After the first tranche of ballots was counted on election night, Yesenia Sanchez, a commander in the sheriff’s office who oversees Santa Rita Jail, led the field of three candidates with 47% of the vote. Incumbent Sheriff Gregory Ahern trailed at 36%, followed by San Francisco Police Officer JoAnn Walker, who had 17%.
Sanchez’s lead slightly grew Thursday evening to 48% of the vote after the county released the first updated vote totals since election night. Ahern remained at 36%, while Walker dropped a percentage point.
This election was the first time Sheriff Ahern faced opposition since he was first elected in 2006. In fact, to find a contested sheriff’s race, one would have to go back to the 1980s, when Sheriff Charles Plummer was voted into office.
Ahern faced an in-house opponent in sheriff’s Cmdr. Sanchez and an outsider in Walker. Dissatisfaction with Ahern’s leadership and style has been building for years, especially among Oakland and Berkeley activists.
While the sheriff enjoys support from southern Alameda County and the Tri-Valley area, he has his share of critics over cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, hosting a large militarized police training event known as Urban Shield, and his management of Santa Rita Jail.
Since 2014, at least 58 people incarcerated at the Dublin jail have died while in custody. One of the largest county jails in the country, Santa Rita Jail is now subject to external oversight and a series of mandatory reforms following the settlement of a class-action lawsuit that alleged the sheriff wasn’t providing adequate mental health services.
The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Ashok Babu, claimed while going through a mental health crisis he was held in isolation for 23 hours a day for several weeks and for more than a year was placed on a form of suicide watch that barred him from participating in recreation and kept him alone in a cell with inhumane conditions.
The lawsuit was settled following a highly critical report by the U.S. Justice Department, which found that the county’s mental health care system is unconstitutional and the jail is overcrowded, understaffed, and dangerous to detainees.
Conditions and management of Santa Rita emerged as the top campaign issue. Sanchez, who is the commander overseeing the jail, said Ahern has too much control over funding and staffing at the facility, but he has accepted little responsibility for what she views as mismanagement.
Operating the jail is one of the largest responsibilities of the sheriff’s office and was a primary factor in Sanchez’s decision to challenge her boss. She was encouraged to do so by younger deputies who, she said, are waiting for a change.
“We need to remove this ‘us vs. them’ mentality,” Sanchez told The Oaklandside last month. “The only way to do that is to remove who is driving that culture.”
Walker, a 26-year SFPD officer and Hayward resident, positioned herself as a progressive alternative to Ahern and distanced herself from Sanchez, who she said has been in a position to affect change at the county jail. Walker, in an interview with The Oaklandside, said a vote for either of her opponents is approval of the status quo.
“People are seeing the sheriff’s department in a new way. Before, it was pretty much invisible unless you had a family member go to Santa Rita Jail or a loved one who died in custody,” Walker said this week. “At this juncture, the campaign has to pull back and allow the voters to do their part. If they really do want change, we’ll see how many people decided to vote for change.”
During the campaign, Ahern pushed back his critics, placing some blame on the county Board of Supervisors for slashing the sheriff’s budget. In an interview with The Oaklandside last month, Ahern said he’s creatively found ways to boost revenue to avoid deputy layoffs and keep the jail adequately staffed.
A sheriff deputy since 1980, Ahern climbed through the ranks and worked throughout the agency in various capacities before becoming sheriff when Plummer retired early in 2006. His opponents, he said, lack experience and knowledge of the day-to-day responsibilities of the sheriff.
The sheriff is also the county’s coroner and sits atop a vast organization chart of about 1,000 sworn deputies and 700 professional staff while overseeing a budget of about $550 million. Most Oakland residents are more familiar with the Oakland Police Department, but the sheriff is responsible for things that affect Oakland residents. Sheriff deputies are often brought in as mutual aid to assist OPD and deputies patrol and protect the airport and port, Highland Hospital, and AC Transit buses.
The duties of the office also go beyond traditional law enforcement work. It performs orders of the court, such as serving eviction notices. And Ahern currently serves as the director of emergency services — like in the event of a major earthquake or fire — for a region that covers the Bay Area and a large swath of Northern California.
“I think I’m the only person that can put our sheriff’s office in an advantageous position to help the community and maintain public safety,” Ahern said last month. “I want to be the example for Alameda County, the region, and the state on how we are addressing crime, the driving factors of crime, and what our solutions are so we can be the example for reform.”
He also amassed the largest war chest in the three-way race. Ahern raised about $422,000, with most of his support coming from Dublin, Livermore and Concord (in Contra Costa County) and endorsements from former governor and Oakland mayor Jerry Brown and nearly every sheriff in the state. And he far outspent his opponents on mailers and other forms of advertisement.
Several East Bay elected leaders, including Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, have thrown their support to Sanchez, along with major labor unions. Some politicians, such as Councilmember Dan Kalb, endorsed both Sanchez and Walker in an anybody-but-Ahern statement.
June 10: This story has been updated.