Mirkarimi Gets Swamped by Vicki Hennessy

Ross Mirkarimi addresses his supporters on election night. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Ross Mirkarimi addresses his supporters on election night. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

By Alex Emslie

You won’t have Ross Mirkarimi to kick around anymore.

The San Francisco sheriff hosted a muted election night party at a restaurant in the Mission District, joined by a couple dozen of his closest supporters and his family, but missing the political leaders that were at his challenger’s event to the north. The first tally of votes left him a gaping 35 points behind Vicki Hennessy.

“It’s early, very early. We’ll see how it goes. It’ll be an interesting night,” he said, adding that the count included only vote-by-mail ballots, and he expected a big swing when precincts started to report.

But a few hours later, when all the in-person ballots were counted, the sheriff dogged by a string of scandals that began before he took office was all but officially conceding the race.

“I really wish her the best, and I want to do whatever we can to assist her in her moving into the sheriff-elect and then the sheriff position,” he said of Hennessy, who after the second round of ranked-choice voting had captured nearly 77,962 votes to Mirkarimi’s 41,562. “I’ve been an elected public servant for 11 years. That is a privilege and an honor I will always love San Francisco for.”

In San Francisco’s South of Market district, criminal justice and city leaders meandered through Hennessy’s party. She stressed that her ability to work with people throughout city government made her a better choice than Mirkarimi, who’s become a pariah to many in San Francisco politics.

“I communicate more with people,” she said. “I think it’s important to hold yourself accountable for things when they go wrong. I think it’s important to show leadership.”

Mirkarimi says he’s proud to be called the “most progressive sheriff in the country,” but he said the label didn’t appear to help him in this election.

“San Francisco is a rapidly changing city, and I think that the term ‘progressive’ may have been lost along the way,” he said, adding that he sticks by his left-leaning political views. “We have seen in the United States 50 years of a very reactionary approach to the criminal justice system that has resulted into the really inflated and unnecessary over-incarceration and building up of jails around the country. That has been the wrong approach to public safety and criminal justice.”

Hennessy shied away from the progressive label.

“I’m pragmatic, and I look at each issue independently,” she said. “I work to see what I can do to make the department responsive to the needs of all the people in the city and county of San Francisco, and I think that’s where I’ll start.”

She’s held the post in an interim capacity before, when Mirkarimi was suspended while he faced criminal charges stemming from an altercation with his wife on New Year’s Eve in 2011. He pleaded down the rap, and successfully defeated an effort to have him removed from office.

But that was only the first in a string of scandals that included inmate escapes, allegations of deputies forcing prisoners to fight for bets and entertainment and, most recently, accusations that he failed a department marksmanship test.

He said the focus on his personal “mistakes and perceived mistakes” often overshadowed the groundbreaking work of the department under his leadership. He pointed to award-winning in-custody education, state peace officer certification for deputies and San Francisco’s distinction as a model jurisdiction for implementing Gov. Jerry Brown’s state prisoner realignment.

“That stuff gets eclipsed when there’s a hyperfocus on me,” he said. “I understand that challenge.”

A controversy that enveloped Mirkarimi and received nationwide attention involved the city’s sanctuary policy for undocumented immigrants and another, more recent, city law that discourages local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Mirkarimi staunchly defended the city’s policy and his broad interpretation of it in the face of an outcry over the July 1 shooting death of Kathryn Steinle by an undocumented immigrant and felon who had been released from San Francisco jail without warning federal immigration authorities. Hennessy said she’d walk that stance back.

“I don’t want people to get up in arms and concerned about it,” she said, “but I would probably change the directive within the department and allow a little more communication [with immigration authorities] for people who have been convicted of felonies.”


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