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.”