Contra Costa County Assessor Gus Kramer is facing a challenge to his seat for the first time in more than a decade, by political newcomer Floy Andrews, following allegations of misconduct in his office in recent years and tensions between the longtime incumbent and Board of Supervisors.
The county assessor's role entails discovering and assessing all property within the county, as well as valuation of real estate and personal property, auditing of entities doing business in the county, delineation of land parcels, and offering public information to taxpayers who inquire about relevant matters.
The assessor is elected to a four-year term, with an annual salary of $156,431.
Kramer, a Diablo Valley College and University of San Francisco alumnus, began his career with the county at the Sheriff-Coroner's Office in 1974, later transferring to the Public Works Department Real Estate Division in 1980. He was elected as county assessor in 1995 and has run unopposed since 2010, when he faced three challengers.
Andrews, Kramer's current challenger, as well as the three he faced in 2010, have run on platforms pointing to scandals in the assessor's office under Kramer's decades at the helm. The 2010 election came in the wake of a discrimination lawsuit against him, which the county settled in 2009.
A political newcomer, Andrews' education includes a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Claremont McKenna College, and Juris Doctor from Loyola School of Law. She returned to school for a Masters of Science in bioethics from Columbia University, which she completed in 2014.
In the recent years leading up to the latest challenge to his seat by Andrews, Kramer's office has been rocked by allegations of several other scandals.
The Board of Supervisors considered censuring Kramer for sexual harassment claims in 2018, followed by a county civil grand jury's efforts to remove him from office in 2019 for allegations of "willful and corrupt misconduct" leading to a "hostile and abusive work environment" in the assessor's office going back as far as 2013.
Kramer himself ultimately failed at a challenge to District 5 Supervisor Federal Glover's seat in 2020, after making it to the runoff in that November's election.
"I welcome the opportunity to confront my accusers with the facts discovered by not one, not two, but three separate independent investigations that Exonerate me of sexual harassment or hostile work place or retaliation by professionals hired by the county," Kramer wrote in a 2019 statement.
Approximately three years later, Kramer maintained that position, and emphasized his exoneration, in a recent interview with DanvilleSanRamon.
"All those accusations that were made ... sexual harassment and ethics -- I've been exonerated from all of that," Kramer said. "If I hadn't been, I would not still be in office."
Nonetheless, Andrews said that her emphasis, if elected, would be to change an overall culture that she saw as problematic during her time on the assessment appeals board, which she said was what garnered some of the initial supporters of her campaign prior to its launch.
"I got the sense that culturally something was off," Andrews said in an interview with DanvilleSanRamon. "I started digging in a little more, and the more I investigated, the more disgusted I was. I started talking about it, and people really began to support me. There was so much excitement."
One of these early and continued supporters is District 2 Supervisor Candace Andersen, who also said she was concerned with the environment in the Assessor's Office, despite Kramer's exoneration.
"It's been challenging working with Gus, and I can't put it any other way," Andersen told DanvilleSanRamon. "I've been frustrated when simple matters that should be resolved haven't been handled appropriately in a proper way."
Andersen said that the other supervisors largely agreed with her assessment, and that a fraught relationship with Kramer posed a challenge to the entire board, given their dependence on the Assessor's Office to properly assess property values, and the relative reliance of the county and its local municipalities on property tax revenue.
"For most of us on the Board of Supervisors, we feel like it's time for a change," Andersen said.
Andrews said that her 15-year career as a lawyer, outside of politics and government, was a stark contrast to the culture in Kramer's office.
"The press has reported on (much) misbehavior and misdeeds ... but what really got me was the office culture particularly around women and people of color," Andrews said.
"That kind of behavior would not be tolerated in the private sector, especially these days, and it's not fair for people to have to show up to an environment where they don't feel safe," she added.
Kramer, however, has contended that he is the one being subject to discrimination from the Board of Supervisors. He also characterized calls to oust him after his long tenure as discriminatory in themselves.
"That's a very ageist comment for people to say," Kramer said. "It's just as bad, if not worse, than someone being a sexist, so let's leave that at that."
Kramer pointed to other longtime assessors in Napa and Santa Clara counties as examples.
"It's not unusual for assessors to enjoy their work and enjoy serving the public, which I really enjoy," Kramer said.
"There's nothing more frustrating than nonresponsive government, and government has a pension for steamrolling over people, and we don't do that here," Kramer continued. "We listen to people, and if we can, find a way to help them understand their property taxes or in fact reduce them. We make every effort to reduce them."
Kramer said that he planned for this to be his final term in office, with a hand in legislation that he said he wants to complete before retiring.
