Sitting at one side of the table: Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett, who's running for re-election next month. Bridgett's vision for the future includes expanding the DA's illegal marijuana eradication team and continuing efforts to build a bigger jail.
Sitting with her: Erik Jensen, a self-described member of the "non establishment" who wants to replace Bridgett. Jensen has spent his legal career in private industry, working for large and small companies to ferret out workers' compensation insurance fraud. If elected, his vision is to "return the District Attorney's office back to we the people" and bring private sector expectations and accountability to the county agency.
Recently, the two contenders sat shoulder-to-shoulder before a standing-room-only audience at a political forum sponsored by Shasta County Republican Party. Listening to the rolling cheers for both candidates throughout the event, it almost sounded like a boxing match.
In the past, such local election-year events could be described as "snoozy," according to a Republican official who was in the crowd that evening.
But this is a different kind of race, with the powerful DA's job at stake as part of a wider push by a slate of super-conservatives.
So, who are the two candidates running to become Shasta County District Attorney?
Shasta County DA Election 101
Incumbent DA Bridgett - who has a reputation of getting things done, a string of prominent backers in the law enforcement and legal communities and 20 years experience as a Shasta County prosecutor - is running for her second four-year term.
She's being challenged by Jensen, who said he moved to Palo Cedro with his family six years ago to escape the rise of political "progressives" in Orange County. Jensen has promised to create change in the DA's office, including sharing more data with the public about the department's trial success on an online portal.
Both Bridgett and Jensen are deep in the campaign as the first early voting ballots for the June 7 election went out this week.
The powerful DA's office determines whether criminal charges are brought against offenders and argues those cases in court, among other responsibilities.
Shasta County voters are turning out to hear more in a contest where previous district attorneys typically ran unopposed. DA candidates have been unchallenged in all but two elections in nearly three decades, when races were contested in 1994 and 2010, according to Record Searchlight archives.
The election comes on the heels of the February recall of former Shasta County District 2 Supervisor and Board Chairman Leonard Moty. Recall supporters said they targeted Moty for not doing enough to reject state-mandated COVID-19 restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the contagious disease. The county has also engaged in wasteful spending during the pandemic, recall supporters allege.
That recall resulted from a 56% to 44% decision with just under 9,000 total votes cast out of more than 112,390 registered voters in the county. The victory energized a vocal group of "non-establishment" contenders who are aiming to use the recall momentum to try to unseat more Shasta County incumbents.
In addition to Jensen's pursuit of the DA job, other "non-establishment" candidates are challenging the sitting county clerk, sheriff-coroner and superintendent of schools. One member of that group is running to fill the seat of District 1 Supervisor Joe Chimenti, who announced last year that he would not seek another term. Another challenger is running to fill the supervisor's seat in District 5.
Who are the candidates for Shasta County District Attorney?
When it comes to their professional backgrounds, the hopefuls for the DA's top spot couldn't be more different.
After growing up in a military family, Bridgett moved to Redding to take a job at the Shasta DA's office in 2002, about a year after graduating from law school.
Once there, she said she plowed through prosecuting every type of crime: misdemeanors, white collar offenses, child sexual assaults, car thefts, burglaries, stalking, domestic violence and, ultimately, homicides.
Her opportunity to advance came when former District Attorney Stephen Carlton was nearing retirement and selected Bridgett as his chief deputy a few years before he stepped down. Of the seven candidates who competed to finish out Carlton's term, the Board of Supervisors unanimously selected Bridgett in 2017.
In 2018, Bridgett was elected to a four-year term, running unopposed. She selected Ben Hannah, who had also competed to finish Carlton's term, as her chief deputy.
She said her work has included protecting abused children, helping people whose loved ones have been murdered and taking up the cases of people who've had "their life savings drained out of the bank due to fraud."
