Alameda County sheriff's Commander Yesenia Sanchez is the county's new sheriff. Credit: (Courtesy of Sanchez campaign)

On Tuesday evening, Yesenia Sanchez was still absorbing her stunning victory in the Alameda County’s sheriff’s election. 

Becoming the sheriff of one of California’s largest counties wasn’t something she ever imagined earlier in life. A graduate of Patterson High School in the rural Central Valley town of Patterson, at age 19 Sanchez moved back to Hayward where she had spent her childhood. She worked three jobs at a used car dealership, the Oakland airport, and McDonald’s. Her parents had lost their home to foreclosure and she was couch surfing at relatives’ homes and helping to support her family. 

She fell into a civilian technician job in the sheriff’s department, and later a sworn position because she needed more stable employment. Then over the past two decades, she rose through the ranks of the sheriff’s office to become the commander of Santa Rita Jail. 

Now Yesenia Sanchez is Alameda County’s new sheriff.

“A lot of people tell you, ‘don’t forget where you are from,’” Sanchez said in an interview with The Oaklandside. “That’s the one thing I haven’t done. I started off with nothing and was a civilian. I grew up in the ranks and I’ve treated people the same way, no matter where I was assigned. That is something I will continue to do as sheriff, treat people with respect regardless of what rank they hold or whatever environment they grew up in.” 

In one of the most stunning political upsets in Alameda County’s recent political history, Sanchez defeated Sheriff Gregory Ahern in the June 7 primary. Before last Tuesday’s election, a runoff in the November general election between Ahern and Sanchez or San Francisco police Officer JoAnn Walker, the third candidate in the race, would have been viewed as a win for the challengers. 

But a runoff is not necessary. 

Sanchez, who is currently the commander of Santa Rita Jail, clinched the primary election with 52% of the vote, becoming the first female and first Latina sheriff in the agency’s 169-year history. Her remarkable finish sends the 16-year sheriff, Ahern, into retirement and propels a political newcomer into the position of leading the East Bay’s largest law enforcement agency. 

Sanchez declared victory in an interview with The Oaklandside on Tuesday evening after most ballots had been counted. She said she had not yet spoken to Ahern but will see the sheriff in an executive team meeting on Friday. 

“It’s been a roller coaster,” she said. “It is mathematically impossible for this not to be an outright win. I am ready to declare victory.” 

Sanchez is no outsider. She has worked for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office for 24 years, since she was 19. But she faced great odds tilted in Ahern’s favor. It is rare for a challenger to unseat a California sheriff and even rarer to do it without needing a runoff.  Ahern conceded the election to Sanchez in a statement tweeted out by the sheriff’s office on Wednesday.

Ahern out-fundraised and outspent Sanchez on political advertising, and he had high-profile endorsements, including from former Governor Jerry Brown and East Bay Congressman Eric Swalwell. 

But Sanchez’s grassroots campaign focused on flipping precincts in places Ahern has traditionally had more support. She picked up key endorsements and aligned herself with other local progressive candidates in a campaign that may be seen as a model for unseating incumbent sheriffs. 

Sanchez will be sworn in at the end of Ahern’s fourth term, sometime in January. 

For once, Alameda County voters had a say

State law only allows for people with law enforcement certifications to run for the elected office of sheriff. That is an obstacle police reformists have tried to change, arguing it whittles down the pool of candidates to those who are state-certified. 

It takes a deputy or police officer to contest a sheriff, someone who also lives in the county, and that often means an underling, fringe candidate, or no one at all. Until this election, no one had bothered to run against Ahern, who was first elected in 2006. It was the county’s first contested sheriff’s election since 1986. 

In early 2021, it appeared that Ahern was going to call it quits. The sheriff was above retirement age and there were questions over whether he might step aside. Walker, a progressive alternative, made a splash announcing her campaign for sheriff along with civil rights attorney Pamela Price’s run for district attorney. Some political observers viewed that moment as breaking the ice.

Sheriff deputy Mike Carroll entered soon after and picked up the endorsement of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. Soon came another deputy sheriff, Capt. Marty Neideffer. Carroll ended his campaign quietly after a few months and Neideffer suspended his campaign a week before Ahern announced in June 2021 that he would seek another term. At that time, Sanchez had filed election paperwork to run and set up a campaign website. Her campaign had not done any outreach to voters or media. 

To some, Sanchez didn’t appear at first like a reform candidate. In an interview with The Oaklandside last week, Mariano Contreras, an Oakland resident and member of the Latino Taskforce said that over the past few months Sanchez emerged with a platform offering reformist goals, compared to Ahern’s conservative law-and-order messaging. 

