One of the most visible reminders of the coming election for Madera County sheriff are the campaign signs.
In one, the photo of a handgun replaces the letter in a name. In another, a candidate dons a large cowboy hat and an American-flag tie.
In this largely conservative, rural county — where farming remains a major economic force on the Valley floor, and mountain tourism dollars still rely on stories of gold miners and pioneer-beginnings — there is perhaps no more powerful or popular public post than sheriff.
That might explain Madera County's influx of sheriff candidates this year, each vying for a shot to replace longtime Sheriff John Anderson, who is retiring.
Since Anderson was elected 16 years ago, he was challenged only once. Before becoming sheriff, Anderson was commander of the California Highway Patrol's Central Division, which covers nine counties.
There are six men contending to fill his big shoes — three from the Valley and three from the foothills.
In the running: Jay Varney, police chief of Chowchilla; Michael Kime, retired Madera police chief; Michael Salvador, an undersheriff with the Madera County Sheriff's Office; Greg Noll, a sergeant with the Fresno Police Department; Dennis Fairbanks, a retired California Highway Patrol supervisor; and Frank Gauthier, a corporate security company manager.
Unless one candidate wins more than 50% of the vote on June 3, the top two will go to a runoff in November.
When asked what they see as the biggest issues facing Madera County, all candidates said decreased revenues for the Sheriff's Office — what has meant fewer deputies in recent years — is a major problem.
The Sheriff's Office is down 10 deputies and one sergeant, said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Erica Stuart. The positions have gone unfilled due to reduced general fund dollars from the county since the economy tanked several years ago.
Anderson said the office has gained some deputies back since 2010, when the office was reduced by 17 positions. The Sheriff's Office now has 74 sworn positions staffed, including deputies, sergeants, lieutenants and the undersheriff and sheriff.
If voters see staffing as an equally important issue, the crux of the race may come down to this: Which candidate could be the most successful in filling the coffers of the Sheriff's Office?
"Load-up on political skills," Anderson said as words of wisdom for the candidates. "Even though we'd like to say we're law enforcement, we are also politicians. ... It takes a little bit of political skill to get in there and get your share."
Other issues candidates are focusing on include illegal marijuana farms, metal theft targeting farmers, early release of criminals due to prison realignment, and gangs.
While most crime was down last year in the county, there were eight homicides in 2013 compared to four the year before — a spike caused by increased gang and drug activity, according to the sheriff's 2013 state of the department report.
Kime, the oldest in the race at 68, says his biggest strength is experience: 40-plus years in law enforcement.
Along with serving as Madera's police chief for 10 years, retiring in 2012, he served as a sergeant in the Marine Corps, was a lieutenant with the Sacramento Police Department, and was the chief of police for a large high school district with an enrollment of 15,000.
Kime said he knows of a sure way to get those unfilled positions staffed. If elected, he promises to put 75% of his total personal income as sheriff toward hiring new deputies, at least throughout his first four-year term.
"In other words, I'd be hiring seven deputies — about two deputies per year," Kime said. "It provides immediate financial relief to the county because they don't have the money to do it. ... I'm the only one (candidate) willing to do anything remotely like this."
The current base salary for sheriff is about $134,400, said Rebecca Martinez, county clerk/recorder/registrar of voters. With benefits, the total goes up to about $190,000 a year.
Kime said he managed a budget of more than $10 million and managed to increase staffing during the recession, a testament to his "leadership and sound fiscal ingenuity."
Varney, 53, markets himself with the stamp "FBI Trained, Texas Experienced," referring to his early years, graduating from the FBI National Academy — where Kime also graduated — and then joining the police department in Dallas in 1983.
Ten years later, Varney returned to his hometown of Lansing, Mich., to work for the police department there, and then took over as Chowchilla's police chief in 2004. He also was acting city administrator from 2009 to 2011 for Chowchilla.
Varney said along with advocating for more general fund dollars, he would pursue grants for more deputies. He also wants to add more reserve deputies and create a cadet program, along with adding prevention programs, to reduce the need for law enforcement.
