POLITICS -- March 21, 2012 at 6:42 PM EDT
Embattled Sheriff's Legal Woes Captivate San Francisco
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi speaks at his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 8. Photo by Steve Rhodes via Flickr.
While the rest of the nation concentrates on the GOP presidential primary and the shootings in Afghanistan and Florida, San Franciscans are focusing on a political soap opera centered on allegations the city's newly elected sheriff abused his Venezuelan-born wife.
Local media have covered the saga nonstop. Breathlessly, they have reported how 50-year-old Ross Mirkarimi was originally charged with domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness. That came after Mirkarimi's wife, Eliana Lopez, argued with him -- before he was even sworn in as sheriff -- over whether she could take their 2-year-old son to Venezuela.
Mirkarimi allegedly grabbed his wife and bruised her arm. She went running to a neighbor, who took pictures of the bruise and called the police. The photos soon appeared in newspapers and on TV, and a week after Mirkarimi took the oath of office, the district attorney filed charges.
The allegations of spousal abuse have ignited San Francisco's strong progressive-feminist community, even though Mirkarimi has long been associated with the liberal left, which make up a strong faction in the city. The sheriff argued that this was "a private matter, a family matter." In response, a group of domestic violence victim advocates put up a billboard saying "Domestic Violence is NEVER a private matter."
Mirkarimi's wife was inclined to let the matter drop. She told a Venezuelan radio station that she was not abused and Mirkarimi is the "victim of very dirty politics." His detractors were having none of it. They wanted his scalp -- or at least his job -- and the politicians were listening.
Then a report surfaced that a former girlfriend of Mirkarimi claimed he had abused her three years ago. Meanwhile, a court ordered the sheriff not to have any contact with his son, though the order was later modified. Through all this, the sheriff -- who used to be a San Francisco supervisor -- wasn't staying at home; he was crashing at former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos' home.
The soap opera continues: Apparently convinced he would lose his job if he were convicted, Mirkarimi agreed to a plea deal. If he admitted guilt to the misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment, the original three charges would be dropped. (The false imprisonment charge apparently referred to Mirkarimi allegedly preventing his wife from leaving the house, though no full explanation of the charge has been given.) Mirkarimi expressed regret over the incident and was quickly sentenced to three years probation, a year of domestic violence counseling and 100 hours of community service.
Enter San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. Under great political pressure, he started looking into the case. At a dramatic meeting, Lee gave Mirkarimi 24 hours to resign and alleged he was guilty of official misconduct and therefore couldn't remain in office -- despite Mirkarimi's plea deal and apology. Mirkarimi said he wasn't resigning and that he would fight on. The mayor called a news conference and announced -- to a jammed room -- that he was immediately appointing an interim (female) sheriff and would begin proceedings to oust Mirkarimi, who has been suspended without pay. Lee said:
We must always be held to the highest legal and ethical standards. Sheriff Mirkarimi's actions and confession of guilt clearly fall below these standards of decency and good faith, rightly required of all public officials.
Now the city's Ethics Commission will hold hearings on the misconduct charges, and the city's legislative body, the Board of Supervisors, will vote on whether Mirkarimi can remain in office. Nine votes out of 11 are needed to fire Mirkarimi. The votes might be difficult to get, since Mirkarimi was a progressive colleague of several board members.
Nearly everyone in the Bay Area has an opinion on this juicy tale. And the drama continues: The sheriff's office is in turmoil, the Ethics Commission is under great scrutiny, and Mirkarimi's former colleagues on the Board of Supervisors will be watched carefully by the city's ever-vigilant voters as they determine the fate of Mirkarimi -- and perhaps themselves.