At the Cielo Estate winery in Shingle Springs, political upheaval in El Dorado County seemed to drift away momentarily Wednesday evening as a gentle breeze faintly ruffled leaves of heritage oaks.
Inside a reception room, as guests sipped Sierra foothills pinot grigio, five of the six special election candidates for District 2 supervisor politely discussed pointed matters of development, traffic and water.
A 45-minute drive away in Fair Play, guests at the hacienda-style Perry Creek Winery listened to soft guitar music, nibbled finger foods and raised glasses of zinfandel in a fundraiser for the other District 2 candidate, Jennifer Nutting.
Yet such pastoral settings are ultimately unable to obscure the bitterness, dysfunction and strangeness of the supervisorial special election that roil El Dorado County these days.
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After a politically charged prosecution, visiting Superior Court Judge Timothy S. Buckley on June 6 ordered four-term Supervisor Ray Nutting ousted from office over misdemeanor convictions for improperly raising bail money. Nutting’s wife, Jennifer, is now running for his seat, even as he seeks to halt the Sept. 9 special election.
Last week, Nutting sought a judicial stay of the vote in a writ that claimed his rights were violated by his removal. He charged that the judge wrongfully “excluded me from my office, withheld my salary ... and prohibited me from performing my duties” based on an unproven allegation of official misconduct.
The state’s 3rd District Court of Appeal is not required to rule before the special election. If the court fails to act by Sept. 9, the winner will fill the District 2 seat. And even if he prevails on appeal, Nutting won’t be able to reclaim the office – though can sue the county for damages.
So as the legal challenges fester, and with no guarantee of a vote, five special-election candidates met at the Cielo Estate forum. Before about 100 people, they weighed in on proposed subdivision developments and traffic-inducing projects and sparred over who best could protect the county’s rustic flavor.
But some candidates said they had little idea of what voters may focus on: the local growth issues or the tumult of the Nutting case.
“Definitely there are going to be people who are going to vote on emotion and the issues with the previous supervisor,” said candidate Shiva Frentzen, a member of the Cameron Park Community Services Board and owner of CAL Internet Services consulting company. “I hope they recognize that that emotion is short-term. The long-term question is, who do they want to make decisions for their future?”
For now, most eyes in this most peculiar of elections are focused on Jennifer Nutting. She was a determined backer of her husband as he faced felony prosecution for failing to properly declare more than $70,000 in state fire prevention grants for brush-clearing on the family’s 340-acre timber ranch in Somerset.
A jury acquitted Ray Nutting of three felonies and deadlocked on a fourth felony count. But jurors convicted him of misdemeanors for improperly raising bail money from two county employees and a construction contractor doing business with the county, and those convictions were enough for Buckley to force the supervisor to vacate his office.
Jennifer Nutting, owner of a Pollock Pines hair salon and a former educational aide for special-needs students, insists she is running in her own name and for the good for her county. “This is not about Ray Nutting,” she said in an interview as 100 guests turned out for her $60-per-person fundraiser at the Perry Creek Winery. “It’s about Jennifer Nutting.”
She went on to say: “I’m not running for revenge. I’m not running to keep the Nutting name alive. I’m not running for a political vendetta.”
But she added: “The person who should be there (in office) is Ray Nutting. I believe he was wrongfully taken away from representing the people of El Dorado County.”
Jennifer Nutting is running on job creation and growth within sensible limits. She recently announced her opposition to a proposed 1,000-home subdivision, San Stino, in Shingle Springs.
She also is campaigning on a mantra of “clean government.” When asked to elaborate, she lambasted the “corruption” of “the people who abused their office to go after my husband.”
Tab Berg, a Republican political consultant, said Jennifer Nutting has an overwhelming advantage in name recognition and will be difficult to beat, regardless of how people view her husband’s troubles.
“There are ... voters who will certainly think he got railroaded,” Berg said. “There are others who’ll think maybe he was or wasn’t (wrongly prosecuted) but let’s vote another way. But unless somebody does something dramatic to overtake her (Jennifer), it’s going to be pretty difficult.”
At the Perry Creek Winery event, Ray Nutting stayed mostly in the background as his wife greeted guests on a sprawling patio. As he presses his legal appeals, Ray Nutting said he supports his wife’s decision to run and that she made it on her own.
“I’m just taking everything a day at time,” he said.
Meanwhile, people such as Bonnie Porter rallied around the new candidate.
“When I heard she was going to run, the joy that I felt was just immense,” said Porter, a retired Aerojet employee.
The remaining four El Dorado County supervisors voted in June to schedule the special election, at a cost of $100,000. They said the county charter required them to fill the seat within 120 days after the judge ordered Ray Nutting’s removal.
Special-election candidates include Chris Amaral, an El Dorado Hills resident and project manager for computer database systems who lost a bid for county recorder-clerk in June. Also running is Claire McNeal, a former vice chairman of the county Republican central committee and neighbor of the Nuttings in the Happy Valley region of Somerset.
Another hopeful, George Turnboo, an auto shop owner in the town of El Dorado, was handily defeated by Ray Nutting in 2012. Prosecutors subpoenaed Turnboo to testify this year that his campaign might have fared better if voters in the conservative district had known that Ray Nutting was getting state income for fire protection work on his own ranch.
Meanwhile, candidate Dave Pratt is Ray Nutting’s appointee to the planning commission and an acquaintance of his family. He said he is running because the county needs experienced leadership, not simply the extension of a family political legacy.
“We’re going to have an election until something happens otherwise,” said Pratt, owner of the DK Cellars winery in Fair Play. “It is time for people to move on. Jennifer’s a friend of mine. Ray’s a friend of mine. I wish them well in their pursuits. But I’m in this to win it.”
In Diamond Springs, printing shop owner Neal Stockman said he is simply fed up with all things Nutting. He recently added some new lettering – “No More Nutting” – to the roadside sign advertising his business services.
“I’m tired of the Nuttings,” Stockman said. “Everything is always someone else’s fault. Nothing is Ray’s fault. I’m sorry, but when you screw up as a supervisor, you’re done as a supervisor. I have never met Jennifer. But I have no desire to put another Nutting in office.”
Yet Diamond Springs real estate broker John Stelzmiller, former chair of the county Republican central committee, said he can’t put aside how “Ray has been badly mistreated, run over the coals and shook from end to end.”
He said he is inspired by the candidacy of Jennifer Nutting, the ousted supervisor’s “right arm,” but said voters may be turned off – or wildly confused – by the county’s messy political drama.
“I think voters are going to be in the dark,” Stelzmiller said. “I really feel this is an election that is going to leave people in a lurch, not knowing where to go.”