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District 5 Supervisor Candidates Browning & Kelstrom: Friendly Forum disagreements

From left, District 5 Supervisor candidates Chris Kelstrom and Baron Browning share ideas at a Sept. 29 forum in Redding.

According to Chris Kelstrom, although he and his fellow Shasta County District 5 candidate Baron Browning are vying for the same seat in the general election next month, the two men are friends. In fact, Kelstom says he and Baron were friends before the campaign, they are friends now, and he hopes they’ll remain friends after the election, no matter the outcome.

If anything could test a friendship, it’s a grueling months’-long campaign itinerary that pits one man against the other as they ask for voters to choose them over their opponent, as they go from debate to debate, forum to forum.

District 5 is located at the bottom-most part of Shasta County’s kite-shaped region.

A race between friends?

Two September debates unearthed subtle but significant differences between Browning and Kelstrom. The Sept. 21 forum was hosted by League of Women Voters, and was held in the Veterans of Foreign War hall in Anderson. (If you click on the link for the video, hang in there through the always-interesting unedited hot-mic conversations for a few minutes before the forum begins.)

The Sept. 29 forum was hosted by the Shasta County Freedom Coalition, and held at the Hillside Church in Redding, a place that most recently featured a $20-per-person talk by election-denier Douglas Frank.

Journalist R.V. Scheide already did a thorough job of covering the District 5 race prior to the June Primary Election, before the District 5 Supervisor hopefuls were reduced to just two contenders for the seat that will soon be vacated by current District 5 Supervisor Les Baugh.

Also, most recently Scheide described the differences between Kelstrom and Browning, and explained why he thought that Browning would/should win the District 5 seat.

Baron Browning.

Judging by the crowd reactions to the pair of District 5 candidates at the Sept. 29 forum, it was obvious from as early as the opening statements that the audience clearly preferred Kelstrom. It was apparent that this group would no doubt disagree with Scheide’s assertions that Browning is the better candidate.

At the Hillside Church forum, two relatively fancy chairs – one large and one average sized – were on the stage for the candidates. Six-feet-nine-inch Kelstrom chose the smaller chair.

Browning delivered his opening statement first, giving the usual spiel that contained highlights from his background and experience: United States Marine. Business owner. Experience with Fortune 500 companies. City of Anderson mayor and council member.

As an aside, he told the few dozen people in the church audience that it was his daughter’s 18th birthday; so his wife took their daughter out for a birthday dinner, while he participated in the forum.

He talked about how public safety is crucial, not just to keep people safe, but because public safety promotes economic growth as people want to move to safe places and bring families and businesses there. He spoke of the success story of Anderson, a city that’s seen more homes, businesses and economic improvements.

He talked about other challenges aside from public safety, such as fire and water. When Baron’s time was up, there was no applause.

So Awkward.

Kelstrom waded in with his opening statement, saying he was a Shasta County native; born and raised. As a kid he delivered newspapers for the Record Searchlight. By age 12 he was working at a grocery store, by 16 he knew every job in the store, and by 19 he was managing an Anderson store. He said that for the next 12 to 15 years after that he was a corporate-level manager away from Shasta County.

Kelstrom repeated a story he’s shared at nearly every debate and forum, that his foray into politics was triggered after he’d purchased the family’s first home, but there was a switch in zoning that lowered his home’s value when local leaders accepted federal money to build low-income tri-plexes on Kelstrom’s street.

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“I realized as a young man, it’s like this, these people are not representing us, they’re representing themselves.”

Kelstrom said he believes in term limits.

“I don’t think you need to be there 16 to 20 years,” Kelstrom said.

Appreciative applause.

Supervisor trivia: Les Baugh, who’s vacating his District 5 seat in January, has served on the board for nearly 17 years.

Open collaboration?

The moderator asked how important it was to the candidates to have open and productive collaboration with fellow supervisors the CEO and other county staff.

Browning referenced his years with the Anderson City Council, and said that he was proud how he and the other council members and staff collaborated and cooperated with one another.

