OAKLAND, Calif. - There's a new sheriff in town.
And in stunning upsets, both high-ranking female law enforcement officers look like they have beaten the longtime incumbents in Alameda County and San Mateo County, respectively, likely becoming the first two Latina sheriffs in California.
Both are 20-plus year veterans of their departments. Both were outspent. Both are relatively unknown. Both are daughters of immigrants. And both are also promising more progressive platforms.
Though not all the votes are counted, Yesenia Sanchez declared victory against Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern, who has held his post since 2006. She currently has nearly 53% of the vote, canceling the need for a runoff in November.
"The voters of Alameda County have spoken: they yearn for a sheriff who will bring reform, transparency, and accountability to the office," Sanchez told KTVU on Wednesday. "I hear these calls loud and clear. As the next sheriff of Alameda County, I know that I’ve been entrusted with an enormous duty, and I will make our county proud."
Further south, Christina Corpus beat San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos, removing him from his post of six years, with more than 55% of the vote.
"I’d be the first female sheriff in this county since 1856, since it was established and I think that says a lot," Corpus told KTVU.
Challenging a national narrative
Both of their wins challenge a national narrative that the pursuit of police reform is dead, especially after San Francisco's uber-liberal District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled on June 7.
It turns out that voters embraced change elsewhere, rejecting the status quo in other parts of the state.
"Voters are impatient with the status quo," San Jose State political science professor Melinda Jackson said. "They're willing to try something new. We can't assume voters are done with a progressive model."
Though the women have announced their wins; the registrars of both counties have not yet completed counting votes. As of Monday night, Alameda County had 82,000 ballots left to tally and San Mateo County had 44,000.
Still, the election looks like its swaying in favor of the two Latinas. And also of note in Monterey County, Tina Nieto, a Latina police chief, had more than 48% of the vote, leading over jail captain Joe Moses, who currently has just over 28% of the vote. Because neither candidate has received more than 50%, there will be a runoff in November.
The victories are thrilling to other Latinos in law enforcement.
"The National Latino Peace Officers Association is extremely proud to hear about the elections of Yesenia Sanchez and Christina Corpus for Sheriff in Alameda and San Mateo counties," NLPOA National President Kenneth Chavez told KTVU on Wednesday in a statement. "They are the first Latina Sheriffs in the history of California."
It's clear to Chavez that both women "earned the trust and faith of the constituents of their counties and will soon assume very important public safety roles in their communities."
They will also now be role models to the Latino community.
"Their accomplishment demonstrates to many young men and women, particularly Latinos/Latinas, that anyone that works hard to earn the public's trust can be elected to the role of Sheriff of a county in California, as well as the United States of America, as a whole," Chavez said. "They make us all very proud."
Yesenia Sanchez (left) and Christian Corpus (right) are California's first two Latina sheriffs.
On Wednesday afternoon, Ahern conceded to Sanchez in a memo, though he did not mention her by name. In his letter, he assured there would be a smooth transition of power and said he would retire from office Jan. 3, 2023. He also gave a nod to Saint Michael, the patron saint of police officers, wishing the community be safe after he leaves office.
He received slightly more than 30% of the vote and was endorsed by U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, outgoing DA Nancy O'Malley and Supervisor Nate Miley and far outspent Sanchez during the campaign.
In an interview, Sanchez said both she and Ahern were surprised she won.
"I doubt he expected this outcome," she said.
Sanchez added that she's "a bit scared" to venture into the unknown, but that she is willing to make the "large lift to shift the culture" in her office.
However, she was inspired to run against her boss after her brother died of cancer.
"He was fearless," she said.
Sanchez, who is now division commander of Santa Rita Jail, used KTVU investigations in her campaign material revealing that the treatment of incarcerated people has been unconstitutional, especially as it relates to locking up mentally ill people in isolation.
The investigation found that Santa Rita Jail has the highest in-custody death rate of any jail in Northern California, and the majority of people who die by suicide are kept in solitary cells for extended periods time. Since 2014, 58 people have died at the jail.
Though she has not spoken publicly before her campaign run, along the trail, Sanchez promised that she would treat people in the "jails and on the streets" with more humanity.
"We need to change the way things are being done," she said.
Sanchez said she immediately wants to hold the jail's medical provider, Wellpath, to its contractual obligations and also develop a better path for families to contact the jail if they feel their loved one isn't being treated well or isn't getting the proper medical treatment.
Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods, whose clients often end up in Santa Rita Jail, said he was looking forward to working with the new sheriff.
"So far, she’s been a pleasure to deal with and seems genuinely interested in improving conditions at the jail and access to our clients," Woods said. "It’s long overdue to have a person of color in that position, especially when we consider the tremendous disparities that exist with people who are incarcerated. We are optimistic about the future."
Jose Bernal, organizing director for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland and a longtime critic of the Sheriff's Office, said he is not surprised about the results.
"The fact that two-thirds of Alameda County voters didn’t vote for the longtime incumbent sheriff says everything about this race," he said. "For years, Sheriff Ahern has led an unaccountable, dysfunctional and corrupt department. Voters did not only overwhelmingly reject Ahern's leadership, they rejected his failed harmful policies that have only resulted in countless lawsuits and loss of human lives."
Bernal said in his opinion, people were more excited to vote against Ahern rather than being excited about Sanchez.
He said that Sanchez ran on a platform of "reform and transparency," but offered little to no substantive policies to achieve this.
And since Sanchez is high up in the chain of command, Bernal said that the deaths in the jails also happened under her watch.
