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Election 2010: Breakdown of contested county races

on June 7, 2010

The top of Tuesday’s primary election ballot may not hold much intrigue for Richmond’s voters, 70 percent of whom are Democrats, but below the Republican-dominated battles for governor and U.S. senate, local voters should find plenty at stake in a number of county races.

Richmond voters will have their say in five county-wide elections, plus a special bond measure that would pay for repairs and upgrades to several of the districts’ public school campuses.

Still though, without much of a compelling statewide Democratic race, it remains to be seen how eager Richmond’s voters will be to turn out to the polls. In the last non-presidential year June primary, in 2006, only 37 percent of the county’s registered voters turned out. By comparison, in the 2008 November general election, 86 percent of the county’s registered voters filled out a ballot.

If no candidate receives over 50 percent of Tuesday’s vote, the top two finishers will compete in a November 4 run-off. (Click here to find your polling place, and visit the Secretary of State’s Web site here, or the League of Women Voters’ election site here for a more comprehensive look at all the ballot measures and races.)

County races for Controller-Auditor, Clerk-Recorder, and Schools Superintendent are being run unopposed. With that said, here’s a brief primer on the contested countywide races in Tuesday’s primary.

County District Attorney

The story: The three-way race to succeed Robert Kochly as county D.A. has been an expensive, and at times nasty affair. The D.A.’s office, marred by a rape charge leveled against one of the office’s sex-crimes prosecutors, and tainted by revelations of crude office behavior, is wide open – somewhat unusual for a seat that is generally passed on amicably.

The issues: Beyond the office’s scandals, the issue at play in the D.A.’s race appears to be how the new D.A. will deal with a possible surge of newly paroled inmates, should the state follow through on expected reforms to the prison system, and how to do it on the cheap. The D.A.’s office has been dealing with severe budget cuts since Kochly took over seven years ago. Nearly one-third of violent crimes in the county comes from the city of Richmond, so voters here clearly have a stake in choosing the person who ultimately chooses who to prosecute. (For more information on the D.A. race, click here.)

The candidates: Mark Peterson, a city councilman from Concord and a deputy prosecutor in the D.A.’s office; Dan O’Malley, a former County Superior Court Judge and son of longtime Contra Costa D.A. Bill O’Malley; and Elle Falahat, a private Danville attorney and former deputy D.A. in Ventura and Santa Clara counties.

County Assessor

The story: Incumbent assessor Gus Kramer, whose job it is to value the county’s real estate, is fighting a wave of bad publicity, due largely to a series of stories in the Contra Costa Times that suggested he has used his position to affect property tax rates on homes he or his family own. Add to that his apparent falling out with rival Bob Brooks over a promise not to declare for the assessor’s race until Kramer could repair his rep, and suddenly the assessor’s race has become a hot topic.

The issues: After years of hardball between the Assessor’s office and Chevron over the assessed value of the company’s Richmond refinery, a county panel that included Brooks ruled last fall that the county had over-charged Chevron by $12.6 million in property taxes. It’ll be up to the next assessor – whether Brooks, Kramer or a newcomer, to determine the value of Chevron’s digs – and in the process, determine how big a chunk of change it’ll send the county’s way.

The candidates: Kramer, the incumbent; Brooks, who is currently the vice chairman of the county Assessment Appeals board and an Antioch-based businessman; Ross Erin Butler, a former staffer for presidential candidate Bob Dole and current investment advisor; and John Nejedly, a Contra Costa Community College District board member.

County Sheriff

The story: Sheriff Warren Rupf is retiring after 17 years on the job, and has endorsed Concord Police Chief David Livingston to succeed him. Livingston is facing off against Sheriff’s Lieutenant Brian Kalinowski, and the race has gotten a little testy. Kalinowski, an Antioch city councilman who is trailing Livingston in fundraising so far (but who has the endorsement of the Democratic Central Committee and the Sherrif’s union) put out a mailer last month pointing to sexual discrimination lawsuits leveled against Livingston. For his part, Livingston has stressed that he, unlike Kalinowski, has never held political office.

The issues: Once again, the top issue here seems to be doing more with less. Like so many governmental departments, the sheriff’s office is suffering through major budget cuts. The sheriff’s department must figure out how to patrol the unincorporated areas of the county, handle the prison system and contract out services to Danville, Orinda, Lafayette and Oakley on the cheap.

The candidates: David Livingston, chief of police for Concord; and Antioch city councilman and sheriff’s lieutenant Brian Kalinowski.

District 1 supervisor

The story: Incumbent John Gioia, who has held the District 1 Supervisor position since 1998, and is currently the board chair, has run uncontested in both of his re-election bids in 2002 and 2006. The district includes Richmond, El Cerrito, El Sobrante, Kensington, Pinole and San Pablo.

The issues: Mister Phillips, the underdog in this two-way race, has framed a small-budget campaign around the theory that life in West County is no better today than it was in 1998, when Gioia was first elected to the board. However, as a political newcomer, Phillips, a Richmond High graduate, faces an uphill climb to catch Gioia, a popular politician with a wealth of key endorsements.

Candidate Mister Phillips, pictured at a peace rally in Richmond in March.

The candidates: John Gioia, the incumbent since 1998; and Mister Phillips, a private lawyer with an office in Pinole.

County Treasurer/Tax Collector

The story: Bill Pollacek, the county tax collector since 1998, is stepping down from his post, opening up an often-overlooked position in county governance. His hand-picked successor, Russell Watts, is facing a challenge from Karen Thibodeau, a former deputy finance treasurer in Washington state.

The issues: Besides, well, collecting taxes, the tax collector is responsible for investing the county’s money, as well as that of each of its school districts. The office carries some of the county’s most important fiscal responsibilities.

The candidates: Watts, the deputy treasurer for the past seven years; and Thibodeau, a risk advisor for banks from Walnut Creek.

Measure D

What it is: Measure D asks voters whether to approve a $380 million bond that would help pay for seismic upgrades, security improvements and other repairs to 11 of the West Contra Costa County Unified School District’s campuses. Homeowners would be charged roughly $48 per $100,000 of their home’s assessed value. (For more information on Measure D, click here.)

Pro: The measure would provide funds that the state cannot legally cut away from to repair several of the worst-off campuses in the district.

Con: With home values having fallen so drastically over the past two years, it is hard to know whether district homeowners will vote to charge themselves another property tax fee.

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