The dust is still settling on the recent Riverside County Board of Supervisors District 1 election, a mean-spirited and frequently baffling clash between incumbent Bob Buster and Riverside City Councilman Frank Schiavone. The battle tested the ordinarily “thick-as-thieves” relationship between the board and the council, pitted powerful police unions against one another and ultimately devolved into flat-out name-calling.
And when it was all over, nothing had changed. Buster, who won by a whopping 38% of the vote, goes back to a job that includes working closely with a man he just publicly called a liar. Schiavone now soldiers on with the business of governing a city whose largest cop union just worked mightily to wreck his political ambitions.
District 1 includes more than a half-million voters in the city of Riverside, Lake Elsinore and 12 unincorporated communities. As such, the supervisor seat is considered a natural next step for Riverside council members—Buster himself served two terms on the council before being elected to the board in 1993. So it was hardly a stunner when Schiavone, a custom homebuilder who represents Riverside’s Ward 4, announced in May of last year his bid to unseat Buster in this June’s election.
Nor was it anything but surprising when the Riverside Sheriffs’ Assn. threw its support behind Schiavone, and the Riverside Police Officers’ Assn. lined up for Buster. The county association, which represents more than 2,000 employees, has had a mad-on for Buster for years, having endorsed his rival, Linda Soubirous, in the 2004 supervisor race. The 400-member city police union has grudges against Schiavone dating back to at least 2004, when the councilman proposed barring active-duty officers from serving on the city’s Community Police Review Commission.
But what was surprising was just how ugly the Buster/Schiavone race got, especially since few insiders gave Schiavone’s candidacy a hope in hell. Personable and possessing a small-business owner’s appreciation of the importance of protecting small businesses, Schiavone had nonetheless alienated many of his Riverside constituency with his pro-eminent-domain votes and even more District 1 residents with his support of DHL flights out of March Air Reserve Base. The extent of that alienation became apparent when Save-Riverside, the anti-eminent-domain group that thus far has helped derail the political trains of three Riverside council members, endorsed Buster—a man so removed from the group’s political leanings that intermediaries were required to arrange the endorsement interview.
“If you looked at the alternative, (Buster) was the lesser of two evils,” says Save-Riverside co-founder Paul Odekirk. “Schiavone is definitely not someone you want running the county, while Buster came out against night flights at DHL.”
Buster, on the other hand, had 25 years of name recognition and the deep pockets of the sheriffs’ union to carry him through.
All of which to say that few District 1 residents expected much smack to come out of a Buster/Schiavone smack down. So imagine their surprise when they opened their mailboxes and found a Buster campaign mailer—the first in a series of increasingly fiery salvos—accusing his opponent of everything from voting “to increase electricity rates” to voting “to increase his council salary by 60%” to voting twice “to raise our water rates.” Or when they picked up their phones and were treated to automated messages from Schiavone accusing his “career politician” opponent of taking “millions from developers.”
Back and forth the mailers and robo-calls flew, for the most part respecting the unwritten rules of campaign civility. And then one of the candidates—it’s debatable as to who was the first—raised the specter of illegal immigration, and off came the gloves as each labored to out-tough-guy the other on the question of who did the worse job protecting Riverside’s imaginary border with Mexico.
Buster accused Schiavone of wanting to build a day laborer center for undocumented workers. Schiavone accused Buster of foisting the problem off as a non-local issue. Buster put out a mailer claiming Schiavone urged the city to honor Mexican ID cards. Schiavone put out a mailer with a photo of him talking to a Riverside police officer, while in the background a brown-skinned man is seen in the back of a truck (we didn’t see this mailer, but columnist Dan Bernstein of the Riverside Press-Enterprise says he did, and we doubt he made it up).
The anti-illegal immigration posturing grew so intense that it drew in past and present law enforcement officials. Former Riverside County sheriff Cois Byrd lent his face and name to the incumbent’s camp, opining in a mailer that a recent Schiavone hit piece “unfairly attacks Supervisor Buster regarding illegal immigration.” A top Riverside Police official waded in on the councilman’s side with an automated message that stepped right up to the brink of violating the department’s policy against officers using their positions to campaign on behalf of a politician.
“This is Riverside Police Deputy Chief Pete Esquivel, calling you to set the record straight that Frank Schiavone has never urged the Police Department to honor ID cards issued by the Mexican government to illegal aliens,” the May 10 message said. “Frank has been our biggest supporter, providing all the resources necessary to help us protect and serve you better. Please join me and the entire law enforcement community in supporting Frank Schiavone for county supervisor.”
Asked about Esquivel’s message, Riverside Police spokesman Steven Frasher says Esquivel was within department policy and simply trying to set the record straight.
“Technically, (Esquivel) is speaking as an individual, and not on behalf of the department,” Frasher says. “I know from what I’ve heard anecdotally from those who personally endorsed Schiavone that what prompted it was apparently some misleading comments from his opponent regarding the matricula consular cards. [Schiavone’s supporters] went on record to refute that allegation. They’re speaking as individuals, which is their right to do.”
The immigrant flogging by the candidates arguably reached its nadir with a Buster mailer sent out shortly before the June 3 election. On the front is a sepia-saturated image of the US-Mexico border wall and claims that Schiavone during his council tenure all but ceded the city to Mexican welfare mothers. On the back, Buster boasts of such dubious achievements as denying health care and food stamps to “illegals” and their children, and of successfully pushing to have local jailers hand over incarcerated illegal immigrants to federal authorities. In the process, Buster accuses Schiavone of lying about the supervisor’s record—using the word “lying” four separate times.
How the voters felt about the tone and tenor of the contest isn’t clear. But barely 15% of the voters bothered to show up at the polls on June 3, one of the lowest turnouts in recent memory.
Still, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. When asked if he harbors any ill will toward Buster, Schiavone excused himself from comment on the perfectly reasonable grounds that he still has to work with the guy.
“It’s too close,” he says. “It’s over, so let’s just go forward. I work with Bob on the Joint Powers Commission, so we’ll do that.”
The councilman did say he spent “$300,000 to $350,000” on the race. How much Buster spent is not yet known—final campaign expenditure reports have yet to come out, and the supervisor didn’t return calls for comment by press time. An article in Monday’s P.E., however, reported Buster spent $36 per vote to Schiavone’s $17.
That would make the 2008 District 1 race one of the most expensive mud baths in county history. And it changed absolutely nothing.