Contra Costa County voters will have their choice of candidates for their next clerk-recorder with a range of backgrounds and experiences, with four clamoring for the historically overlooked elected position.
Running in a wide-open contest, with the incumbent not seeking election, are Kristin Braun Connelly, a school board member in Lafayette; Vicki Gordon, a former community college district board member; Devin Murphy, a city councilman in Pinole; and Nick Spinner, who works in the county's information technology department.
While recent national discussions around voting rights and elections security have garnered additional attention to the clerk-recorder's role and operations in facilitating and overseeing best practices surrounding elections, the office also plays a key role in literal matters of life or death -- such as birth, marriage, and death records.
"I know now more than ever in our history we need a clerk-recorder who understand the ins and outs of both elections, but also making local government relevant to the needs of its people," said Murphy, the current mayor pro tem of Pinole, during a clerk-recorder candidates forum that was first broadcast last month.
Locally, the office has had its own difficulties going back to before the amplified national discussions around voting rights and election security.
The race comes as the current clerk-recorder, Deborah Cooper's, three-year appointment by the Board of Supervisors in 2020 is set to come to a close in January. Cooper was appointed after her predecessor, Joe Canciamilla, departed after pleading guilty to charges of grand theft and perjury for using election campaign funds for personal expenses during his seven-year tenure in the position.
During that time, in 2016, the county Elections Division also identified an error that allowed 113 registered voters to vote twice, in that June's primary.
Canciamilla, a former state assemblyman, was appointed to the clerk-recorder position in 2013, following the departure of Steve Weir, who'd held the position since 1989. He proceeded to run unopposed in 2014 and 2018.
This year's race in the upcoming June 7 primary marks a shift for the county clerk's position, with Cooper not running for the seat, and four eager candidates vying for the position. Unless one candidate earns better than 50% of the vote next month, the contest would head to a runoff election in November.
"Generally what happens is the previous (clerk-recorder) resigns, the board appoints a replacement, and the replacement runs unopposed," said Spinner, another contender for the position, in an interview with DanvilleSanRamon.
Spinner, who has worked in information technology at the clerk-recorder's office for the past eight years, said the surge of interest and relatively crowded ballot for the seat weren't necessarily a surprise, given that it hadn't been open in so long.
He also attributed the relatively crowded primary race throughout the county, which include a challenge to longtime Sheriff-Coroner David Livingston after nearly a decade in the position, and to incumbent District Attorney Diana Becton, to more candidates coming to the forefront upon reflecting on their priorities during pandemic lockdowns.
For his part Murphy, who was elected to the Pinole City Council in 2020, said that a motivating factor behind his up-and-coming political career was recognizing that many voters are seeking more diverse representatives who will contend with issues faced by underserved communities.
"I was elected with the highest amount of votes of any candidate that has run for city council in the city of Pinole," Murphy said during the candidates' forum. "That experience in itself demonstrates why I want to both reach out to more communities across Contra Costa County, but also my lived experience."
"I'm a local elected leader of a municipality," Murphy said. "As an African American, as the first Black mayor pro tem of the city of Pinole, but also someone who grew up in a working class family, I understand the challenges of those who are disenfranchised when they go to vote or they go to get services from local government."
Murphy, who is a relative political newcomer, and Spinner, who is running for office for the first time, are up against two more experienced candidates who also have deep roots in the county in Connelly and Gordon.
Connelly has served on the Acalanes Union High School District Governing Board since being elected in 2018 and is president/CEO of the East Bay Leadership Council.
Gordon most recently served on the independent redistricting commission for the West Contra Costa Unified School District after more than a decade on the Contra Costa Community College District Governing Board, before losing her 2020 bid for re-election to her Ward 2 seat to challenger Judy Walters.
"There's no question that our democracy is under threat, and I'm very interested in taking the decades of experience I have and applying it to what we need to do in Contra Costa," Connelly said in the candidates' forum.
Throughout her campaign, Connelly has emphasized an interest in election oversight going back as far as her time in law school shortly after the Supreme Court's decision in Bush vs. Gore, following the contentious election in 2000. The move sparked her initial interest in elections oversight and administration, which was reignited when she was a practicing lawyer years later.
