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Youngblood, Fleeman In Contentious Race For Kern County Sheriff

Christina Lopez
Valley Public Radio
Sheriff candidate Justin Fleeman, and District Attorney Candidates Cynthia Zimmer and Scott Spielman at a recent candidates forum in Bakersfield. Incumbent Sheriff Donny Youngblood did not attend.

On June 5, Kern voters will put their voices where their ballots are and either decide to reelect incumbent Sheriff Donny Youngblood for a fourth term or award the duty to Justin Fleeman, a Senior Chief Deputy for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. FM 89’s Christina Lopez reports.

Bakersfield -- Last week, a group of about 70 people gathered at Bakersfield College for the “Meet Your Candidates” Public Forum. The two-hour event was sponsored by a coalition of nonprofits including Faith in the Valley, Lideres Campesinas, Building Healthy Communities, and the A.C.L.U. Southern California. The forum focused on topics like police accountability, department budgets, immigration, and gun violence.

Those on stage included both candidates for district attorney, Scott Spielman and Cynthia Zimmer, as well as Sheriff’s candidate Chief Deputy Justin Fleeman.

“I want to have an open door policy so anybody in the immigrant community can come and talk to me and discuss issues that are affecting them,” said Fleeman during the forum.

One candidate who was not present during the forum was current Sheriff Donny Youngblood. His absence was represented with an empty chair on stage.

“The candidates you see before you are the ones that accepted. Mr. Youngblood unfortunately declined our offer and we followed up with his office on multiple different occasions,” said Josth Stenner, one of the event’s moderators who also works with Faith in the Valley.

The move, just weeks before a hotly contested election left many in the crowd talking. Laurel Shropshire has been a Kern resident for over three decades. She said she understood Sheriff Youngblood’s absence from the event.

“Sometimes, I guess, that just happens. It doesn’t bother me because I understand Donny Youngblood is our acting sheriff,” said Shropshire. “I mean, he can’t be everywhere at all times. He does still have a job to do.”

Rosa Lopez works as a community engagement and policy advocate for the A.C.L.U. of Southern California in its Kern office. She helped organize the event and said the Sheriff’s absence sent a different message to the largely Latino east-side community.

“By not being here, by not being present really just sends a message to a community of how much he values or validates their concerns or opinion,” said Lopez. “Being that this forum was directed to the community of the east side and having your sheriff absent -- that speaks volumes.”

Lopez said the plan to schedule the event on the east was intentional as a move to bring the candidates to a part of the community that is often overlooked.

Last week's public forum was not the only request Youngblood has declined during this election. He has also turned down repeated requests for comment over the last month and a half with Valley Public Radio regarding the race.

“It was very strategic with the idea of really taking a space like this into the east side of the community and a neutral space,” said Lopez. “We are not endorsing any candidates but what we want to do is provide the space for the community to come learn and speak about the issues that concern you and your family.”

While his opponent was a no-show, Fleeman explained why he decided to attended the public forum.

“At the end of the day, this county deserves to be serviced properly,” said Fleeman. “They need to have an elected official that’ll show up to meetings like this; engage the public and, actually work for them.”

Last week’s public forum was not the only request Youngblood has declined during this election. He has also turned down repeated requests for comment over the last month and a half with Valley Public Radio regarding the race.

Despite his reclusive nature from the campaign trail in these final days of the election, Sheriff Youngblood is no stranger to Kern voters. He has served as the region’s sheriff for the past 12 years and is relying on his staunch stance as a defender of the Second Amendment, and as a proponent for anti-sanctuary states to secure his position. 

Meantime, his opponent, Justin Fleeman is a name that is less familiar outside of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. Fleeman currently works as a Senior Chief Deputy with the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. His career with the Department has spanned nearly 20 years. Although Fleeman identifies as a Republican, he describes the role of sheriff as one of non-partisan politics. He’s campaigning on leadership, morale within the Department, and public safety.

“In law enforcement, we don’t go ask people, ‘What is your party preference?’ when we provide service. We’re going to provide service to everybody in this community and that includes whether you’re here legally or illegally,” said Fleeman. “We’re going to support and enforce laws that are on the books and make people feel like they’re welcome in Kern County.”

The sheriff’s race has had its share of controversy. In April, a 12-year-old video surfaced on Facebook posted by the Kern County Detention Officers Association. The video excerpt depicts then sheriff-candidate Youngblood speaking candidly on tape about the advantages surrounding deputies when they shoot to kill, rather than shoot and injure a suspect.

Youngblood: “You know what happens when a guy makes a bad shooting on somebody? $3 million bucks, the family goes away after a long back and forth, back and forth. Which way do you think is better financially? To cripple or kill ‘em? For the county?" Unidentified voice off-camera: “Kill ‘em!" Youngblood: “Absolutely, because if you cripple ‘em you have to take care of them for life and that cost goes way up.”

Youngblood’s off-the-cuff comments rippled throughout the county and eventually caught the attention of national media including CNN. The Sheriff has since gone on record to address those remarks explaining his regrets over his choice of wording.

Other controversies leading into the race include the ongoing investigation of policies and practices within the K.C.S.O. and Bakersfield Police Department regarding cases involving use of force. As police brutality remains one of the key issues on voters’ minds this primary election, the State Attorney General’s Office continues its examination into Kern’s law enforcement agencies.

The race has even prompted debate among rank and file department employees.

In March, the Kern Law Enforcement Association announced its endorsement for Chief Deputy Fleeman who received 52 percent of the votes cast from 226 members.

As of last week, the Association held another vote and rescinded its support of Fleeman stating its disapproval of Fleeman’s campaign.

The Association has since elected not to endorse any candidate at this time.

Fleeman said he will continue to campaign throughout the final weeks and days leading up to the June 5 election.  As for Youngblood, voters can expect to see his name on the ballot.

Christina Lopez is a freelance reporter based in Bakersfield. She contributes reports to Valley Public Radio.