East Bay voters showed an appetite for criminal justice reform

The recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin Tuesday produced a flurry of reporting claiming Democratic voters have sent a message that they’re veering away from candidates who want to reform the criminal justice system. Instead, the story went, the Golden State is embracing a more law-and-order politics.

In reality, California’s election results paint a more complex picture, one that shows many voters are embracing progressives who want to overhaul the criminal justice system.

Nowhere was this more clear than across the Bay from San Francisco in Alameda County.

Nearly twice the size of San Francisco, Alameda County has a bigger district attorney’s office, many more police agencies in its 14 cities, and a sheriff who runs one of the largest jails in the nation. In other words, while San Francisco holds a place of symbolic importance in the minds of the rest of the nation, Alameda County’s criminal justice system is actually a far larger enterprise.

Alameda County’s DA and sheriff have also long exerted considerable influence on prosecutors and police agencies up and down the state. It was a model prosecutor’s office since Earl Warren ran it from 1925 to 1939, with Alameda district attorneys taking leading positions on statewide policies, often advocating for harsh penalties and opposing reforms. And for virtually their entire histories, Alameda County’s district attorney and sheriff’s office have been run by conservatives. Elections have been less than competitive due to the practice of the incumbent DA or sheriff handpicking their successor.

But the results of Tuesday’s primary election, so far, indicate that many Alameda County voters are attracted to candidates promising big changes in how criminal justice is administered. While not all the votes have been counted yet, it appears that a progressive candidate, Pamela Price, leads the DA’s race and will face off against a more moderate prosecutor, Terry Wiley, in November. Similarly, a sheriff’s commander who ran on a reform platform, Yesenia Sanchez, is leading her boss, current Sheriff Gregory Ahern.

“It does seem like there is some redirection of interest in Alameda County towards a more progressive criminal justice leadership,” said Richard Speiglman, a member of Interfaith Coalition for Justice in our Jails, a group critical of Ahern’s management of the county jail.

A progressive candidate leads in the Alameda County DA’s race

With District Attorney Nancy O’Malley retiring, for the first time in decades, county residents had the opportunity to vote in a DA election that did not include an incumbent or someone who had been appointed to the job. 

Civil rights attorney Pamela Price, a progressive and outspoken critic of the DA’s office, jumped out to an early lead with 40% of the vote, despite two opponents outraising and outspending Price’s campaign. It appears Chief Deputy District Attorney Terry Wiley and Deputy District Attorney Jimmie Wilson, both longtime Alameda prosecutors, may have split the moderate and more conservative votes. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, Wiley remained in second place, about 10 points ahead of Wilson, who had the backing of several police unions. Seth Steward, a former San Francisco prosecutor and current chief of staff to Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb, was in fourth place. 

Nancy O’Malley and Terry Wiley at Wiley’s election night watch party. Credit: Amir Aziz

County Registrar Tim Dupuis told The Oaklandside there were 120,000 uncounted ballots as of Wednesday afternoon and that the number could go up and down as votes are tallied, especially given that his office receives mail-in ballots postmarked as late as election day. The race is almost certainly headed for a November runoff. 

Price has been outspoken about prosecuting police for unlawful shootings and other on-duty misconduct and crimes, saying the DA’s office has been too soft on officers involved in questionable killings. O’Malley, during her 12 years in office, charged only one officer: San Leandro’s Jason Fletcher, for the fatal shooting of Steven Taylor in 2020. 

At her election watch party at Everett & Jones Barbecue, Price was bursting with confidence and said the results indicated voters are not satisfied with the status quo. Price has promised to look inward to examine whether DA members’ relationships with police officers present conflicts of interest, and to expand the office’s integrity unit, and hasn’t ruled out looking back at previous police shootings to see if missteps were made. 

“It shows the people of Alameda County are ready for a change. It’s time for a change,” Price said. “It is time to turn this ship around.”  

