“I plan to stay until the end of my term,” Sheriff Bill Kolender told CityBeat in early March.
CityBeat had contacted the sheriff after a source had said Kolender would retire in the spring, at least in part to help his second-in-command, Undersheriff Bill Gore, get a leg up for the 2010 election. The retirement was to take effect a few months later, the source said, with a Gore appointment to follow. The rumor of Kolender's retirement had been around for years, but this information seemed unusually precise and worth checking.
On April 2, Kolender told the San Diego County Board of Supervisors that he would resign effective July 2. Kolender's resignation set in motion the first major battle of the 2010 election season, one in which at least three supervisors will vote to appoint a sheriff to serve the remainder of Kolender's term. The fight for those votes will take into account 15-year-old grudges, new alliances and infighting within the halls of the County Administration Building. After all, what sheriff hopeful wouldn't want to appear on the ballot as “San Diego County Sheriff”?
The sheriff is a powerful position, one of only four county-wide elected officials, and aside from the district attorney, the most visible. The Sheriff's Department enforces laws in unincorporated parts of the county and in nine cities that don't have police forces, manages the county's eight jails and provides protection for the courthouses. He—it's always been a he—controls a $579-million budget and employs nearly 4,000 people. Since there are no term limits, and since incumbency provides such enormous advantages in winning re-election, it's generally considered a job for life.
As it happens, one of the candidates for the office already gets a pretty snazzy title for that ballot box. Gore would become the acting sheriff on July 2 if supervisors decide to do nothing.
Gore's name may already be known to San Diegans from when he was special agent in charge of FBI San Diego after the 9/11 attacks and one of the agents responsible for the Joint Terrorism Task Force. But after 32 years with the FBI,
Gore decided to join District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis as a special advisor in 2003. In 2004, Kolender hired him, and a year after that, he became undersheriff. With Kolender pondering retirement even then, due to his and his wife's ill health, rumors began to swirl that he wanted to install Gore as his early replacement. Sources inside and outside the Sheriff's Department tell CityBeat that Gore has been more or less running the department while Kolender cares for his wife.
Gore's campaign already has the endorsement of three county supervisors, but spokespeople for those offices emphasize the difference between an endorsement for a future election and one that takes effect immediately.
“Who knows who's going to apply for that job?” said Erica Holloway, spokesperson for Supervisor Pam Slater-Price. “Anyone could throw their hat into the ring.”
Pam O'Neil, chief of staff for Supervisor Greg Cox, echoed that sentiment but added, “We take a look at the qualifications of all the applications. That being said, it would be hard to imagine that Bill Gore doesn't have these qualifications.”
In addition to Kolender's endorsement, Gore can count on the support of Dumanis and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, three of the most influential and popular elected officials in the county.
Then again, sheriff candidate Jim Duffy is chief of staff for Supervisor Ron Roberts. Duffy said he will apply to the board, assuming supervisors don't choose to appoint someone who's not a candidate for office, an option he would prefer. He can probably count on Roberts' vote.
Duffy has been in law enforcement for 27 years. He joined the Sheriff's Department in 1986 and worked his way up to lieutenant, and he became president of the Deputy Sheriff's Association, the union representing most of the department's rank and file. In February 2007, he switched to Roberts' office.
“I thought that if I'm going to run for sheriff, it's a very important position,” Duffy told CityBeat. “The Sheriff's Department is a part of county government, and it was a way to get a better understanding of the Board of Supervisors and county government.”
The origins of Duffy's hiring actually date back to 2004, when the county wanted to purchase firefighting helicopters.
After the 2003 fires, Roberts worked for months with the city of San Diego's Fire & Rescue Department to research new helicopters that would be operated by the city. But as the purchase got closer to reality, Kolender made a push to bring the helicopters under his control. He proposed that the county purchase different helicopters that could be fitted both for firefighting and search-and-rescue operations.
Kolender won the vote, and Roberts wasn't happy. Roberts wouldn't comment for this story, but a person who was there at the time remembers his reaction.
