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Election: San Diego County Sheriff’s Race


People elected to the post of San Diego County Sheriff often remain in office a very long time. So, this countywide election takes on a special importance. We'll discuss candidates Bill Gore, Jim Duffy and Jay LeSuer.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Each Wednesday on These Days, through the beginning of June, we're profiling the top issues and candidates on the San Diego June primary ballot. Today the focus is on the race for San Diego County Sheriff. This is one of the few political offices that everyone in the county gets to vote on. KPBS Radio’s Tom Fudge brings us this report on the sheriff’s race.

TOM FUDGE (KPBS Reporter): It’s been 15 years since the race for San Diego County sheriff was competitive. That’s because the name Kolender has been on the ballot for that long. But a year ago, Sheriff Bill Kolender announced he would step down. San Diego State Public Affairs professor Glen Sparrow says that makes this election a big one.

GLEN SPARROW (Professor, Public Affairs Department, San Diego State University): This sheriff’s race is a big deal because there is no incumbent, and in San Diego we have kind of a history of electing sheriffs for a long time.

FUDGE: This year, there are three candidates for sheriff and one of the people running is Jim Duffy. He’s the son of former sheriff John Duffy, who held the office for 20 years. Jim Duffy is a lieutenant in the sheriff’s department and former head of the Deputy Sheriffs Union. Also in the race is Jay LaSuer, a retired sheriff’s captain who served in the California Assembly. The final candidate is Bill Gore, who spent 32 years in the FBI. Gore was Kolender’s undersheriff for three years. He was appointed sheriff when Kolender quit last year. If there is an establishment candidate, it is Gore, who has raised more than twice as much money as either Duffy or LaSuer. Gore has the endorsement of Bill Kolender and a majority of the county board. But Gore’s opponents in the race say he doesn’t have the background for the job. LaSuer and Duffy say they understand the day-to-day needs of the department because they worked their way up the ranks. LaSuer also cites Gore’s lack of experience running a jail.

JAY LASUER (Candidate, Sheriff of San Diego County): Ask yourself the question: Is this man qualified to be the sheriff in this county? The answer has to be no.

FUDGE: LaSuer goes on to call Gore’s appointment to the office of sheriff a backroom deal based on personal relationships. Gore’s father and Bill Kolender were close associates when they both worked for the San Diego Police Department. Gore responds by saying the board of supervisors appointed him sheriff, not Bill Kolender. As to his background, Gore says his management experience at the FBI and the sheriff’s department makes him the best candidate.

BILL GORE (Sheriff, San Diego County): This job is not about driving around a patrol car in San Diego County. It’s about who can run the third largest law enforcement agency in the State of California.

FUDGE: The county sheriff’s department operates the jails in San Diego County. Its staff performs investigations and patrols communities that don’t have their own police force. Jim Duffy criticizes the current sheriff, saying San Diego County has more than 70,000 outstanding warrants. He says this backlog is largely due to the department’s policy of not jailing people who are wanted for many misdemeanor offenses. He says he would make it much easier for cops to incarcerate criminals.

JIM DUFFY (Candidate, Sheriff, San Diego County): The law allows any misdemeanor with certain criteria to be booked in the county jail, surely every felon, and that’s by sheriff’s policies that we restrict that.

FUDGE: Duffy says he would hire a more ethnically diverse deputy force and promote Community Oriented Policing. Jay LaSuer wants to create more jail space by housing prisoners in tents. He says early release policies at state prisons will put more pressure on county jails to lock up offenders. LaSuer points out that American forces in Iraq are housed in tents.

LASUER: If it’s good enough for our troops then it’s good enough for prisoners.

FUDGE: Gore responds to Duffy’s criticism by saying as jail space has become more available, he has expanded the list of misdemeanor crimes for which people are locked up. Many of San Diego’s outstanding warrants, he adds, are not for serious crimes, they’re for traffic violations. As for tent jails, Gore says that can’t be done.