“We all listened to each other and we’d all throw in our ideas, and from those ideas came great projects,” Browning said.

Still no applause.

At that point, who could blame Browning if he’d texted his wife and said he’d join them for the birthday dinner after all?

When it was Kelstrom’s turn to answer the get-along question, he said that he can get along with most people, but he wouldn’t back down on what he believes in to make someone else happy, especially if it’s something he knew his constituents wanted.

“Then I’m going to be the minority, because I’m going to vote as a representative of the county … And I’m going to do what the people want me to do.”

Hearty applause.

Chris Kelstrom listens while his opponent Baron Browning answers the Hillside Church moderator’s question.

When asked about the men’s leadership strengths and leadership weakness, Kelstrom talked more about his grocery-store jobs, and recalled how, as 19-year-old, he sometimes managed older employees. He said he’s been a leader from a young age.

Should supervisors break the law?

Kelstrom’s next statement was the first of a few times during the evening when he said he would find a solution, by any means necessary – even if it meant breaking the law. Take the A.C.I.D canal issue, and the lack of water, for example.

“I told them that there will be water in that ditch next year if I have to go to jail to get it in there,” Kelstrom said. “I will be the first one to step forward and do that.”

Enthusiastic applause and cheers from the audience.

Speaking of stepping forward, you may recall a spring forum during which Kelstrom stood up, blasted the forum’s hosts, Shasta County Republican Central Committee, for dissing him in various ways, and then left the building, joined by and entourage that Supervisor Patrick Jones and others.

A disgruntled Chris Kelstrom left an April 2022 forum in protest as Baron Browning takes the mic to begin his opening statement.

But back to Browning’s turn to answer the question about leadership. Talk about a hard act to follow: a candidate who’d made the extraordinary vow that he’d go to jail if it meant getting water in the A.C.I.D. canal.

Browning said he’s a leader, and he has done some great things, such as taking a stand for kids when he tackled the flavored vape issue. He said that was just one of many examples of leadership and protecting the public.

Paltry applause.

Neither man mentioned any leadership weaknesses.

The candidates were asked how they’d handle it as supervisor if a particular downsizing threatened to directly impact a friend or neighbor’s county job.

Browning confidently said that if that downsizing was the right thing to do, then it didn’t matter whether the person impacted was a friend.

“Business has to come first, and taking care of the county and the county budget is the most important thing,” Browning said.

Anemic applause.

Initially, Kelstrom, like Browning, said it shouldn’t matter if a downsizing impacted a friend or neighbor. But then he added that he wouldn’t want anyone to lose their job, so he would do everything to prevent that job loss, perhaps via a transfer to another department.

Solid applause. 

When asked whether, when making decisions as a supervisor, would the candidate make decisions to ensure your district receives the most favor, or would the candidate make decisions that would benefit the county as a whole?

That was a tough one, Kelstom said. On the one hand, he wanted his district to get as much benefit as possible, but on the other hand, the overall job was to make decisions for the whole county.

But, all that would go out the window after weighing in with his constituents.

“If they want you to vote that way, then you need to vote that way,” Kelstrom said of  his constituents. “Quite frankly, you represent the people; problem solved.”

Applause.

Browning began answering that question before Kelstrom’s applause died down. Browning said that as a supervisor, it was absolutely important to have the entire county in mind; that it was important to consider what was in the entire county’s best interest.

“Not just because it’s my district,” Browning said. “But I will fight for the things that are important in our district.”

Generous applause. (Finally.) 

The Constitution was addressed. The moderator read the oath of office, beginning with, “Do you solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the state of California against all enemies foreign and domestic …”

The moderator asked how the candidates would align and hold themselves  accountable during your time in office with protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States.

Browning said that was a great question, and that he’d taken the same oath when he joined the Marine Corps, and that for the last eight years with the city of Anderson he’s continued to fight for the city. Browning cut to the chase and said he suspected what the question was really about.

