by Leslie Layton & Natalie Hanson
posted May 29, 2022
At a time when Butte County faces pressing problems -– from homelessness to drought -– a record amount of money is pouring into the race for the District 2 seat on the Board of Supervisors.
In the final weeks leading up to the June 7 primary election, last-minute contributions flowed into the race and a new political action committee (PAC) emerged, Butte Forward, that formed at the end of March to oust incumbent Debra Lucero.
Lucero faces two challengers, Chico police Sgt. Peter Durfee and environmental health and safety manager Carl Jeffries, as well as opposition from Butte Forward that had collected $40,840 by the end of the May reporting period. Contributions to the PAC, which calls itself “Butte Forward PAC, Opposing Debra Lucero for Supervisor 2022” on its Facebook page, came from many of the same families that founded or supported formation of the Tuscan Water District.
Large contributions have also poured into the Durfee campaign from out-of-town political action committees affiliated with police unions and other law enforcement groups. The combined impact of contributions from law enforcement, farming and business interests, and developers raises the stakes for Butte County.
The outcome could help shape Butte County water policy as supplies dwindle; help shape budget policy that affects pensions, benefits and staffing at the sheriff’s office; affect decisions about housing and land use and approaches to homelessness.
“I doubt very much that so much out-of-town PAC money has ever come into a local race in Butte County,” said David Welch, chair of the Butte County Democratic Action Club.
Welch believes that the ways in which Lucero challenged the Tuscan Water District during its formation are a “big problem” for many of her opponents. “Obviously there are people who expect to make a lot of money and who feel Debra Lucero is a threat to them,” he said.
And Durfee’s campaign reflects a statewide movement to help officers win elected office with the goal of rolling back criminal justice reform in California and protecting what law enforcement advocacy groups see as their financial and other interests.
Durfee, past president of the Chico Police Officers’ Association, has received the most in contributions of the three candidates, raising almost $149,000 by May 27, according to campaign finance filings.
The filings show Lucero had raised slightly more than $101,000 by that date. Smaller contributions from more than 700 individual donors have rolled in with increasing speed since early April.
Jeffries hasn’t raised any money. He’s been knocking on doors and participating in community events, he said. With such large sums of money flowing, Jeffries said he “can’t compete and I don’t want to.”
The primary election could decide the race if one of the candidates gets a majority -– 50% + 1 -– of the vote. But with three candidates splitting votes, there may be a run-off in November. In the quieter District 3 race, pitting incumbent Tami Ritter against challenger Mary Murphy-Waldorf, contributions total less than $20,000 for each candidate so far this year, and it’s more likely to be decided by the June primary.
Durfee for law and order
Durfee’s campaign committee began fundraising in 2021, raising more than $90,000 in contributions that almost immediately aligned law enforcement groups with some farming and businesses interests and conservative voters.
Durfee last year received $2,000 from the Sacramento Police Officers Association, $1,000 from the Butte County Deputy Sheriff’s Association PAC, and smaller contributions from growers and farming enterprises including Bryce Lundberg, Paiva Farm Management and Bruce McGowan.
This year, Durfee raised more than $58,000. Contributions rolled in from law enforcement unions like the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, from local business people like Diamond Hotel owner Wayne Cook and from developers like Bill Webb Construction. They also came from Mayor Andrew Coolidge, Supervisor Doug Teeter and realtor Laurie Maloney.
Over the past two years, a ChicoSol analysis shows Durfee received $27,600 from law enforcement groups, including the unions representing Chico police and Butte County deputies. Law enforcement groups in Contra Costa, Santa Clara and Sacramento contributed, as well as the statewide lobbying and advocacy organization, the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC).
Durfee’s bid for the seat has been scrutinized in part because he has indicated he’ll continue at the Chico Police Department if he wins — even though the supervisor position is considered full time and pays a salary of more than $60,000 with benefits. “It’s not real common for active police officers to run for office like this, but not unheard of nationally,” Welch told ChicoSol.
Durfee’s Web page highlights public safety, and he promises to act to “clean up Chico and thwart the encroaching criminal element attempting to take over our city.”
He nevertheless did not attend the May 5 forum on policing sponsored by Concerned Citizens for Justice (CC4J). Both Lucero and Jeffries participated, but CC4J says Durfee failed to respond to its invitation “after numerous attempts to reach him by phone, email and written letter.” A CC4J member also tried to reach him at Chico PD.
Durfee also speaks to the growing fear about water shortages and how they might affect agriculture. On his Web page he promises to promote water storage projects, stating that he will “protect our water from Sacramento special interests and fight their attempts to limit groundwater use.”
Donations from law enforcement groups to statewide races have been climbing rapidly in recent years; at the end of March Cal Matters reported that the groups had contributed “more than $1 million to campaigns for the state Legislature and several statewide offices …”. But less attention has been paid to local electioneering.
In March, Durfee gave an interview to PORAC, the statewide lobbying group, which is encouraging law enforcement officers to run for local and higher offices. “We need cops running for every office,” said PORAC President Brian Marvel during the interview.
