"Your parents got divorced when you were five, do you think that's related to your abandonment issues?" host Scott Shafer asked an emotional Ross Mirkarimi during a lengthy interview held on Tuesday night at the Commonwealth Club of California in downtown San Francisco.
"I didn't know we were going to get this deep," replied San Francisco's embattled Sheriff with a nervous laugh, explaining that attending court-ordered anger management classes has taught him a lot about the personal issues behind bruising his wife's arm during argument late last year. He added that this reflection has led him to a greater understanding about the processes of redemption and rehabilitation he deals with on a daily basis overseeing San Francisco's prisons.
Mirkarimi became the center of a heated city scandal after it was revealed that he had bruised his wife's arm during a New Year's Eve argument last year. He was charged with three misdemeanors, including domestic violence battery, but eventually pleaded guilty to one count of false imprisonment. Mayor Ed Lee suspended Mirkarimi, charged him with official misconduct and attempted to have him permanently removed from office; however, the city's Board of Supervisors voted to keep him there. Murmurs of a recall continue to grow.
This mixture of the personal and the political has been a common theme for Mirkarimi over the past year, as the political fallout from the incident rapidly spiraled out of control.
At the Commonwealth Club, the sheriff was apologetic and spoke about the need to heal wounds caused by the scandal, both between himself and the mayor's office as well as the San Francisco's progressive movement and the domestic violence community, in order for the city to move forward.
"I think elected officials have to be held to higher standard, I'm not going to make excuses now," he said.
"It was such an awkward adversarial relationship that seemed to emerge with the domestic violence community because before this happened, when there would be budget cuts, I wanted to be the go-to guy for shielding domestic violence programs," Mirkarimi explained. "It would be hard to explain how clumsy I felt trying to correct the missteps I made early on [in the scandal]. It was wrong to say that domestic violence was a private matter, of course it's not."
Mirkarimi attempted to reach out to the domestic violence groups that led the movement to have him removed from office. "Invite me to any venue at any time and I will come and listen," he offered. "During the Ethics Committee hearings, I thought there was a level of disrespect toward members of the domestic violence community and I didn’t like it."
Even so, the sheriff seemed to find fault on both sides of the debate. "Going after me was one thing but dismissing my wife was something else," he said. "There was a level of respect that was missing in this whole conversation. It just seemed so antagonistic."
His outreach to the mayor's office seemed equally complicated. Mirkarimi lamented Lee's unwillingness to meet with him after the official misconduct charges were dismissed, saying that much of his communication with the mayor and district attorney has been through the media.
"I'm going to keep sending him love letters," he said with a laugh, noting that he rebuilding that relationship is important in promoting the smooth operation of the Sheriff's department.
Questions at the event were evenly divided between Mirkarimi's personal life and his work at the Sheriff's department, where he attested decreasing recidivism was his highest priority. "I'd like to be a sheriff that builds less jail space," he said.
Mirkarimi spoke about his efforts in creating a "re-entry pod" to help former inmates become re-accustomed to life on the outside. He said putting more focus on what happens to people after they're released is an important part of continuing the progressive legacy of retired Sheriff Michael Hennessey and the primary reason why San Francisco's recidivism rate is more then ten percent below the state average.
"Being sheriff is about more than just about managing the six county jails and the protection of government buildings, tracking down fugitives and doing all the evictions," he said. "It's about complimenting the needs of public safety. It's about improving lives. It's the people we see in the jails, making sure we don't see them again."