Gore's retirement unlikely to create incumbent advantage in sheriff's race
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore's announcement Wednesday that he would retire in two weeks quickly led some to suspect history was repeating itself.
Gore became sheriff in 2009 after his predecessor, Bill Kolender, also retired early and urged the County Board of Supervisors to appoint Gore as his interim replacement. That's what happened, giving Gore the advantage of incumbency when he ran for a full term in 2010. He was re-elected twice.
A nearly identical process played out when former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis retired early in 2017 and supervisors appointed her preferred candidate, Summer Stephen, as interim DA. Stephen got to run as an incumbent, winning a four-year term in 2018.
Progressives and good governance advocates blasted the move as a way for insider candidates to gain an unfair advantage, since voters have no direct say over the appointment of interim sheriffs or district attorneys.
But almost immediately after Gore announced his retirement, the candidate he endorsed for sheriff, Undersheriff Kelly Martinez, said she would not seek an interim appointment. Her campaign later clarified to KPBS she would also decline such an appointment if it were offered to her.
"The people of San Diego deserve a fair race for sheriff as well as an appointment process they can trust," Martinez said. "I'll work hard to earn the support of San Diego County voters who want a sheriff with experience and commitment to public safety."
Nathan Fletcher, chair of the Board of Supervisors, also issued a statement saying he would not vote for an interim sheriff who was also running for the job in this year's election. Fletcher, as well as his two fellow Democrats on the board, Nora Vargas and Terra Lawson-Remer, have all endorsed Martinez.
"The voters are poised to make a very consequential decision on who they want to be our next sheriff, and it would be inappropriate for us to put our thumb on the scale this close to the election by appointing a person who is a candidate for sheriff," Fletcher said.
Eva Posner, a Democratic strategist who has not endorsed any candidate for sheriff, said the apparent break in the pattern of interim appointments would make the election more fair. She said the change was the result of years of organizing for big structural changes in county government, starting with the imposition of term limits on county supervisors in 2010.
"It wasn't too long ago these elections weren't even challenged and people didn't even know they could vote for sheriff, let alone having a true choice in the matter that hasn't already been predetermined by a small group on the board of supervisors," Posner said.
Gore has had a long career in law enforcement, working 32 years at the FBI. Supporters credit him with reducing recidivism in jails and improving the process for issuing concealed weapon permits.
But critics say he's failed to address the high rate of inmate deaths in county jails. The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board wrote Wednesday: "More than 150 people have died in custody due to poor health, suicide, overdoses and homicide since (Gore) became sheriff. Some cases reflected egregious callousness from deputies toward inmates suffering drug withdrawals or lacking the medicine they needed for severe medical conditions."
Martinez has won endorsements from a long list of Democratic elected officials, as well as the Deputy Sheriff's Association. But retired sheriff's deputy Dave Myers, who lost to Gore in 2018, recently won the endorsement of the San Diego County Democratic Party. That endorsement can come with a significant advantage in fundraising.
Two other candidates have officially declared their candidacy for sheriff: deputy city attorney John Hemmerling and retired sheriff's deputy Juan Carlos Mercado. Another sheriff's deputy, Kenneth Newsom, sought the endorsement of the Deputy Sheriff's Association but has not yet filed papers to be placed on the ballot.