Meet the candidates vying to be San Diego's next sheriff
Live election results
San Diego hasn’t had a new sheriff in more than a decade, but that will soon change as voters select the replacement for retired Sheriff Bill Gore in this year’s election.
Gore retired earlier this year, and, in March, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to temporarily appoint Tony Ray to fill the seat until a new sheriff is elected. There are seven candidates running for the seat, and the top two vote-getters in the June 7 election will advance to a November runoff.
KPBS reached out to all the candidates, and heard back from three. Those three sat down for interviews.
An assistant city attorney in San Diego, John Hemmerling touts his background as a Marine and San Diego Police officer, and his time as the chief criminal prosecutor for the city of San Diego.
Hemmerling said the biggest issue facing the San Diego Sheriff’s Department is the deaths in San Diego jails. There have been 185 deaths over the past 15 years, and a state audit found the department should require mental health screenings at intake and more interaction between nurses and inmates, among other changes.
“The first thing is to make sure all of the things that were recommended from the state audit were implemented,” Hemmerling said. “I think there's many other things that they talk about in there, some of the best practices from the state board as well that can be looked at, some best practices from the national boards as well that we're going to take a look at. And make sure that we have the best people working, supervising the processes to bring the jails to a place where they feel comfortable that someone who has been sentenced to a jail sentence, or they've been waiting to be on trial, that the public have felt confident that the care and custody that should be expected of the Sheriff’s Department is where it’s supposed to be. The status quo is definitely not good enough.”
Hemmerling said his leadership experience makes him most qualified for the job.
“I spent almost a decade as a police officer, working most of that time in City Heights,” he said. “I left there as a field training officer. I then went to law school while I was working at the San Diego Police Department, working my beat, to become a better person for the community, a better person for myself. I eventually became a prosecutor in the city of San Diego.”
Kelly Martinez has worked at the Sheriff's Department for 37 years and is currently the undersheriff.
“I run the day to day operations of the department,” she said.
Martinez said the biggest issue facing the department is hiring more staff, which she says leads to better care in jails.
“We lost a lot of people in the last couple of years, so we need to hire about 400 people, both nurses and deputies,” she said. “The hiring is so key because all of the other things hinge on having enough staff. So investment in our jails is a huge priority as well. We're already moving forward on a lot of changes in our jail system to make them safe for the people in our custody as well as the people who work there and then public safety in our region.”
Martinez said she has direct experience leading the department.
“Nobody knows the Sheriff's Department, or our county, better than I do,” she said. “And I've already been working towards all of these changes and initiatives that we need to make our community safe.”
Dave Myers worked in law enforcement for 35 years, rising to the ranks of a commander in the Sheriff's Department and retired in June 2018.
He said the biggest issue is restoring trust in the department.
“Sheriff's leadership has created an environment in which mistrust is the status quo in the sheriff's office, but the current status quo is not going to stop jail deaths, the status quo in sheriff's leadership now is not going to address racial bias in policing,” he said. “And with all that said, the sheriff's leadership is perplexed and blaming other reasons on why they can't recruit and retain long term employees. It all boils down to the trust within that law enforcement agency.”
Myers said he can help diversify the department.
“Create an environment in which the department of 4,700 positions reflects the community we're policing, that the community members who want to be in law enforcement live in the communities we're policing, that the management within this agency of 4,700 people reflect the community we're policing from the LGBTQ community, African American, Latinx, API community, that those members, those communities are represented,” he said.
The sheriff is a nonpartisan office, but party politics are still playing a role in the race. Hemmerling was an independent voter, but in 2020 changed to the Republican Party and has their backing. Despite the county’s majority of Democrat voters, he said he can be elected.
“No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, you want to be safe in your neighborhood,” he said. “The number one job of government is to provide safety and security and public safety.”
Meanwhile, Martinez was a Republican, but changed her party to Democrat in November 2020 and has the backing of many well known Democrats, including San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. She said her decision to change parties was personal.
“It was done before I decided to run for sheriff,” she said. “But the sheriff is not partisan. The job of public safety really doesn't fall in one party or another. It's just doing the work.”
Myers also changed his party from Republican to Democrat in 2016, and has the endorsement of the local Democratic Party. He ran for sheriff in 2018 and lost, but said it’ll be different this time.
“I was a full time commander at the time,” he said. “What's different this time as I'm retired? I'm not a full time commander. I'm not getting picked on. I'm not getting marginalized. I'm not getting discriminated against for my message in 2018.”
In addition to these candidates, there are four others:
They did not respond to interview requests from KPBS.
The two candidates who get the most votes on June 7 will advance to the November general election.
People across the nation are coming together to fight against violent hate crimes, including here in San Diego. A vigil protest against gun violence and white supremacy is being held Monday night at the Balboa Park fountain.