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High Stakes in Sheriff's Race, So Why Is No One Running?

Election is simultaneously a foregone conclusion, hotly contested, and not even happening yet.


San Francisco’s constantly embattled sheriff is in the hot seat once more, and now with the November election just over the horizon, he hasn’t even bothered to file to run for the job again. It might sound like Ross Mirkarimi is throwing in the towel, and why not? Who would even want the grief at this point?

The catch: Nobody else has filed to run either. Is the city going to be sheriff-less come January? Well, no. It’s just that a bit of City Hall arcana has left us all hanging. San Francisco now has a weird, staggered system of declaring for city offices. A 2012 package of campaign finance reforms bumped the high-profile mayor and Board of Supervisors races a few months ahead of the others. Aspirants for those offices had to file by June 9, but would-be sheriffs have until August 7.

What was the point? Funny story: For a few hours here, nobody seemed to know. The Department of Elections could direct us to the relevant code but could not remember the rationale for changing it. Supervisor Scott Wiener, who co-wrote the ordinance, said there was "A very good reason that made perfect sense to everyone" but admitted that he "just couldn't remember" what it was off the top of his head. Supervisor Jane Kim finally illuminated things for us: The offices that now file early are the ones that can qualify for public financing. But it used to be we'd end up with zombie candidates in those races when someone threw their hat in early to qualify for public money but wanted to drop out after a heavily favored rival declared their intent. Problem is, once you commit to that public money, you're obligated to run.

Shuffling the deadlines around made late-game surprises for those races less likely. But it also means that other incumbents, like the sheriff, now look like they're doing a whole lot of nothing when, actually, they're just abiding by the same schedule the whole city used to operate on. It's one more weird little bit of City Hall sleight of hand, this time more or less accidental.

Mirkarimi has set up a barebones campaign already, and filed a declaration of intent to run, in the process revealing that his campaign received $1,500 in cash donations in 2014. Vicki Hennessy, his avowed challenger and favorite to unseat the sheriff, hasn't disclosed any expenditures or contributions yet either, but did file a declaration of intent. “In theory, someone can run an election without receiving or expending any funds, and there would be no need for them to fill out the [declaration of intent] form,” says John Arntz, director of the Department of Elections. There is no deadline to fill out the form—“you can file now to run for office in 2025”, Arntz says.

A better question is, does it even matter at this point? An incumbent sheriff hasn’t lost an election since 1979, but all signs are pointing towards it again. Vicki Hennessy hasn't filed those official nomination documents yet, but this hasn't stopped her from gathering endorsements from Gavin Newsom, six members of the Board of Supervisors, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and Mayor Ed Lee. Lee and Feinstein have spoken out against Mirkarimi recently over his handling of Pier 14 shooting suspect Juan Francisco Sanchez-Lopez. The Deputy Sheriff's Association, unsurprisingly, endorsed Hennessy by a lopsided vote.

"Mirkarimi losing this election has been on the books since November 2011," says moderate political analyst David Latterman. The recent headlines over Kathryn Steinle's murder certainly haven't helped the sheriff's reputation, but even before that he was in a hole. He won a squeaker of a race in 2011 after two more conservative candidates split the vote. “He got outpolled 2 to 1," says Latterman. "From that day forward he would have had to have had the most stellar, perfect career to stand up against the next person.”

Clearly, that has not happened.


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