By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – In his past 27 years, Don Saylor was one of the more intriguing figures in Yolo County and Davis. He has played just about every role—some of them seemingly contradictory. His departure will set up one of the more compelling subplots in local politics next year.
At noon yesterday I received a call from a key politico in Davis and Yolo County letting me know that Don Saylor would be retiring. Little did I know but, by the time I was off the call, I would have an email with a letter from Don Saylor in my box announcing his retirement effective December 31, 2022, when his third term on the Board of Supervisors expires.
He wrote: “At the end of my current term, I will have served in local elected office for almost 27 years. It has been a profound honor to serve the Davis Joint Unified School District, the City of Davis, Yolo County, and a wide array of regional and partnership agencies. The time has come for me to pass the baton and to pursue other parts of life.”
My time with the Vanguard has overlapped just over half his political career—I missed his time on the school board, and since 2004, when he was elected to the city council, he has been a central figure in local politics.
The 2004 election, saw him along with Stephen Souza as a key beneficiary of one of the major dirty tricks in recent Davis Political History. Developer Steve Gidaro’s stealth move ironically took out two formidable candidates—Michael Harrington and incumbent Stan Forbes, a one-time council member—and catapulted two pro-growth candidates—Saylor and Souza—into office where Sue Greenwald emerged as the top vote getter and ultimately mayor from 2006 to 2008.
Saylor would immediately play a role not only in shepherding through lucrative pay increases for labor but also on a 4-1 vote the first Measure J project—Covell Village—which would go down to sound defeat in 2005 Special Election. Saylor would fare better in 2006 when Target was narrowly approved by voters.
In those years, Saylor was in many ways the master politician. But also a polarizing figure. He would peak in influence from 2008 to 2010. He amassed one of the largest war chests seen in local politics, and turned his hard work into a resounding victory in 2008—finishing first to become in line to be mayor in 2010. Just as he became mayor, however, he took advantage of the opening created by the retirement of Helen Thomson to win a seat on the Board of Supervisors uncontested.
In typical fashion, his six-month stand as mayor was eventful, punctuated by his opening night when a number of items were passed in record time—maybe a bit too fast, as the council would have to revisit some of the more controversial items like, perhaps surprisingly, Zipcars.
His quick resignation from mayor at the beginning of 2011 opened the door for Dan Wolk to be appointed to replace him, and ironically set up the 2016 battle for State Assembly between the two where Cecilia Aguiar-Curry emerged as the winner.
Saylor’s career was interesting, to say the least. When I first arrived on the stage, Saylor was the conservative, pro-growth councilmember. He led the way against police oversight in 2006 and toward the shutdown of the Human Relations Commission.
During his time on the Board of Supervisors, he became a leading voice in progressive circles. In 2018, he was the only member of that body to support Public Defender Dean Johansson for DA over Jeff Reisig—a move very ironic given that, in 2006, he along with Sheriff Ed Prieto led the forces of Democrats for Reisig against fellow Deputy DA Pat Lenzi.
When the Vanguard emerged in 2006, he was a key foil on opposite sides on issues like police reform and development. By 2017, however, he was delivering open remarks at the Vanguard’s Annual Fundraiser.
While his personal political power probably peaked during the 2008 election where he was the top vote getter for City Council and two years later when he ran unopposed to become Supervisor (in fact, he has never been opposed in his three terms as Supervisor), he was never able to parlay that into office. His one run for Assembly in 2016 saw him finish far back, perhaps playing more spoiler to Dan Wolk than factoring into the outcome himself.
Nevertheless, his influence has been seen on local politics with a number of his backed candidates emerging as winners—among them, Lucas Frerichs, Gloria Partida, Sheriff Tom Lopez, and Melissa Moreno, among others.
As noted, since 2010, Don Saylor has never faced a contested election. Ironically he may have in 2022. But the County Supervisor seat has not seen a contested election since 2002 when Helen Thomson made her political comeback, defeating Elaine Fingerett.
His announcement has spawned a good deal of speculation with Lucas Frerichs, the Davis Vice Mayor, Jesse Loren, the Winters City Councilmember, and perhaps local activist Heidy Kellison figuring in the speculation.
Under normal conditions Lucas Frerichs, long seen as a key Saylor ally and protégé, might be the prohibitive frontrunner. He is a three-term councilmember. He could be mayor by the time the election rolls around.
But there are some interesting x-factors, including the fact that the board is all men. Jesse Loren would be formidable as a sitting Latina Councilmember from Winters, but the problem she faces is that the bulk of the district is a Davis district.
There was speculation that Kellison would have run against Saylor, and there is also speculation that she may not run with Saylor gone and Frerichs in—if he is in.
One thing we know—the battle to replace Don Saylor should be every bit as intriguing as his 27 years in public office and, frankly, we would expect nothing less.