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When John Duffy retired in 1990 as the sheriff of San Diego County, he had 20 years of elected service under his belt and numerous complaints alleging abuse of power. He’d been dogged by scandals involving hiring practices, civil liberties and the mob, and allowed his deputies to hang another politician in effigy.
The day he announced his retirement, he whipped out a pair of firearms at a press conference, the Union-Tribune reported. He wanted the public to know the weapons were his home security system.
Then, like now, the Sheriff’s office was dealing with allegations of excessive use of force during arrests, and negligence related to the death of inmates in its custody.
But the upcoming June primary represents a departure from the past in at least one other respect. For the first time in 32 years, none of the candidates are incumbents or previously served in the role of sheriff for any serious length of time. After Duffy stepped down, John Roache took his place. Roache then lost to Bill Kolender, who recommended Bill Gore as his successor more than a decade later.
The races were rarely competitive. Sometimes the sitting-sheriff ran unopposed.
With Gore now retired and with the county’s changing demographics, it’s entirely possible the next sheriff will be a Democrat after a half century — at least — of Republican dominance.
The Democratic Party has officially endorsed former sheriff’s Cmdr. Dave Myers, with a lift from the support of progressive activists, while much of the Democratic establishment has mobilized around Undersheriff Kelly Martinez. John Hemmerling, the city of San Diego’s chief criminal prosecutor, is a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Republican and has the GOP’s backing.
All three, in fact, have been Republican at some point in their lives. Martinez re-registered as a Democrat in 2020 but has said little about her conversion, other than that she didn’t vote for Donald Trump and believes the sheriff should be non-partisan. Myers, on the other hand, has said he became a Democrat after GOP leaders came out in support of a statewide ban on same-sex marriage more than a decade ago.
In less than a generation, the city and county of San Diego have gone from solidly red to solidly blue. The district attorney beat a progressive candidate in 2018 and changed her registration from Republican to no-party preference the following year, arguing that partisanship had become a burden on her job. She is now running for re-election unopposed.
The sheriff’s office is one of the most consequential in the region, as it oversees thousands of deputies and other personnel who patrol the streets of several cities and unincorporated areas, manage the jails, staff courthouses and carry out evictions. The sheriff’s race comes as concerns about rising crime are increasing in San Diego, even as crime rates remain well below their 1990s peak, and on the heels two years ago of widespread protests here and elsewhere about police misconduct following the murder of George Floyd.
As Thad Kousser, a professor and department chair of political science at UC San Diego, reminded me, during that period two years ago, police union endorsements were considered the kiss of death but Martinez includes them on her website. At the same time, he noted, the GOP’s decline across California — Republicans represent 27 percent of San Diego County voters as of last month — has opened space for shifting political allegiances without necessarily a change in one’s beliefs.
“It’s led to a transformation of labels in San Diego, even if the underlying ideology hasn’t transformed,” Kousser said.
In other words, the collapse of the Republican Party hasn’t necessarily signaled a collapse in law enforcement support. Rather, those voters have increasingly become Democrats and independents.
Shortly after Gore announced his retirement last year, Martinez, a veteran of the department, popped up with a slew of endorsements from several high-profile Democratic politicians. Most didn’t want to talk about it, but Rep. Juan Vargas put his rationale in blunt terms. His support was largely motivated by a desire to keep Myers — “an idiot,” he said — from winning.
At a forum Voice of San Diego hosted in October, Martinez apologized but didn’t disavow a widely discredited video the department released last year purporting to show a deputy overdosing on fentanyl by merely touching it. The video is still online with more than 5.5 million views. She also said she welcomed an outside audit of the department’s treatment of incarcerated people. A state audit released in February found that San Diego County jails had the highest rate of deaths among California’s largest counties and last week a group of attorneys filed an emergency request to make immediate changes.
“It is my goal to implement best practices that will ensure safe jails and the best health care for individuals in our custody,” she said in a statement in March while serving temporarily as acting sheriff. “Along with this, it is imperative that we create a fully staffed and safe environment for our employees.”
City News Service outlined the recent changes to the department. Martinez, for instance, issued an order that all in-custody fatalities be reviewed internally by the Critical Incident Review Board and the results released to the public. A staff officer with the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board will be allowed to respond to in-custody deaths, and the department is testing out a program that equips all deputies at Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility in Santee with body-worn cameras.
While Gore was in office, he repeatedly challenged the U-T’s coverage of the fatalities, whereas Martinez has offered a non-confrontational tone and commitment to make improvements.
In 2020, Gore also fought for the privatization of health care, which Supervisor Nathan Fletcher warned would worsen the condition of jails and threaten county jobs. Each of the three major candidates seeking control of his seat have expressed opposition to the proposal.
Martinez, in other words, has politely disagreed with her former boss while not coming down too hard. She points to her more than 36 years at the department, working in narcotics and gangs.
Myers, too, spent decades with the department and has pitched himself as the real reformer on the ballot. During his 2018 campaign for sheriff, he blasted Gore’s handling of multiple misconduct cases and said Gore retaliated against him, moving his office into a broom closet. Gore was honest about the fact that he wanted Myers gone but thought a termination in the middle of the race would look bad.
Myers has had his own share of controversy. In 2015, he and another member of the county pension board accused one another of bullying after she said she feared for her safety and requested he not bring his gun to meetings.
But Myers can also claim credit for trying to sound the alarm on former Capt. Marco Garmo, who for years transferred large numbers of firearms to people he knew. The U.S. attorney ended up charging Garmo in 2019 and alleging, among other things, he trafficked guns as a political favor to potential donors in anticipation of a run for sheriff. Federal prosecutors said his violations were “stunning and sustained.”
Emails show that Myers had alerted Martinez’s predecessor, Mike Barnett, to Garmo’s dealings as early as 2016. Barnett responded by giving Garmo a reprimand and warning, effectively a slap on the wrist. After it all blew up, Barnett retired and assumed a part-time role in the department. Garmo took a plea deal and a judge sentenced him to two years behind bars.
Hemmerling, meanwhile, has carved out the lane traditionally reserved for conservatives while attempting to not alienate voters who aren’t already on the right.
Although the GOP has positioned him as the “law and order” candidate, he emphasized at the forum — several months before the Republican endorsement came down — that he believes vulnerable people struggling with drug addiction should have alternatives to jail. He also argued that while an uptick in crime was concerning and unacceptable, it wasn’t fair to say that crime was skyrocketing, as some have claimed.
At the same time, though, his office has also come under fire for removing itself from the discovery process in infraction cases, effectively turning San Diego police officers into prosecutors who are responsible for turning over evidence that could clear a defendant’s name. That decision, the appellate division of the San Diego County Superior Court concluded last month, violated the constitutional rights of a homeless man.
Four other candidates — Charles Battle, John Gunderson, Juan Carlos Mercado and Jonathan Peck — are also on the ballot, but none provided candidate statements to the registrar.
Ahead of the election, the County Board of Supervisors has appointed Anthony Ray to finish out Gore’s term. After becoming interim sheriff, Ray vowed in a statement, among other things, to “expand our partnerships with local advocacy groups” and “continue the improvements to our jails.”