GORE: Tent cities in San Diego County would not be permissible under state law. Jay LaSuer knows that and everybody else in law enforcement knows that.

FUDGE: The June primary could give San Diego a new sheriff if someone gets more than 50% of the vote. But while Gore has raised the most money, Jim Duffy has gotten the most endorsements from law enforcement groups. LaSuer has spent his many years in politics cultivating supporters. Professor Glen Sparrow says he expects the sheriff race will go to a November runoff. Tom Fudge, KPBS News.

CAVANAUGH: Joining me now with more on the race for San Diego County Sheriff is my guest, KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Give us some background on the San Diego County sheriffs. We just heard that this is a position where once a person gets elected, they often spend a long time as sheriff.

PENNER: They do. They spend decades. They accumulate a great deal of political power, certainly Bill Kolender did. I think the sheriff that spent the longest amount of time was somebody called Bert Strand, the 23rd sheriff, and his most important contribution was the organization of the Sheriff’s Reserves. And then a couple of decades later there was John Duffy, the father of Jim Duffy, as the 26th sheriff. He reclassified women from jail matrons to deputy sheriffs, among other things. But these are kind of important changes. He also had the sheriffs cars painted a green and white color scheme because green was his favorite color. A lot of people painted things to their favorite colors. One sheriff painted the cars a salmon and pink because those were his wife’s favorite colors. So you never know. With Bill Kolender, of course, he had been in law enforcement for over 50 years. He’d made a lot of contacts, a significant impact in improving law enforcement throughout California and was really a statewide figure as well as a local figure so his power is, what shall we say, legion.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as was mentioned in Tom Fudge’s report, Jim Duffy, son of the former sheriff John Duffy, has an impressive array of endorsements from law enforcement but I’m wondering, are Duffy’s law enforcement connections helping his fundraising?

PENNER: Well, it’s huge. The law enforcement agencies that are out for Duffy, just a few of them, the Carlsbad Firefighters, the Chula Vista Police Officers Association, the Deputy Sheriffs Association of the county, the Latino American Political Association, Los Angeles Police Protective League. I won’t go into them all but I can count right here on this list about 30 of them. And as far as fundraising is concerned, he had a disappointment. The politically powerful Deputy Sheriffs Association which endorsed him because he was its former president, they’re known to spend as much as 170,000 to win an election. They voted to spend a paltry $3,000 on Duffy. But the board had changed. There were a couple of new members of the board who were Gore supporters and that probably modified what they were willing to spend. But then Duffy got a quick turnaround from the Peace Officers Research Association of California. It’s an umbrella group for law enforcement associations and they voted to spend $25,000 on Duffy, so that’s pretty good.

CAVANAUGH: So what are we talking about in terms of fundraising for the three candidates? How much does it cost to run for San Diego County sheriff?

PENNER: Oh, you know, the numbers are ever-changing. It really depends on how well fought this race really is and what other kinds of means you have of getting to the voters. For example, Labor says they have power with the thousands and thousands of volunteers that they have. The San Diego-Imperial County Labor Council has endorsed Duffy, and if they get all those volunteers out there, especially those that are trying to push through the Labor-backed proposition to have term limits for county supervisors, if they get those people on the streets and moving, that could have a huge impact. Right now, Jim Duffy has contributions – Well, let’s say his cash on hand is about $25,000. Bill Gore’s cash on hand is about $112,000. And Jay LaSuer doesn’t have any cash on hand. But, you know, that doesn’t mean anything. We still have a couple of weeks to go and some people may kick in.

CAVANAUGH: Now the appointed sheriff, Bill Gore, his base of support, he’s called the establishment candidate. Why is that?

