Smith, Hirokawa at odds

Sheriff and challenger discuss jail in interviews

Less than a month after some of her opponents said she should quit over decades-old ethical allegations, five-term incumbent Sheriff Laurie Smith has come out swinging.

In a no-holds-barred interview with editors of the Gilroy Dispatch and Morgan Hill Times, Smith claimed San Jose media were deliberately spreading false complaints about her—that she had interfered with a gender harassment complaint against her 25 years ago—and accused her leading challenger, her former undersheriff John Hirokawa, of responsibility for lax jail administration that led to the murder of an inmate in 2015 by correctional officers.

On the same day of Smith’s interview, April 20, Hirokawa also sat down in Morgan Hill with the same editors—New SV Media Publisher Dan Pulcrano, New SV Media Managing Editor and Gilroy Dispatch Editor Barry Holtzclaw and Morgan Hill Times Editor Michael Moore.

Hirokawa said the sheriff had been “asleep” and unresponsive to his pleas for jail reforms prior to the death of a mentally ill inmate whose assailants—three jailers—would be convicted of murder.

The two candidates’ attacks on each other in separate interviews showed clearly that the increasingly vicious race for sheriff of California’s sixth most populous county has emerged as a two-person contest, and one that could continue past the June 5 primary. Administration of the county jail continues to be a big issue for both the incumbent and challengers.

Smith is pressing hard to top the 50-percent mark in the primary vote and avoid a long, hot summer campaign.

At the same time, she has avoided some opportunities to tell her story—most recently as a no-show at a candidate forum on April 24—although she agreed to the nearly one-hour interview with the Times and Dispatch.

The other challengers on the June ballot are retired Lt. Jose Salcido, Deputy Joe La Jeunesse and retired police chief Martin J. Monica.

The Sheriff’s Office has a staff of 1,800 sworn and non-sworn employees and an annual budget of about $308 million. The elected sheriff serves a term of four years.

The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office serves the communities of Cupertino, Los Altos Hills, Saratoga and the unincorporated areas of Santa Clara County. The agency maintains contracts with the Valley Transportation Authority and the Santa Clara County Parks Department for law enforcement services. The Sheriff’s Office is also responsible for the safety and security of the Santa Clara County Superior Court system and all its staff. The Sheriff’s Office oversees the jail system for Santa Clara County, with more than 4,000 inmates.

Four of the five county supervisors — Cindy Chavez, Mike Wasserman, Dave Cortese and Ken Yeager—have endorsed Smith. Supervisor Joe Simitian has not.

The editors said they chose to limit their sheriff interviews to the two front-runners who have raised the most funds and campaigned most extensively. The newspapers’ endorsement editorial for Santa Clara County Sheriff is on Page 6 of the May 4 issues.