Just over a year ago, about 50 supporters gathered in Prunedale for a primary election election night party on June 5, 2018. Neil Kitchens was the lone Republican in a five-way race to replace the open Assembly seat being vacated by Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, who was terming out of the Assembly and went on to win a State Senate seat.
At Kitchens' party, red, white and blue balloons emblazoned with “MAGA” (President Donald Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again) festooned a gate leading to a small pasture next to his ranch home.
A banner read “Rancher. Businessman. Conservative.” On the patio, another banner read, "Take Back California."
Supporters watched national results roll in on Fox News, and cheered when local results came in, showing Kitchens in a strong second-place position, with 32 percent of the vote.
It meant that he secured a chance at the general election in November against then-San Benito County Supervisor Robert Rivas, who won 44 percent of the vote in the primary. (In November, Rivas won handily with 68 percent of the vote.)
Only problem: That party, at Kitchens' ranch house on Cross Road just east of Highway 101 in Prunedale, was not located within Assembly District 30, the seat he was vying for. That district edge runs east of Cross Road, along San Juan Grade Road and Crazy Horse Canyon, excluding most of Prunedale which is located in Assembly District 29, represented by Assemblymember Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley.
On May 24, 2019, Deputy District Attorney Todd Hornik sent a letter to that same Cross Road address, telling Kitchens a criminal complaint alleging five felony charges had been filed against him.
Those five charges stem from Kitchens allegedly living at the Prunedale house, outside of District 30 boundaries, and using a Salinas address, within the district, to run for office.
Kitchens appeared in court on Thursday, June 27, and entered a plea of not guilty. His appearance before Monterey County Superior Court Judge Timothy Roberts was barely two minutes long, as his defense attorney, Frank Dice, discussed scheduling. He's next due to appear in court on July 16.
Dice and Kitchens declined to speak to the press after the hearing.
Monterey County Chief Assistant District Attorney Berkley Brannon says that for years, Kitchens was registered to vote at the Cross Road address. On March 8, 2018, he changed his registration to an address in Salinas—which is in District 30—at a property Brannon says Kitchens owns, but rents out to tenants.
Then on March 20, Kitchens filed candidacy papers to run for the Assembly seat.
Brannon says the case was referred to the DA's office by the Secretary of State, and the investigation was far from complete by Election Day.
If convicted on all five felony counts, the maximum sentence is roughly three years in prison. Because Kitchens did not win the seat, there would be no subsequent effort to remove him from office—not a criminal matter, but a determination made by the Assembly in such cases—but Kitchens has already filed papers to run for office again in 2020.
This time, he's seeking office in the State Senate, to represent District 17, currently occupied by Bill Monning, D-Carmel. Monning terms out in 2020; former Assemblyman John Laird, a Democrat from Santa Cruz, has already begun campaigning in earnest for that seat.
Kitchens' Cross Road address is, indeed, in District 17. However, if he's convicted of a felony he may not be able to remain registered as a voter and candidate in that election; it depends whether he is serving time in state prison or in county jail, according to California Secretary of State rules.