“The city of Anderson was the first city to end the mandate from the governor of the state of California.”

Browning said the Anderson City Council continued its meetings (during the pandemic), despite the mandates that directed otherwise.

Bingo. The most enthusiastic applause for Browning yet.

Kelstrom said he is definitely a Constitutionalist, and that he’s read the Constitution hundreds of times, and everything anyone needs to know is laid out in the Constitution.

Generous applause.

The moderator asked whether the candidates placed their confidence in the people, or the government to find solutions people face?

With a laugh, Kelstrom said he definitely puts his power in the people. He said that one of the areas about when he and Browning disagree was Browning’s fight against flavored vape products.

“This is my government telling me what size soda I can have or whether I can put extra salt on my fries, or now what flavor vape I can have,” Kelstrom said. “The government is not the solution. Government is the problem.”

Cheers of approval from the audience.

Baron chuckled and looked at Kelstrom. He agreed that sometimes when the government is involved it makes things worse. But he said there’s a place for government sometimes, too.

“Our role is to protect the people,” Browning said. He talked about the butane honey ordinance, and that he wasn’t afraid to take on big things like that issue.

“Sometimes we do have to get involved for the protection of others.”

The questions went on to address the budget, and specific areas of concern, such as the resource management department. Browning volunteered that he’d dealt successfully with Anderson’s resource management department.

Radio silence. 

Kelstrom said Browning’s mention of resource management hit Kelstrom’s “hot button issue”. He said he wouldn’t “rubber stamp” the budget, because departments would need to justify their spending. He said half the budget goes to county public health services, without a lot to show for it. He suggested subcontractors, for one solution to cut retirement costs.

Speaking of resource management, the moderator asked if the candidates had any personal biases relative to one department or the other.

Kelstrom said that on the campaign trail he’s heard “horror story after horror story after horror story” about the county’s permitting process and the planning department, although he personally has not had that experience. His idea, one he’s mentioned often, is for the county to take a page from retailers’ book and have a receipt for the public to fill out in whatever department they’ve encountered to let the county know how those departments are doing.

“I want to change the culture and if the department head can’t do it, then we need another department head.”

Hearty applause.

Browning said he didn’t have any particular biases, but he believed it was the role of supervisors to have discussions about departments that may have issues.

Kelstrom brought up the A.C.I.D. issue again, and the lack of water. He said the canal is in his backyard; that it’s literally his property line.

“Like I said, I want to do everything I can next year to make sure there’s water in that ditch,” Kelstrom said. “I’m kinda tired of asking for permission. I would rather ask for forgiveness later.”

Whoops, laughter, applause.

Browning responded by saying that what Kelstrom had just said was one of the differences between the men.

“I would never – I’m not going to break the law,” Browning said. He explained many legal ways to address the issue to achieve a solution for the water problem.

They discussed crime. Browning pointed to his experience in Anderson, a place that previously had a high crime rate, but no longer does. He said Shasta County needs a bigger, better jail.

Kestrom said the No. 1 solution to crime is to reopen the closed jail floor. “It’s not more cops on the streets; it’s that jail.”

Browning said that yet another area where he and Kelstrom didn’t agree is that Browning believes the county needs “a brand new jail”, while Kelstrom does not.

A question about concealed to carry permits proved another area of disagreement between Kelstrom and Browning, specifially, when the topic veered into the subject of open carry.

Browning explained the bottom-to-top order of government: county, state and federal. He said when it comes to the Second Amendment, he’s in favor of concealed carry. But he said that regarding open carry, that was the sheriff’s decision and the state’s decision.

Light applause.

Kelstrom said he’s very pro-second amendment. He mused that he once had a CCW permit, but he doesn’t have one any longer. This remark is a repeat of a statement he made in December 2021 during a Red, White and Blueprint-sponsored candidates debate at the Foreign Legions Hall in Cottonwood.

“Frankly, it turned my right into a privilege, and I don’t want to ask the government’s permission to do what is my right.”