PENNER: Well, he has a long family history in law enforcement, and he, himself, he served as Assistant Sheriff on the department’s Law Enforcement Services Bureau, as the undersheriff to former Sheriff Kolender. He retired from the FBI and then joined the sheriff’s department. He has also been a special advisor and chief investigator to the San Diego County District Attorney. So, you know, his reach is far. Interestingly, his father and older brother were part of the San Diego Police Department and his middle brother was a San Diego County Deputy Sheriff. And even his wife was one of the first female FBI agents in the United States. And his father was quite close to Bill Kolender. I think that Tom mentioned that.


PENNER: They worked together in the police department in the 1950s. He also could be called the establishment candidate. He has pulled out the establishment. Bill Kolender, of course, the DA Bonnie Dumanis, three of the five supervisors, practically every county sheriff in Southern California, a lot of elected officials including Jerry Sanders, former mayor Dick Murphy, our City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, and on and on. And then he has some important community leaders, too, Alan Bersin, you know, the new Border Czar for the president, Steve Cushman, a very well known member of the Port and also businessman, Chris Van Gorder, who is the head of Scripps Health, and Joseph Wambaugh…

CAVANAUGH: Aha, we know him.

PENNER: …who writes about police things and is a well known author.

CAVANAUGH: Now there’s speculation that former sheriff Kolender retired early so that Bill Gore could be appointed to serve out his term and then get a leg up in the sheriff’s race. Why does that help Gore’s candidacy?

PENNER: Oh, well, it triggered controversy because Kolender did retire about a year ago, about halfway through his fourth term. It really was unexpected. There was some speculation that he retired so that Bill Gore could be appointed and that would give him the incumbency. That is always a very strong move when you’re on the ballot. On the ballot now, he can call himself San Diego County Sheriff, appointed. And, you know, a lot of people vote not for the person because they don’t know who the person is but they vote for the designation, who that person is rather than – or what that person is rather than who. And, you know, that’s going to work on behalf of Gore. The timing gave him a huge opportunity and he also had some timing having to do with the Chelsea King killing. It gave him the public platform where he appeared in control of the situation and compassionate to the parents, and lots and lots of time on television news.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s not forget Jay LaSuer. He’s being called the most conservative of the three sheriff’s candidates. What is his base of support and could he take votes away from either of the other candidates that we’ve been talking about?

PENNER: Well, his base of support is the conservative people, the gun advocates. His major individual that supports him that he’s been dancing out on the website is Sheriff Joe Arpaio who is from Maricopa County in…


PENNER: Yeah, and he’s – he, himself, is under all kinds of investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice, reportedly, the FBI, as well, into his department. A big racial profiling lawsuit is being pursued against him, and he’s not known as being very friendly to immigrants. And so he is number one but in addition to that, I mean, if you go into any of the websites, the websites for the California firearms enthusiasts home on the internet, you’re going to see that east county gun enthusiasts who are worried about losing their concealed weapon permits are for Jay LaSuer. Now how much power they have, I don’t know, and it will depend on whether Jay LaSuer can actually get out to the voters and make contact with them to see whether he can pull in that conservative vote.

CAVANAUGH: Now the academic that Tom Fudge spoke with as he prepared his report, said that he expected the sheriff’s race will go to a November runoff. Do you agree?

PENNER: Yeah, that’s – Well, Glen Sparrow, I would never disagree with Glen Sparrow.


PENNER: Duffy has the support of the San Diego-Imperial County Labor Council, which is pushing out the vote. That means Labor is behind him. As we said, Gore picks up the establishment, and LaSuer will be viewed as a conservative choice. As always, it comes down to money. To keep Duffy and Gore from both making it through the June primary, LaSuer will definitely need to kick up the fundraising and he won’t be able to rely on any significant independent expenditure support as the other two did. So I think it’s all up for grabs, and that’s what makes it such an exciting race. So we’ve got to vote.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Gloria Penner is KPBS political correspondent, host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. And you’ll be back next week when we focus on the races for seats on the San Diego City Council.

PENNER: I sure will.

CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to comment, please go online, Coming up, when dreams turn ugly, a discussion about nightmares next as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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