by ARNO HOLSCHUH
TO SAY THAT SHERIFF DENNIS LEWIS HAS A TOUGH FIGHT on his hands for re-election is an understatement. He has made very few public appearances, has not been actively soliciting support from public figures and has raised a war chest just a fraction the size of his challenger's. Chief Deputy Gary Philp, on the other hand, has been campaigning hard -- holding fundraisers, garnering the support of law enforcement organizations and exhibiting his cherubic smile to the public as often as possible.
A less charitable assessment of the sheriff's race is that Lewis is about to be booted. How is this happening to a man who was swept into office in 1994 and re-elected just four years ago?
Lewis came into office as an outsider, quietly promising to clean up the mess left by outgoing Sheriff Dave Renner, who ended up in prison for misappropriating county funds. An investigator in the district attorney's office at the time, Lewis had never worked in the sheriff's department and he didn't owe anyone any favors.
Now, eight years later, that lack of deep roots may be his undoing. Philp, a department veteran of almost 30 years, has gathered the endorsement of all of the county's major law enforcement organizations. Particularly poignant is the endorsement of the Humboldt Deputy Sheriff's Organization, a group Lewis led until his election in 1994.
Lewis isn't particularly fazed, however. "What a candidate needs to achieve is name and face recognition -- and I have both," he told the Journal last week.
Technically speaking, he's right. During his tenure, the sheriff has been one of the most visible elected officials in county government. He was often in the spotlight, whether it was because of his controversial decision in 1997 to daub pepper spray on the eyelids of timber protesters to facilitate their arrest or last year when he refused a judge's order to return confiscated medical marijuana to a patient.
What is unclear is how much that recognition will help him. After all, his fame stems as much from controversy as achievements.
Philp has the advantage of carrying a lower profile through the last eight tumultuous years. This is hardly fair -- Philp admits he was involved in the controversial decision to use pepper spray, for example. Deputies painted a liquid version of the burning chemical on the eyelids of protesters, a scene that was rebroadcast for days on national television. And Philp is a codefendant in the resulting civil case. Lewis, however, is the lightning rod.
The sheriff's race may ultimately be decided on intangibles --and leadership style. Lewis stands steadfast by his record, saying he has zero regret over his pepper spray decision, for instance. Philp said he's ready to talk publicly once the court case is settled.
"Leadership is the key to everything," Philp said in an interview last week. "I think the sheriff is doing the best he can with the abilities he possesses. But for this organization, I do not think the abilities are strong enough."
What does leadership mean to Philp in concrete terms? Setting new priorities in personnel allocation with a greater emphasis on remote areas. Opening up channels of communication to the community. Setting firm guidelines for how much medical marijuana is too much.
Lewis said Philp is promising leadership he can't necessarily deliver. The two have worked together closely over the past eight years, and one aspect of great leadership is knowing when to leave people alone, Lewis said.
"I like to hire the best people I can, train them as best I can and allow them to do their job. Certainly that requires oversight, but a good investigator requires virtually no assistance. Just sit back and let them do their job," he said.
Lewis said he is deliberately running a low-key campaign and not asking officers to take sides because it is disruptive to day-to-day operations of the office.
"People are putting more emphasis on campaign issues than work issues," he said.
He emphasizes his own work ethic and he said he adheres to a strict separation between job and campaign, even declining election-related phone calls made to his office.
Does he think Philp has been running on county time?
"No, I've been very generous in granting his time-off requests," Lewis said.
Candidates for Sheriff
ATTORNEY by ARNO HOLSCHUH
PAUL GALLEGOS HAS ISSUES. THE PRIVATE ATTORNEY and candidate for district attorney has the medical marijuana issue, the meth issue and the issue of too many small-time cases filling up the courts. He's using those issues and $15,000 of his own money to mount an energetic campaign, promising an end to the legal follies of current District Attorney Terry Farmer.
"I don't even think those are issues," responded Farmer, who has held his position for nearly 20 years. His overarching theme is that these aren't really issues at all; they're just ways of getting at a deeper question: "Whether or not I've done the job I've been hired to do."
According to Farmer's way of thinking, he's has done the job well. He has the support of his staff and supervises the prosecution of more than 1,000 felonies and 5,000 misdemeanors every year. He said he has handled thorny issues like medical marijuana and timber protesters as well as anyone could.
So what are these issues? Top on Gallegos' list is the proliferation of "garbage cases," small-time crimes and overcharged cases that he said are clogging up the court system.
Garbage cases, said Gallegos, come in two forms: Cases that would lose if actually brought to trial and cases that are overcharged for the crimes committed. The idea behind filing both kinds of garbage, he said, is to get the defendant to plead guilty, netting a conviction without having to go into court.
"Probably 95 percent of the cases that are filed plead guilty. In fact, there are a lot of cases that are filed on the assumption they will plead guilty, because of the time and expense involved in defending them. But these cases shouldn't even be filed in the first place, because if they were challenged, they would lose," Gallegos said. Better yet: If they weren't filed at all, it would save the county time and money.
"The easy answer to that is Mr. Gallegos is uninformed," Farmer said. The district attorney said all decisions are based on what crime was committed -- nothing else. There is no expectation at the outset that a plea will be reached, he said.
Another area Gallegos is hitting is medical marijuana. His line is that Farmer has set unfairly low limits on how much pot a person can have and that police need to stop barging into people's homes to rip up their medicinal plants.
Here's where confusion sets in. Farmer concedes that his limit --plants or two pounds dried pot -- is arbitrary. But Farmer's office is not responsible for the enforcement activities of sheriff's deputies. In fact, Sheriff Dennis Lewis has publicly stated he won't abide by any specific limits, preferring to let his deputies decide how much pot is too much. Those deputies have destroyed gardens that would have been in line with the prosecution policy. The result has been cases Farmer has declined to prosecute.
Gallegos replied he was sure that getting the sheriff on board was just a matter of saying marijuana isn't high priority.
What is high priority to Gallegos? Violent crime and hard drugs, especially methamphetamines. All that time and energy, he said, is being wasted on garbage and should be directed toward meth.
"I can tell you this much, not enough is being done," he said.
But that's about as specific as it gets. Ask him what he plans to do, and he replies, "Establish clear-cut, obtainable goals." Like what sort of goals? "The clear-cut goal is we have to step on this." What does stepping on it mean? "Stepping on it means getting rid of it." How are you going to get rid of it? "I do not have a specific solution, but I can tell you it is something we need to solve."
Farmer responded that while meth is a problem his office takes seriously, the next step in the community's response would probably have to be in the form of enhanced treatment options. "Just trying to deny people access to drugs has been a failure. We really need to emphasize treatment."
So much for the issues; now for the mudslinging. Both Farmer and Gallegos have accused each other of trying to manipulate the issue of Farmer's health. Farmer has multiple sclerosis and uses crutches or a scooter to get around. Gallegos has publicly said he doesn't want to make an issue of Farmer's health; Farmer insists that Gallegos is in fact trying to insinuate he can't do the job for health reasons.
It all started when the Times-Standard printed the following sentence in a Dec. 13 story about Gallegos: "Farmer, who was first elected to the office in 1982, is now confined to a wheelchair by a medical condition and rarely tries cases in person."
Enraged, Farmer called the late Times-Standard reporter, David Anderson. Farmer said he believes Gallegos wanted Anderson to raise the issue of physical ability. Gallegos denies it.
"You don't even need arms or legs to do this job at all," Gallegos said. "You need a brain, a mouth and the commitment to use them. This is just another one of these friggin' whisper campaigns."
Candidates for District Attorney
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