After nearly a quarter-century of service, Santa Clara County’s sheriff is calling it quits at the end of the year.
Sheriff Laurie Smith told San José Spotlight she does not plan to run for reelection in the June primary. The deadline for entering the race is Friday. There has been widespread speculation about whether Smith would run for a seventh term as she faces inquiries into her management of the county jail system and accusations of political corruption.
Smith, who joined the office as a deputy in 1973, shared a statement thanking the residents of Santa Clara County for allowing her to serve as sheriff since 1998.
“This job will never be finished and it is with some regret that I announce my retirement from service at the end of my term in January of 2023,” Smith said.
In explaining her decision, Smith appeared to blame public attacks against her integrity, drawing a parallel to former San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales who faced charges of corruption that were eventually dropped.
“As a public official, sometimes you make powerful enemies,” Smith said. “Decisions to stand up for a victim of a gang rape, oppose a judge who leniently dealt with a sexual offender because of his privileged status or taking on other elected officials to protect the public and a former reputable newspaper because it was the right thing to do makes you a target.”
Smith claims the attacks against her are false, but said it would be unfair to voters in the county to make a decision “in the middle of a drama not of their making.”
“I think she’s going out on her own terms and for her own reasons,” political consultant and columnist Rich Robinson told San José Spotlight. “But at the end of the day, I think the onslaught of political attacks she endured will ultimately go away based on the evidence.”
Smith’s announcement comes after months of inquiries and investigations into her office following several high-profile injuries to mentally ill inmates. The county paid a $10 million settlement to the family of Andrew Hogan, an inmate who suffered a head injury in 2018 while being transported for psychiatric care. The county jails house a significant number of inmates with serious mental illnesses and Smith has said her office isn’t equipped to handle them.
Last August, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors demanded records related to Hogan’s injury and requested state and federal agencies investigate Smith’s oversight of the jail system. The board also asked the Fair Political Practices Commission to examine whether there were any connections between incidents that happened at the jail and promotions and compensation for employees. Smith has said she supports these investigations and pushed back against claims that her office mismanaged the jail.
Earlier this year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced his office is investigating whether the sheriff’s office committed civil rights violations. In December, a civil grand jury filed an accusation against Smith alleging corrupt misconduct. The accusation claims Smith granted concealed carry firearm licenses to people based on whether they donated to her political campaign for sheriff or had a personal connection to her. It also accuses her of accepting an unlawful gift and not reporting it. Smith has contested several of the counts in the accusation.
With Smith not running, there are now four contenders in the race for sheriff: retired Cpt. Kevin Jensen, Sgt. Christine Nagaye, Sgt. Sean Allen and Palo Alto Police Chief Robert Jonsen. Former San José Assistant Police Chief Dave Knopf dipped his toe in the race briefly before jumping out. The new sheriff will be sworn in as of January 2023.
“I’m not shocked by it, I’ll say that,” Jonsen told San José Spotlight after hearing the news about Smith. “It creates an opportunity and I think there’s going to be a clear line for some change to occur in this county.”
Allen told San José Spotlight he believes the office will go in a positive direction under new leadership.
“There’s a lot we have to change, and we have to repair the image of the office,” he said.
Nagaye told San José Spotlight Smith’s decision to not run for reelection is understandable given the opposition and adversity she has faced.
“It’s also the right thing to do for the residents of Santa Clara County,” she said. “I would like to acknowledge Sheriff Smith’s long tenure and thank her for her service to our community.”
Jensen said Smith taught him a great deal about law enforcement and he is open to meeting with her after the election to ensure a smooth transition.
“I feel like it’s an opportunity to make the positive change I always hoped to make, and that I’ve been calling out for the last 12 to 14 years,” Jensen told San José Spotlight. “I really do wish her the best and hope that our department makes a rebound under my leadership, and that she finds happiness in retirement.”
Jensen, who ran unsuccessfully against Smith in 2014, has raised significant support from law enforcement groups. Last month he was endorsed by the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association of Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara County Correctional Officers Association. Jensen is also far ahead of the pack in fundraising. According to his latest filings, Jensen has raised $72,398 through campaign contributions and a loan.
In her own words
“I want to thank the residents of Santa Clara County for allowing me to serve as your Sheriff for the last 24 years and in the Sheriff’s Office for the last 49. We have accomplished much since I was first sworn as a Deputy Sheriff’s Matron in 1973.
“I am especially proud that we have made significant progress and are now considered a premier law enforcement agency throughout the state. I thank the women and men of the Sheriff’s Office for their dedication and service. We truly have the finest staff that serve with honesty and integrity.
“This job will never be finished and it is with some regret that I announce my retirement from service at the end of my term in January of 2023. My decision not to run for reelection was very difficult. There is much still to do, but the interests of the people of our County must continue to be our first priority.
“As a public official, sometimes you make powerful enemies. Decisions to stand up for a victim of a gang rape, oppose a Judge who leniently dealt with a sexual offender because of his privileged status or taking on other elected officials to protect the public and a former reputable newspaper because it was the right thing to do makes you a target. I accept that fact.
“The truth and evidence is absolutely clear. I have always served the people of Santa Clara County and have never engaged in any behavior that would warrant the media animus, false legal narrative, or political attacks currently in the public domain. I have always dismissed these attacks for what they are—specious attempts by unsavory political opponents in retribution for serving the public with honor.
“I am reminded of former San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, whose reputation as a leader is finally being vindicated by history, even as he was viciously attacked and falsely charged while he served in office.
“My plight is no different and I am confident history will show the first elected woman Sheriff to serve in California, was not only honorable—but her accomplishments will speak far louder and be remembered longer than the false stories that will be repudiated by truth. I believe in truth.
“Yet, in the final analysis it would be unfair to the voters of Santa Clara County to force them to make a decision in the middle of a drama not of their making.Let the facts come out, let history record the result and let us continue to focus on providing the highest level of public safety service.
“Thank you again for the opportunity to serve.”