“There was a phone call after that in which Ron used a lot of language that you wouldn't print in your paper,” the person said. (Actually, there are no words that CityBeat wouldn't print, but the source didn't remember the exact words so much as the tone.)
Kolender and Roberts made joint public appearances in the intervening years, but Roberts apparently never forgot the slight. Though Gore was well-known to be Kolender's heir apparent, Roberts had worked with Duffy, and he soon learned of Duffy's ambitions. In 2007, he hired him. If tensions had thawed, they froze right up again. In that March conversation with Kolender, CityBeat asked his opinions on Gore's opponents, notably Jim Duffy.
“I have no comment on that hire,” Kolender barked into the phone. CityBeat hadn't asked about the hire, only the man.
“I have not talked to [Roberts] since he did this—the Duffy thing,” Kolender said. “He has never let me know why he did it or what, and I have not asked. I think it would have been nice if he'd have called and let me know.”Meanwhile, Duffy's presence inside the County Administration Building is causing tension among folks who work there.
“It's awkward,” said one county employee. “We've never had anyone within the county running against someone else in the ‘county family.'”
The feeling among some staffers is that because Duffy is running against Kolender's picked successor, he's, in some way, running against the county as a whole. In addition, Duffy, as Roberts' chief of staff, gets to sit in on regular briefings on issues that will appear on the supervisors' agenda.
“It hasn't been awkward,” Duffy said. “I've been part of the county family for 23 years. Gore and I both work directly for elected officials. We're in the same position.”
Duffy, son of John Duffy, San Diego's second longest-serving sheriff, will certainly take advantage of his family name when it comes to campaigning, said his political consultant, Jennifer Tierney.
“Everywhere he goes, people ask if he's Sheriff Duffy's son,” she said.
After the elder Duffy retired in 1991, his own picked successor, Jack Drown, was defeated by Jim Roache. After four tumultuous years, Roache was beaten by Kolender. Roache's undersheriff at the time was Jay LaSuer, who, these many years later, now wants to become the next county sheriff.
LaSuer worked in the Sheriff's Department for 23 years, until Roache's defeat sent him packing. He served as a La Mesa City Council member for 10 years, and then as a member of the state Assembly for six years until term limits pushed him out. He spent the next two years “working around the house,” he told CityBeat. LaSuer came out of retirement, he said, only because people asked him to run.
Since declaring his interest in June, LaSuer said he's been spending his time meeting with groups throughout North and East County, trying to solidify support. LaSuer has been endorsed by Duncan Hunter the elder and his son, Rep. Duncan Hunter, plus a number of other East and North County politicians. He told CityBeat he will apply to the Board of Supervisors to be appointed sheriff.
While he doesn't have a particular champion, much of LaSuer's base of support resides in Supervisor Dianne Jacob's district, and many of his supporters will probably share conservative views on illegal immigration and gun permits with Supervisor Bill Horn's constituents. Jacob has not endorsed anyone for sheriff, and while Horn has endorsed Gore, he faces election in 2010 and may want some of LaSuer's potential votes. Since Kolender's retirement, LaSuer has applied pressure by convincing his supporters to e-mail their supervisors.
The only candidate definitively not putting himself in the race for the appointment is former San Diego Police Chief David Bejarano. In addition to 24 years as a San Diego police officer, Bejarano was the U.S. Marshal for Southern California, and he now serves on the Chula Vista School Board.
“The next sheriff should be chosen by the voters,” Bejarano said in a statement e-mailed to CityBeat; “therefore, I believe the Board of Supervisors should appoint a non-candidate as acting sheriff. For that reason, I am not inclined to participate in the appointment process.”
Most handicappers make Gore the favorite for appointment. While Roberts will undoubtedly support Duffy, a source who has discussed the subject with the remaining four supervisors seemed confident that Gore would be appointed. Then again, the source emphasized, “you never know exactly what's going to happen when it comes to a vote.” Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.