Will Fox News-Loving Sheriff’s Oath Keeper Ties Cost Him His Job?

·10-min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos Alamy
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos Alamy

When Chad Bianco—the outspoken Sheriff of Riverside County who has drawn criticism for his ties to a far-right militia group and his opposition to public-health rules—was first elected in 2018, he was unknown but seemed like an improvement from the previous sheriff.

“He was seen as an opportunity to do better,” Megan Beaman-Jacinto, a city councilwoman in Coachella and a civil rights attorney, told The Daily Beast. “Or like it couldn’t get any worse.”

But over the last three years, the Fox News-loving Bianco has been accused of prioritizing a right-wing political identity above the needs of the more than 2 million residents he serves, and Beaman-Jacinto and other elected officials are calling for his ouster.

Like others, Beaman-Jacinto pointed to instances where Bianco has voiced opposition to public-health orders, vaccine mandates and efforts to reduce prison populations during the pandemic. Organizations like the ACLU have also called for investigations into how his Sheriff’s Department used COVID-19 relief funds, its use of force against residents of color, and its treatment of inmates at the county jail.

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Then, last week, it was revealed that Bianco was a dues-paying member of the far-right Oath Keepers in 2014. “Given his track record as a sheriff in the last three years, it wasn’t surprising at all,” Beaman-Jacinto said.

But Beaman-Jacinto said the revelation, thanks to a recent hack of Oath Keepers membership data, did help put Bianco’s contentious tenure in a national spotlight, which she has faith will help a growing movement to vote him out of office next year.

“It might end up being a catalyst to really seeing some change in the leadership of the sheriff’s department,” Beaman-Jacinto said. “At least that’s my hope.”

Bianco did not respond to a request for comment.

Last week, Bianco told The Desert Sun he paid $40 for a year-long membership with the Oath Keepers in 2014, but never extended his membership. “Like many other law enforcement officers and veterans who were members, I learned the group did not offer me anything and so I did not continue membership,” Bianco said.

He told The LAist that despite numerous members of the group being arrested for their roles in the Jan. 6 Capitol Insurrection, the group was not a threat to democracy. “Except for a few fringe people, that’s not really what they stand for,” he told the outlet. “They certainly don’t promote violence and government overthrow. They stand for protecting the Constitution.”

According to groups like The Southern Poverty Law Center, The Oath Keepers are a large far-right anti-government group with many present and former law enforcement members and military veterans in its ranks.

Beaman-Jacinto and other elected leaders, who called for Bianco’s resignation after his Oath Keeper ties were revealed, said his decision not to disavow the group in light of Jan. 6 speaks volumes. “He’s not taking any responsibility for it and I don’t think he regrets it all,” Beaman-Jacinto said.

“To not hear him denounce them only 10 months after the insurrection of the capital is shocking to me,” Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege told The Daily Beast. (Shortly after Bianco’s ties were revealed, Holstege called for his resignation.)

She told The Daily Beast that many who have defended Bianco point to the fact that he was a member of the group in 2014, as if to say it is behind him. But she said Bianco’s responses about his past membership didn’t address his views today. “What are his views? Are his views aligned with the Oath Keepers?” she told The Daily Beast.

Despite the calls for Bianco’s resignation, officials like Beaman-Jacinto and Holstege said they are aware they are unlikely to have any effect. The best chance to remove him, they said, is to support a growing effort to vote him out of office in 2022.

“It’s up to us to sound the alarm bell, organize and put some money together,” Joy Silver, co-chair of a political action committee formed in recent months to campaign against Bianco, told The Daily Beast.

Silver said the committee plans to support candidates who could oppose Bianco. So far no one has publicly declared an intention to run against the sheriff, but Silver said she expects candidates to announce closer to filing deadlines early next year.

Bianco’s past ties to the Oath Keepers have helped their cause to persuade voters that the sheriff has “extremist values,” Silver said. But she said the attention on Bianco has also helped his fundraising efforts, particularly among conservatives who support him.

As it stands, Bianco has raised over $500,000 for his reelection push, according to campaign finance records. Silver’s committee has less than $5,000.

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In addition to funds, the effort to unseat Bianco is challenged by the fact that Riverside County is more politically moderate than other parts of the state.

In 2020, the county of more than 2 million elected Joe Biden as president by a margin of less than 10 percent. In September, the county was the largest in the state that had a majority of residents vote to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Silver said Bianco revealed his political allegiances during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic—which elicited disgust from those who were for stay-at-home orders and efforts to keep inmates safe, and praise from those who believed California’s rules to be excessive.

