Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Tom Whitt, who played central role in disputed 1974 Fresno County Sheriff election, dies at 74

C. Thomas Whitt spent a lifetime in law enforcement.

He worked three years as a sheriff’s deputy, nearly two as a California Highway Patrol officer, more than a year as a Fresno police officer, and for the rest was a criminology instructor at Fresno City College.

But, careers aside, Tom Whitt’s real brush with fame came in 1974, when he played a central role in Fresno County’s disputed sheriff’s election.

Tom Whitt, who played a central role in the disputed 1974 Fresno County Sheriff election.

Whitt — who passed away last Friday at age 74 of natural causes related to Alzheimer’s disease — declared himself a write-in candidate and entered the race after things got ugly between longtime Sheriff Melvin Willmirth and challenger Guy Langley, who had been a sergeant in the department.

In the primary that year, Langley posted an upset victory over Willmirth, and the two advanced to the November general election.

As the runoff neared, however, Langley accused Willmirth of trying to frame him on a drug charge. Willmirth leveled a countercharge against Langley, claiming he was being set up in the heat of an election battle.

Enter Whitt, who was teaching at Fresno City College.

He ended up with the victory, attracting an astonishing 39,288 write-in votes. But a routine canvass of the ballots found massive errors, and a recount gave Langley a 773-vote victory.

Whitt went to court, citing voting irregularities. Accusations flew, and when Langley took the oath of office in January 1975, it was under a dark political cloud.

Then-Fresno County Superior Court Judge Hollis Best eventually voided the election, citing a laundry list of irregularities. Langley soon after was out, and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors eventually selected Harold “Hal” McKinney to fill the remainder of Langley’s term.

McKinney went on to serve 12 years, and Whitt headed back to Fresno City College.

That brush with being the county’s top cop was enough for many in town, who always would say Tom Whitt had been sheriff, recalled Whitt’s son, Jeff.

“I just felt like my dad was the sheriff,” Jeff Whitt said. “It was like he was Sheriff Taylor and I was Opie. It seemed like that my whole life.”

But for Jeff and his sister, Tom Whitt was more than just a criminology instructor who played a role in one of Fresno County’s many political dramas.
“He was a great man,” Jeff Whitt said.

Among other things, he was a longtime Rotary Club member and served a long stint on the Educational Employees Credit Union’s board of directors.

He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease close to four years ago, but was lucid until around three weeks ago, Jeff Whitt said.

For as long as was possible, Whitt said, his father tried to stay busy.

“He was always looking for other things to do,” he said.

Political Notebook: No challengers for Clovis Council incumbents Ashbeck, Magsig

For the second straight Clovis Council election, there will be no election.

Incumbents Lynne Ashbeck and Nathan Magsig were up for election next March on the five-member board, but no challengers stepped forward during the filing period that ended last Friday.

In fact, only two people besides Ashbeck and Magsig even pulled nomination papers, though neither returned them.

During the filing period for the 2011 Clovis election, 10 people pulled papers — and none returned them to challenge the incumbents. That election was canceled and incumbents Harry Armstrong, Jose Flores and Bob Whalen were all appointed to the council for four more years.

The same thing will now happen to Ashbeck and Magsig.

Both had immediately said they would seek re-election when the filing period opened last month.

“You never know what to expect in government and politics,” Magsig said.

He has no idea, he said, why no challengers stepped forward.

“All I can say is I’m honored the citizens of Clovis will be giving me an opportunity to serve another four years in office,” he said. “I think we’ve got a great council.”

The good news for Clovis residents is the city will save the estimated $150,000 cost to put on the election.

On the other hand, some political watchers say it isn’t good for the democratic process when elected officials don’t have to stand for reelection — even if they are doing a good job.

Political Notebook: Fresno City Council signs off on election — the June election, that is

The Fresno City Council this morning passed a resolution “declaring the results” of the election — not from three weeks ago, but from June.

County elections officials certified the June primary election five months ago.
“We’re moving at the speed of government,” Council President Clint Olivier said in an interview.

A resolution approved by the City Council says that Ashley Swearengin, “having received the majority of votes cast for the office of Mayor, is hereby declared elected to that office.”

It does the same for soon-to-be Council Member Paul Caprioglio in District 4 and incumbent Council Member Lee Brand in District 6.

For those with short memories, a background memo to the council from City Clerk Yvonne Spence says that Swearengin, Brand, and Caprioglio all received more than 50% of the vote.

Oh, and one more thing: the resolution also says “a general municipal election in November is required for Council District 2.”

That, of course, already happened, and Steve Brandau won the race over Pat Di Cicco.

Brandau and Di Cicco faced off because none of the five candidates in District 2 were able to win more than 50% of the vote in June. Di Cicco and Brandau advanced because they were the top two vote getters.

There’s no word on when Brandau’s win will be “declared” official.

Political Notebook: Big money political interests again weigh in on Bigelow-Oller Assembly race

It’s seems there’s a lot of wealthy groups and individuals in California who really want Madera County Republican Frank Bigelow to win the 5th Assembly District seat. Or, just as likely, they want Calaveras County Republican Rico Oller to lose.

Or both.

Leading up to the June primary, a group called the Mother Lode Taxpayers Association Political Action Committee For Bigelow Assembly 2012 was formed, and then raised $235,000 to support Bigelow and oppose Oller.

