SANTA CLARA, Calif. (KTVU) - Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith squared off with her challenger retired undersheriff John Hirokawa on Wednesday night at Evergreen Valley College Theatre for the first debate since the June primary. The two candidates are vying to be sheriff come this November.
Hirokawa is a retired Department of Corrections Chief with 37 years of law enforcement experience. Smith has been sheriff since 1998 and is seeking her sixth term.
“People are really fearful right now of crime, a lot of property crime,” said Smith. “We see what's happening in Willow Glen. Crime reduction and crime strategies are my big priorities.”
“My top three priorities are simple,” said Hirokawa. “Bringing back and restoring trust, transparency and reform to the sheriff's office.”
Hirokawa said he's a fresh face to a department rocked with scandal including the 2015 death of inmate Michael Tyree by three deputies.
Among the key concerns from the community include the need for independent oversight and improving an adversarial relationship between the Sheriff’s Department and the Deputy Sheriffs Association.
“In my last election, the unions put $650,000 against me,” said Smith. “They had dishonest attacks against me, my family, the organization.”
“First you have to recognize you have a communication problem and you have an issue with that union, you have to engage them,” said Hirokawa.
The topics the two candidates did agree on included supporting Governor Brown’s recent abolishment of the cash bail system and protecting undocumented immigrants especially when it comes to interviews with ICE agents.
“We do not cooperate with ICE,” said Smith. “We don't deal with them.”
“I would have made sure that any ICE agent that came into the jail first,” said Hirokawa. “They'd have clearance from an administrator, lieutenant or above before interviewing any inmate in our jail.”
They differed on arming deputies with Tasers. Hirokawa doesn't want it, while Smith does want Tasers.
The entire night the sheriff bought up the texting scandal involving deputies exchanging racist texts last year. Smith claims Hirokawa knew about it. Hirokawa said the sheriff had the ultimate authority for discipline in the department.