Law enforcement unions are among the most influential forces in local elections. And the conventional wisdom is they are most closely aligned with Republican candidates.
But there’s a twist in a high-stakes Orange County race right now.
The powerful county sheriff’s deputies’ union is spending big in backing the Democrat – and attacking the Republican.
It’s the critical race that will decide which party has a majority on the powerful county Board of Supervisors.
So far, the deputies union has spent about $375,000 on ads backing Democrat Katrina Foley and attacking Republican Pat Bates in the south and coastal race for 5th District supervisor, according to disclosures.
“Politics makes strange bedfellows,” said Mike Moodian, a Chapman University public policy professor who closely follows OC politics.
“In order to win, candidates need to raise a lot of money – particularly for a supervisor race. So this goes to show you there are interests who are giving money to [support] candidates who they feel will best help them.”
The deputies union president, Juan Viramontes, and spokeswoman Alexa Pratt did not comment after multiple invitations by phone.
Bates “has a long history of legislation and votes that [government] employees unions may not like,” said Jodi Balma, a Fullerton College political science professor.
“This is the deciding vote” for control of the Board of Supervisors,” she added.
“So I think a lot of groups are spending heavily to endorse the candidate they support most.”
In an interview, Bates said she’s long been a supporter of public safety and doesn’t know what the deputies union’s “beef is” with her.
The issue is with the union leadership, she said.
“It’s the union bosses. It’s not the rank and file,” Bates told Voice of OC.
“I do believe the majority of their members who live in the 5th District will vote for me, because they know my record on public safety issues,” she added, saying she took a pay cut in 2009 so deputies could remain on the job.
“Our first priority for this government…is public safety. And I have never ever flagged in that responsibility to support them in that responsibility,” Bates said.
Asked about the deputies’ union endorsement of herself, Foley said she trusts “the Deputy Sheriffs and our local law enforcement to know what’s best for our community’s safety.”
“They know I am concerned about recruitment and retention because of the rise of the cost of living in Orange County. We need to maintain staffing for community policing, targeting fentanyl dealers, patrolling the flood channels, and even bike patrols so our active transportation zones remain safe for families,” she added.
Some of Bates’ biggest financial support is coming from the Lincoln Club of Orange County, one of the biggest Republican donor groups in the region.
“The Lincoln Club sees this race – and for good reason – as really the race that is going to determine who will have the majority on the Board of Supervisors, whether a Democratic majority or a Republican majority,” said Moodian.
There hasn’t been a Democratic majority on the Board of Supervisors since the 1970s.
“Bates has been a longtime Republican stalwart, has been a longtime faithful member of the party in good standing…so it doesn’t surprise me one bit that the Lincoln Club is getting behind her in a big way,” Moodian added.
“And at the same time, Katrina Foley has been a very well regarded Democrat. So you’re seeing kind of a clash of the titans in this race.”
County supervisors don’t oversee the Sheriff’s Department’s day to day operations.
But they are in charge of deciding on a variety of key things that affect deputies: the size of pay raises, what form of civilian oversight – if any – exists, as well as the county’s legal defense against lawsuits for alleged misconduct.
Supervisors also decide how to prioritize batches of money that comes into the the county – such as spending $90 million in federal coronavirus response dollars on salaries and benefits of existing jail staff.
In the other two OC supervisor races – where only Democrats are on the ballot – the deputies’ union is spending big for incumbent Supervisor Doug Chaffee – who is opposed by his own Democratic Party – as well as supporting Garden Grove Councilwoman Kim Nguyen.
Asked why the deputies’ union was backing her, Nguyen told Voice of OC it’s “because I am the more qualified candidate and my stances have not changed.”
Her opponent is Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, whose largest outside financial support has come from attorneys who have represented families of people killed by police in Santa Ana and Anaheim.
Asked for his response to Nguyen, Sarmiento – like Bates – said he looks forward “to working with the rank and file members of the OC Sheriff’s Department.”
“I hope to bring my vast public service experience as Mayor of the [third] largest city in the County, professional training as an attorney, and personal background as a husband and father to the many challenges facing OC,” he said.
It’s a first for OC to have two Democrats as the only choice for a county supervisors’ seat – particularly one backed by law enforcement unions and other by plaintiffs’ attorneys who sue over police shootings, said Balma.
“Orange County has not seen that dynamic before. And so yeah, it scrambles the game board,” she said.
In north OC’s 4th District race, Chaffee, the incumbent, is running against Buena Park Mayor Sunny Park, who is backed by Chaffee’s own Democratic Party.
In a statement through a campaign consultant, Chaffee said he’s “proud to have the support of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS).”
“Their members work hard to keep our neighborhoods safe, and I’ve done my best to work with them over the past four years to advance policies aimed at preventing and reducing crimes,” he said.
Park said she’s relieved the deputies’ union hasn’t been spending money on attack ads against her. She attributed that to her having a close relationship with her city’s police union.
“I anticipated [the deputies’ union] to kind of oppose me in a big way. But in the primary I was somewhat relieved they were supporting him but not opposing me,” Park told Voice of OC.
“And I thought that was a good thing. And I think it’s because my relationship with my police union is really strong,” she added. “I’m supportive of criminal justice reform, but at the same time I’m a pro-union person.
Unions often invite candidates to endorsement interviews to finalize which candidates they’re backing in elections.
In Bates’ case, she said the deputies union “interviewed me for the primary and told me they had already made their choice,” and did not invite her to another interview before the general election.
Instead, in the primary the deputies union endorsed two of Bates’ challengers – Foley and Republican Diane Harkey. Harkey didn’t end up being one of the top-two vote-getters who advanced to the general election.
The south county race in particular is expected to be a close one, Moodian said.
While Foley has an incumbency advantage, he noted she doesn’t have as much name recognition in south county as Bates, who has run and won multiple times in south county over the years.
Plus, there’s a Republican advantage in voter registration in that district.
“I foresee a tight race,” Moodian said.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since you've made it this far,
You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.
Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.