"There's nothing better than protecting victims," she said during an interview with the Record Searchlight last week. "Even though we do spend a lot of time seeing the worst of humanity, there are more good people in our community than there are bad," she said. "Just keeping that in mind and knowing that I am fighting for the good people in our community, to keep them safe - it's my passion."
The DA's office includes 84 full-time workers, 27 of them attorneys including Bridgett, who still handles high-profile murder and other cases. Right now, she's part of the team prosecuting Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for igniting the Zogg Fire in 2020.
She said she also directly supervises the DA's Serious Offender Unit and is "intimately involved in all aspects of those cases, even though I'm not personally prosecuting each."
Last year, Bridgett said the DA's office resolved more than 6,600 cases and completed 52 jury trials.
Running the office takes relationship-building with community members, government officials and law enforcement leaders, Bridgett said.
Regarding the background necessary to hold the DA's post, Bridgett said: "This isn't a job where you can come in with no experience and expect to have the respect of the attorneys or anyone in the office, or have the leadership skill or the knowledge to run the office. It's not one of those positions."
Of her staff, Bridgett said, "They know that I came through the trenches with them over the last 20 years. I know what it is to do the job that they do. I have 100% support of the prosecutors in my office because they know I'll do what I say I'm going to do."
Since taking office, she's had to navigate several new laws enacted over the past decade that decriminalize some offenses and lead to earlier release of some offenders. That has put her behind the drive to create an expanded jail, which she identifies as a priority if chosen for a second term. She said she is on the operations committee that is "working collaboratively together to make a bigger jail a reality."
For the future, Bridgett said she wants her office to partner with law enforcement to resolve unsolved homicides, some that go back decades, and "bring justice for people who have been waiting for a very long time."
Some efforts in the DA's office have been challenged because of a lack of assigned prosecutors dedicated exclusively to key areas where caseloads are high. Those include marijuana eradication, family violence, the unit for serious offenders including homicides and the department handling prisoner requests for early release, said Bridgett.
The Board of Supervisor controls those allocations. "If we had more money, I would want five new attorneys," Bridgett said.
'This is our town'
At a recent campaign event in Happy Valley, Jensen told the audience that "we have the opportunity in this local community to do what was promised to us at a national level six years ago. We have an opportunity to drain the swamp."
Part of his platform is to appoint two chief deputy DA's, enabling him to be an intermediary with law enforcement and members of the public. "People need to be heard," he said.
While some want to make Shasta County more like Sacramento, Santa Rosa and other big California cities, Jensen said in a radio interview last month, "It's the people of this community that make it so great... This is our town and we want to make sure that it stays that way."
Explaining why he's running for DA in his first political bid, Jensen said, "I'm going into this literally as a guy from the community who was recruited to do this job. Because I care about the community, I agreed to do this highly challenging thing."
In an interview with the Record Searchlight this week, Jensen said should he be elected, his goals include parsing data about the DA's conviction rate in court and posting it on a website for public view.
"In my job, you have to provide measurable results for your clients. I don't see anything close to that at the District Attorney's office," said Jensen, who opened the Redding office of San Clemente-based Gilson Daub LLC in December. He's also worked for two other law firms in Redding since moving to the North State in 2016. "At the end of the day, a private law firm has to make money," he said.
One of his priorities would be to create a "public integrity" division dedicated to investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by government officials. "There's a distrust that people have of their government and there needs to be some easy avenue for the public to address these issues," he said.
Jensen also backs enacting "regular sweeps of the homeless, not only for the safety of the public but for the safety of the people that are living in those encampments." He said those actions would make it "uncomfortable for criminals and provide services for those who are not there by choice," with "multi-department task forces" conducting the sweeps.
He declined to identify who asked him to run for the DA's seat.
Jensen said those who recruited him included "several local attorneys who had expressed concern about the District Attorney's office and how the current District Attorney was executing her job. I believed that I could help and I felt that I had an obligation to my community to try and make the county a better place."
He said he also has support from the Liberty Committee, an organization that is backing several members of the challenger slate that's running for various offices in Shasta County.
