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Yesenia Sanchez declares upset victory in race for Alameda County sheriff

Yesenia Sanchez declared victory Tuesday evening in the race for sheriff in Alameda County, in an apparent — and stunning — upset against her incumbent boss.

Sanchez, a commander with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office who oversees the Santa Rita Jail, led the race Tuesday evening 52.7% of the vote — a total that, if held, will allow her to forgo a runoff in November. The latest results show Sanchez trouncing four-term incumbent Sheriff Greg Ahern, who received just 31.5%, despite having never faced a challenger in any of his previous campaigns.  Veteran San Francisco police officer JoAnn Walker is in third with 15.8% of the vote.

“The voters of Alameda County have spoken,” Sanchez said in a statement to this news organization Tuesday night. “They yearn for a Sheriff who will bring reform, transparency, and accountability to the Office. I hear these calls loud and clear. As the next Sheriff of Alameda County, I know that I’ve been entrusted with an enormous duty, and I will make our county proud.”

Ahern did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday evening.

In declaring victory, Sanchez appears poised to join Capt. Christina Corpus in San Mateo County in becoming the first two Latinas to serve as sheriffs in California’s history. Their strong showings — upsetting incumbent sheriffs on either side of the San Francisco Bay — come amid a broader push for reforms in policing, as voters express concern over rising crime rates that began two years ago with the pandemic.

In all, more than 253,000 votes have been tallied so far in the race, according to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters. The county’s election results have yet to be finalized, though the agency has said that they did not expect another major update in vote tallies after Tuesday.

Sanchez said the results showed that Ahern had lost touch with constituents under his watch — leading to a backlash from voters looking for more accountability from law enforcement and better conditions at the county’s main jail in Dublin.

“This is really reflective of what the county was looking for in a sheriff,” Sanchez said, adding that her apparent victory showed the county was looking for “increased transparency, holding the sheriff’s office accountable, being open and developing relationships.”

The tally showed Sanchez with strong support across the western half of Alameda County and the Interstate 880 corridor, including most of Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda and San Leandro. And in a surprise, Sanchez also appeared to fare well in Union City, Newark and parts of Fremont — areas that have traditionally leaned more conservative and had been expected to lean in Ahern’s favor.

There simply weren’t enough votes in the county’s eastern half — including the traditionally more conservative cities of Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore, which skewed heavily toward Ahern — to make up the difference, local politics experts said Tuesday.

Sanchez’s apparent win amounts to a repudiation of Ahern’s style of policing, along with a desire among voters for new leadership to fix problems within the sheriff’s office — most notably, conditions at Santa Rita, said Will Matthews, spokesperson for Californians for Safety and Justice, which supports criminal justice reform. And it suggests, Matthews said, that many Bay Area communities remain open to reform-minded law enforcement candidates, despite the high-profile recall of progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin in San Francisco.

Ahern, he said, has “been around a very long time. He’s very rooted in sort of an old, 1990s mentality, in terms of how we approach issues of crime and punishment.”

“We knew going in that voters were concerned about crime,” Matthews added. “Voters also do not believe that the old, failed strategies of the past are the solution.”

Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton handily won a second term, dispatching a challenge from a more conservative prosecutor within her own office. Civil rights attorney Pamela Price appeared headed for a runoff in November in the race for district attorney in Alameda County, after finishing ahead of longtime prosecutor Terry Wiley.

And in San Mateo County, Corpus scored a convicting victory over incumbent Sheriff Carlos Bolanos, booting him from power after six years in office and becoming the first Latina sheriff in California history — a distinction she seems likely to share with Sanchez.

“We are now a representation of what our young women and what our young Latina women can achieve if we put our efforts forth,” Sanchez said.

Throughout the race, Sanchez hammered her boss on his handling of Santa Rita — one of the nation’s largest jails, and a constant liability for the county amid a run of lawsuits and multi-million dollar settlements for deputies’ handling of mentally ill inmates.

At least 58 people have died at the jail since 2014 — often of drug overdoses or suicides, leading to a string of lawsuits that have cost county taxpayers millions of dollars in settlements. A report by the U.S. Department of Justice last spring also found that the jail “fails to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care.”

The sheriff’s office is now seeking to implement a series of reforms outlined in a federal settlement reached earlier this year, including increasing staffing at the facility, creating a new unit for people with mental illness and improving oversight.

In his campaign, Ahern highlighted reforms he pursued at the jail in recent years, including equipping deputies with body-worn cameras and implementing new programs to catch people smuggling drugs inside the jail. Still, Sanchez — who took command of the jail in 2020 — criticized budget decisions made by his administration, which she claimed steered money away from the facility, leaving it short-staffed.

The election “exceeded my wildest hopes and dreams with what would happen with that race,” said Igor Tregub, chair of the Alameda County Democratic Party on Tuesday morning — reflecting the stunning nature of Sanchez’s apparent victory.

“I was very pleasantly surprised to see this kind of universal repudiation of the status quo,” Tregub said.

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Author: Jakob Rodgers

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