The county registrar’s election map shows Price, who ran in 2018 against O’Malley and lost, has a strong base of supporters in the more urban northern parts of the county in Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville. Price also appears to have picked up votes in Alameda, San Leandro, Hayward, and southern Alameda County, areas she did not fare well in four years ago. 

Wiley, the No. 3 person in the DA’s office, who was endorsed by O’Malley, was not claiming victory in snagging the second spot in the November runoff, preferring to wait until more ballots are counted. But if results hold, it will be a Price vs. Wiley contest this fall. The longtime prosecutor expects he would pick up some of Wilson’s endorsements, financial support, and votes. Wiley has presented himself as a moderate, not opposed to reform but not if it comes at the expense of public safety.

“In our opinion, Pamela Price has a ceiling in terms of her support. Because if she were to become the District Attorney of Alameda County, all you need to do is look across the Bay and see what that system looked like,” Wiley told The Oaklandside Wednesday.  

Jail controversies, including deaths, may be driving voters to seek change

Dangerous conditions inside Santa Rita Jail are an issue that has loomed over the sheriff’s race. Credit: Pete Rosos

Sheriff Ahern has been in office since 2006 and never faced a challenge until this year. But a string of controversies over the past several years may have made him vulnerable to a challenge from reformist candidates.

No issue looms over the sheriff’s race larger than deaths in Santa Rita Jail, a sprawling lockdown facility located in east Alameda County’s city of Dublin. One of the biggest jails in the nation, at least 63 Santa Rita inmates have died since 2014, according to activists with the Interfaith Coalition for Justice in Our Jails, a group that opposes Ahern. These have included suicides, overdoses, and homicides committed by inmates and jail guards while restraining detainees.

“What people have heard about is deaths,” said Micky Duxbury, a Berkeley resident and critic of Ahern. “People have heard that all these people are dying. Wherever someone is on the political spectrum, I think they’re asking, ‘Why are people dying in our jails?’”

Earlier this year, a federal judge placed the jail and sheriff’s office under a consent decree, an oversight mechanism intended to reform the department and fix dangerous jail conditions that have prevented mentally ill people from getting the help they need.

Other issues may have influenced voters this year say activists, including Ahern’s decision to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents access to Santa Rita Jail in order to detain and deport undocumented detainees. During the campaign, Ahern was also criticized for using the controversial “blue line flag” in some of his political mailers.

Bob Britton, a retired union organizer who worked for the deputy sheriff’s union in the 1990s and now is involved in efforts to reform Santa Rita Jail, said the election results show that all voters needed was a choice. “For the first time, the county electorate has had a chance to vote for someone who represents their values,” he said.

Part of the reason so few alternative candidates stepped forward in past years to run against Ahern, or previous sheriffs, is that the job requires a person to be certified by the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. With only law enforcement officers eligible, few sheriff’s deputies have ever stepped forward to challenge their boss.

Britton also noted that Ahern, as part of the California Sheriff’s Association, endorsed Jeff Sessions for Attorney General in 2017 during a period of anti-immigrant rhetoric by President Donald Trump, and that the Oathkeepers, a right-wing extremist group whose leader was recently indicted as part of the Jan. 6 insurrection, was allowed to have a table at the controversial Urban Shield weapons and training expo hosted for many years by Ahern.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Sanchez held an 11-point lead, with 47% of the vote to Ahern’s 36%. JoAnn Walker, a San Francisco Police Officer who lives in Hayward, pulled 16% of the vote. Walker, notably, ran to the left of Sanchez on a platform of demilitarizing the sheriff’s office.

Sanchez, a veteran of the sheriff’s office and the commander who runs Santa Rita Jail, didn’t seem at first like a reform candidate, said Mariano Contreras, an Oakland resident and member of the Latino Taskforce. But as Contreras followed the campaign over the past few months, he noticed that while Ahern stuck to conservative law-and-order messaging, Sanchez’s platform offered reformist goals.

