Most years, elections in Mendocino County are pretty staid, predictable affairs. This is true particularly in the nonpartisan races such as supervisor and Sheriff, where there is generally little controversy and low-level temperatures. The 2022 election for Sheriff was shaping up to be just such a sleepwalk, but a funny thing has happened. Matt Kendall, the incumbent Sheriff, appointed to the post in 2019 and until a few months ago an uncontroversial and widely popular figure, now faces a serious, if long-shot opponent.
Trent James is a renegade ex-Mendocino County deputy sheriff who is mounting a write-in campaign to unseat Kendall and end what he claims is rampant corruption and old-boy cronyism in the sheriff's office. He has jumped into the race with a guerrilla campaign style that has changed the landscape from a ladies tea party to a back-alley knife fight.
James charges Matt Kendall with a failed leadership style, a good-ole-boy, protect-your-friends environment, and a pattern of promoting bad cops into command positions at the Sheriff’s office. In addition to protecting and concealing past criminal behavior, James alleges that these actions by Kendall undermine the credibility of the Sheriff’s command staff among the patrol deputies and the public they serve. This causes poor morale, low staffing levels, low retention rates and a failure to recruit new deputies to meet demand. He charges that Mendocino County patrol deputies –people he served with for six years – are being undermined by their toxic and incompetent commanders.
Sheriff Kendall, in an extensive conversation with the AVA, categorically refused to answer James’ charges; to engage in what he called “any mud-slinging” with Trent James. He said that he remains focused on conducting the people’s business and not political skirmishes. Kendall said his work on the upcoming 2023 Sheriff budget and day to day job issues keep him fully engaged on law enforcement and not politics. He also cited increasing demands on his time due to the disability of the current Undersheriff as a factor in his decision to concentrate on his job responsibilities rather than campaign in response to James.
Trent James served for 6 years with the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department, mostly in the Covelo sector, where by all accounts he was an effective lawman in that isolated and challenging place. He became disillusioned with leadership at the sheriff’s office and transferred to Willits PD as a Sergeant. But that job didn’t last long. James says he witnessed variations of the toxic leadership he saw at MCSO, and that caused half the Willits patrol officers to leave.
James left law enforcement in 2021 and subsequently began posting a series of videos to YouTube under the moniker “Confessions of an ex-cop”. That catchy title, along with James punchy delivery, quickly gained him more that 4000 subscribers. He comes across as authentic and genuine. James’ videos present a systematic condemnation of criminal behavior, misconduct, and cover-ups that he says have plagued the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department for years.
Among his specific allegations:
• A criminal investigation involving felony child pornography that centered on the home address of a Mendocino County Sheriff Lieutenant has been delayed and that Kendall has shown favoritism and protected his own. The Lieutenant’s son has been arrested in the case but James claims the commander should have been placed on administrative leave as soon as the investigation began.
• A current Sheriff Lieutenant, now in charge of background investigations of all MCSO applicants, has twice been reprimanded for using excessive force while a Jail sergeant against restrained mentally ill inmates. James says the Sergeant was demoted for a short period as window dressing and then promoted back to Sergeant and then again to lieutenant within the Mendocino sheriff's office where, according to James, he is now in charge of background investigations of new applicants.
• Two separate MCSO Lieutenants prior to their current employment in Mendocino County were terminated from other police agencies for documented rape and statutory rape charges. James alleges that these bad cops were correctly terminated from their prior employment in law enforcement, but never should have been re-hired, much less promoted to command positions within the Sheriff's Department.
• Yet another lieutenant who was terminated from another police agency after being involved in a hit-and-run in a law enforcement vehicle. Again, James charges that this individual was rightfully terminated from the prior department but never should have been rehired as a cop.
In an interview James said that recruitment and retention of new deputies is adversely affected by misconduct and incompetent management at the sheriff's office. These issues in turn diminish law enforcement effectiveness within the county. James pledges to increase outreach and recruitment to minority, female applicants, to personally conduct recruitment tours in order to increase staffing at the sheriff's office. He also wants to increase training opportunities for current deputies.
The election takes place in one week on June 7th. However ballots were mailed to all voters on May 9th and none of those ballots had Trent James name on them. Matt Kendall is listed on the ballot as the only person running for Sheriff, because at the time the ballots were printed Trent James wasn't running. James says he was essentially drafted by people in the county to run who began writing his name in on the ballot and then sending him email pictures of their vote. As people continued writing his name in, he decided to inquire about running as a write-in candidate and found that state and County election rules require write-in candidates to officially register and file signatures with the Registrar in order for the votes to be counted.
And so in mid-May James decided to begin a GoFundMe campaign during a family visit to the East Coast, and flew back to Mendocino County where he registered as an official write-in candidate with Mendocino County Registrar of Voters Katrina Bartolomie on May 23, the last day before the cutoff.
In an interview with the AVA Ms. Bartolomie estimated that 30 to 40% of the county's 54,000 registered voters will cast ballots by the June 7th postmark cutoff. She said that in non-partisan races the candidate receiving 50% plus one of the votes will win the election outright on that day.
James faces a steep climb to get the 10,000 or so write-in votes that it will take for him to beat Matt Kendall on June 7. He plans to spend the next week touring the County and working his social media platforms to maximize his vote. Sheriff Kendall said he will be concentrating on pressing staffing and budget issues within his office. He seems fairly confident that voters know who he is, and that his name is the only one printed on the ballot.