But Silver believes the revelations about Bianco’s ties to a dangerous far-right group, and his seemingly unwillingness to distance himself from them, will motivate voters. “If they want to save democracy, this is the way to do it right at home,” Silver said.

Bianco joined the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office in 1993. In 2018, he defeated 11-year incumbent Sheriff Stan Sniff after winning support and over $600,000 from the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, a union representing the department.

According to campaign finance records, The Sheriffs’ Association recently chipped in another $17,000 to Bianco’s reelection campaign.

Beaman-Jacinto said Bianco’s deep union support is a hurdle that efforts to vote him out will have to contend with. “Unfortunately the police unions have a lot of power and influence in determining who the next sheriff will be,” she said. “And when we don’t tend to agree with the police unions and the candidates they put forth, it’s really difficult to find another law enforcement agent willing to run for sheriff and oppose them.”

The Sheriffs’ Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Although Bianco, who ran as a Republican, was supported by Democrats in the state for his seemingly willingness to create change in the Sheriff’s Office, Holstege, the Democratic mayor of Palm Springs, said the pandemic and his outspokenness on Fox News, local meetings and on social media made many regret their choice.

“He revealed himself,” she told The Daily Beast.

In a May 2020 appearance on Fox News, shortly after telling the Board of County supervisors that he would not enforce stay at home orders, Bianco criticized local leaders for trying to “make criminals out of law abiding citizens” and said the government shouldn’t be “picking and choosing who gets to open.”

In a July 2020 Facebook post, he criticized decriminalization efforts in the state and said the pandemic was being used to “further” that agenda. “The governor and the majority of our legislature care more about murderers, rapists, child molesters, and gang members than they care about the law-abiding residents of this state, many of whom are victims of these criminals being released,” he wrote.

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By December, Bianco released a video statement opposing pending stay-at-home orders from Gov. Newsom. Bianco said Newsom was revealing a “dictatorial attitude” to residents. “These closures and stay-at-home-orders are flat out ridiculous,” Bianco said. Enforcing the orders, he said, would rob residents of their civil liberties. “The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department will not be blackmailed, bullied or used as muscle against Riverside County residents,” Bianco said.

In September, Bianco said in a statement that he would not enforce any vaccine mandates on his employees. “I am certainly not anti-vaccine,” he said. “I am anti-vaccine for me.” Bianco said that part of his job as sheriff is to be the “last line of defense from tyrannical government overreach.”

“The government has no ability and no authority to mandate your health choices,” he said.

Holstege said Bianco’s stances on public health rules and orders, and his outsized influence after appearances on Fox News, only made combating misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines more difficult. “It’s made our job 10 times harder,” she said.

Beginning this summer, Bianco and the Sheriff’s Office were also hit with a series of legal actions from the ACLU and other community organizations in Riverside County. In July the department was sued over allegations it spent nearly $5 million of COVID relief funds on upgrades to the department rather than on helping to curb the virus’ spread or help residents harmed by it.

County leaders and Bianco pushed back against the claims in the suit, arguing that all the upgrades helped ensure social distancing and were meant to decrease the risk of transmission.

On Sept. 16 the ACLU wrote a letter to the California Attorney General requesting a pattern or practice investigation into Bianco’s Sheriff’s Department. The letter alleges that for years the Sheriff’s Office “demonstrated a pattern of racist policing practices” as well as high rates of deaths in custody and a “refusal” to comply with recommendations from a court-mandated consent decree related to inmate housing and treatment.

According to an ACLU analysis, between 2013 and 2020, a Black person was 1.6 times more likely than a white person to be killed by police in Riverside County, “an alarming finding that confirms the lived experience of police brutality reported by our Black community members,” their letter stated.

Between 2013 and 2021 the Sheriff’s Office killed 55 people, more killings per arrest than 92 percent of other California sheriff’s departments, an ACLU analysis showed. Between 2019 and 2020, the ACLU said the Sheriff’s Office shot at people 41 times and that the majority of the incidents involved people who were “not perceived” to be armed with a gun, but rather a knife or “other dangerous item.” They contended that many were showing signs of mental health issues.

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment about these claims.

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on any “potential or ongoing” investigations.

Shaun LeFlore, an organizer for Riverside All of Us or None, a local community group that signed onto the ACLU letter, told The Daily Beast that he hasn’t been following the efforts to oust Bianco from office too closely.

Although he believes criticism of Bianco is warranted given his response to the pandemic and his ties to the Oath Keepers, he said many organizers like himself in the county are more focused on the systemic issues that he believes a sheriff like Bianco is a symptom of.

“To us, Chad Bianco is just one person,” he said. “But we’re concerned about a system that allows that type of bravado to perpetuate and trickle down.”

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