Pre-Election Vote Imperils Mirkarimi

by Randy Shaw on August 28, 2012

With the Ethics Commission now certain to send the Board of Supervisors its report on the Ross Mirkarimi case several weeks before Election Day, the 30 day period for Board action ensures a pre-election vote. And that’s bad news for Mirkarimi. Post-election, Mirkarimi had a chance to get the votes of Supervisors Campos, Avalos and Mar. But Mar cannot vote for Mirkarimi before November without sacrificing his seat. And while a pre-election vote once increased the likelihood that District Five Supervisor Christina Olague could back Mirkarimi, attacks on her by his supporters now makes this very unlikely. The result is that when this long saga is finally done, Mirkarimi will not get the Board votes he needs.

For Ross Mirkarimi and his “Stand With Ross” supporters, it’s beyond incredible that the elected Sheriff could lose his job over allegations of domestic violence. Mirkarimi is described by his mother, friends and supporters as a peaceful man whose physical actions toward his wife were completely out of touch with his character.

Had Mirkarimi apologized for his actions and acknowledge anger management issues at the very outset, he would have never been removed from office. Yet from the date the incident went public through today, Mirkarimi has used strategies that decreased his chances for success.

The Error of Pleading Guilty

Let’s put aside Mirkarimi’s mistake in calling domestic violence a private matter, and his initial efforts to downplay the physical actions he took toward his wife. Those words galvanized the domestic violence community, but he still could have overcome this mistake had he not made the signature error of this entire story: he pled guilty to false imprisonment.

It made no sense for Mirkarimi to plead guilty absent a deal to keep his job. Mirkarimi did not want to go through the embarrassment of a public trial, so that pleading guilty to false imprisonment made sense – so long as it protected Mirkarimi’s future.

Instead, pleading guilty proved the key factor in his future permanent removal.

The logic of Mirkarimi’s strategy escapes me. The attorneys’ fees he saved by not going to trial have been spent on the even more lengthy Ethics Commission process. And his private conversations and contacts with his wife were publicized before he pled guilty, so there was little more a trial would reveal.

But the big problem with pleading guilty was that it rendered the Ethics Commission hearing unwinnable.
Mirkarimi put on a full-blown case both in and outside City Hall that excited supporters as never before. The Ethics hearing resembled a political campaign more than an administrative trial, and Eliana Lopez became a major asset in her husband’s defense.

If you followed coverage of the proceeding in the Bay Guardian, you would think that the Ethics Commission’s vindication of Ross was a mere formality. The entire process proceeded as if Mirkarimi had not already pled guilty to false imprisonment but was instead freshly litigating the key issues and facts.

If Mirkarimi could put on such a spirited defense at Ethics, why not go to trial? I’ve asked many about this, and answers range from “Ross got bad legal advice” to “he thought pleading guilty would enable him to keep his job.” Others suggested Mirkarimi made a bad decision under tremendous pressure, which would certainly be understandable under the circumstances.

But Mirkarimi has not filed a court petition to withdraw his guilty plea. And given his education, criminal justice experience and tenure at the District Attorney’s Office, this is not a case of an unsophisticated defendant pressured by inadequate attorneys to make a bad deal.

When Mirkarimi pled guilty to false imprisonment, he locked himself in to accepting guilt for all of the allegations underlying that crime. This prevented him from re-litigating these issues at Ethics, and likely sealed his fate at the Board.

Progressive Loyalty

I wrote on March 26 that voting to save Mirkarimi “put progressives at risk.” It was Supervisors Daly and Peskin who did the heavy lifting for progressives from 2005-2010, and I saw little reason for today’s progressive supervisors to jeopardize their own careers to save Ross.

Some of the political dynamics have changed since that time. John Avalos no longer faces a re-election challenge in D11, which makes it politically easier for him to vote for Ross. D5 Supervisor Christina Olague once faced a tough decision on Ross, but since Mirkarimi allies have attacked her on a number of issues it would be very unlikely for her to support him.

David Campos once appeared to have the easiest path toward voting for Ross, but David Chiu has demonstrated increasing legislative and political energy in recent months. This may mean that Chiu is considering challenging Campos in the 2014 Assembly race to replace Tom Ammiano (predicting Chiu’s career plans is never easy, but he would have a much easier time running for Assembly than in challenging Dennis Herrera in a City Attorney’s race).

If Campos potentially faces a tough campaign against Chiu, his vote for Ross will hurt more than help. Campos would get much of the progressive vote anyway, but backing Mirkarimi could result in a net loss of votes throughout the district.

One political factor that has not changed since March is that D1 Supervisor Eric Mar faces a very tough re-election struggle against David Lee. Mar would be sacrificing his political career by voting to keep Mirkarimi in office. I can’t imagine that Mar’s labor supporters would want him to jeopardize his seat for such a reason, so that a pre-election vote means Mar upholds the sheriff’s ouster.

Had Mirkarimi gone to trial and prevailed, he would be serving as Sheriff today. He instead pled guilty, and now faces an abrupt end to his political career.

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