Riverside County Fourth District Supervisor Manuel Perez faces no challenger in the June 7 election

The June 7 Primary Election in Riverside County marks the first time since former Fourth District Supervisor Roy Wilson sought the seat in 2006 that there are no other challengers on the ballot. Democratic Incumbent Manuel Perez finds himself in a rare, but welcome, position, especially after the contentious 2018 contest.

Countywide, this is the first time since 2010 when Supervisor Marion Ashley faced no challengers.

The lack of opponents could lead some to believe Perez, a fierce advocate for Veterans, was the darling of the party and beyond. That would be patently false. He was verbally bruised and attacked by members of his own party for endorsing Chad Bianco for Sheriff, for failing to censure Bianco for his stance on COVID-19, for some of his decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic and more.

So, why did no challengers surface?

“Well, that’s a tough question to answer, Cindy,” Perez told Uken Report in a telephone interview. “I’d like to maybe say that potentially there were individuals that did want to challenge, but I think ultimately through the hard work of my immediate staff, and then the county of Riverside staff and our willingness to go further and beyond on almost any issue you can think of, they backed away. I think that people have seen that we’re in it for the long haul and that we’re mission driven and ultimately, we believe in our district and the people, our constituency of our district. There’s a lot to still be done, I’m aware of that. And believe me, Cindy, it’s not easy. It’s an ongoing struggle. But I also feel when we have victories, it’s all worth it.”

Tom Freeman, who worked for both Supervisor Wilson, a Republican, and Supervisor Perez, a Democrat, wasted no time in explaining the lack of opponents.

Rare: RivCo Fourth District Supervisor Unopposed

Tom Freeman

“Manny Perez took a seat that has been Republican for decades,” Freeman told Uken Report. “He crushed his Republican opponent. He ran a great campaign, walked precincts, and pressed the flesh. He is unopposed for many reasons: He has done an outstanding job, governed in the center for the most part, raised tremendous campaign funds, and has a leg up in voter registration.”

In the June 5 primary in 2018, Perez grabbed 42,673, or 57.86% of the votes while Harnik secured 31,079, or 42.14% of the vote, according to the Riverside County Registrar’s office. 

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 50,000 in the Fourth District, which runs from Whitewater in the west to Blythe along the Arizona border.

“Manny Perez has done a very good job representing the Fourth District,” Freeman said. “He has really stepped up for our Veterans and I appreciate that. He managed well as chairman of the board at the height of COVID 19. He has reached across the aisle and worked in a bipartisan manner. He is much like Dr. S. Roy Wilson in that regard. As a former chief of staff for Dr. Wilson I can see why Roy held him in high regard.”

One Republican reportedly made some initial overtures to run but failed to follow through. A lack of leadership in the Riverside County GOP might have also played a role.

“I had to give up my interim chair position,” Doug Hassett told Uken Report. “There is so much to take care of. It’s really a full-time job and I already have a full-time job. It’s disappointing, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Right now, there is no chair or vice chair.”

What no one seems to be saying or willing to say is that Perez, the first Latino to chair the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, is likely unbeatable. Even his 2018 challenger, Jan Harnik, is endorsing him.

Rare: RivCo Fourth District Supervisor Unopposed

Jan Harnik

“We work together well, and the goal of our positions/work is to get work done to benefit the community,” Harnik told Uken Report.

Perez has also endorsed her in her re-election bid to the Palm Desert City Council.

“We’ve been able to grow our relationship, Perez said of Harnik and himself. “I thought that was a great gesture on her behalf. The beauty behind being a supervisor, although I am a registered Democrat and formerly the majority leader for the Democratic Party, is that it’s a non-partisan seat. And ultimately, I’ve been able to grow my relationships with many individuals that are outside of the Democratic Party, whether they’re decline-to-state, even Libertarians and Republicans. So, I appreciate her support. We’ve been able to work together on Riverside County Transportation Commission efforts. I look forward to working with her as well as other individuals like (Palm Desert City Councilmember) Gina Nestande, for example, other individuals that potentially might have not been supportive of my efforts in the past, and that are now willing to work with me as I am obviously willing to work with them.”

