“Hi, I’m Roy Whiteaker, your candidate for the state Senate,” the hefty fellow in brown Western boots tells voters as he tramps from house to house with an armload of campaign brochures declaring him to be “A great lawman. A great lawmaker.”
On this day and most others as he knocks on doors, nobody recognizes Roy Whiteaker as the rural sheriff who in 1971 received international attention in the spectacular Juan Corona mass murder case.
Newspapers at the time lavished praise on the 31-year-old rookie sheriff, characterizing him as “cooly professional,” “competent,” and as a young law enforcement officer “who does not fit the stereotype of the rural lawman.”
These days, Sheriff Roy Whiteaker of Sutter County is the Democratic nominee in the vast 1st Senate District of Northern California and is pursuing an uphill campaign to unseat feisty Republican Sen. John Doolittle of Rocklin, a bedrock conservative and the Senate’s No. 2 GOP leader.
It was Whiteaker, in office only a few months, who tracked down labor contractor Juan Corona after the discovery of several mutilated bodies in peach orchards near the farming community of Yuba City. In all, 25 corpses of farm workers were unearthed from shallow graves in what then was called the biggest mass murder case in the nation’s history.
Corona, who was convicted and later reconvicted at a retrial, remains in prison.
Now, 17 years later, Whiteaker said he seldom thinks about the Corona case.
“Occasionally, people will mention it, but not very often. In running for the Senate, I’m dealing with people who have moved into this area who were not familiar with the case,” he said.
The district, stretching from northeastern Sacramento County in the south to the Oregon state line in the north, covers 28,000 square miles and serves as a key watershed for export of surplus water to the south. Here the No. 1 political concern is water and guarding it against actual or perceived “raids” from Southern California.
Although the Doolittle campaign estimates that Democrats narrowly outnumber Republicans, approximately 46% to 43%, voters in the agricultural valleys and foothills and the forested mountains long have supported conservative candidates and issues.
Doolittle, strictly buttoned-down and boyish-appearing at 37, has represented the 1st District since 1984, when reapportionment pitted him against Sen. Ray Johnson (I-Chico) in a take-no-prisoners campaign. Later, Doolittle was fined $3,000 by the Fair Political Practices Commission for “dirty tricks” in failing to disclose his participation in a campaign mailer.
In the Legislature, Doolittle is perhaps best known for high-profile legislation he carried to combat the spread of AIDS. He drew praise from supporters as being at the cutting edge of the AIDS fight and criticism from others who claimed that he merely sought to punish homosexuals and gather publicity for a possible run for higher office.
Among other things, Doolittle three years ago was at the forefront of advocates who favored expanded testing for the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, and a relaxation of confidentiality safeguards that protect the identity of those who test positive for exposure to the deadly virus.
Seen as Attack on Privacy
At the time, such a notion was considered an attack on a person’s right to privacy. Recently, the Democratic Legislature passed and Gov. George Deukmejian signed a Democrat-sponsored bill to allow a physician to inform fellow members of a medical treatment team that the patient has AIDS.
But Whiteaker accuses Doolittle of having lost touch with concerns of importance to his own constituents in favor of exaggerating AIDS as an issue.
“AIDS is a metropolitan issue, a serious public health issue and I don’t want to minimize it,” Whiteaker contended. “But it is not something people of the north are going to bed at night worrying about. They’re thinking about jobs and water and the economy.”
Doolittle denied that he is exaggerating the AIDS threat, asserting that the Whiteaker charge “reveals his ignorance on the importance of the AIDS issue. We have a lethal disease that is spreading unabated and no one is doing anything about it. I’m trying to do something about it.”
Doolittle, who denied accusations that he is a gay-baiter, insisted that “AIDS is a public health issue. Homosexuality is spreading AIDS and that conduct has got to stop. One way is testing.”
Agree on Major Issues
Doolittle and Whiteaker, who terms himself a conservative Democrat and an “ardent supporter of the death penalty,” seem to be close together on water issues and capital punishment. Both support the death penalty and both favor construction of a controversial proposed high-rise dam across the American River near Auburn in the scenic Sierra foothills.
But Doolittle, who ran his previous three election campaigns for the Senate as a slashing challenger, said during a swing through the Gold Rush communities of Grass Valley and Nevada City recently that he is not at ease with his new role as an incumbent on the defensive.
“I don’t think there are any legitimate issues in this race,” he told a group of executives at a breakfast. “I don’t like being on the defensive. I am not comfortable with it.”
Yet, in a political era when fighting crime is a popular issue and attacking the police belongs to the street demonstrations of the turbulent 1960s, Doolittle takes the highly unusual step of calling Whiteaker “soft on crime.”
Doolittle, insisting that he “owns the toughest crime-fighting record in the California Legislature,” claims in campaign literature that felony crimes have increased steadily in the last four years in Whiteaker’s Sutter County.
Calls It ‘Misleading’
Whiteaker shrugs off the criticism as “misleading” and asserts that crime statistics often can be manipulated to reach virtually any conclusion. “Me, soft on crime? Doolittle cheated and committed actual violations of the law in the campaign against Ray Johnson and was fined for it,” the sheriff said.
In seeking to defeat Doolittle, Whiteaker finds himself far outspent by an incumbent who has been in the Senate since 1980. In the latest campaign disclosure records, as of Sept. 30, Doolittle reported spending a total of $577,109 from contributions of $683,324. He also had $252,454 in the bank. Whiteaker, meanwhile, reported raising $289,633 and spending $271,849 and said he had $17,637 in the bank.
Doolittle, who as Senate Republican caucus chairman is a heavyweight fund-raiser for GOP Senate candidates, draws much of his financial support from trial lawyers, prison guards, the tobacco industry and growers. His largest single contribution, $28,000, came from Mercury Casualty, a Los Angeles insurance company.
On the other hand, Whiteaker’s biggest donors were labor unions, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp ($5,000), and a handful of Senate Democrats, not including Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles). Aides to Roberti have said privately that he is reluctant to contribute directly to Whiteaker because Roberti and Doolittle, despite their disparate political philosophies, get along well as members of the Senate Rules Committee.