Santa Clara County

Race For Santa Clara County Sheriff a Fierce One Featuring Familiar Opponents

One of the most volatile political races this November is the one for Santa Clara County Sheriff, with longtime incumbent Laurie Smith facing off against her onetime second-in-command, retired undersheriff John Hirokawa.

The two former colleagues have absolute opposite views of themselves and each other.

Even as he campaigns, Hirokawa says he’s not a politician at heart but a public servant. He’s been retired for two years after ending a long career as undersheriff to Smith. He says her flaws in leadership brought him back.

"I wasn’t going to stand on the sidelines and start throwing stones about what needed to change," he said.

Hirokawa says those endorsing him cite his willingness to listen.

"You listen, and you embrace the criticism. And then you try to evaluate how you can do things better," Hirokawa said. "And, for me, that’s what’s been lacking from the current incumbent."

By far, the most negative coverage of Hirokawa comes from a connection to a racist, sexist texting scandal. It cost some deputies their jobs, and their sergeant, a key Hirokawa ally, resigned as head of the deputies union.

Smith supporters describe Hirokawa as a supervisor who basically looked the other way.

"That’s absolutely not true," Hirokawa said. "If I’m sheriff, I will make sure that the policies and the rank and file know exactly that this is intolerable behavior, and they will face severe discipline."

Meanwhile, Smith is used to campaign criticism. She has been a high-profile figure as the first female sheriff and says her tenure of five consecutive terms speaks for itself.

"They believe in our service, they believe in our quality, and people want to elect somebody who has a trusted record and a solid record of accomplishments," Smith said about Santa Clara County voters.

Smith said the biggest difference with her challenger is clear.

"I think we see two different opponents," she said. "We see the one that’s saying things to the public, and then we see what he actually does."

Smith seemingly faces ongoing criticism over jail reform, including from a Blue Ribbon Commission that says she hasn’t done enough to stem a culture that led to guards killing inmate Michael Tyree as well as inmate escapes and other allegations of guards' abuse or neglect.

But Smith says it’s a huge task to reform a jail the sheriff's office took over from the Department of Corrections in 2010.

"I went Costco and bought the initial cameras, and the county installed them at a fraction of the cost," she said, citing a move she made in the wake of Tyree's death. "Government does not work fast enough, and when I find obstacles, I find a way to move quicker."

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