"When I was elected to this office, I was 44 years old," Kramer said. "I was mid-career. I'm in the December years of my career and I want to do four more years."
Andrews, however, maintains that Kramer has not applied tax laws fairly or equally to all taxpayers, leading to the challenge in this year's race.
"I thought I was the right person to win and to make change in the office, and for all the residents and taxpayers in the county, because you can't have a functioning democracy if the tax laws are not applied with an unbiased hand fairly and equally across the board," Andrews said.
Andrews added that this commitment to the fair application of tax laws would be in contrast to Kramer's alleged leverage of his position in personal relationships.
"This assessor has inflated the value of property owned by people he might consider to be his enemies or people he has issues with," Andrews said. "That is just completely unfair, and it's unethical."
"From an ethical perspective, as assessor, your job isn't to make policy decisions or weigh the tax code one way or another either depending on who the property owner is, or on what your personal beliefs are," Andrews continued. "Your ethical duty is to apply the rules and regulations fairly."
For her part, Andersen said that an example of what she saw as an unfair and unnecessary process come through Kramer's office was a church in Lafayette, in which a house where the pastor had formerly resided and was continued to be used for church purposes was assessed at full property value.
"I called Gus, said this really isn't fair, and he said 'Lafayette folks are wealthy, have them just pass the collection tray around a few more times,'" Andersen said, noting that she was not sure if Kramer had been joking.
Andersen said the matter led to two public hearings before the Board of Supervisors to grant the church's appeal due to Kramer's decision, and that "he fought me to the tooth."
"Ultimately we prevailed, but I should not have to go through that, and a little church in Lafayette shouldn't have to go through that to get an appropriate remedy," Andersen said.
Kramer said that in the Lafayette church incident, he was simply following state tax law in a fair and equal way.
"The state Board of Equalization attorneys reviewed the case and said we were doing the right thing in the Lafayette church case, and we shared that with Supervisor Andersen, but that's not what she wanted to hear," Kramer said. "I said I'm not going to go against the law; I'm not going to go against the Board of Equalization."
Rather than being a win on Andersen's part, Kramer said, the process resulted in a public hearing and refund of taxes, not a reversal of any of his decisions on the matter.
"To point to it and say I'm being uncooperative and not doing my job is just unethical on supervisor Andersen's part," Kramer said.
Kramer also contended that tensions between him and the Board of Supervisors are their doing, and the result of backlash against him for efforts to reduce the impacts of the last recession on county taxpayers.
"Other elected officials know during the recession I extended a helping hand to thousands of taxpayers in this county, helped some of them actually save their homes," Kramer said. "They attacked me and said I should have made all of those people personally apply for property tax relief."
Despite the challenge by Andrews in the June 7 election, Kramer remained confident that he would be elected to serve his planned final term in office, and said that he planned to spend the next four years mentoring potential successors on his staff.
"She brings nothing to the table," Kramer said of Andrews. "She has no experience. She's never been an appraiser. She doesn't know anything about taxation."
Kramer also contended that Andrews' support from Andersen and other supervisors was no surprise, given tensions between them and the Assessor's Office during his tenure. He also pointed to his own endorsements from the county's auditor-controller, chief fiscal officer and treasurer tax-collector.
"The Board of Supervisors has every reason to get me out of the way because they're constantly asking me to reduce the value of their friends' and raise the taxes of their enemies," Kramer said.
Despite being a political newcomer, Andrews said that her past experience with law, ethics and management, as well as time on the county's Assessment Appeals Board, were the right qualifications for a change of pace in the assessor's office.
"The assessor's job is really a management job," Andrews said. "The assessor's job is to take the rules and regulations that are delivered to the assessor's office ... The assessor's job is to apply that whole legal mechanism to the valuation process fairly across all property owners."
Andersen said that while she was uncertain how voters might weigh in on June 7, she had faith in Andrews as a strong candidate with the ability to contend with the allegedly difficult atmosphere in the assessor's office.
"You can tell that she has that ability to unify people," Andersen said. "This staff in Gus' office, they've gone through a lot. It's taken a lot of our time on the Board of Supervisors to maintain peace in that office."
"I think the reality is Gus Kramer has a lot of name recognition," Andersen continued. "He's been around for a long time. But I am very hopeful that the public has also seen a lot of the bad stuff that has taken place and see Floy as a breath of fresh air."
County voters will decide between Kramer and Andrews on June 7, with most residents having already received their ballots.
While Andrews future plans in the middle of her career aren't clear, Kramer said that a final term would be his last stretch before retirement.
"I can't imagine running for a term after this," Kramer said. "All good things should come to an end."