A difficult start for new San Francisco sheriff
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Ross Mirkarimi, San Francisco's first new sheriff in more than three decades, called his swearing in last Sunday "one of the happiest days of my life."
Not a week later, the popular progressive politician undoubtedly had one of his worst, ending with a mug shot.
Mirkarimi was charged Friday with battering his wife, booked by the very sheriff's deputies he now commands. And if convicted on the misdemeanor charges, he faces the distinction of becoming the only sheriff in California prohibited from carrying a gun.
The district attorney's office charged him with domestic battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness — charges he disputes.
"No one is above the law," District Attorney George Gascon told reporters after announcing the charges. "Whether this was the elected sheriff or any other San Francisco resident, this type of behavior is inexcusable, criminal, and will be prosecuted."
The investigation centers on a New Year's Eve incident in which Mirkarimi, 50, allegedly grabbed his wife, former Venezuelan telenovela star Eliana Lopez, bruising her upper right arm at their San Francisco home.
The sheriff's stormy first week in office followed a steady political rise, San Francisco style.
Mirkarimi, a member of the Board of Supervisors since 2004, won a close election in November to replace longtime progressive Sheriff Michael Hennessey. He was not backed by the deputies' union, but his name recognition and liberal politics won him the seat.
The Chicago-born son of an Iranian father, Mirkarimi has called San Francisco home for 27 years. He has master's degrees from Golden Gate University in Economics and the University of San Francisco in environmental science. He graduated from San Francisco's Police Academy and served nine years as an armed DA investigator.
As a county supervisor, representing a district that includes the Haight-Ashbury, Mirkarimi led the nation's first ban on plastic bags in grocery stores.
An advocate of legalizing medicinal marijuana, he was co-founder of the California Green Party and was the state coordinator for Ralph Nader's presidential bid in 2000. He became a Democrat a couple of years ago.
After the alleged domestic violence incident on Dec. 31, Mirkarimi's wife turned to a neighbor, who later contacted police. Authorities confiscated video the neighbor had taken of Lopez's arm and text messages between the two women.
Lopez later said in a written statement that the episode was "completely taken out of context." Mirkarimi, moments after he was sworn in, called the incident "a private matter, a family matter."
But on Friday, the somber sheriff appeared outside his City Hall office, telling gathered reporters that he would fight the charges and would not resign. "The charges are very unfounded," he said calmly.
Lopez, by his side, appeared dazed by the turn of events. "I don't have any complaint against my husband," she said. "This is unbelievable."
San Francisco is no stranger to political drama, even criminal charges being filed against high ranking law enforcement officials. In the "Fajita-gate" scandal of 2002, a late-night brawl by off-duty officers over fajitas led to the indictment of the police chief and his command staff on obstruction charges later found to be baseless.
"San Francisco is not Peoria; it's got a lot of colorful and checkered officials," said Peter Keane, a law professor at Golden Gate University. "You have supervisors who assassinate mayors. It's unfortunately part of the landscape."
The city is still scarred by the 1978 murders of supervisor and gay rights activist Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by supervisor Dan White, who only served five years in prison then went on to commit suicide.
After his swearing in last Sunday, Mirkarimi said he would focus on the rehabilitation of inmates. "I do believe in the power of redemption," he told the Herbst Theater audience.
Noticeably absent from the ceremony were Mayor Ed Lee, Gascon and Police Chief Greg Suhr, whose officers were investigating the sheriff.
Lee has the authority to charge Mirkarimi with official misconduct and suspend him from office, according to John St. Croix, executive director of the city's Ethics Commission. After a hearing, the commission would make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors about whether to reinstate him or permanently remove him from office.
"As elected officials, our primary responsibility and focus must always be to fulfill our duties to the people of San Francisco," Lee said Friday, noting that he would look at the facts and his options under the City Charter.
Gascon must believe he has a strong case going forward, said Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford University.
"It may be hard for (Mirkarimi) to stay in office if this case goes to trial," said Weisberg, the director of Stanford's Criminal Justice Center. "You've got to assume that the police and the DA's office are being incredibly careful about this and really vetted this before going through. This just has great significance and sensitivity. These are not frivolous charges."
Mirkarimi's comments about the matter being private have added fuel to the controversy, which saw another odd twist when Lopez was photographed in the background of a City Hall rally on Thursday by the domestic violence groups protesting against her husband.
Lopez told a reporter she was just observing the rally as she was headed into the building to see her husband.
The women's rights advocates want Mirkarimi to step aside while the case is ongoing, and to resign if found guilty.
"It's like the fox guarding the henhouse," said Minouche Kendel, an attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid. "The sheriff should not be putting his political career over the safety of domestic violence survivors and their children in this city."