The same group that backed the recent recall of Moty is also behind the Liberty Committee, which was established last December.
Jensen said some of his supporters have overlapping affiliations with those who sponsored the supervisor's recall, including the Red, White and Blueprint group.
After growing up in Orange County and raising his family there, Jensen said he and his wife and four children moved to Shasta County in 2016. Orange County was no longer as conservative as it once was, he said, and they wanted "to find a place that shared our values and Shasta County was it."
Although his family does attend Oak Grove Bible Fellowship in Palo Cedro, Jensen said he purposefully didn't join Rotary clubs or other groups comprising the "power elite."
Said Jensen: "I think it has to do with an issue of allegiance. I don't owe anybody anything because I don't have any of these relationships with people, these entangling relationships in government."
High on his priority list if elected is creating an online dashboard that spells out what cases are in progress and giving the DA office's trial conviction rate and other performance data.
Jensen has criticized the DA's felony trial conviction rate, saying it's lower than the state average, according to calculations that attorneys affiliated with Jensen produced based on numbers from the Superior Court of Shasta County.
"We are not pooling from victim-oriented, liberal jurors in big cities. We have a conservative jury pool. Our conviction rate should be high," said Jensen.
Bridgett disputes the group's numbers, saying "people can make statistics say anything they want to say."
And a focus on the rate of convictions "is not our benchmark of success," she said.
"Justice can be a conviction on everything that (someone is) charged with and they go to prison. But justice can also be that a lot of new information came out that shows that they're not guilty and they get a not guilty at trial or the case gets dismissed," Bridgett said. "We are looking for what is justice in that case."
Her office recently released a statement saying the department's conviction rate last year was 92.46%.
Bridgett added that she doesn't want DA's "to cherry pick the best cases and only go to trial on those" to bolster conviction rates. "That is not justice for our community. It's not okay with me," she said.
Asked at one forum about his conviction rate, Jensen responded, "I have convictions, but not a conviction rate."
What supporters say
Ed Rullman, co-owner of the Best Western Plus Hilltop Inn and C.R. Gibbs American Grille, said he's backing Bridgett because of her success in establishing programs that support traumatized children or crackdown on chronic offenders.
Rullman also gives a nod to Bridgett's support from several prominent law enforcement officials that she has partnered with over the years.
"She knows how to create a culture that gets things done," said Rullman. "She knows she has a lot of things that she wants to accomplish that are beyond what she's already been able to do and I think we're got to give her the opportunity to do that."
Dennis Marie Pollock has another view. The state retiree said she will be voting for Jensen because she is upset about how she says the DA's office operates.
Pollock said she didn't like when Shasta County supervisor recall leader Carlos Zapata - co-founder of the Red White and Blueprint group that helped lead the supervisors recall effort - was convicted of misdemeanor battery and sentenced to probation last year after a confrontation with a well-known recall opponent.
"I'm just thinking our current district attorney's office is showing favoritism and I don't like that," said Pollock.
"I have prosecuted people on both sides of the political spectrum, including those that supported the recall and those that opposed the recall. I do not have 'political allies' and certainly would not let any particular group sway my opinion on how to handle a criminal case," she said. "The community deserves this standard of impartiality and I vow to always provide it to them."
Some things about Jensen do give Pollock pause.
"He is young, he hasn't lived here, he hasn't had prosecutorial experience. So that would be a challenge. Other than that, it's really hard to know until somebody actually steps up and you see what they do or don't do," said Pollock.
"Sometimes, we just need a fresh pair of eyes."
Michele Chandler covers city government and housing issues for the Redding Record Searchlight/USA Today Network. Follow her on Twitter at @MChandler_RS, call her at 530-225-8344 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please support our entire newsroom's commitment to public service journalism by subscribing today.
This article originally appeared on Redding Record Searchlight: Stephanie Bridgett faces Erik Jensen in Shasta district attorney race