Sanchez is in favor of establishing a civilian oversight board for the sheriff’s office and promises to end cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

“Maybe she was holding her tongue and working with the system, and now she’s freer to be reform-minded,” Contreras said. “She speaks to more accountability issues, having the sheriff be not so militaristic. Those are kind of issues that affect the Latinos, those of us who are really concerned with law enforcement accountability.” 

The results of the statewide primary showed party endorsements were key and Sanchez picked up key endorsements from numerous elected officials and community leaders throughout the county, said political consultant Jim Ross. Having the full force of the East Bay’s democratic political machine, its volunteers, and its money certainly gave her a boost. 

Those endorsements also gave voters a sense of who Sanchez, a political unknown, is and what policies she might implement, Ross said. And they provided a contrast to Ahern, who was backed by several county sheriffs and an older class of Bay Area Democrats.

“We saw this cycle in particular up and down the state that party endorsements for candidates on both sides was really decisive. If you have the party endorsement, you have that brand, you are running under that brand. And if you carry that brand, it tells people a lot about who you are,” Ross said. 

“There was just such a clear contrast” between Sanchez and Ahern, Ross said. 

A ‘total shock’

Even Ahern’s supporters viewed him as vulnerable. The sheriff has drawn criticism over his decision to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents access to Santa Rita Jail in order to detain and deport undocumented detainees and was also criticized for using the controversial “blue line flag” in some of his campaign mailers. 

But no issue loomed larger than deaths in Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, one of the largest jails in the nation where at least 63 inmates have died since 2014. A federal judge earlier this year placed the jail and sheriff’s office under a consent decree, which is the result of a class action lawsuit over conditions at the jail and the treatment of mentally ill incarcerated people. 

Former Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who endorsed Ahern, is by no means a criminal justice reform advocate, but even he was not surprised by the election outcome. De La Fuente told The Oaklandside that Ahern kept a quiet presence, even with his department under fire about deaths at the jail and his other public controversies. 

“He was not really involved in talks with the community and the county. When you are in these positions you gotta show that you are in touch, that you have the pulse of the people you represent,” De La Fuente said. 

Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley called the election results a “total shock.” Miley’s supervisor district represents parts of Oakland and the unincorporated areas of Castro Valley, Cherryland, and Ashland. He said the majority of constituents in unincorporated areas where the sheriff’s office patrols had not complained about Ahern’s effectiveness.  

He told The Oaklandside that it wasn’t the role of the Board of Supervisors to “defund the police” and that the voters would ultimately decide who they wanted to run the sheriff’s office. 

“The voters have spoken. The issues that confronted the sheriff and his department have come home to roost,” Miley said. “I think the sheriff was caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Santa Rita Jail and I have a lot of sympathy for what he had to go through there. The sheriff is stubborn in one sense and sees things the way he wants to see them. The voters [had] to decide who they want in the office.” 

Sanchez campaign picked up votes in unincorporated areas 

Outspent by Ahern by a nearly 3-to-1 margin, Sanchez’s campaign turned to volunteers in the final weeks before election day. With help from county Democratic party leaders, volunteers fanned out throughout the county, hitting farmers markets and knocking on doors from Albany to Fremont. 

The campaign targeted areas traditionally viewed as Ahern strongholds. Volunteers worked across campaigns, dropping off materials for Sanchez and other progressive candidates, including Alysee Castro, a candidate for county superintendent of schools. The strategy seems to have worked. Castro declared victory this week over incumbent L.K. Monroe, receiving nearly 53% of the vote. 

Sanchez spent the past few weekends pounding the pavement in unincorporated areas that the sheriff’s office patrols. “I was personally knocking on doors and meeting with residents and business owners,” she said. “Those engagements I believe were really key in making sure some of them felt like they didn’t have an opportunity to voice their concerns.” 

Mike Kusiak of Castro Valley led a group of six volunteers in his unincorporated town. He estimates they knocked on 1,200 doors, having one-on-one conversations with voters. 

“I knew this was a really good opportunity to force a runoff or a win outright,” Kusiak said. “I was concerned that I wasn’t seeing people organizing, people knocking on doors. I could see the fundraising efforts for Yesenia and I wanted to do something.” 

Sanchez credited campaign consultant Doug Linney and local leaders such as Kathy Neal in helping her secure endorsements and reach voters who until recently had never heard of her. 

The county’s election results map shows she dominated in the northern more urban part of the county in Berkeley, Oakland, and Emeryville, winning virtually every precinct. She also appears to have picked up votes in San Leandro, Hayward, Dublin, Alameda, and southern Alameda County, which helped propel her over the 50% threshold to clinch the primary. 

Her supporters had been trying to recruit someone to run against Ahern for years, but no one stepped up, Sanchez said. 

“It was critical. It speaks volumes of the change of leadership they were seeking,” she said. “It was no brakes, full speed ahead. Because I was an unknown person, I had to make every event. I had to make use of every minute.” 

David DeBolt reported on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.