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‘We did the unthinkable’: Bay Area elects state’s first Latina sheriffs in Alameda, San Mateo county upsets

San Jose Mercury News - 6/15/2022

With Yesenia Sanchez’s victory in the Alameda County sheriff’s race, the Bay Area now appears to poised to see two Latinas at the top of county law enforcement agencies — marking a first in California history after the upset victory of sheriff’s Captain Christina Corpus in San Mateo County last week.

Sanchez — a sheriff’s office commander who has about 53% of the vote in Alameda County — joined Corpus in scoring an upset victory over her boss, four-term incumbent Greg Ahern. Ahern conceded Sanchez’s victory Wednesday night, Corpus, who like Sanchez ran a campaign on promises to inject new ideas into law enforcement, handily defeated incumbent San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos last week, with 56% of the vote.

“It took a lot of courage to do what we did,” Corpus said in an interview. “It’s hard when you’re going up against the machine, and when you’re going up against the status quo.”

The results “speaks a lot for women and for Latina women — that we are a force to be reckoned with, and we did the unthinkable,” she said. Of Sanchez, she added, “I’m honored to share the seat with her, and the title with her.”

Their victories come on the heels of other strong showings by reform-minded law enforcement candidates around the Bay Area, contradicting a narrative that emerged from the successful recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin suggesting the region had embraced a tougher attitude toward crime and law enforcement.

“We knew going in that voters were concerned about crime,” said Will Matthews, spokesperson for Californians for Safety and Justice, which supports criminal justice reform. But, Matthews said, the results in Bay Area law enforcement races indicate that voters continue to support more progressive law enforcement candidates.

“Voters also do not believe that the old, failed strategies of the past are the solution,” he said.

Aside from Sanchez and Corpus, Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton easily dispatched a challenge from a more conservative prosecutor within her own office, and civil rights attorney Pamela Price, finished ahead of longtime prosecutor Terry Wiley in the race for Alameda County district attorney and appears headed for a runoff.

In the sheriff’s races, both candidates ran campaigns that hammered their bosses for policing practices that they decried as outmoded.

Sanchez, in particular, railed against the sheriff’s management of Santa Rita Jail, which she has overseen since 2020 and has been at the center of several lawsuits and multi-million dollar settlements over mistreatment of inmates during Ahern’s tenure. At least 58 people have died at the jail since 2014, and the sheriff’s office is now seeking to implement a series of reforms outlined in a federal settlement,  including increasing staffing at the facility, creating a new unit for people with mental illness and improving oversight.

Ahern conceded the race in a statement Wednesday evening, congratulating Sanchez and promising to “work to ensure a smooth transition” before she is sworn into office in January.

That Sanchez defeated the sheriff outright — staving off a November runoff, left Ahern supporter Nate Miley, an Alameda County Supervisor, “totally blown away.” But he conceded Ahern made several missteps that likely contributed to his defeat, including isolating himself from new opinions and doing a poor job of promoting his work to cut down on crime and recidivism.

“The sheriff is old school, and being old school, he’s kind of strident in his views on law enforcement,” Miley said. “Quite frankly, the sheriff wasn’t visible enough over the last couple years. That didn’t help – as an elected official, you need to be transparent, you need to be out there engaging your adversaries, your opponents, your opposition.”

The sheriff also didn’t do enough to address anemic staffing at the jail, Miley said, and bristled at attempts at oversight of his agency – one of many political blunders Sanchez seized upon in her campaign.

“It’s like it had to be forced upon him, as opposed to him making changes out of his own volition, based on, I think, some rational concerns that people were raising,” Miley said.

Political observers noted that both the Sanchez and Corpus campaigns had punched above their weight, leaning heavily on time and money from surrounding chapters of the Democratic Party, as well as labor unions and other progressive organizations that funneled volunteers for either phone banks and robo calls.

In San Mateo County, Corpus promised to clean up the culture of an agency beset by what she called “questionable” contracts and an unwillingness to heed voters’ demands. For example, the agency that came under withering criticism from county residents for cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents seeking to deport people in the sheriff’s custody – a policy that Bolanos only changed last year under intense pressure.

In Sanchez’s case, party aid proved critical to helping her capture a surprising amount of votes in the southern reaches of Alameda County, where votes had been expected to lean in Ahern’s favor. She also claimed the endorsements of at least seven city mayors – including those from Oakland, San Leandro and Hayward – and at least 20 other council members across the East Bay. The swell of hyper-local support helped overcome several big-name endorsements for Ahern, including that of former Gov. Jerry Brown.

The results showed a need for law enforcement leaders to keep pace with the desires of their communities, said Alameda County Supervisor Dave Brown.

“There is a desire for progressive change in public safety — I think that’s very clear,” he said.

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