by Rosemary Edmiston

Incumbent Sheriff Dennis Lewis, left, and challenger Gary Holder.


Set aside the rhetoric and the biggest difference between the two candidates for Humboldt County sheriff is personality.

Incumbent Sheriff Dennis Lewis is reserved -- some say, guarded -- exceedingly polite and difficult to get to know even after almost four years in public office. Unlike his challenger, Gary Holder, he answers questions about his candidacy with few words.

Holder, a former sheriff's lieutenant who was forced to medically retire under Lewis' watch, is a talkative bear-of-a-man. Everywhere he goes he thrusts out his hand to shake and passes out tin stars that read "Holder for Sheriff."

Each man believes the other has poor people skills and is not cut out to run the county's largest law enforcement unit.

Queried regarding Holder's management style, Lewis said: "Well, I've never worked that much with Gary. I do remember him sometimes being a very confrontive, angry person."

Holder, a Garberville resident who says he was well-liked when he worked for the department, suggests that deputies working under Lewis are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal.

"Under this administration, if you're given an order you do it. And if you don't do it you have an Internal Affairs investigation," he said.

Holder, in fact, was the subject of an inner-department investigation one month after Lewis took office. It was his first brush with the IA unit in his 25 or so years on the job.

The allegation that he was "discourteous" to someone who was lodging a criminal complaint, he said, "was bogus."

That incident, as well as questions surrounding Lewis' role in his medical retirement, are obviously bothersome to Holder.

"I've heard it before," Lewis said of the accusation that he may have had a hand in Holder's forced retirement.

"My response to that is there's nothing political about a heart attack. The retirement was not decided by me. It was decided by the county Risk Manager's Office and the Personnel Department."

Holder, 53, was diagnosed with a blocked artery and underwent angioplasty surgery in 1996. Since then he said he's tried to stay away from what he calls police food -- coffee, doughnuts and hot dogs -- has lost weight and quit smoking. Before declaring his candidacy, he checked with his doctor and received clearance.

Lewis, 50, describes his management style as hands-off.

"I would say that I strive to let people do their jobs with a minimum of interference from me," said the Arcata resident.

Regarding the record of his first term in office, Lewis said that he has made progress in reorganizing the department and rebuilding morale, but admits there have been some rough spots, especially in the last six months.

Lewis is still under fire for his approval of the use of pepper spray on the eyelids of passively resisting protesters -- he is a defendant in a civil rights lawsuit that has gained international attention -- and he has had to repeatedly explain his role in a car accident on Highway 101 last fall (see The Journal's April edition).

Looking back, Lewis said, "They have been the fastest, most hectic four years of my life."

The biggest challenges, he said, have been personnel problems and the department's perpetually inadequate budget.

Lewis took over from former Sheriff Dave Renner, who faces embezzlement charges stemming from allegations he misused a special department fund. During that campaign, Lewis promised to wear a uniform, respond to calls and put more deputies on the street. The first two promises were easier to keep than the third.

Lewis blames budget constraints, vacancies and turnover but he says he is making progress and has just filled four vacancies.

Holder says the problem is Lewis and accuses him of not fighting hard enough to get more money from the supervisors.

"He has just kind of rolled over, from the way I understand it anyway, and has given positions up without fighting for them," Holder said.

"At one time there were more deputies," Lewis acknowledged, "but I'm limited to the allocation in the budget." And, he said, he refuses to adopt the confrontational manner of his predecessor, Renner, when it comes to dealing with the Board of Supervisors.

"I think that you can gain more with a little dignity than you can gain by (verbally) assaulting people," he said.

Lewis also pointed out that one reason his staff is smaller is due to layoffs following the budget crisis of 1992, two years before he took office.

A former Arcata Police Department lieutenant and an investigator for nine years in the District Attorney's Office, Lewis' surprising 1994 victory over Renner, a 12-year incumbent, left the department with loyalties divided. (Renner had been backed by District Attorney Terry Farmer and his wife, Supervisor Bonnie Neeley, while Lewis had the backing of three other county supervisors.)

Lewis further upset the status quo when he reorganized the hierarchy, eliminating the position of undersheriff, replacing a captain's position with a civilian and reclassifying two other captains as deputy chiefs. And he eliminated the positions of lieutenant at the Hoopa and Garberville substations, something Holder said he may want to reverse.

Lewis calls the changes positive and may have found himself headed for an easy re-election had it not been for the troubles of the last six months.

Holder, who now works as a private investigator, did not think the reorganization was necessary. He was a staunch supporter of Renner, working on his campaign and publicly endorsing him. In fact, he has been referred to as a "Renner clone."

"I think Dave Renner was a good sheriff. I think I'll be a better sheriff."

But it isn't Renner that Holder wants to emulate.

"Gene Cox was my hero," he said.

According to Holder, the late sheriff, who was gunned down while responding to a call for help from a friend, was a good manager who brought the department together.

"Gene had has finger on the community, the county. People liked him. People respected him. He knew what was happening. You just didn't get away with anything, and I mean I really respected him for that. And he was a nice man," Holder said.

He recalled an incident as a young deputy when he and a colleague were racing their cruisers on U.S. Highway 101 near Orick while on duty.

"We thought, well, if we ever got caught we'd tell people we were chasing a speeder. But we couldn't do that because Gene caught us. And needless to say he had a little talk with us and neither one of us ever did that again," he said.

Far away from the problems that confronted Cox' department of the '70s is the use of pepper spray on activists. Holder says he does not support swabbing the eyelids of nonviolent protesters, while Lewis stands by his decision to use the chemical agent.

When asked how he would handle environmental demonstrators who resist arrest, Holder did not have a firm answer.

"What I would have done, you know, it's hard to say. ... Would I have (used pepper spray in that manner)? I don't think I would've."

Following the public outcry over the pepper spray incidents, some residents have called for establishing a citizens review board where complaints could be filed and investigated.

Holder favors formation of a review board, while Lewis said, "I don't personally believe there's a need for them."

"I think people need to have a sounding board at least," Holder said. "And I firmly believe that the sheriff needs to be accountable to somebody."

Lewis said he knows such a board would be opposed by the department's peace officers' union and he backs members rights of confidentiality.

"I don't think that there's a need given the fact that we obviously have means of responding to complaints of impropriety. We have our own internal affairs investigation process. There's the grand jury process and there's the civil and criminal court processes," he said.

In a few weeks Humboldt County voters will decide which of the two very different law enforcement styles will be most suitable for the next four years.

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