In little more than a month, Carmichael resident Rich Desmond will be sworn in to replace retiring Sacramento County Supervisor Susan Peters on the five-member County Board. The former California Highway Patrol chief will represent District 3. This includes mostly unincorporated areas such as Arden-Arcade, Carmichael, College Glen, Fair Oaks, Foothill Farms, North Highlands, and a small part of eastern Sacramento.
Two things stood out about the first-time candidate’s winning campaign. First, Desmond scored a 1½-point upset over the Democrat Gregg Fishman. Second, Desmond ran as an Independent. While he concedes he’s more conservative than his Democratic opponent was, he noted, “I shook my head whenever I was pinned as the ‘conservative,’ and when they pinned me as a Donald Trump supporter, I really shook my head. I am neither a Republican or Democrat.”
Desmond recently participated in the following ranging Sacto Politico interview, which has been edited for length.
Sacto Politico: On election night, the first reported votes had you down 4½ points, but then over the next two weeks you slowly climbed to victory. What was that experience like for you?
Rich Desmond: The best way to describe it was “nerve-wracking.” When the first votes came out, I thought, “Hey, the voters have spoken, and this is the way it is going to be.” But when I checked the returns at midnight and then 2 a.m., that’s when the gap started closing.
I thought maybe this meant the later ballots coming in had more Republicans and Independents. Then on that Friday, the lead flipped to me by a small advantage, and we started pulling ahead. So while it was very nerve-wracking at first, I am naturally very happy with the result.
SP: Given the condition of the state GOP, do you see independents like yourself as the possible seeds of a third party here in California or nationally?
RD: It’s an interesting question. I don’t have any insight into Republican Party politics because I am not involved there. I also don’t think I am a seed of anything, really, but there may be a desire out there for a third way. I don’t know.
I will say during this campaign I talked to thousands of people on the campaign trail and knocked on thousands of doors. People really clamor for someone who will not approach the position in a partisan way. Part of this is a reflection of the office I sought. It is a local office, where one works on land-use issues and filling potholes, which are not big partisan issues. You don’t want partisanship entering into those decisions.
SP: Once the pandemic hit, questions arose about the wisdom of campaigning door-to-door. How did your campaign handle these concerns?
RD: It did affect my schedule as we changed to more phone calls for me than door-knocking. We were concerned not as many residents might open their doors in this new environment and if that was the best investment of my time.
Our volunteers still did some door-to-door, but obviously, we were very, very careful. Everyone wore masks and provided plenty of distance after knocking on a door. We were very cognizant of it. We were ready to pivot if we noticed people were alarmed by this or less people were answering the door. We think people were accepting of canvassers partly due to us using all the right safety precautions.
SP: After you are sworn in, what should be the three top agenda items for the Board to tackle once you start and why?
RD: These priorities intertwine somewhat, but the first is coronavirus and the county’s response to the virus. We need to make sure we are keeping people safe, supporting our public health efforts, and investing resources in contact tracing and testing. When more federal relief funding comes, we must make sure those dollars go to the right places to help working families, to help small business owners and to help people comply with our public safety standards.
Second is homelessness and trying to do something to improve the homelessness crisis. This issue was probably the biggest reason why I decided to run. This is the moral issue of our time, but as you know, this is an infinitely complex crisis. We need to build more affordable housing. We need to get more shelter beds. But just as important is the need to invest appropriate resources to get people treatment for drug addiction and mental illness. Frankly, there are also people in that community preying on other people. I plan to work very hard to do things more collaboratively with the City of Sacramento and bring more groups to the table, including homeless advocacy groups.
Third is economic revitalization, especially in District 3. I’ve lived here my entire life, and I’ve seen more and more empty storefronts proliferating in this community. This includes helping these small businesses weather the pandemic storm, and how do we revitalize some of our aging commercial corridors.
SP: What’s your opinion of the county using its $181 million in federal CARES funds largely to pay for salary and benefits for the sheriff’s office, probation officers and park rangers? How do you want to see future federal dollars spent?
RD: You and I both know the Sheriff’s Department didn’t get an extra officer, patrol car or radio from the CARES Act money. That was an accounting maneuver that I think was a mistake. I understand the reason for it. It was to preserve and backfill general fund dollars which were being decimated as a result of the loss of revenue in Sacramento County.
But I lay this at the feet of the supervisors. I don’t think they set up appropriate oversight of how that money was spent. They should have demanded regular reports back on what the plan was for that money. They should have created a true committee with supervisors serving on it along with representatives from the nonprofit world, homeless advocacy groups and the business community. They should have all been there at the table to discuss how to spend this money. That could have ensured we got the public health dollars, some business relief dollars and relief for working families out the door first – while also recognizing some of that money was needed to backfill critical municipal services provided by the county.
SP: You represent District 3, which comprises mostly unincorporated communities like Arden-Arcade, Carmichael, and Fair Oaks. What is your position on incorporation desires among some in your district?
RD: First, let me note Sacramento County is such an anomaly in this respect, and certainly District 3 is. Counties were never designed to provide the kind of services that Sacramento County provides urban communities in this district. Normally, these communities would have been annexed or incorporated over the years, and now we are stuck where we are.
My position is I am a firm believer in people having the right to choose how they want to be governed. My number one objective as resident and incoming supervisor is to be educated on the pro’s and con’s. Having a five-member city council that is directly responsive to you and your community’s needs is going to be a better form of government, but the tradeoff may be you’re paying more in taxes. So everyone needs to be educated.
But from a selfish perspective, it’s funny. My supervisory district has more than double the amount of unincorporated area of any other district in the county. As a supervisor, it would be a heck of a lot easier for me if more of my district’s communities were incorporated because then the county supervisor wouldn’t be the only elected official my district residents can turn to. It’s not good 300,000 people have only one county supervisor to represent them on so many issues that would normally be handled by a city council.
I’d like to serve on the statewide Local Agency Formation Commission [LAFCo] because I’d like to understand this better and be more involved. Plus, I think it affects my supervisory district probably more than any other district in the state.
SP: As you have completed your first political campaign cycle, what are your views of our local campaign finance laws? Would you change anything?
RD: Raising campaign donations is a necessary evil. It was my least favorite thing about this whole process. But obviously, it is the only way to get your message out in a district with 175,000 registered voters and hardly any of them had ever heard of me or my opponent.
I like that the contribution limits are still relatively low, even with the limits going up in the last year from $500 per donor to $1,200. I think $1,200 is not such a high amount where one or more special interests can control who gets elected. This does make it harder for candidates because you have to get more people to support your campaign, but that’s a good thing. Candidates should be out there selling themselves to members of the public.
Would I change anything? I’m not sure I would change anything. I think the county and the state legislature are always trying to strike the right balance. But I do dread having to go through this again in four years. [He laughs]
SP: Any final thoughts you wish to share?
RD: I will just add that Covid is such a horrible thing for so many obvious reasons, but I am also saddened that it has reduced the amount of interaction between elected officials and the public. I personally love being out there in the community talking to people, hearing their concerns, connecting with them, celebrating the successes of community groups and nonprofits. You can’t do the parts of the job that have the human connection, and to me, that’s the best part of the job. I would also like to note that I will be a supervisor for everyone in our communities. Please know that my staff, and I will have an open-door policy to hear my constituents’ needs and concerns.