Almost all the cash came from the California Dental Association Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee and the California Real Estate Independent Expenditure Committee.

The November general election has now brought an even bigger boost for Bigelow.

It is another independent expenditure, this time from the California Senior Advocates League. The group has raised more than $1.7 million this year, of which it appears more than $300,000 went to support Bigelow and, mostly, to oppose Oller.

The group has weighed in on several state Assembly and Senate races around the state in addition to Bigelow-Oller, as well as giving money to a few other organizations such as the Inland Empire Taxpayers Association.

As with the primary election Mother Lode IE, the California Dental Association is a huge contributor to the California Senior Advocates League, as is Republican Charles Munger Jr.

Munger has garnered a huge amount of publicity because he’s contributed millions to defeat Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative, Proposition 30, and to support Proposition 32, an initiative that would limit the political clout of unions in California.

A group called Reform California Now has also contributed close to $1 million to California Senior Advocates League.

Among the contributors to Reform California Now are the California Real Estate Independent Expenditure Committee, California Farm Bureau, Chevron Corp. and Philip Morris USA.

It appears a good part of the cash in the Bigelow-Oller race is going toward radio advertisements, though mailers have also been purchased.

Political Notebook: Democrats continue to lead Republicans in Fresno Co. voter registration

Fresno County Democrats are continuing to lead rival Republicans in signing up new voters, data released today by the Secretary of State’s Office shows.

The new voter registration numbers — the last that will be released before Tuesday’s election — show there are 6,396 more Democrats than Republicans in Fresno County.

In raw numbers, it is 164,663 Democrats to 158,267 Republicans.

Last month, the Democrats led by 2,635, and in May, it was 2,700.

Also showing significant growth were those voters who are declining to join a political party, or are registered with one that isn’t recognized by the state, such as the once-relevant Reform Party.

In May, these people with “no party preference” were at 61,869. Last month, it was 62,311. And now, it is 67,417.

The latest numbers show the Republican Party in Fresno County continuing to struggle on the registration front, and marks a continuing reversal of fortune for the local GOP, which a decade ago was riding high.

In 2000, Republicans in Fresno County overtook Democrats in voter registration totals for the first time in anyone’s memory. That lead peaked in 2004 with a GOP advantage of more than 24,000 voters.

But Democrats worked to close the gap, and by the middle of 2010 had retaken the lead. They haven’t relinquished it since, and now appear to be growing it.

A stark example of that is looking back to this point four years ago, when President Barack Obama was seeking his first term in office. At that point, Republicans still held a lead of more than 10,000 voters.

Since that point, Democrats in Fresno County have added more than 11,200 voters, while Republicans have added just 4,800.

It turns a 2004 quote from Michael Der Manouel Jr. on its head. “Countywide,” the current chairman of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County said, “I don’t believe (Democrats) will ever catch us again.”

The City of Fresno also remains solidly Democratic, with 21,350 more registered voters than Republicans.

While Republicans lag in Fresno County, they are continuing their domination of rival Democrats in the rest of the central San Joaquin Valley — Tulare, Kings and Madera counties.

In Tulare, there are 63,809 Republicans to 49,151 Democrats. In Kings, it is 21,812 Republicans to 17,068 Democrats. And in Madera, 24,152 Republicans to 18,301 Democrats.

As for the local congressional races, Democrats are dominating voter registration in the two westside districts — the 16th, where Fresno Democrat Jim Costa is seeking reelection, and the 21st, which is an open seat featuring a battle between Republican Assembly Member David Valadao and Fresno Democrat John Hernandez.

At the same time, Republican voters rule in the eastside districts currently held by GOP incumbents Devin Nunes, Kevin McCarthy and Tom McClintock.

Of particular interest is the Hernandez-Valadao clash, because political prognosticators have dubbed Valadao the clear favorite even though Republicans lag in registration. Hernandez has vowed to get Democrats to the polls.

The registration numbers are through Oct. 22.

Feinstein still turns thumbs down on draining Hetch Hetchy

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein hasn’t changed her mind on restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park — it’s still a terrible idea, she says.

The reservoir at Hetch Hetchy has long been a source of controversy because it occupies one of the country’s premier national parks. It provides San Francisco some of the most pristine water in the country.

Feinstein, who was at The Fresno Bee Tuesday for an editorial board meeting, has always opposed tearing down O’Shaughnessy Dam. In her days as mayor of San Francisco, she said the idea makes no sense.

The dam has been a sore spot dating back to venerated conservationist John Muir, who fought a losing battle against its construction.

Many environmentalists say Hetch Hetchy is the geologic twin of Yosemite Valley and would be an exceptional attraction in Yosemite if it were not under 17 billion gallons of water from the Tuolumne River.

The issue is hot right now in San Francisco with a vote scheduled next week on a measure aimed a drafting a plan to drain the reservoir.

“Maybe we wouldn’t build the dam today,” she said. “But it’s a terrible idea to tear it down now.”

She said the city would need more extensive water treatment if it obtained drinking water from lower-elevation reservoirs. Also, two irrigation districts have long-term hydroelectric power agreements that would be threatened, she said.

“I’m not opposed to dam removal,” Feinstein said. “But not in this case.”