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Martinez takes big early lead in sheriff’s race; Hemmerling, Myers in close battle for second

Undersheriff Kelly Martinez held a solid lead over a crowded field seeking to be the next sheriff, early election returns showed late Tuesday. The battle now comes down to who faces her in November.

As of shortly after 11 p.m., Martinez held a commanding lead with 38.5 percent — with more than 142,700 votes, she had roughly double the votes for her nearest challengers — in partial returns. She said the large initial lead left her “grateful.”

“I think that San Diego County and the voters are really looking for a sheriff who is focused on on transparency, accountability, and public safety. I think I am that person,” she said.

“That is the way I have run my campaign and I am really grateful to the voters and the trust they have put in me so far,” she said.

Trailing her by double digits were newly retired Assistant San Diego City Attorney John Hemmerling at 20.24 percent, followed closely by retired Sheriff’s Cmdr. Dave Myers with 18.04 percent.

The trio were the favorites headed into the election. The two candidates who draw the most votes in the primary will face off in the general election Nov. 8.

Martinez appears headed toward a lock for the November contest, with Hemmerling and Myers fighting for the second spot.

As of shortly after 11 p.m., Hemmerling had 75,000 votes, and started to pull farther ahead of Myers, who had just over 66,800.

“I’m feeling confident that the numbers will keep going up for me,” Hemmerling said shortly after the first release of results not long after the polls closed.

“I expected to be in the top two,” he said. “The county got a chance to vote for a new sheriff and they got a chance to look at who brings leadership and the right credentials. They picked one of the right people, which is me.”

Myers said it’s “really too early to know the outcome.”

“But I am grateful for all the support of the thousands of San Diegans who want to improve the quality and effectiveness of our law enforcement in our county, stop jail deaths and ensure equal treatment for all San Diego residents,” he said.

The results are unofficial, and include votes cast at vote centers between May 28 through Monday and mail ballots received before election day. The San Diego County Registrar of Voters will continue to release an updated — but still unofficial — count though election night. Those updates will include only ballots cast at vote centers on Election Day; mail ballots and write-in votes will be updated later.

The four remaining candidates trailed several percentage points behind, all of them in single digits.

Early results show Redwood City police Capt. John Gunderson in fourth place with 7.45 percent, and retired sheriff’s detentions Deputy Juan Carlos Mercado in fifth with 7.40 percent.

Rounding out the race, California Highway Patrol Officer Jonathan Peck was in sixth place nearing 6 percent, and retired sheriff’s Sgt. Charles “Chuck” Battle was in last place with 2.4 percent.

The race to be the next sheriff — thrown wide open last year when former Sheriff Bill Gore announced he would not seek re-election — is arguably the marquee local race. For the first time in more than 30 years, San Diego County voters didn’t have an incumbent sheriff on their primary ballot.

The winner will inherit a department grappling with staffing problems, high death rates in the jails and an uptick in crime, as well as its own data indicating racial bias in stops and searches.

The top seat hasn’t seen much turnover. Over the last 50 years, only four people — all men — have been elected as San Diego County sheriff.

While there is no official incumbent on the ballot, Martinez has the backing of Gore, who had promoted her to undersheriff to be his second in command. When he retired earlier this year, she filled the sheriff’s seat temporarily.

She rejects the suggestion that she is the status-quo choice. Martinez said she is the most experienced and qualified candidate — 37 years with the large agency. As undersheriff, she oversees daily operations.

Hemmerling said he decided to run because Martinez and Myers already had long careers inside the department. He positioned himself as an outsider who would bring change.

Hemmerling spent the last six years leading the criminal prosecution unit for the City Attorney. He is also a former San Diego police officer and spent years as a Marine both on active duty and in the reserves, including time running a prison in Iraq, post the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Myers, who ran for sheriff against Gore in 2018, rose through the ranks over 32 years with the department, retiring as a commander.

Reform-minded, Myers is a harsh critic of the department’s leadership and said he intends to shift the internal culture.

The Sheriff’s Department has more than 4,600 staffers and an annual budget of $1.1 billion. It handles law enforcement in nine cities, from Imperial Beach to Vista, as well as the county’s unincorporated areas. It also provides security in the courts and runs the county’s seven jails.

After the first unofficial report, election night updates will include vote center ballots cast on election day only.

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