In spite of being opposed by four challengers, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith could squeak out the necessary 50 percent plus one vote on June 5 to avoid a run-off in the November election.
That would be a shame in our opinion, as we think her longevity in the office and her shaky performance deserves a head-to-head campaign with the only other qualified candidate in the race, former Undersheriff John Hirokawa.
Smith has presided over a department that has been operating under a cloud of controversy for a long time. The most recent has been her oversight of the county jails and the 2015 murder of an inmate, Michael Tyree, by three deputy sheriffs. She has attempted in this campaign to deflect responsibility for all that is wrong at the jails to Hirokawa, who as undersheriff was the No. 2 in the department and, among a host of other operational responsibilities, oversaw the assistant sheriff who was directly running the jail.
The finger-pointing about who should be held accountable for serious deficiencies in the Sheriff's department and jail aside, the other three challengers do not have close to the law-enforcement management experience needed to oversee the 1,800-person, $350 million agency. Between Smith, 66, who is asking for a sixth, four-year term, and Hirokawa, who like Smith went up through the ranks over his more than 35 years with the department until retiring in 2016 at age 61, we think Hirokawa is the better choice.
Significantly, Hirokawa is supported by 11 former police chiefs, including recently retired Palo Alto Chief Dennis Burns, and retired San Jose Independent Police Auditor and former Superior Court judge LaDoris Cordell, who also chaired a blue-ribbon committee appointed after the jail murder of Tyree. He is also endorsed by the Deputy Sheriffs' Association. (Smith was endorsed by the other four county supervisors.)
In addition to overseeing the jails since 2010, the Sheriff's department is responsible for law enforcement in the county's unincorporated areas and provides police services to several smaller cities, including Los Altos Hills and to the VTA. It also provides security at all county courthouses and grants Stanford University police its deputized law-enforcement status even though Stanford officers are university employees and supervised by a police chief hired by Stanford.
Smith has retained her seat over the last 20 years by being an astute politician who has nurtured all the right relationships and made sure the communities contracting with the Sheriff's Office for police services are happy. That's commendable, but we believe the troubled department needs stronger leadership. A run-off election campaign will help confirm whether John Hirokawa is the person to bring it.