High-profile race could determine whether Hennessey's progressive policies continue
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi filed preliminary papers to run for sheriff Feb. 22, altering the shape of the mayor's race and giving progressives another shot at electing a candidate to citywide office.
His move also guarantees that law enforcement will be part of the discussion on the left this fall and it opens the door for a progressive sheriff to succeed retiring Mike Hennessey and continue the sorts of policies that have made him a national example of alternative ways to approach crime and punishment.
Mikarimi, a graduate of the San Francisco Police Academy and a former District Attorney's Office investigator, has law enforcement experience and has made violent crime a key issue as a district supervisor. But he's not part of the city's public safety establishment.
"One of the greatest successes of Mike Hennessey was that he was an independent sheriff," Mirkarimi told us. "That allowed him to take a progressive approach to his job."
Mirkarimi had been talking about the job of sheriff for some time now, but he had been waiting to hear whether Hennessey would seek another term after 31 years on the job. When the sheriff announced last week that he was planning to retire, Mirkarimi moved quickly, contacting potential supporters and setting up a campaign plan.
The supervisor becomes the immediate front-runner in a race where there's no other high-profile candidate. But that doesn't mean he's going to walk into the job — the last thing downtown wants is a progressive of Mirkarimi's stature holding a high-profile citywide office that could be a springboard to a future run for mayor.
"This is going to be a top-of-the-ticket race," Mirkarimi said. "We don't want it to be a setback by losing the Hennessey legacy."
Mirkarimi pushed hard for community policing as a supervisor, demanding more foot patrols in areas like the Western Addition, where the homicide rate was high. As sheriff, he told us, he would work to expand on Hennessey's efforts at curbing recidivism.
"Eventually, almost everyone who's incarcerated comes back to the community," he said. "Our recidivism rate for the county jails is above 60 percent, and we have to work on reentry programs to lower that. It's really about keeping communities safe."
If a strong progressive gets into the mayor's race — and somebody whom the left can support runs for district attorney — there's the prospect of a slate of candidates who can work together, share resources, and mount a concerted campaign.
It's likely Mirkarimi will get the support of at least five or six supervisors and other high-profile political figures. Hennessey hasn't said anything about his successor, but if he supports Mirkarimi — which is entirely possible — the supervisor will be in strong position for November.
But the likelihood of at least one downtown-backed candidate, and possibly several law-enforcement types, in the race will make it challenging. With ranked-choice voting, Mirkarimi will not only have to win most of the first-place votes, but reach out beyond the progressive community to get enough seconds and thirds to hold on to victory.
But if he can pull it off, he'll have done something no other solid progressive has done in years: win an open race for a citywide office.