The questions linger after a tumultuous political and legal drama in El Dorado County. They dangle amid the clutter of campaign signs on hillsides along Highway 50 and beneath Ponderosa pines on back-country roads.
What is the mood of this county after a veteran supervisor, Ray Nutting, was put on trial and stripped from office in what supporters called a political prosecution? What are the challenges of this Sierra foothills region, the birthplace of the Gold Rush, where grass-roots revolts now roil over a proposed residential development boom?
On Tuesday, voters will choose among six candidates in an extraordinary special election to replace Nutting. The winner will take office immediately and serve out the last two years and four months of the former District 2 supervisor’s term.
The candidates include his wife, Jennifer Nutting, owner of a Pollock Pines hair salon and an outspoken critic of what she claims is a county culture of political bullying that led to her husband’s prosecution.
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Ray Nutting, 54, a four-term county supervisor, was acquitted on three felony counts for failing to properly disclose more than $70,000 in state income he received for brush-clearing on the family’s 340-acre timber ranch in Somerset. But a judge ordered him expelled from office June 6 because of misdemeanor convictions for improperly raising $55,000 in bail money from two county employees and a construction contractor doing business with the county.
Now the other special election candidates – winery owner Dave Pratt, manufacturing executive Claire McNeal, automotive shop owner George Turnboo, database systems consultant Chris Amaral and Web hosting company owner Shiva Frentzen – are trying to refocus the election to matters other than the Nutting saga.
The other candidates are offering competing visions over who would best promote economic development and preserve the environment in a county where slow growth advocates warn the rural character is imperiled by a building boom that could bring 21,000 to 33,000 homes over the next two decades.
In a heavily Republican district that stretches from suburban El Dorado Hills to the high Sierra, the outcome of the special election may depend on how people read the signs.
Frentzen, who supports a ballot initiative to restrict traffic-inducing residential construction, hopes people are tuning into her posted warnings of excessive development.
On Highway 50, north of a canyon expanse where developers hope to build an upscale community amid rustic oaks and an old limestone quarry, she erected a campaign placard: “No Marble Valley – 4,000 homes.”
To the east, near roadside farms on Mother Lode Drive, another Frentzen for Supervisor sign declares: “No San Stino – 1,000 homes,” referring to a proposed subdivision bitterly fought by residents in Shingle Springs.
Frentzen said she is hoping to win the special election based on her embrace of Measure M, a November initiative that would ban new housing developments if the California Department of Transportation determines that any stretch of Highway 50 west of Placerville is at or forecast to reach gridlocked traffic levels.
Frentzen, a member of the Cameron Park Community Services District, said her message seems to be resonating with voters in western El Dorado communities, such as Cameron Park or Shingle Springs.
But she senses a different reaction in the district’s rural southeastern sector, including Somerset, where ill feelings fester over Ray Nutting’s prosecution.
“When you get to the south county, Ray is very well established and that support is being transferred to Jennifer,” Frentzen said. “People believe that what happened is not fair, and they will be voting for Jennifer to make a point.”
Jennifer Nutting’s campaign signs call out in bold blue and yellow for “Clean Government.” And her mailers sent to voters seek their help in cleaning up local politics and stopping “county scandals,” such as the one that forced her husband out of office.
“Will you help me with the important job of cleaning up our County government?” Nutting asked voters in a recent mailer. She listed some of things that needed to be cleaned up, starting with “the District Attorney’s wasteful and abusive failed publicity driven show trials.”
“I think there will be a lot of people voting on emotion, trying to right a wrong in regards to what happened to Ray,” Nutting said. “But there are a lot of issues in the county, development issues, the growth of Marble Valley and San Stino. What’s going to decide the election? Gosh, that’s a total toss-up.”
Nutting also is promoting job creation over home construction, vowing to fight the two community developments as well as a hotel project in Shingle Springs called Tilden Park.
Meanwhile, she has received $12,000 in contributions, including a paid campaign mailer, from Region Builders PAC, a commercial construction trades group advocating economic growth in Sacramento and surrounding counties. Her campaign also took in $4,000 from other construction interests, including $2,000 from Winn Communities of Sacramento.
“Jennifer is a pro-business candidate that wants to see jobs created in El Dorado County,” said Joshua Wood, executive director of Region Builders. He said the group swung its support behind her because of her high name recognition, knowledge of county issues and “targeted approach to increasing jobs while protecting the rural values of El Dorado County.”
The commercial builder’s backing has raised eyebrows from some other candidates.
“There’s a lot of money being thrown around,” said Amaral, an El Dorado Hills resident and lone Democrat in the race. Amaral, who got a $3,000 donation from the El Dorado County Democratic Campaign Committee, is touting his refusal to take development contributions. He also is the only one of the six candidates to turn down a $1,500 donation offered to each by the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, operator of the Red Hawk Casino.
Amaral’s campaign slogan – on his roadside signs – is: “End Divisive Politics and Outside Influence.” He has called for harmony in the county after the Ray Nutting case.
Another slow-growth candidate, Turnboo, is supporting a November ballot initiative, Measure O, that would amend the county’s general plan to restrict higher density residential construction in Shingle Springs, Camino and Pollock Pines.
Turnboo, who lives in the town of El Dorado, previously ran unsuccessfully against Ray Nutting. He says there needs to be a change in the political culture, staring with a different family name in the District 2 supervisorial seat.
“I want to bring honesty and integrity back to El Dorado County,” said Turnboo, who expects the Nutting case to drive voter turnout. “With all the stuff that’s happened with the situation with Ray, people are getting out and voting. They want change.”
McNeal, a Somerset resident and a pro-business candidate, is the leading spender in the race. An 18-year county resident who helped build a Silicon Valley plastics manufacturing firm, McNeal Enterprises, she provided $37,600 to her campaign – out of $39,739 raised. She advocates improving county infrastructure and telecommunications systems to attract economic development and touts her business acumen to guide the county’s future.
“You put your money where your mouth is,” McNeal said of her self-funded campaign.
Before Nutting’s legal troubles, Pratt thought he was the natural successor to the District 2 supervisor. Pratt, owner of the DK Cellars winery in Somerset, was Nutting’s appointee to the county planning commission.
Before that, he served on the El Dorado County Agricultural Commission and, from 2002-2004, worked on the drafting of the county’s general plan. He says he is the best prepared to serve out Nutting’s term.
“My experience is going to be the difference,” said Pratt, who has received more than $4,000 in contributions from agricultural interests, including cattle ranching, wineries, apple growers and olive oil producers. “I’ve been working on this stuff for 12 years. I think people are looking for a little experience at this point in the game.”
In this race, most eyes are on Jennifer Nutting. She has been pegged as the favorite based on her family name. She has a loyal following. Yet she has also been the subject of local wrath.
More than 60 of her campaign signs have been damaged or defaced. Her campaign manager, Dan Dellinger, said vandals have painted mustaches on her picture, spray-painted obscenities or affixed stickers reading: “No more Nutting.”
Nutting issued a personal letter calling for civility.
“I think it bothers my family, friends and supporters more than it bothers me,” she said in an interview. “If I jump into politics, I’ve got to have thicker skin than letting sign vandalism bother me. And, besides, I think I look great in a mustache.”