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Last updateMon, 23 Mar 2020 12pm

On May 9, 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed former state assemblymember V. Manuel Perez to serve the remainder of the term of the late John Benoit, the Riverside County District 4 supervisor.

On June 5, Perez will attempt to hold on to the seat, but he’s facing a formidable challenge from Palm Desert City Councilmember Jan Harnik. While June 5 is considered the primary election, these two experienced Coachella Valley politicos will get no primary testing ground—because in their two-person race, one of them will almost certainly get a majority of the vote, avoiding a general-election contest and getting elected to a new four-year term.

“I think it’s important that people realize the magnitude of what this (campaign) means for the 4th District and for the county of Riverside as a whole,” Perez said during a recent phone interview. “This is the first time in years that we will see an (almost) new Board of Supervisors, and (it could be) a very diverse group, which I think is important to recognize.

“I am running because I’ve always felt a deep sense of responsibility to public service, and that dates back to me growing up as a kid on the east side of the Coachella Valley. But I’m also running because I believe that we need to have a voice that unites both sides of the valley. I believe I can do that.”

Perez is a Democrat, while Harnik is a Republican—but the supervisors’ seat is considered nonpartisan.

“I’m fortunate that I’ve always worked in nonpartisan positions,” Harnik said during a recent phone interview. “So my job has always been to do what’s best and to approach issues with logic and common sense—and, in fact, what is attractive to me in the supervisor position is exactly that. It’s nonpartisan, but, yes, I will carry my values. Yes, I am fiscally conservative, and I don’t believe in spending more than you have. But I don’t have to listen to somebody at the party and at a higher level telling me what is best.”

We asked each candidate about the most pressing issues they’d like to address.

“We have to make sure that we provide public safety in an effective manner,” Harnik said. “That’s the high-quality public safety that, I think, people deserve—but I think we have to get the budget in order before we can do much. The budget is $5.5 billion, and the revenue for that budget is $5.22 billion. Running in the red is unsustainable, and doing things like voting to spend $40 million on an outside consulting firm (KPMG, in this case) to find efficiencies and see how the county can spend their money better is a bad idea. Bringing in outside agencies to do those kinds of things are simply done now when people don’t want to make the tough decisions. … I will not shy away from tough decisions.”

Perez identified a host of critical concerns held by various segments of the county’s voters.

“I think the top issues to deal with are homelessness and behavioral-health efforts; continuing to support our veterans; and obviously, our economy and jobs are a major concern, as well as quality-of-life issues such as the Salton Sea, air pollution and asthma rates, infrastructure including sidewalks, and safe routes to schools,” Perez said.

Perez touted his governing experience and skills.

“What I think sets me apart from my opponent is not only do I have the education—having attended local schools, being a (University of California at Riverside) graduate, and then going off to Harvard University and coming back home—but I also have experience in policymaking, (on the) local city council, school board, and especially at the state level,” Perez said. “I learned how to connect the dots. I’m able to pick up the phone and call the speaker (of the California State Assembly) on a specific issue, and I’m able to text (Assemblymember) Eduardo Garcia or (U.S. Representative) Dr. Raul Ruiz and ask them how are we going to deliver a message to pass the Desert Healthcare District expansion so that we can get it in front of the voters. I think my opponent can’t compare to that—not that I’m better than her, but I’ve been very fortunate to hold these positions in my career.”

Both candidates have amassed considerable campaign chests. As of Dec. 31, Perez reported roughly $552,000 in donations, while Harnik showed close to $400,000, which included a $20,000 posthumous donation made by the John Benoit campaign fund. When we spoke with Perez in April, he updated his fundraising total to roughly $730,000.

“We knew early on that this was going to be a very expensive campaign,” Perez said.

We asked both candidates whether it was appropriate that they were receiving funds from donors who list their addresses as being not just outside of Riverside County—but completely out of state. The year-end reports showed nearly 3 percent of Perez’s contributions came from out of state, as did 5.4 percent of Harnik’s.

