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Riding Trump Opposition, Two Challengers Take on Comfortable Incumbents

The 2018 political map is taking shape, including two unlikely challengers to long-time incumbents who are already invoking President Donald Trump to help make their case.

Two Democrats challenging long-time incumbents in 2018 are already bringing President Donald Trump into the races.

Matt Strabone, a local attorney, is betting newfound political engagement following Trump’s victory can elevate his run for one of San Diego’s more obscure local offices.

Strabone announced Tuesday he’s challenging Ernest Dronenburg for county assessor/recorder/clerk, a countywide office that assesses property taxes and registers records public documents. Dronenburg won the office in 2010 then fended off a re-election challenge in 2014, winning outright in that June’s primary.

Defeating any incumbent is an uphill climb made harder when an office is obscure.

But Strabone – a Democrat – thinks last year’s election might have changed that dynamic.

“It’s become clear that we can’t close our eyes and hope that things get better,” he said. “We need to step forward and try to make society better ourselves, especially at the local level.”

Dronenburg hasn’t given a would-be challenger much of an opening, mostly making sure a low-profile office stayed that way. There was one exception. In 2013, he tried to get the California Supreme Court to stop county clerks like himself from issuing licenses for same sex marriages, but later dropped his petition.

Now, Strabone’s early campaign is already calling back to that issue, and generally discussing the race in terms that might catch the attention of voters who couldn’t say off-hand who Dronenburg is.

“People will understand as this campaign goes on that we have plenty of public corruption to go around; SANDAG’s recent deception is just one example,” he said. “We’ll have a clear contrast to an incumbent who has a record of discriminating against people.”

Still 15 months from the 2018 primary, the field is starting to take shape. Political watchers have anticipated crowded races for seats expected to be competitive, like the San Diego City Council’s second district and the County Board of Supervisors’ fourth district. Those races are still coming together.

In the meantime, Strabone is one of two Democratic candidates to launch a campaign for a seat that wasn’t on many people’s radar. Both are running against comfortable, longtime incumbents in races that, unless more candidates jump into the fray, are likely to be decided in the primary, where the lower and more conservative turnout favors the incumbent.

And they’re both already invoking Trump in those races.

Dave Myers, a captain in the San Diego County Sheriff’s office, announced two months ago he was running against his boss, Sheriff Bill Gore.

Gore was appointed Sheriff in 2009, after his predecessor Bill Kolender resigned. Voters then elected Gore as an incumbent in 2010, and he ran unopposed in 2014.

Myers, also a Democrat, said he’s running against Gore to try to establish “a new narrative” about the relationship between law enforcement and the community it polices.

“Across the nation there’s been an uncoupling between law enforcement and the community,” he said. “People are more afraid to see law enforcement in their rear-view mirror than they are to be comforted by it.”

Myers said he was preparing to run long before Trump’s election, but he’s quick to announce his opposition to some of the administration’s most controversial policies. He said he’d stand against the “Muslim ban,” citing Trump’s executive order to halt immigration from certain Muslim-majority nations that’s been halted in the court.

He also said he’d oppose the administration’s approach to immigration enforcement – and touted his decision, in a 2008 grant application for funds from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to specifically state that the Sheriff’s Department would not use its resources to pursue immigration violations.

“The way Trump claims to be supportive of local law enforcement, but then uses the federal government to bully local law enforcement to do what he wants under the threat of reduced funding, is what could increase crime rates because it will drive victims underground.”

Myers, a 32-year veteran of the department who has been a commander for five years, is also gay, and said his department would prioritize inclusion, so it looks like the community it polices.

“Gore continues to surround himself with heterosexual white males,” Myers said. He cited the lack of Asians in the department, despite the demographics across the county.

“When I bring that up, I get push back from the top,” he said. “One day (Gore) asked me why I’m the only openly gay male in a department of over 4,000. I asked him, he’s been sheriff for 10 years, what has he done for inclusion?”

Through a spokesman, Gore rejected the idea that the department isn’t representative of the county.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” he said.

The numbers, though, are a mixed picture. African Americans represent 5.1 percent of the county, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey from 2015, but are 6.5 percent of sworn deputies, for instance. But Asians and Pacific Islanders represent nearly 12 percent of San Diego County, compared to 7.7 percent of sworn deputies, according to the department. Likewise, 28.7 percent of sworn officers are Hispanic, compared to 32.9 percent of the county’s population.

“The Sheriff is recognized of having done an excellent job of increasing diversity within the department and is continuing to work on that,” said Tom Shepard, Gore’s campaign spokesman.

The electoral conditions remain tough on both Strabone and Myers. Incumbents have a built in advantage that’s even stronger in June primary elections, where turnout is both lower and more conservative. Unless more candidates get into the races, both are likely to be decided in the June 2018 election.

But still more than a year out, the national electoral picture might change things.

“I think we’ll benefit from a new sense of engagement and a new level of paying attention to politics at all levels this cycle,” Strabone said.

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