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Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, DA Mike Hestrin get 2 more years in office

Riverside Press-Enterprise logo Riverside Press-Enterprise 10/3/2022 Jeff Horseman, Alicia Robinson, The Press-Enterprise

Barring recalls or resignations, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco and District Attorney Mike Hestrin will be in office at least through 2028 — two years after their current terms were set to expire — under a new state law that reschedules elections for the public safety leaders.

Gov. Gavin Newsom late last month signed AB 759, which shifts sheriff and district attorney elections in most California counties to presidential election years. The new law doesn’t appear to affect San Bernardino or Los Angeles counties but does appear to cover Orange County, which has a charter that doesn’t specify when elections for the district attorney or sheriff must be held.

In written comments published by a state Senate committee, the bill’s sponsor, Assembly Member Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, said: “Local government, specifically, county officers and their policies have an immediate and direct effect on our daily lives. However, voter turnout for local elections fluctuates significantly depending on what year elections are held …”

“AB 759 will promote political equality and enhanced citizen participation in county elections by aligning those elections with the presidential election.”

Bianco, a Republican and vocal critic of Newsom who supported recalling the Democratic governor, mockingly thanked Newsom “for the unintended consequences” of AB 759 in a Facebook post.

Responding to comments on his post, Bianco wrote: “(O)ur out of touch extreme left legislators are under the misguided belief that the general public dislikes law enforcement as much as they do. They believe by changing our election to the presidential cycle more democrats (sic) will vote out vocal pro public safety officials they can not control.”

He added: “(T)heir failure is they don’t realize that the reality is: public safety is not a political Republican/Democrat issue. Protection of our businesses, schools, kids, residents and our rights is a basic American issue.”

AB 759 “is a huge victory for the community members of Riverside County,” the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said in an emailed statement.

“Sheriff Chad Bianco and District Attorney Mike Hestrin will now get an extended six-year term to safeguard the residents, arrest those responsible for crime, and successfully prosecute offenders to the fullest,” the statement read. “We believe in stability for our county and public safety will now be guaranteed for the next six years.”

Since first being elected in 2018, Bianco has garnered a reputation as an outspoken conservative who defied Newsom’s COVID-19 mandates and publicly clashed with progressives who criticize his management of the Sheriff’s Department.

The former dues-paying member of the Oath Keepers militia faces a libel lawsuit from Riverside Council Member Clarissa Cervantes over his social media comments alleging Cervantes supported the defacement of Riverside’s historic courthouse during a July 30 protest.

A political action committee called the Riverside Alliance for Safety & Accountability formed in 2021 with the goal of ousting Bianco from office. Members of that committee could not be reached for comment Monday.

In a phone interview Monday, Oct. 3, Hestrin said the motivation behind AB 759 “is a little fishy.”

He said he’d take the additional years in office “and certainly my supporters will be happy about that.”

A Republican, Hestrin criticized the new law as “a pretty cynical attempt” to move sheriff and DA elections “to a time when the one party in power (Democrats) thinks it’s better for them.”

He added he thinks the law will backfire on Democrats, adding he has “strong support from registered Democrats” and does his job in a nonpartisan manner.

AB 759 also applies to Riverside County Assessor/County Clerk/Recorder Peter Aldana, who ran unopposed for a four-year term in June.

Turnout for presidential elections tends to be higher than in other years. Statewide turnout for the June 7, 2022 primary was 33%, but for the March 2020 presidential primary, it was 47%.

But because AB 759 takes effect Jan. 1, it gives Bianco and Hestrin, who were re-elected in June, another two years in office until the 2028 presidential election. Previously, they were up for re-election in 2026.

The new law applies to so-called general law counties. Forty-four of California’s 58 counties, including Riverside County, fit that category.

Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties are among California’s 14 charter counties. San Bernardino County is exempt from the new law because before Jan. 1, 2021, its charter scheduled sheriff, district attorney and assessor elections for dates other than the presidential primary, according to a report to the state Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments.

San Bernardino County’s analysis of AB 759 is that it it does not apply to the county, spokesperson David Wert said.

L.A. County’s sheriff and assessor elections also are exempt. And it appears the new law doesn’t apply to L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón, who was elected in 2020 and is up for re-election in 2024, when the presidency is on the ballot.

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Molly Nichelson, spokeswoman for Orange County Counsel Leon Page, said in a text message that Orange County officials are “reviewing the bill and its implications for our Sheriff and District Attorney — we do believe that the bill extends their terms of office — but have no further comment at this time.”

In June, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes won reelection with no opponents, and District Attorney Todd Spitzer defeated three challengers with more than 62% of the votes.

Izak Epstein, who was campaign manager for second-place Orange County district attorney contender Pete Hardin, said the switch to presidential years is “a big deal” because progressive voters are more likely to turn out for those elections.

The Hardin campaign was aware of the bill but wasn’t sure it would pass and didn’t expect the possible extension of the DA’s term to resonate with voters, Epstein said.

“District attorney elections, sheriff elections, sometimes they don’t get as much attention — but by grouping them with presidential elections I think it could have a pretty dramatic impact on how much attention these races get and what types of candidates get elected,” he said.

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