Despite the lack of competitors, Perez’s name still appears on the ballot. There is a chance for potential write-in candidates for the fourth district, though it’s unlikely any such candidate at this point could compete with Perez’s cash. Finance records show that at the end of 2021, his campaign account had more than $500,000 in cash on hand. It was built with generous contributions from local tribes, labor unions and developers.

Perez served as chairman of the board during the initial phases of COVID-19 when Riverside was considered Ground Zero.

It was Moreno Valley, our air force base, where the first 200 American individuals who were evacuated from Wuhan, China and were coming back, Perez said.

“We had to quarantine them,” Perez said. “Eventually the Coachella Valley became Ground Zero where the first cases of COVID appeared in my district. It was very challenging, but ultimately, we mobilized. Because of the fact that Ground Zero was also the Coachella Valley, I, with my staff, worked hard to convince county staff to have a satellite office near the fairgrounds at our emergency services facility so that we could organize around the needs of the Coachella Valley on a daily basis. We practically lived there. I would go home to sleep and then the next morning I was there by 7 a.m. and then leave at 6 or 7 p.m. daily. That was so that we could coordinate care.

“It was a struggle in the beginning” Perez continued, “but after a while the resources started to come our way to the Coachella Valley, and we were able to lead the charge. Ultimately, Cindy, the Fourth District had — and we still have — the highest vaccination rates in the entire county at Riverside. I’m very proud of that because of the leadership of the entire Coachella Valley that stepped up.”

That’s the local snapshot, but Perez said governing from the dais was a different story.

“I’m not sure if you ever saw those meetings that were marathon meetings,” he said. “They went on for hours. It was very difficult between balancing those that felt we needed to mask up and those that felt that we shouldn’t, those that felt that we should test and those that felt that we shouldn’t test, those that wanted to ensure that they were vaccinated and those who fought it. We vaccinated as many people as possible.”

It was probably the most challenging year of my policy-making experience outside of being a school board member, a city council member, a state assembly member, Perez recalled.

“We’ve never faced anything like this, and it just so happened to be that it landed on my lap as the chairperson that year.”

It was a challenging time, we were listening to folks from all sides, from the strong left to the strong right and everything in between, Perez said, adding that he tried to base his decisions on data. There was a lot of confusion as well at the time, he said.

“People might say that the one vote that I should not have made, which I thought was the right vote, was when we decided to align ourselves with the governor’s office and with the State of California,” Perez said. “If you recall, it was county of Riverside that said we’re going to mandate masks.”

Then, supervisors realized that they went further and beyond what the State of California was suggesting or recommending.

“Eventually I got beat up for that,” Perez said. “People thought that I was leaning towards the economy, or people thought that I was leaning more towards a profit versus people. That was not the issue, that was not even the debate, but for whatever reason, you had folks on both sides. On one side saying, ‘If we mask up that means you’re killing the economy.’ ‘If you don’t mask up, that means that you’re hurting people.’ ”

Do I regret my vote?

“Not necessarily. Do I wish I could have probably explained it better? For sure. Over the course of time, I think people began to realize that this is not that easy. Especially other policy makers. Mind you, in the Coachella Valley, we have policy makers that are on both sides of the aisle, and I heard it from the mayors, from the councilmembers. And I just try to keep a balance between all of them. And I did my best.”

Perez is a seasoned public servant. He is a former member of the Coachella City Council and California State Assembly. Though he is wrapping up his first elected term, Perez has served on the county board for five years. In 2017, former Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Perez to serve the remainder of the late John Benoit’s term. Perez then won the seat in 2018.

Working with the Governor’s office, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia and others, Perez said, “(If you look at) what came out of the governor’s budget, it looks like as long as we stay strong and continue to advocate at the state level, and when we have allies like assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, we could win and bring home the resources necessary in order for us to build out infrastructure, to ensure that we deal with homelessness and housing issues, all those points that are very, very important to people. So, I don’t know what motivated people not to run, but ultimately, I will say that we’re headstrong and steadfast when it comes to ensuring that we work on a daily basis.”

Perez represents the eastern two-thirds of Riverside County on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. Stretching from Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs, south to the Salton Sea and east to Blythe and the Colorado River, the 4th District is the largest geographical district in the county.

Image Sources

  • Supervisor Manuel Perez and Veterans: Office of Supervisor Perez, photos taken by Derek Humphrey