Poll results show tight race between Martinez and Hemmerling to become San Diego County’s next sheriff

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With Election Day about two weeks away, a new poll released Tuesday showed a tight race between Kelly Martinez and John Hemmerling to become San Diego County’s next sheriff. But a third of the respondents said they were undecided.

Of likely voters surveyed, 37 percent said they would vote for Martinez, who is a sheriff’s deputy, while 31 percent said they would support Hemmerling, a retired chief prosecutor with the San Diego City Attorney’s Office. The two candidates are close enough—within a 6.6 percentage point “confidence interval”—to be considered a statistical deadlock.

About 33 percent of respondents said they were undecided.

SurveyUSA conducted an online poll for KGTV 10News and The San Diego Union Tribune. Between Thursday and Monday, 668 registered voters were interviewed.

The election is on November 8, but early voting is underway. Of the registered voters surveyed, 529 respondents are likely to vote or have already returned their ballots. Just over half of those who have already voted checked Martinez.

Among men, Hemmerling leads with 6 points; Among the women, Martinez leads with 17 points. If elected, Martinez would be the county’s first female sheriff, but not the first woman to lead law enforcement in the county. Police in San Diego and Chula Vista have already put the woman in charge.

The race is nonpartisan, but support for the two sheriff candidates skews along party lines. Just over half—51 percent—of Republican respondents support Hemmerling, who was endorsed by the party. Nearly half — 46 percent — of Democrats polled support Martinez, who is also backed by the party.

Among independents, Martinez has 7 points. She also leads Latino voters by 22 points, with 40 percent undecided. The poll found white voters split, with just over a third supporting each candidate and nearly a third undecided.

Martinez has been with the department for 37 years — working in jails, patrolling and conducting investigations — and was named a deputy by then-Sheriff Bill Gore, who encouraged her to run for his seat.

Hemmerling worked for the city attorney’s office for 20 years, the last six as chief of the criminal investigations division. He also spent nine years as a San Diego police officer and 30 years in the Marine Corps (both active duty and reserve), retiring as a colonel.

In the June primary, both candidates won out of seven candidates.

Respondents to the 10News/Union-Tribune poll were also asked what they thought was the most pressing issue facing the next sheriff.

Twenty-one percent said the most important issue was how to handle calls related to mental health crises.

That was followed by 16 percent who said transparency was a top concern, and 16 percent who pointed to police reform as a top concern for the next sheriff.

Martinez has an advantage among people who chose one of those three issues as their top concern. She is 9 points ahead of Hemmerling among respondents who chose mental health calls as the biggest problem. She leads by 13 points among those concerned about transparency and by 16 points among those who cited police reform.

She also rose by 23 points among people who said the next sheriff’s top issue is incarcerated people dying in jail.

The sheriff’s department operates seven county jails that are suffering from a record number of people dying in custody — 18 people have died in custody this year and one died hours after being released after a long illness.

A state audit released in February found that between 2006 and 2020, San Diego County’s jails were the deadliest of California’s largest counties, and called for legislation to make changes to the jails. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill inspired by that auditciting a problematic request to add two more seats to the 13-member board that sets standards for prison facilities.

Martinez said she accepts the auditors’ recommendations and is working to implement them. Hemmerling said he wants to go further, citing improved technology to track medically vulnerable inmates, and said effective change will only come with new leadership.

Hemmerling had an 8-point lead over Martinez among those concerned about keeping deputies from leaving the department, with 14 percent of respondents citing the issue as a top issue for the next sheriff.

The Union-Tribune reported earlier this year that San Diego’s largest law enforcement agencies — the Sheriff’s Department and the San Diego Police Department — were losing officers and deputies faster than they could hire them. Data from the sheriff’s department showed that in fiscal year 2020, the department left 70 more deputies than were hired. And in the last fiscal year, 28 more deputies left than were hired.

The sheriff’s department has more than 4,600 employees and an annual budget of $1.1 billion. He handles law enforcement in nine cities, from Imperial Beach to Vista, as well as in unincorporated areas of the county. In addition to managing county jails, he provides security at state courthouses.

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