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District Attorney Summer Stephan will be in office until 2028 — two more years than expected without another election. In fact, she and the next sheriff of San Diego County will serve six-year terms thanks to a bill quietly signed last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Assembly Bill 759 gives the winners in November an extra two years in office, so that the campaigns going forward will coincide with presidential elections, which typically attract more attention. The Democrats who pushed the bill through the Legislature this summer argued that the change will boost voter turnout in law enforcement races among underrepresented communities.
Stephan, a Republican-turned-independent, is running unopposed. So unless she somehow loses that, she will be district attorney for another six years. Same goes for whoever wins the sheriff’s race — John Hemmerling, a former city prosecutor and police officer, or Kelly Martinez, the current undersheriff. Hemmerling is a Republican. Martinez is a Democrat.
“Ensuring that a larger and more inclusive pool of voters can vote for candidates who reflect their values is critical to making democracy work,” said the League of Women Voters, one of the bill’s lead sponsors.
Many law enforcement officials adamantly opposed the bill, even those who stood to benefit from the additional two years. They argued that the change would make it easier long term to replace law-and-order candidates with progressive ones while increasing the cost of running a campaign.
At the same time, the California State Sheriffs’ Association has said there’s no guarantee that voters will examine their choices more carefully because of the length of the ballot in a presidential election.
Though the change adds a new dimension to the campaigns in San Diego with only a month to go and raises the stakes of the election for local voters, it’s gotten little attention since the governor signed AB 759 on Sept. 29. Neither Hemmerling nor Martinez mentioned it during a debate Saturday hosted by Voice of San Diego at the University of San Diego.
The sheriff is responsible for overseeing thousands of deputies and other personnel who patrol the streets of several cities and unincorporated areas, staff courthouses and carry out evictions.
The sheriff also runs the local jail system, which the state auditor lambasted earlier this year. For more than a decade, the Union-Tribune reports, San Diego has had the highest jail-mortality rate among California’s largest counties. Nineteen people, including a man who’d been granted compassionate release only hours before, have died in 2022 alone.
On the same day Newsom signed AB 759, he vetoed a different bill written by Assemblywoman Akilah Weber that would have mandated improvements to mental health care, medical services and safety standards.
During the sheriff’s debate, Martinez said the department has embraced the state audit and implemented almost all the recommendations. She identified fentanyl as the driving force behind deaths and said stopping the supply through better screening methods was key. She pointed to a medical assistant treatment program that identifies and monitors people going through withdrawal.
“There’s more that we can do,” she told the moderator. “There’s more that we’re going to do.”
In response, Hemmerling pointed out that the jail population is lower today than it was before the pandemic yet the numbers of people dying in jail is at a record high. He didn’t offer any specific recommendations at the debate, but pitched himself as an outsider capable of changing the culture and processes, in contrast to the more than 30 years Martinez has been with the Sheriff’s Department.
Hemmerling cited his time as a battalion commander in the Marines running jails in the Anbar Province after reports of torture and other war crimes at the hands of the Army and CIA surfaced at Abu Ghraib for how he intends to stop the “runaway train of deaths” locally.
Both Hemmerling and Martinez sent statements in the days after the debate saying they were aware of AB 759 and arguing that an additional two years will give them more time to do what they need to do.
Martinez offered a list of major initiatives that she’d like to see through, including renovations at the George Bailey Detention Facility, a rebuild of the Ramon sub-station, a complete roll out of body-worn cameras in jails and a study of correctional healthcare.
“The stability, leadership and vision that I bring to the position is necessary for the continuity of operations and public safety in San Diego County,” she said.
For his part, Hemmerling vowed “to reduce gun violence, stop the flow of drugs, treat the homeless with compassionate accountability, and end the senseless deaths in our jails.” A vote for Martinez was for more of the “unacceptable status quo,” he said.
Though the California District Attorneys Association also opposed the bill, Dan Rottenstreich, Stephan’s campaign consultant, told me that she didn’t take a position.
An earlier version of AB 759 would have given counties the option to restrict the next district attorney and sheriff’s terms to 2024. But in the end, lawmakers deleted that language.
Martinez agreed with that decision because whoever wins in November would need to begin focusing on re-election. “The Sheriff’s Department, much like a large corporation, could suffer with a short-term Sheriff,” she said.
The bill also opened the door to other changes to the way county elections are held in the future. It gave boards of supervisors across the state permission to adopt an ordinance switching other top county positions, including the assessor, to presidential elections as well.