SAN FRANCISCO
07/13/2011 03:06 pm ET | Updated Sep 12, 2011

San Francisco Sheriff's Candidates Spar Over Hennessey's Liberal Legacy

SAN FRANCISCO -- Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, the front-runner in the race to succeed Sheriff Michael Hennessey, has a slightly different manner of speaking than his most serious opponent thus far, Sheriff's Department Captain Paul Miyamoto.

Take their opinions on marijuana. "Legalize, legalize, legalize. Just do it," Mirkarimi told HuffPost. Arresting people for marijuana offenses, he said, "clogs up the criminal justice system from the beginning to the end of the assembly line." He voted for Proposition 19, the defeated 2010 proposal to legalize cannabis in California, despite some reservations, and won national attention for a proposal to have the city actually sell cannabis. That strong position puts him at odds with the California State Sheriffs' Association, which opposed legalization.

Miyamoto, who has managed the county's largest maximum security jail during his 15 years as a sheriff, isn't quite so blunt. He supports medical marijuana but voted against Prop 19. "Legalization of marijuana," Miyamoto argued cautiously, "I think presents a lot of regulatory issues that I don't think we're prepared to fund or deal with at this time."

Despite their very different demeanors, both Mirkarimi and Miyamoto say they would carry on the policies of Hennessey, who Mirkarimi called "brilliant" and Miyamoto praised as "very effective." But the voters, who gave Hennessey 74 percent of the vote in his last election, will have to decide who can most plausibly carry out Hennessey's liberal legacy. Of the several declared candidates running, the choice seems to be between these two.

So far the District 5 supervisor has been pegged by political insiders as the favorite to win the race. A graduate of the San Francisco Police Academy, where he was the class president, Mirkarimi meets the state requirement that a sheriff be a peace officer -- but he has never worked directly within Hennessey's department.

Sheriff Hennessey may be soft-spoken, but the former ACLU attorney never shied away from a fight in his 31 years of office, the longest of any elected official in the city. He brought a legal aid project for prisoners to the department, established an innovative charter school and defied the federal government on its Secure Communities immigration program. By picking the outspoken Mirkarimi for his successor, he seems to be saying that the City and County of San Francisco needs a sheriff who is as much a politician as a policeman.

That is the argument that Mirkarimi is making. While citing what he says is an extensive background in law enforcement -- including years spent wearing a badge and carrying a gun as an investigator for the San Francisco District Attorney -- Mirkarimi also contends that a sheriff who couldn't navigate the treacherous waters of city politics would be "the worst thing that could happen" to the Sheriff's Department.

In particular, Mirkarimi cites the example of the fight under Gavin Newsom to privatize services provided by the sheriff's department at city hospitals. The deputy sheriffs, Mirkarimi claimed, were out of their league when dealing with City Hall politics. "We came to their rescue," he said.

Since the sheriff is a citywide elected position and comes with the additional authority of a uniform, the office could be a powerful bully pulpit for a politician on a mission.

Mirkarimi would like to use it to champion a vision of law enforcement centered around the concept of "restorative justice," a set of principles embraced more often by academics than rank-and-file law enforcement officers. It promises to shift the focus of the criminal justice system away from rigid application of statutes and toward ensuring that both victims and violators are better off once justice has run its course.

The sheriff's office is relatively small compared to the police department, and its purview does not by and large extend to actually arresting people on charges of crimes like marijuana possession. But it does have the opportunity to rehabilitate prisoners while they're in jail and if it had more money, perhaps help them re-enter society.

"In county jails, there are no lifers," Mirkarimi said. On the Board of Supervisors, he championed the creation of the Reentry Council, which brings together officials from the mayor's office, the probation and sheriff's department and other government representatives with actual former inmates. Hennessey was a supporter.

And Mirkarimi has never been shy about voicing his opinion on other law enforcement matters while on the Board. He has frequently clashed with the San Francisco Police Department, the city's other major law enforcement agency, over whether it is doing enough to reach out to high-crime neighborhoods. Too many in the department, he said, had a "can't do anything about it, let them kill each other" attitude about crime when he came into office.

"We're trying to save people, and at the same time we're trying to respect class diversity," he said of his efforts to improve safety in his district while avoiding gentrification.

He said that his outspoken efforts to force the department to take more heed of community concerns -- through much-debated proposals such as his push for more foot patrols -- have had a direct impact on lowering the number of homicides in his District 5.

By contrast, Miyamoto, who touts the endorsement of his colleagues in the Deputy Sherriffs' Association, has chosen "Experience. Not Politics." as his campaign's motto. He promises a less confrontational style than Mirkarimi. He points out that he too was the president of his class at the San Francisco Police Academy -- and that in addition to that, he has 15 years in the department he would actually need to run.

Miyamoto paints a picture of a department that could be run on a basis of consensus. Even as contentious an issue as the Secure Communities immigration program, Miyamoto said, could be divorced to some extent from politics. Hennessey has decided to release possibly undocumented prisoners before Immigration and Customs Enforcement can identify their fingerprints, much to the offense of conservatives.

Miyamoto said while that decision had "obvious political components," it was also "a decision balancing different laws and the priorities of the community. In that respect it is political, but I don't think it is overtly political."

"I think he made a very tough decision on a complex issue. And I think that he showed some courage in making that decision. I wouldn't be able to tell you if it was right or wrong. In my eyes, I think it's a good balance between the two," Miyamoto said.

Supervisor Mirkarimi argued that taking a stance that openly defied ICE was critical. Hennessey's "early vocal response was enough to arouse the concerns of other jurisdictions, including governors of large states, to reassess the unintended consequences of ICE's actions."

Miyamoto said he favors restorative justice, noting that it is slowly becoming "the industry standard," but he also called it a "buzzword." He speaks in granular specifics, pointing in particular to his pride in the Five Keys Charter School, which bills itself as "the first charter school in the nation operating inside a county jail," and serves men in Miyamoto's County Jail #5.

For Miyamoto, that day-to-day work in the jails carries more weight than time in City Hall. Of Mirkarimi, he said, ""While I recognize that Ross has the background to run for sheriff, I don't believe he has the experience level that I have in the sheriff's department -- not just in law enforcement -- but in the sheriff's department itself, and the familiarity I have with our operations and administration, to effectively run the department."

Mirkarimi has sought to defuse that criticism by pointing out the fact that he was "very much a peace officer" while working as an investigator for the San Francisco District Attorney -- something that Sheriff Hennessey, who would actually be barred against running for office because of his prior experience working as a law enforcement officer were it not for a special exemption in state law, can't himself say. Mirkarimi argues that he has plenty of experience -- and that it also takes political savvy to get funding for innovative efforts like the Five Keys Charter School program, which he also cites as particularly successful.

If voters aren't interested in distinguishing between experience within the department and outside, Mirkarimi has the advantage in connections and electoral know-how. Miyamoto has picked up the endorsements of Supervisor Sean Elsbernd and former Supervisor Bevan Dufty -- but Mirkarimi's list of bigwigs runs far longer, and includes the name of the one man who both say they admire: Michael Hennessey.