Each summer, southern Humboldt County begins to look like military-occupied territory. Low-flying helicopters buzz fields, land on private property and disgorge cargoes of camouflaged sheriff's deputies in search of marijuana plantations.
That kind of activity -- seen by many as belligerent and oppressive -- along with a perceived lack of interest in communicating with the public, may have contributed to the decision of voters in this North Coast county to boot out the incumbent sheriff and the longtime district attorney.
"You lose goodwill with your community when you do stuff like that," said Paul Gallegos, the district attorney-elect, referring to the helicopter raids.
In an upset last March, Gallegos, a private defense attorney with no political experience, ousted Dist. Atty. Terry Farmer, who had won the last five elections beginning in 1982. Gallegos takes office today.
The election also ended the tenure of Sheriff Dennis Lewis, who lost by an overwhelming margin to an underling, former Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Gary Philp.
Gallegos and Philp represented, for many voters, new blood in a system that had become unresponsive and inefficient. Gallegos campaigned on a progressive platform, promising a more considered approach to medical marijuana cases. He also pledged to treat both sides equally in conflicts between timber companies and protesters, to eliminate waste in the department and to focus resources on domestic violence, elder and child abuse and the methamphetamine scourge.
Gallegos, 40, attributes his victory, in part, to his endorsement by the local chapter of the Green Party and its volunteers.
"They gave me people, they phone-banked, they were on the streets with signs, they brought a lot of energy and commitment," Gallegos said. "They were very instrumental to me."
Environmentalists are a force to be reckoned with in Humboldt County. Home to the Headwaters Forest and the state's famous redwoods, the county has considerably more registered Democrats than Republicans (44% to 30%) and a Green Party registration of 7%.
Farmer is not without connections: His wife is a county supervisor, and California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer made a campaign stop on his behalf. He told reporters after the election that he perhaps had not taken Gallegos seriously, but then "nobody took him seriously." Gallegos won with 52% of the vote.
Neither Farmer nor Lewis could be reached for comment.
For his part, Philp, 51, attributed his win to what he called Lewis' lack of leadership and failure to communicate with the public and the media. It didn't hurt Philp that Lewis barely campaigned.
Lewis came into office in 1994 as an outsider, vowing to clean up after outgoing Sheriff Dave Renner, who was later imprisoned for misappropriating county funds. But Lewis appeared out of touch with Humboldt County voters on certain issues -- medical marijuana being a prime example.
The former sheriff, who retired in September after losing to Philp, made headlines in 2001 when he refused to return a single ounce of pot to a medical marijuana patient, even after being ordered to do so by a judge.
"You have to look at the reasonableness of what you do," said Philp, who won 73% of the vote. "There are so many other things you could be focusing your energy on."
Gallegos agreed. The sheriff and the D.A. are supposed to enforce California law, he said, including Proposition 215, the medical marijuana initiative that lets a patient with a doctor's prescription smoke pot to relieve pain. Enforcement of that law has been especially tricky in recent months because federal statutes still ban any use or possession of marijuana and a federal Drug Enforcement Administration crackdown has put agents at odds with local authorities.
Lewis' action "seemed like a concerted effort to defeat and challenge the passage" of Proposition 215, Gallegos said. "That's just not the way it's supposed to work."
Another issue that stuck with voters -- though it did not prevent Lewis' reelection in 1998 -- was his decision in 1997 to daub pepper spray on the eyelids of timber activists. That incident brought the county international media attention and led to the perception, among some, that Lewis and his deputies were thugs.
Philp said his approach is to "enforce the law, and remain as impartial as we can." Deputies will continue to arrest protesters who trespass on private lands, but they are not timber companies' private security, he said. "We're not here to take sides."