“I did notice that she had quite a lot of contributions from throughout the U.S., and it’s perfectly legal, so OK,” Perez said. “If I had access to all those individuals, I would probably be doing the same thing. I will say, though, that Riverside County is a bit antiquated when it comes to the rules around fundraising.”

Harnik said the large number of donors she has is evidence of her appeal.

“I hope you noticed how many donations I have; I have far more donors, because these are real people donating to me,” she said. “Now, the issue with the geography: Keep in mind that a lot of these people will say, ‘Well, I don’t vote here, so why would I donate to your campaign?’ Quite often, my answer is, ‘Because you own a home here, and you bought here because you like the quality of life here. You may not vote here. You may vote somewhere else because you’re only here three, four or five months a year, but you want to maintain the quality of life, and you want to protect your investment.’”

We asked the candidates if they had a specific message they wanted to share with voters.

“Never in close to eight years on the City Council have I missed a City Council meeting,” Harnik said. “That’s a great example of my work ethic. I work hard, and I come to every meeting prepared. I believe in this region, and I do believe there are some things that we really have to look at differently than we have. I can do that. I have the energy. I have the work ethic, and I’ll show up.”

Perez said: “I’m very honored to be in this role, and I don’t take it for granted. I know that people really loved former Supervisor John Benoit. I know I have to continue some of his legacy, and I have to create my own. I get that. It may not seem either sexy or specific, but I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to pass and carry policy, and keep staff as well as hire new staff to keep the momentum going (while) learning the nuances of the infrastructure at the Riverside County level. It’s a lot of work.”

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V. Manuel Perez was uncharacteristically feisty and aggressive when the Independent recently spoke to him about the final push in his campaign for the Riverside County District 4 Board of Supervisors seat, against incumbent Supervisor John Benoit.

“Benoit claims credit for efforts that are not even his, because I think he lacks substance,” said Perez, who is currently a member of the state Assembly. “He lacks vision, and he’s part of an effort that’s business as usual—and that’s getting old.”

Perez cites a bill that he sponsored as an example. “We passed legislation (AB 1318) for the Sentinel power plant,” built by Competitive Power Ventures in Desert Hot Springs and operational since May 2013, Perez said. “My opponent continues to claim that it was him who went to the east side of the valley and paved the road to the east side. Well, guess what? Where did he get that money from? That money came from the $53 million in mitigation funds that came from the build-out of that plant. We, at the state level, and I authored that legislation, and made sure that the money was in there.”

Benoit—a former member of the state Assembly and Senate—took exception to Perez’s statements.

“Well, first of all, the bill was Perez-Benoit, and I was the co-author, and I worked very, very hard with him, and, in fact, we could debate who carried more of the weight, but it was not just Mr. Perez in the Legislature passing that. There were a lot of people who weighed in,” Benoit said.

Benoit was a state senator when the original bill was introduced in the Assembly by Perez. A version of the bill listed on the Legislature’s website does cite Benoit as a co-author.

“The money was available, but it would not have happened without the county, at my request, putting together a single proposal for 31 parks that totaled over $4 million,” Benoit said. “So he can whine about not getting enough credit. I give credit to him at appropriate locations and times, and certainly everyone knows that he was the author of the bill.”

Perez also criticized Benoit for delaying the funding of renewable-energy projects in Riverside County. He spoke with pride about his Assembly initiatives and said they enabled the “fast-tracking, signing and permitting of renewable energy projects throughout rural California, and specifically in this (Riverside County) area, and that there was $7 million attached to that as well. … Imperial County applied for those monies a year ago and received $700,000, while Riverside County did not apply, because they were in the middle of a battle with the solar industry, because of John Benoit’s lack of understanding and stubbornness.

“He wanted to impose a property tax that was exorbitant that ultimately made the solar industry move to other areas, and we lost projects as a result of that. But finally, Riverside County did apply this year, because I reintroduced legislation, and they did receive $700,000 for the building of more renewables.”

