It’s been more than 30 years since voters got to chose a new Sheriff in San Diego without having an incumbent or a politically-installed placeholder running for re-election.
When long-time Sheriff John Duffy retired in 1990 after five terms in office, the campaign to replace him was fought between Duffy’s Assistant Sheriff, Jack Drown, and Sheriff Capt. Jim Roache. Duffy and the Deputies’ union endorsed Drown, but Roache still won a close election.
Then, just four years later, former San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolender challenged the unpopular Roache, who had a horrible bedside manner and few political friends.
Kolender, a popular police chief who instituted community policing techniques that helped reduce crime throughout the City, had a wide range of political friends and a folksy demeanor that helped him unseat Roache and go on to serve four terms, with re-elections in 1998, 2002, and 2006.
But before Kolender ran for his last re-election in 2006, many thought he was too old for another full four-year term. At 71 years old, Kolender was already the oldest Sheriff in California and one of the oldest in the US.
During his 2006 campaign, Kolender told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he would serve out his entire term but would not run for re-election.
What many didn’t know was that Kolender may have already had a succession plan in place.
In 2006, the Sheriff appointed former FBI Assistant Director Bill Gore to serve as an Assistant Sheriff then, in 2009, as Under Sheriff, the top spot under Kolender.
Then in 2009, one year before the end of his fourth term and just as four candidates, including Gore himself, were positioning to replace Kolender, the 73-year-old Sheriff resigned.
A vacancy for Sheriff is filled by the County Board of Supervisors, made up of five elected officials from throughout the county.
At the time Kolender resigned, three of the five all-Republican Supervisors had already endorsed Gore to replace Kolender in the 2010 election.
All five Supervisors voted to appoint Gore as Sheriff and he then had the political advantage of running as the incumbent. Not surprisingly, Gore easily won and has since been re-elected in 2014 and 2018.
Two weeks ago, with less than a year and a half before the end of his four-year term, Sheriff Gore announced he would not seek a fourth term, setting off a series of political moves to replace him.
Within days of Gore’s announcement, Under Sheriff Kelly Martinez, a 36-year Sheriff’s Department veteran and the first woman to serve in the Number 2 spot, announced she was running to replace her boss.
Sounding very similar to the Kolender/Gore handoff in 2009, Gore and a slew of local politicians quickly announced their endorsement of Martinez.
Gore had appointed Martinez to serve as Assistant Sheriff in 2017 and as Under Sheriff just six months ago.
But was all this a setup?
One clue is that Martinez filed her official candidate forms to run for Sheriff two days before Gore made his public announcement that he would not seek re-election.
By the time Martinez announced her candidacy the following week, she already had not only the endorsement of Bill Gore, but also Nathan Fletcher, Nora Vargas, and Terra Lawson-Remer -the three Democrats on the Board of Supervisors- , as well as Congressman Juan Vargas, State Senate Leader Toni Atkins, State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria – all Democrats.
It seems that the Democratic majority of the Board of Supervisors rushed to endorse Martinez, even though she was a registered Republican until a few days after the last election in November. Not much is known about Martinez’s background outside of her 36-year career within the San Diego Sheriff’s Department.
It is also curious that Democrats, who for years complained that Republicans used their dominance in powerful positions to anoint their compatriots, are acting exactly like their old foes did now that Democrats hold nearly all of the most powerful political positions in the region.
The other candidate in the race to replace Gore is former Sheriff’s Commander, Dave Myers, who challenged Gore in his last election in 2018.
Myers, a Democrat and one of a few openly gay candidates to ever run for Sheriff in the United States, retired after more than 30 years with the Sheriff’s Department and has been an outspoken critic of the Department’s lack of transparency, the numbers of deaths within local jails, and the use of private detention facilities.
Several elected officials have endorsed Myers, including Democratic Assemblywoman Akilah Weber and San Diego Councilmembers Monica Montgomery Steppe, Joe LaCava, Sean Elo-Rivera, and Raul Campillo.
At a time when the public is demanding criminal justice reform, calling for re-imaging our policing, and reeling from several high-profile deaths at the hands of police officers, tough questions should be asked of the candidates seeking to become the only elected police official in our county.
The Sheriff of San Diego not only oversees the county jails, provides courthouse protection, and patrols vast areas of the county, but also sets important policies in our region, advances changes in state laws, and commands an important and visable role in local law enforcement efforts.
The opportunity to select our next Sheriff should bring about a robust public conversation about the important issues facing our communities, and shouldn’t be short-circuited by backroom political deals made in an effort to persuade voters before we’ve even had a chance to hear the candidates out.
Political endorsements are a mainstay of American campaigns for public office, but few elected positions impact local residents like that of our Sheriff and the decision shouldn’t be political.
Like the white-hat Sheriffs depicted in old western movies and shows, our elected police leader is an important position of authority in our region.
Voters should research the candidates, their background, and their positions on the important issues confronting our communities and confounding our police.
If we expect transparency and accountability from our police, that should start with the free and fair election of our next Sheriff.