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Martinez, Hemmerling advance to runoff in San Diego County sheriff race

Undersheriff Kelly Martinez.jpg
Matthew Bowler
Undersheriff Kelly Martinez at the sight of a homeless encampment in unincorporated San Diego County on the border of El Cajon addressed questions related to public safety being raised about the people living in the encampment, April 29, 2022.

County Undersheriff Kelly Martinez and former city prosecutor John Hemmerling are headed for a November runoff after emerging as the top two vote-getters in the race for sheriff.

Martinez topped the seven-candidate field in Tuesday's election to secure a spot on the runoff in the race to succeed longtime sheriff's department head Bill Gore, who retired earlier this year.

“I'm really encouraged that the voters have trusted me at this point with the votes and putting me forward through to the general,” Martinez said. “I think that the public and the voters really expect a sheriff who is transparent and accountable and focused on public safety, and I am that candidate.”

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John Hemmerling has a slight lead over Dave Myers for second place, which would earn a spot in the runoff with Martinez.

In an emailed statement he told KPBS the outcome of the election was gratifying, and said:

“We need fresh, new leadership for a real change in how we safeguard our neighborhoods, run our jails, protect victims of crime, and keep the public informed. I look forward to the general election and the opportunity to engage Kelly Martinez in a serious and detailed debate about public safety in San Diego County.”

The election comes as the sheriff's department battles with staffing issues and continued scrutiny over inmate deaths at its jail facilities.

A state Auditor's Office report indicated the death rate at San Diego County jails was far higher than other large California counties and that the situation "raises concerns about underlying systemic issues with the Sheriff's Department's policies and practices."

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Martinez said she has the right background and knowledge to tackle those issues.

“I am the most qualified candidate. I have the most experience in this job, I've been with the Sheriff’s Department for 37 years,” she said. “I've worked at every rank, in every level. I've worked my way up to undersheriff, and as the undersheriff I run the day-to-day operations of the department.”

Since Gore's retirement in February, Assistant Sheriff Anthony Ray has served in an interim role, but he is not running in Tuesday's primary election.

Martinez is looking to be the department's first female sheriff, following her appointment last year as the department's first female second-in- command.

Martinez, who has served within the sheriff's department since 1985, has Gore's endorsement, as well as the backing of County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, among others.

She has touted recent work in the county to implement non-law enforcement staffed teams to respond to people experiencing mental health crises. Martinez also says she will invest in hiring additional medical staff and mental health professionals for the county's jails, and will continue what she says is a culture of transparency regarding in-custody deaths and body-worn camera footage releases.

Hemmerling was most recently a prosecutor at the San Diego City Attorney's Office, and also previously served as a San Diego police officer and U.S. Marine.

RELATED: Candidate for San Diego County Sheriff leaves job, loses endorsement after transgender comments

Though Hemmerling told several media outlets that his retirement last month from the City Attorney's Office was long in the works and intended to allow him to focus on his campaign, he recently came under fire for comments he made at a candidate forum in Ramona, which many viewed as anti-transgender. Hemmerling insisted his comments were directed at a county ordinance, and were not meant to criticize anyone based on their sex or gender identity.

Hemmerling says that if elected, he will focus on behavioral health services for those incarcerated in county jails and diversion opportunities to keep others out of custody. He says he will also focus on transparency within the department in order to boost public trust.

Hemmerling is endorsed by the state and county's Republican Party, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and retired San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.

The San Diego Registrar of Voters will continue posting updates for all of the races on their website over the coming days. Election results have to be certified on July 7.