“Maybe she was holding her tongue and working with the system, and now she’s freer to be reform-minded,” said Contreras. “She speaks to more accountability issues, having the sheriff not be so militaristic. Those are kind of issues that affect the Latinos, those of us who are really concerned with law enforcement accountability.”

Sanchez has also thrown her support behind the idea of establishing a civilian oversight board for the sheriff’s office. Ahern has said he doesn’t oppose the idea.

Bruce Schmiechen, of Faith in Action East Bay and the Coalition on Police Accountability, has been involved in the process of establishing civilian oversight of the sheriff’s office, which he said in an email “opened the door for re-evaluation of the leadership that has been coming from ACSO.” 

“It showed in the election results,” Schmiechen said. “Community members are increasingly aware there’s a problem [at Santa Rita Jail]—taxpayers are the ones in effect being hit with the multi-hundreds of millions of dollars resulting from lawsuits so ‘impacted people’ is becoming increasingly inclusive. More and more grassroots folks across the county want major change and a different kind of leadership than ACSO has shown, especially in creating safe, human conditions of custody.”

Britton said he’s seeing political shifts in parts of the county that used to reliably vote for more conservative candidates like Ahern but are now open to reforms.

“The population is much more diverse and I would say much more liberal than it was,” he said. “I think there is a recognition that even if you’re a fiscal conservative, you would want to have a well-run jail and you would want to stop huge payouts because of in-custody deaths. I think it’s definitely changing.”

Although there was no polling prior to the election, Ahern’s campaign expected the results to mirror the 2018 District Attorney primary election. In that race, the urban northern part of the county—Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville—had voted for the progressive candidate, Price, while voters in the Tri-Valley and southern Alameda County stuck with incumbent District Attorney Nancy O’Malley. 

That stark divide is reflected in the results released so far from the county registrar’s office. As of Wednesday afternoon, Sanchez had 47% of the vote, three percentage points shy of a stunning upset of Ahern. 

“Our team was aware and had some concerns,” Ahern said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s difficult to manage,” he said of the different expectations of county voters. “We hope to educate the public on what we are doing. There was very low voter turnout and not all the votes are counted. We hope we can change the minds of people that did not vote for me.” 

Does the recall in San Francisco mean anything for Alameda County?

As of Wednesday evening, only about 17% of registered Alameda County voters’ ballots had been returned and counted. Election officials say they don’t expect turnout to be a lot higher. In other words, the results in Alameda County, like San Francisco, reflect the opinions of a small fraction of the electorate. Things could change a lot in November during the general election when turnout is expected to be significantly higher.

Contreras said he thinks the lessons being drawn about the San Francisco DA recall election are overblown, but that if the developments across the Bay mean anything for Alameda County’s criminal justice politics, it’s that pro-recall forces did a good job mobilizing their people to the polls in a low-turnout primary. And if progressives like Pamela Price are going to win and stick around, he said, their constituents will have to be ready to defend them.

“If Pamela Price, when she becomes DA, goes after and prosecutes a police officer for misconduct, and is perceived to be lenient on low-level crime, then certainly someone will start making a move against her,” said Contreras. “It’s so easy to do a recall.”

Speiglman said there’s one other race underway that could mean big changes for the county criminal justice system: the Board of Supervisors District 3 seat. 

Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan leads in that race and is likely to face former Alameda City Councilmember Lena Tam in a runoff. According to Speiglman, for years the supervisors have mostly allowed the sheriff and district attorney to manage their departments without much interference. If big changes are to be made, however, the supervisors will also need to be involved. Speiglman thinks Kaplan would rock the boat in a reformist way if she’s elected.

“I think Rebecca is one of the few people who would have the courage to shake things up on the board and question the advice the supervisors get from the county administration about budget and policy decisions,” he said. “There are exciting possibilities in her taking that seat.”

East Bay voters showed an appetite for criminal justice reform