Durfee is the North Valley chair of the organization, and said in the interview that the June primary is about who will be “willing to step up for law and order in their local communities.”
During the interview, the men, including Assemblymember Tom Lackey, a Palmdale Republican who had a career in the CHP, discussed some of California’s recent criminal justice reforms that they believe have contributed to rising crime in the state.
Durfee referred to initiatives that have made it easier for non-violent felons to seek parole, and reclassified some theft and drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. (The Public Policy Institute of California has noted that the 2020 crime rate was below the 2010 rate, prior to the passage of these ballot initiatives.)
In an email to ChicoSol, Durfee said he was pleased with the support he’s received, but declined to answer further questions about his campaign. “The outpouring of support from our community has been tremendous,” he wrote.
The Butte County Democratic Party flagged an incident several weeks ago when Durfee’s campaign signs featured the words, “CalFire Endorsed.” Durfee in fact has the endorsement of the union, Cal Fire Local 2881 – not the public agency.
Welch said he was informed that CalFire asked Durfee’s campaign office to remove the misleading wording, which he said gradually disappeared from the signs over a period of days.
Lucero: address the housing crisis
Several of the largest donations to Lucero came from the Latino Caucus of California Counties, Service Employees Union 1021, and Square SF. Lucero has garnered endorsements from the Chico News & Review and the Chico Enterprise-Record.
She told ChicoSol that she is running to tackle financial instability in Butte County, and to urge the Board of Supervisors to address the region’s housing crisis that has been exacerbated by devastating fires.
“I think we need to realize that we are a community that is suffering because we’ve had thousands of homes burn since 2018,” Lucero said. “If people put aside their politics and simply look at the facts, it’s pretty clear. We are in climate change, we are in the most severe drought of our lifetimes. We are coming off a pandemic, and we have labor shortages everywhere.”
Lucero’s website quotes from a Stanford University study, stating that water exports have “threatened the sustainability of Butte County water resources and raised awareness of groundwater…”
Lucero said she is concerned about the messaging Durfee and Butte Forward have used to attack her. “We both signed a pledge at the beginning that we would not smear one another’s character,” she said. “He’s said, ‘Well it’s not me, it’s the PAC.’ But let’s face it, we all know the PAC supports him.”
Lucero is also challenged by the re-mapping of her district that occurred during redistricting. The new map moves about 2,500 Chico residents who voted for her into other districts, she said.
Lucero supporter Dave Garcia worries about recent appointments of law enforcement personnel to Butte County’s public offices in both Chico and Oroville.
Garcia said that almost half of Chico’s city budget is assigned to the police department, and as supervisor, Durfee may encourage the county to be more generous with law enforcement as well. “All this money the agencies have given him — this is all seed money to improve their pay, benefits and pensions,” said Garcia, who is himself a pensioned former police officer and state parks ranger.
Later, Garcia sent the American Bar Association’s “Police Function Standards” guide to ChicoSol, which recommends conduct for officers running for elected positions.
The Bar discourages officers “from seeking political support from police associations, where to do otherwise would be divisive of the community.”
Butte Forward: Opposing Debra
Butte Forward’s Facebook page is managed by Sacramento-based Headlamp Communications; the principal officer is David Lundberg, who could not be reached for comment. But the Democrats have plenty to say about the use of “dark money.”
One Butte Forward ad, for example, accuses Lucero of “lavish trips” that are taxpayer-funded, but offers nothing in the way of documentation. (Lucero denies that has ever occurred.)
In a press release, the Butte County Democratic Party says the PAC “uses culture war tactics, such as blaming Lucero for the high gas prices … The ad also includes lies about Lucero’s use of county money.”
Many contributors to the PAC represent farming interests and/or Tuscan Water District proponents; included are members of the family of District 4 Supervisor Tod Kimmelshue. Other contributors are Lee Herringer, president of the Butte County Farm Bureau and Bruce McGowan of Richard McGowan Farming, Inc.
Butte Forward has also received contributions from businesses like North Valley Building Systems and Shubert’s Ice Cream & Candy, which is owned in part by Chico Vice Mayor Kasey Reynolds. Conservative PACs contributed, including one that opposed the Sean Morgan recall attempt and another supporting Assemblyman James Gallagher.
Carl Jeffries: Can it still be done?
Jeffries remembers when his father, Martin Jeffries, won a seat on the Chico City Council in 1977 after running an unfunded campaign that involved a lot of door-knocking and people-meeting. “I wanted to see if I could do that again,” Carl Jeffries told ChicoSol.
Jeffries indicated he knows that campaign funding influences election outcomes, but said he believes that candidates become “beholden” to their donors and he therefore turned down contribution offers.
The homelessness crisis helped propel Jeffries toward a run for office and he wants to see it addressed. He’s lost a niece and a friend from high school to the streets of Chico. “It forces you to react, to do the right thing,” he said. “You really have to care; you can’t just let it go.”
Jeffries describes himself as non-partisan and doesn’t have a Web page, but entered information on the website Voter’s Edge, where he says he favors “groundwater protection through better land use planning … and improving seasonal recharge of the aquifer.”
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol. Natalie Hanson is a contributing writer.