Two of Madera County’s law enforcement leaders, Undersheriff Michael Salvador and Chowchilla Chief of Police Jay Varney, are campaigning toward the November election to replace longtime Sheriff John Anderson, who is retiring.
Since Anderson was elected 16 years ago, his seat was only challenged once. Anderson has endorsed Salvador, who served the department throughout Anderson’s tenure.
Six candidates competed in the June primary election. The two advancing to the general election have comparable law enforcement experience: Salvador more than 25 years, Varney more than 30.
The two men are close in age — Salvador is 49, Varney is 53 — although their lives began thousands of miles apart. Salvador, born in Visalia, is a lifelong resident of the central San Joaquin Valley. Varney was born in Michigan and moved from his hometown to Chowchilla in 2004 to become the city’s chief of police.
Both are addressing many of the same issues in their campaigns: Illegal marijuana plantings, the need for more deputies and enhanced technology for the department, and fighting theft, gang activity and violent crime. Madera County has had two homicides so far this year.
Another hot issue, likely to be on many voters’ minds come election day: A string of takeovers at the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians — especially the Oct. 9 armed infiltration of Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino by one tribal faction looking for missing documents to complete late audits. The incident resulted in the facility’s closure the following day. No criminal complaints have yet been filed by the sheriff’s office, and no arrests made.
Varney said if he was sheriff, he likely would have been “a lot more hands on” at the casino on Oct. 9. Based on surveillance footage, Varney said, “it seems like some folks should have gone to jail that evening.” About the incident, Salvador said, “I’m not going to second guess my boss because he has a lot more experience with this than I have.”
Both men said they would enforce criminal activity on tribal lands, which falls under their jurisdiction via Public Law 280. Regarding the tribe’s internal leadership disputes, Salvador said, “that is their issues.” He added, “it only becomes my issue” if public safety is put at risk. Future problems that might erupt would be handled case-by-case, he said. Varney said he’d encourage the tribe to establish more “checks and balances” so power could be shared with entities outside tribal council.
Filling vacant deputy positions is a priority, and both say they’ll go after a variety of funding sources to make it happen. Salvador said he’s been able to bring back four of 14 unfilled positions — the low point around 2008-09 due to the Great Recession.
Both men have also been sure to tout their support of the Second Amendment and the right of law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons — an assurance that’s important to many of the county’s predominately conservative constituents. That support for gun ownership is clear in Varney’s campaign signs — the image of a handgun replaces the letter “J” in his name. And on Salvador’s website, he writes: “The Second Amendment is a foundation of our democracy.”
Curbing marijuana plantings, especially in the foothills of eastern Madera County, is a focus of both candidates. Salvador said he would continue “aggressive enforcement and eradication efforts” to protect public safety. Varney said the sheriff’s office relies too heavily on the Madera County Narcotic Enforcement Team, which is often backlogged with drug cases. Deputies should be allowed to eradicate marijuana gardens more often, independent of the inter-agency team, he said.
Salvador started his career as an officer with the Kerman Police Department and was promoted to sergeant. He went on to work as a sergeant for the Chowchilla Police Department before joining the Madera County’s Sheriff’s Office in 1997, patrolling Valley and mountain communities. In 2003, he was promoted to lieutenant in a newly created administrative division, and in 2013, was appointed undersheriff by Anderson.
As undersheriff, he is the No. 2 person in the office. Salvador described the job as akin to “chief operating officer for the department.” “I run its budget, do day-to-day operations countywide, manage the hiring and firing of personnel” and act in the sheriff’s place when he is unavailable, Salvador said.
Before Varney became Chowchilla’s police chief in 2004, he attained the rank of sergeant at the Dallas Police Department and lieutenant at the Lansing Police Department in Michigan. Alongside his chief duties in Chowchilla, he served as the city’s acting administrator from 2009 to 2011. He started serving in that post again on Aug. 30.
Varney considers his greatest accomplishment to be his ability to work through difficult assignments, and said he’s often served in a leadership role where he was tasked with resolving personnel problems. In Lansing, he managed the police department’s human resources department.
Salvador said he is especially proud of his involvement in three projects: Coordinating a $5 million federal law enforcement grant that benefited seven Valley and foothill counties; upgrading about 30 sheriff’s office vehicles over seven years without charging the county more money; and getting a new sheriff’s office headquarters in Madera.
Construction started Monday, Salvador said, and the new 27,500-square-foot facility should be completed next year. Previously, sheriff personnel were spread throughout three buildings in different areas of town, he said. The new building, he added, “will bring us all together for better coordination, better use of time, and give us floor space we’ve never had, and parking space we’ve never had.”
The candidates’ early education varies. Salvador graduated from a Fresno police academy and later earned his bachelor’s degree in criminology at Fresno State. Varney is a graduate of the FBI National Academy in Virginia, has a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, and is completing his master’s degree in criminology at Fresno State.
Varney said his education and experience in administrative roles — both throughout his law enforcement career and as Chowchilla’s acting city administrator — is what distinguishes him from Salvador. Varney stressed he is a “good team builder” and said he would solve problems from the bottom up, not the top down.
While Salvador’s formal education is not as extensive, he likes to joke that he has a “master’s degree” in Madera County. His countywide experience, Salvador said, has made him “just at home in the mountains as I am in the Valley, in Madera or Chowchilla or Oakhurst.” Salvador emphasized his knowledge of the sheriff’s office, working his way through the ranks from deputy to undersheriff throughout his 17 years with the department.
If elected, Salvador said he could “hit the ground running from day one — I think that’s my major advantage.”
Outside their jobs, the men wear a few other hats. Since 2008, Salvador has served as a board trustee for Madera Unified School District and is a member of Kiwanis and Rotary clubs. Varney is a member-at-large of the board of directors for the California Peace Officers Association and is a member of the California Police Chiefs Association, International Association of Chiefs of Police and National Tactical Officers Association.