Not surprisingly, Benoit had a different perspective. “That’s absolute nonsense,” Benoit said. “His bill contained so many flaws and required so much accounting in terms of matching funds and so forth that not only Riverside, but other counties, passed on the first go-around. He realized that, came back and drafted new regulations that fixed the problems in the first bill.

“The bill in its original form would have cost more than we would receive in benefits. So he fixed it, and now he’s claiming for political reasons that it was our lack of diligence the first year—but what about the other counties and all the other staff that looked at it and came to the same conclusion?”

As for property-tax initiative referred to by Perez: “My opponent has tried to make it sound like the only reason at all that any solar project in the last five years has been changed or didn’t move forward is this fee,” Benoit said. “Changing transmission rates for solar power, changes in the technology and the lack of available financing has caused many projects to change directions or go away. The fee had nothing to do with it.”

With the election in the winner-take-all primary just days away, how do the candidates assess their chances for victory?

“My team feels good about where we are and our position,” Perez said. “Our polling looks good. But ultimately, it’s about who gets out that vote, and that 15 to 20 percent who are undecided. Independents don’t care whether one is a Democrat or a Republican. What they care about is the one who produces.”

Benoit said that many people don’t realize the primary, since there are only two candidates, will determine the winner. “We’re working very hard right up to the end, but I’m confident based on polling that we’re going to prevail very strongly. I have had people say, ‘What do you think about your chances in November?’ And I say, ‘Wait a minute: You do understand that with only two of us, it’s going to be one of us in June?’

“But that will work itself out, because there are only two choices, and the one who gets the most votes will be the winner, because one of us will have more than 50 percent. Even my advanced math tells me that.”

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It’s going to be a busy election year in the Coachella Valley.

Residents of Rancho Mirage will kick things off with a municipal election on April 8, before the spotlight moves to the hotly contested big-name races. Incumbent U.S. Rep. Dr. Raul Ruiz, a Democrat, will be opposed by Republican State Assemblymember Brian Nestande in a fierce battle that could help determine which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives. And Gov. Jerry Brown will be seeking his second term as the 39th governor of California against an as-yet-undetermined Republican candidate.

Down the ballot a bit is the election for Riverside County District 4 supervisor, featuring Republican incumbent John Benoit, and Democrat V. Manuel Perez, who is currently serving as the state assemblymember for the 56th District (which includes the Salton Sea area and much of the northern and eastern parts of the Coachella Valley, including all or parts of Coachella, Indio, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs). However, both of the seat’s announced contenders insisted that their race is just as important—if not more important—than the bigger-name contests.

“This seat is very important. In my opinion, it is one of the most important seats in government, if not the most important,” said Perez, who, like Dr. Ruiz, is a graduate of Harvard University and is considered a rising star in Democratic circles. “Many people don’t understand that. For all the policies that I’ll decide at my level, or Congressman Raul Ruiz will decide at his level, county government is where the rubber meets the road.”

Benoit, on this point, agreed with Perez.

“I enjoyed being a senator, and (serving in) the State Senate was an honor and a privilege,” said Benoit. “But nothing I did in the Senate even comes close to the impacts I have, sometimes every week, in the decisions I make here as a member of the Board of Supervisors—real impacts on real projects that are going to have real significance.”

The office of county supervisor is considered a nonpartisan position, although the office can be attained only by enduring a political campaign and an election process. Benoit addressed this contrariety.

“Because this is a nonpartisan office, and most of what we deal with is nonpartisan issues, I would think the biggest distinction between myself and my opponent is that I have 42 years of public-service experience,” he said. “That all helps a lot when you’re managing an office as part of a board responsible for 58 departments and 18,000 employees.”

