Santa Clara County voters set the stage Tuesday for a November showdown before Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith and her former undersheriff and would-be replacement, John Hirokawa.
Election results showed the two law-enforcement veterans held significant leads in the heated race for the sheriff's position, which Smith has occupied since 1998. Five candidates vied for the job, with four vowing to bring a much-needed change of culture to a 2,025-person department that has been hit with a series of scandals over the last three years.
With all precincts reporting, Smith captured about 44 percent of the vote, while Hirokawa had 31 percent. The next closest candidate was Joe LaJeunesse, who served in the military police and who received 12 percent of the vote.
Smith needed more than 50 percent of the vote to keep her job outright.
The vote sets up what is likely to be a competitive November race. Though Smith enjoys all the advantages of an incumbent, including wider name recognition, Hirokawa has picked up several key endorsements during his campaign. These include nods of support from the Santa Clara County Deputy Sheriffs' Association and police unions in Mountain View, Palo Alto and San Jose. Retired Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns supports Hirokawa's campaign, as does retired Santa Clara Superior Court Judge and former San Jose Police Auditor LaDoris Cordell.
Despite his four-decade tenure in the Sheriff's Office, including a stint in charge of Department of Corrections, Hirokawa is campaigning as a fresh face and an agent of change -- someone who can improve jail safety and turn things around after a recent spate of troubling incidents, including a 2015 murder of an inmate by three deputies; the murder of one inmate by another in 2017; and a brazen escape by two inmates from the Palo Alto courthouse last November.
He said last month that he plans to implement jail reforms, including increased treatment for inmates with drug addictions and mental illnesses. He also pledged to improve diversity within the department and review its quality of cultural awareness.
With the early results out, Hirokawa said he is feeling "really excited and highly optimistic" that he can win in November. The fact that Smith has received less than half of the votes suggests that the majority of the voters would like to see a new sheriff, he said. And with the candidate field slimming down from five to two, he said he believes he can get the support needed to defeat Smith.
"It would appear the majority of the voters want change and are looking for another candidate," Hirokawa said.
Hirokawa said that during his campaign, many people told him that they feel like the elected sheriff is not listening to them. And they are concerned, he said.
Smith during the campaign also pledged to move ahead with jail reforms, which include implementing recommendations from a Blue Ribbon Commission study that followed the 2015 murder. She is pushing for additional beds for treatment of mentally ill inmates and said she wants to implement "mobile mental health units" that would be deployed to assist people with mental crises. Her campaign could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday night.