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Pundits still dissecting supervisor race

By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Some surprise results of the March primary election in Del Norte County still have people wondering how some candidates won their races and where the candidates got their votes.

One race in particular between Sarah Sampels and Clyde Eller for Del Norte County Supervisor was so lopsided, local pundits? heads are still spinning.

?That stunned me. You know, an incumbent who works so hard and put the job as a priority. It was a surprise,? said Tom Owen, a political science professor at Del Norte?s College of the Redwoods.

Eller, who has held the post since 1994, is well known throughout the community. He sits on several government committees and owns two neighborhood grocery and gasoline stores.

Yet Eller got only 380 votes compared to Sampels? 901.

Though Sampels, as the longtime Del Norte County tax collector, is also well-known, many expected the result to be closer.

At all three polling places in District Four, Sampels won the majority of votes ? and by a wide margin.

Out of 2,628 eligible voters for the District 4 race, only 50 percent actually voted.

Eller got most of his votes at the Fort Dick polling place. Yet, even though it?s his home community, Sampels got 257 votes there, compared to 195 for Eller.

The Senior Center polling place brought Sampels most of her votes with 497, compared to 148 for Eller.

At the Washington Boulevard voting center, Eller got 37 votes and Sampels got 147.

Lifestyles Research owner Bob Berkowitz said he wasn?t very surprised, based on public surveys he did two years ago.

From a list of 12 local officials and others, Berkowitz asked people to choose who they thought was most trustworthy.

?Sarah was at the top of the list ... Eller was closer to the bottom,? he said.

Owen suspected it was Eller?s undying support for creating the public-power entity, Nor-Cal, that defeated him.

?The major issue in that campaign was ?public power.? I think there are a lot of people with doubts about (Nor-Cal),? Owen said.

Berkowitz disagreed, saying not enough people in Del Norte County know or care about the Nor-Cal deal to make a difference.

?I don?t think it was as much of a factor as some people think,? he said.

Eller was a driving force in the deal for Nor-Cal to buy out Pacific Power?s local holdings.

Sampels has long been a voice opposing the use of Del Norte County time and money to get Nor-Cal going.

?I?m not opposed to ?public power,? I?m just opposed to the way it was done here,? Sampels said.

The fact that Pacific Power?s lines and equipment are old, that the company is desperate to get out of northern California, and that Nor-Cal is willing to pay much more than the company?s appraised value, are reasons Owen cited for public disapproval of the deal.

Another factor causing Sampels overwhelming win, said Owen, was a late-in-the-campaign accusation that Eller bribed Sampels not to run against him.

?I would be crazy to say it wasn?t a factor, especially that late in the campaign,? Owen said.

The accusation was made at a public candidate forum held two weeks before the election.

Sampels said Eller called her offering her compensation not to run for the office. One week after the election forum, investigators from the state attorney general?s office were here asking both candidates questions.

Officials at the attorney general?s office would not confirm or deny that an investigation was opened.

Berkowitz said before the bribe accusation came out, surveys indicated voters weren?t leaning toward one candidate or the other.

?I think the accusation had a great deal to do with it,? said Berkowitz, but he added that Sampels likely would have won either way.

Owen said such accusations are especially damaging late in the campaign.

He also credited Sampels with hitting the pavement and introducing herself to people living in her district.

?That sort of thing is important in this community,? Owen said.

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