Varney said he sees himself as the most experienced, educated and highest-ranking candidate.
Other strengths: "I have good working relationships with the board members and department heads of Madera County and Madera city government."
He also has the endorsement of the California Peace Officers Association and California Police Chiefs Association.
Salvador, on the other hand, sees himself as the most experienced regarding the workings of the Madera County Sheriff's Office.
Salvador, 49, appointed as undersheriff by Anderson, said he worked his way up the ranks by providing good service to citizens. He has been with the Sheriff's Office for 17 years, and previously served four years with the Chowchilla Police Department and five years with the Kerman Police Department.
Salvador, who lives in the Madera area, has been the face of the Sheriff's Office at many functions, and calls himself a collaborator and innovator, helping improve Sheriff's Office equipment and technology: "I do not accept the statement, 'We have always done it this way.' "
And he has experience working through difficult budgets, including as president of the board of trustees for Madera Unified School District. Salvador is also a past chairman of the Central Valley's California Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee, responsible for a $5 million grant given to public safety agencies from Merced to Bakersfield.
Salvador said he has been exploring a variety of sources to restore unfunded positions within the Sheriff's Office, along with continuing to work with the Board of Supervisors to leverage funding sources.
Fresno police Sgt. Noll, 50, from Oakhurst, has worked in police departments for 29 years — 13 of those in a supervisor role. He has been with the Fresno Police Department for 19 years, and previously served with the Santa Cruz Police Department for eight years.
Noll said he is committed to "leading by example" and will make the public aware of current crime trends. His experience fighting crime — supported by his education in police administration and criminology — make him the most qualified candidate, he said.
"I deal with serious crimes on a daily basis working for the fifth-largest city in California," Noll said.
Noll also pocketed an endorsement from the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which represents more than 64,000 officers.
Noll said he will address the budget shortfall in three ways: Create a sheriff's foundation to seek more grants, work with community groups so the office can "do more with less," and utilize technology for free crime-fighting services.
Fairbanks, 63, is a Realtor and has served as president and chairman of the board for Sierra Ambulance Service for the past 22 years.
He retired from the CHP as a sergeant after 31 years — 15 years in Madera County — and previously served in the California Air National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard.
Fairbanks said his greatest strength is this: Experience leading, along with skills gleaned owning his own business as a former cattle rancher, what he says has given him a "better concept of fiscal responsibility and accountability."
He plans to address the budget shortfall by increasing volunteer programs and building stronger relationships with the community.
Fairbanks also shares some similarities with Anderson: both are from Coarsegold and both retired from the CHP.
The youngest candidate, 48-year-old Gauthier from Coarsegold, has been working as a corporate security manager for the past 10 years. He is also a former sergeant, working for the Madera County Sheriff's Office for 16 years, and served 31/2 years in the U.S. Air Force.
In private security, he said he has been working on a government program aimed at protecting Americans in Afghanistan. Gauthier said he has protected three U.S. ambassadors in Iraq and "run war criminals to the ground in Kosovo."
Gauthier said his success in both law enforcement and private industry is what sets him apart from other candidates, and that he will address the budget shortfall by bringing skills learned in the private sector to improve efficiency.
He has lived in four eastern Madera County communities over 40 years, along with Chowchilla, and said that gives him a strong sense of obligation to serve citizens countywide.
Occupation: Chowchilla police chief
Family: Married; two children
Occupation: Retired Madera police chief
Family: Married; three stepchildren
Occupation: Madera County Sheriff's Office undersheriff
Family: Married; three children
Occupation: Fresno police sergeant
Family: Married; two children
Occupation: Realtor and retired supervisor/sergeant with California Highway Patrol
Family: Married; two children
Occupation: Corporate security manager and retired sergeant with the Madera County Sheriff's Office
Family: Married; three children
Go to www.fresnobee.com/elections for more about the June 3 primary election, including:
Voter Guide: Central San Joaquin Valley candidates share their platforms
Get ready: List of key dates and how to contact elections offices
More coverage: Bee stories about other races and issues
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, firstname.lastname@example.org or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.