As for the “nonpartisan” nature of the office he’s seeking, Perez mused: “It’s supposed to be. You know, I’ve been approached by many different entities and different allies on both sides of the aisle—Republicans and Democrats—to run for this seat. I feel that’s because of my work in Sacramento and because of my strong ties within the networks of the leadership there. I’ve worked in a bipartisan way, where (most) of the (policies) I’ve passed have been bipartisan, so I’ll definitely bring independent thinking to the county Board of Supervisors. I feel I’m the person who can bridge through and build up the Coachella Valley.”

What initiatives will be the focus of their respective campaigns? Benoit cited work he’s been doing in Mecca and the East Valley.

“We have the (66th Avenue) overcross and the Comfort Station, which is a legacy issue that we’re working on with the Galilee Center,” he said.

The Mecca Comfort Station would provide “restroom, shower, laundry, and adequate parking facilities to migrant farm workers in Mecca and the surrounding communities,” according to a county document. The Galilee Center assists the underprivileged in the East Valley.

He also pledged to work on the economy of the district.

“Every where you look, there are initiatives for growth and, in particular, solar projects and a vast array of potential renewable projects involved with the Salton Sea moving forward,” Benoit said.

Perez also said he’d focus on the economy.

“Ultimately, jobs and the economy are the No. 1 issue, because we still see a major gap between the rich and the poor,” he said. “In Riverside County, the largest number of poor exist here compared to every county in California, except Imperial County. I’ve got to make sure I deal with regulation, incentives and credits to lure in business.”

Both candidates are acutely aware of the see-saw voter-registration struggle going on in the Coachella Valley. Democrats have been whittling away at the Republican advantage in the county in recent years, although Republicans seemingly stopped that trend in 2013; as of Dec. 31, 2013, Republicans had a 5.14 percent voter-registration edge, according to the California Secretary of State.

“I’m pleased to see that the Republican registration numbers have come back some,” said Benoit. “But frankly, I’m not worried about that. I’m spending as much time or more talking to Democrats, talking to folks in the western part of the valley where I’m not as well-known—and when I talk to them, it has nothing to do with Republican or Democrat. I talk about all of my experience during four years in this supervisor’s office, and that I’m the right choice to continue what I’m doing.”

However, Perez pointed out that District 4 bucks the county trend; according to those same Dec. 31 figures from the Secretary of State, there were 3,600 more registered Democrats than Republicans in District 4.

“We have a 4 percent advantage in District 4,” Perez said. “… Earlier, we laughed about how this is supposed to be a nonpartisan race. Ultimately, we’re going to win this not because of those numbers, but because we’re going to out-work them. The numbers, be what they may be, do exist. But this campaign is going to be won on the ground.”

How do the candidates view their position in the race at this point? As of the end of 2013, Benoit had about $57,000 more in the bank, but Pérez was closing that gap.

“We know we’re way ahead in endorsements … and we certainly have an advantage in fundraising,” said Benoit. “Also, we’ve seen some polling numbers that indicate we’re in very good shape. But we’re putting all that behind us and running like we’re losing, to win.”

Perez also said he expects a close, challenging race.

“Ultimately, people are going to have to make a decision between two individuals who are going to work hard to win this election,” Perez said. “For some voters, this decision may be a tough one. They may have to break loyalties. So, yes, it’s going to be a campaign that, in my hope, causes people to reflect and dig deep inside—not only into their pocketbooks, but into their hearts and minds. They know that I actually care, and they’ll come out and vote for me.”

Below: V. Manuel Perez: "I’ve worked in a bipartisan way, where (most) of the (policies) I’ve passed have been bipartisan, so I’ll definitely bring independent thinking to the county Board of Supervisors. I feel I’m the person who can bridge through and build up the Coachella Valley.” Photo by Kevin Fitzgerald.

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Over the last decade in the Coachella Valley (and Riverside County overall), there has been a seismic political shift that is not related to the proximity of the San Andreas Fault.

In 2004, as the presidential election drew near, the Republican Party in Riverside County held a voter-registration advantage of 12.5 percentage points over the Democratic Party.