"I was reengaged in 2008, and trained lawyers, and then was responsible for an election day in 2008, responsible for the most challenging calls coming in from the state of Missouri," Connelly told DanvilleSanRamon.
Connelly said the experiences taught her about the "shenanigans that can be put in voters' way to prevent them from voting," leading her to continue working on electoral and initiative reform, including during work at the nonprofit California Forward, upon returning to the area nearly 12 years ago.
"I think that I'm really distinct from my opponents in that I have a long history of non-partisan policy work which helps bolster my credibility," Connelly said.
Despite the mark left on the clerk-recorder's office by Canciamilla's misdeeds, Connelly said that the overall history of the office, held by Weir for nearly a quarter century, is one to be proud of, and a legacy she'd like to uphold.
"This department has a long history of terrific customer service, whether you're going in to get a birth certificate, you need to record a document, or you need to get registered to vote in the office, things work really well," Connelly said. "And I think that I have the kind of leadership to support the hardworking staff who worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, had their doors open, were essential workers, to give them the leadership they need to really take their work to the next level."
Gordon, who boasts an endorsement from Weir, said she was also hoping to restore and maintain the stability that Weir's long tenure meant for the office, following Cooper's efforts to right the ship in the wake of Canciamilla's tenure.
"There are many things that this office does extremely well, and the first thing you have to do when you join a new team is you have to sit down with everyone, and I do mean everyone ... you need to understand from their perspective before you change anything," Gordon told DanvilleSanRamon.
Gordon comes to the race following a decades long career first as a teacher, followed by 15 years as a trustee at the Martinez Unified School District and eight years on the CCCCD governing board. After a painful loss of her seat on the latter in 2020, following a contentious campaign in which she and fellow former board member Greg Enholm were unseated amidst allegations of ethics violations (both have denied any wrongdoing), Gordon said that a conversation with Weir was what sparked her interest in returning to public office in a new capacity.
"I am a strong defender of our democracy, our elections, our voting rights and access," Gordon said. "I have community outreach and education networks that I bring to this office that will make a huge impact on how we get out into the community and make a difference, and I think people need to know that I'm fair and partial and transparent, and I'm going to hold myself to the highest standards, as well as the office."
While all four candidates are hungry for the position, and expressed admiration for the office and its functions as they stand, their platforms all agree on a need to bolster community outreach by the office.
"Most of the things to make the elections better is really related to community outreach, not really related to technology or security, and it's really about hard work and getting out in the communities and getting people to participate and getting people to register," Spinner said.
During the candidates' forum, Spinner said that despite concerns about cybersecurity surrounding elections, his technical background and eight years of experience in the office's IT department hadn't given way to any causes for concern on that front locally.
Gordon, also during the forum, said that she suspected a lot of concerns about election security amid a massive uptick in voting by mail since the onset of the pandemic, were being introduced intentionally, with the goal of undermining trust in democratic processes.
"There are some fears, I think those fears are planted seeds of distrust from sources that aren't reliable," Gordon said. "So I think that's one of the things that we really need to focus on."
With the wide recognition and acknowledgement of the clerk-recorder's office's role in serving all of the county's communities more effectively, despite barriers such as the widespread geography of Contra Costa and the office's single permanent location in Martinez, Spinner, as well as Murphy, emphasized that this work is something they've been interested in since childhood, despite having less expansive resumes than their other two opponents.
"I've been doing voter registration and outreach work since before I was even able to vote," Murphy said. "It's now time for me to bring my experience and those core competencies to the rest of the county, because frankly ... I believe we deserve to bring out the best in all our employees and all the folks who actually walk into the clerk-recorder's office.
Despite the relatively recent surge in attention to the county-clerk's office amid the current primary election, and following the Canciamilla scandal, Spinner said starting work in the office's IT department eight years ago was what had renewed an early passion for government that was first sparked in Boy Scouts, and fostered in his high school civics class.
"This kind of brought me back to my excitement in government when I was younger, and it's really fulfilling work because I can see the impact it's having," Spinner said.
With four candidates running competitive campaigns, Spinner said he expected the race to result in a runoff election this November.
Currently, staff at the clerk-recorder's office under Cooper's leadership have been busy preparing for the June 7 primary election, with ballots already arriving in mailboxes throughout the county.