon’s progressive history despite characterizing himself as a moderate.
“I don’t like that my opponent won’t stand up and admit to his past and who he is,” he said. “I’m out there, I’m a proud conservative.”
While the office of county supervisor is nonpartisan, Rodefer argued it’s not apolitical and that he represents a conservative philosophy as a lifelong registered Republican and conservative who formerly served as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and managed budgets for the Department of Defense.
“I’m not giving this election away,” he said. “It’s too important. This is a watershed moment. This is the most important election in the history of Tuolumne County since I’ve lived here, and that goes back to 2003.”
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 768-5175.