Enthusiastic applause.

Kelstrom went nostalgic and recalled days when it was common for pickups to have shotgun racks inside the cab, and really, that was open carry, too.

Cheers, loud applause. “All right!”

The topic moved on to government mandates.

Kelstrom proclaimed that a mandate is not a law, and to him, mandates were suggestions. He is not a fan of money with strings attached. He said the Constitution trumped everything.

“And if I’m breaking a mandate, I’m not breaking a law. You cannot mandate my freedoms away,” Kelstrom said. “…Again, I’m more of an ask for forgiveness rather than ask for permission kind of guy.”

Regarding strings attached to money, Browning schooled the audience in the realities of money sources. He said the big cities fund our smaller, rural regions; far more than we fund them. And that’s why there are some strings attached, Browning explained.

Finally, the last question directed the candidates to ask their opponent a question.

Kelstrom said what he’s said at all the forums, that he and Browning are friends, so he was going to “be nice here” with his question.

Had Kelstrom not been nice, he could have asked Browning to explain why he accepted a $4,900 unsolicited campaign donation from son-of-a-billionaire Reverge Anselmo, but he didn’t.

Rather, Kelstrom asked Browning if he really believed in the concept of the new jail.

“Do you really think that this particular government project is going to be done under budget and on time,” Kelstrom asked Browning. “My opinion is it’s another boondoggle that’s going to take 10 to 12 years and twice as much money as they say.”

Browning smiled and thanked Kelstrom for the great question. He said the current jail is inadequate and it’s costing taxpayers an enormous amount of money, on expenses like ADA lawsuits. Browning said a new jail would be much more efficient, because even if a small jail were built on the current jail site, that process would take about two years, and it would be probably more like four years before it was ready. On the other hand, the brand new jail would take between six and eight years to build and be done.

He pointed out that the smaller jail built on the existing site would cost about 200 million dollars, compared with approximately 800 million for a new jail.

“Why would you go spend 200 million for something that’s going to be something else?” Browning asked. “That’s wasting taxpayers’ money. And the current jail doesn’t have the services we’re talking about. It doesn’t have mental health, it doesn’t have drug and alcohol programs.”

A smattering of applause.

At last, it was time for Browning’s question for Kelstrom.

“What is the one thing you would tackle with Health and Human Services?”

Kelstrom said the first thing is to hire a director, “so we can replace Karen Ramstrom.”

There were some whoo-hoos and claps from the audience, so apparently they shared Kelstrom’s mistaken assumption that Dr. Karen Ramstrom – fired by the ultra-conservative board majority – was the head of Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency. In fact, Ramstrom was Shasta County’s Health Officer.

Details.

Kelstrom said he has a friend who once ran Shasta County Mental Health; someone who’s given Kelstrom insights. For starters, Kelstrom said he would take a “long, hard look” at middle management within the Shasta Health and Human Services Agency.

“See if there’s some waste there,” he said. “See if there’s some departments that we can put under one director rather than having multiple directors or multiple assistants to assistant directors.”

Successful forum formula

Granted, this probably wouldn’t work anywhere else except another deeply red conservative county like Shasta, but judging by the Hillside Church forum, it appears two words will guarantee respect, admiration, applause and yes, votes: Talk tough!

Promise to go to jail for breaking the law. Scoff at such rules as CCW permits. Promise to obey your constituents, no matter what they ask. Anything! Ban Pride Month? Let kids vape? Demand teachers are armed?  Sure! Their wishes are your command.

Most of all, curse the government as an evil establishment entity that must be disobeyed, destroyed and disrespected.

However, don’t mention the fact that if you win the election, you’ll take an oath of office, receive a paycheck, and then you will part of the government establishment, too.

(Editor’s note: This story was revised for clarity at 12:09 p.m.)

If you appreciate journalist Doni Chamberlain’s reporting and commentary, please consider a contribution to A News Cafe. Thank you!

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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