Four years later, that Republican advantage had dwindled to slightly more than 5 percentage points. And in 2012, as the race between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney neared its climax, the Democratic Party had narrowed the gap to just 4.5 percentage points.

According to data released on May 20 by the California Secretary of State, that differential is now just 4.1 percentage points.

It’s no surprise that many political insiders in Riverside County attribute the Democrats’ surprising wins at the polls last November—Obama actually beat Romney by almost 11,000 votes in the county, and Dr. Raul Ruiz edged out incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack to get elected to Congress—to the party’s effective voter-enlistment drive over the last decade.

“When we opened our headquarters five years ago (in Cathedral City), we realized that one of the most important activities we could pursue was voter registration,” explained Elle Kurpiewski, the manager of the aforementioned headquarters and a former president of the Democrats of the Desert. “Our facility plays host to 11 different Democratic clubs and organizations in the region; we sponsor a booth at the weekly Thursday night Palm Springs Village Fest; and in 2008, we had 27 semi-permanent voter-registration sites established.”

Other factors have impacted the registered-voter landscape, too. One was the California online voter registration legislation that took effect in 2012 and is credited with enabling some 800,000 new voters statewide to join the electoral rolls prior to the 2012 general election. This new registration method proved particularly effective in attracting eligible voters among the young and minority groups, favoring Democrats statewide by a 2-to-1 margin over Republicans. (There are no specific numbers for Riverside County available yet.)

“Our only concern was whether online registration would actually work: Would voters be able to navigate the system successfully to get registered?” Kurpiewski said. “What we want is that people take advantage of their constitutional right to vote. If it works and helps stop registration fraud, then we’re in favor of it.”

Another major factor is the rapid growth of the Latino population statewide. According to the California Department of Finance, by early 2014, Latinos will outnumber white people by early 2014. Along with the Latino segment’s rapid growth comes these political realities: While only 44 percent of eligible Latino voters in the state had registered, more than 60 percent of them identified themselves as Democrats; meanwhile, only about 15 percent said they were Republicans, according to the Public Policy Institute of California in an analysis released earlier this year.

Therein lies both an opportunity and a challenge for the two major political parties.

“I always say that the Republican Party in Riverside County has three ongoing and equally important goals: voter registration, fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts,” said Randon Lane, chairman of the Republican Party of Riverside County. “I will speak to any organization, representing any constituency, about the Republican Party message and values. Right now, it’s important for us to get outside the box to attract both new voters to register as Republicans, and convert those who may not completely understand our message and are registered now with other major parties.”

Kurpiewski said local Democrats have made specific efforts to reach Latino communities in Coachella, Indio and Mecca. “But our focus is not just the Latino community; we care about everyone. In all ethnic communities, we enlist participants who are members of that community and have skills and expertise unique to their community. They know their neighbors and can identify the areas where our voter registration outreach will succeed. Our whole thing is working together with the communities that make up Coachella Valley, and that has made us successful in turning this valley blue.”

All eyes are now on the 2014 Riverside County Board of Supervisors race between challenger V. Manuel Perez, a Democrat, and Republican incumbent John Benoit. Just how much of the voter-registration focus in Riverside County will be on recruiting Latino citizens?

“There are a lot of shared voter concerns that we speak to as a party in our outreach efforts, whether at meetings, via social media or direct mail,” said Lane, “but particular voter segments have their specific issues that we want to address. The Republican Party wants to speak to the Latino community’s concerns, just as we need to address concerns in the black, Asian, white or any ethnic constituency where voters will consider supporting the Republican Party.”

Kurpiewski said local Democrats are in the process of starting a major voter-registration drive this month. “I’d rather not share details, because we don’t want to give opposing parties a preview of our strategy, but we are very confident that this effort will enable us to accomplish everything we can to help V. Manuel Perez to get elected, and also to keep U.S. Congressman Raul Ruiz in office,” she said.

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