"We will be closely watching this transition of power," Bernal said. "Regardless of who is sheriff, we are prepared and ready to hold anyone in that office accountable."
Sanchez understands why Bernal feels the way he does, adding only that she was under Ahern's command when she was assigned to the jails in 2020 during the pandemic.
"I had to follow the sheriff's wishes," she said.
Sanchez's priorities include working with stakeholders to determine the root causes of crime and then working to prevent it and working with an oversight committee of civilians to make sure her office is held accountable and to be more transparent. She said she supports a committee that can make recommendations, but feels that the sheriff should be able to make the final decision when it comes to deputy discipline.
She added, however, that she wants to make sure the Internal Affairs unit is autonomous and can't be swayed by inside politics or distractions.
Another KTVU investigation found that the Alameda County Sheriff's Office paid the highest amount of any Bay Area law enforcement agency in terms of excessive force lawsuits totaling more than $27 million between 2015 and 2020.
Currently, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office has no formal oversight body and does not regularly send out releases to let the public know about in-custody deaths.
Sanchez was born in Hayward and considers herself a "proud Latina with Mexican roots."
She said she's excited to sign an order to stop providing help to ICE except for in the most extreme circumstances, where the law dictates she must turn a person convicted of violent felonies over to immigration officials.
She began working at a young age and financially contributed to her family when her parents divorced at age 14. She finished high school but never attended college so she could work three jobs to help her family get by.
She's now in charge of a $600-million budget, which she said she feels comfortable handling since she has a "good finance team" in place. Community members have been demanding an audit of the jail's finances for years, and Sanchez said she's open to that idea and would like to follow the proper channels through the state controller.
Because of her own childhood, Sanchez said that she knows the "damaging effects" that poverty can have on a community and how that can impact crime and safety.
"I've experienced homelessness," she said. "I've experienced working tree jobs in my youth and worked for what I have today."
Sanchez was hired by the Sheriff's Office in 1997 and has been there ever since.
Sanchez now lives in Livermore with her husband of 14 years and has three stepdaughters.
On the Peninsula, Corpus also made a surprising win when she overtook Bolanos in San Mateo County on election night. She had challenged him as a captain serving underneath his command.
She is a 21-year law enforcement veteran who currently serves as the chief of police in Millbrae and as a captain in the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office.
"Everyone in the beginning said there’s no way you can do it and that really pushed me to work harder," she said. "I had some pushback, a lot of pushback. I just had to learn how to overcome those obstacles that were put in front of me and I was determined."
As of Wednesday, Bolanos hadn't formally conceded.
But on election night, Bolanos told his supporters that if he lost, he wouldn't "take it the wrong way" and he would pull his "head up" and be proud of his career.
Bolanos had also far outspent his competitor and received endorsements from high-powered officials such as Attorney General Rob Bonta.
Like Sanchez, Corpus is the daughter of immigrants, an experience that shaped her view on life.
"I want to be clear that we should not be separating families for minor infractions," she said on her campaign platform. "Misdemeanors and non-violent crimes are not acceptable reasons to make children suffer by deporting one or both parents; the damages from this can be life-long, and this practice needs to stop."
She criticized Bolanos for working with ICE on a routine basis, a practice she said she would stop.
"ICE should not be hanging out around the jail," she said.
She promised to take a "compassionate, thoughtful approach to reviewing immigration requests on a case-by-case basis."
Anyone she turns over to ICE would require the person to pose a "clear and imminent threat" to the community, she said.
She also said being a woman of color in the office also shaped her outlook.
For example, saw it was difficult for many women to pass the physical aspects of the job, so she developed a Women's Law Enforcement Boot Camp. She plans to expand the mentoring program to recruit a more diverse work force.
Corpus also wants to limit the use of Tasers, which have ended up killing at least four citizens since 2018. The highest profile case was the death of Chinedu Okobi, who died in 2019 after San Mateo County sheriff's deputies tased him after he was jaywalking in Millbrae.
She promised to implement policies where Tasers can only be used against a "combative subject." After that, Tasers can only be redeployed to overcome resistance likely to cause great bodily injury or death to the deputy or another person.
But all this doesn't mean that Corpus will turn a blind eye to crime.
She said one of the reasons she wanted to go into law enforcement was because she was the violent victim of a carjacking when she was 16 at the Tanforan Mall. The police officers who helped her showed her empathy and respect.
"It was a life-changing event," she stated, and she began a long career in law enforcement, starting as a caseworker with the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office in 1995.
She was hired by the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office in 2002.
Corpus is married and has two young children. She has a master's in law enforcement and public safety from the University of San Diego.
As for why Corpus beat out Bolanos - a man who still hasn't been able to beat back the time in 2007 when he was detained at a Las Vegas brothel in an FBI sting dubbed "Operation Dollhouse." Bolanos has always contended he thought the establishment was a legitimate massage parlor.
"Well, he's not a likable guy," said Corpus' campaign manager and reserve deputy Victor Anenelle." "And all you need is five minutes with Christina and you can tell her heart is in the right place. She has this connection to the community, which has been lost in law enforcement."
The Bolanos campaign did not return several attempts to reach them.
But one of Bolanos' staunch supporters, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffed, acknowledged that Corpus was not the county's top cop. And he wished her well.
He said he reached out to her to let her know he was looking forward to working with her next year. And he said he offered her anything his office could do to assist her.
"I have valued my relationship with the Sheriff's Office for my 45 years in the District Attorney's Office and I know Sheriff-Elect Corpus and I will maintain and enhance that relationship in the coming years," Wagstaffe said. "We have worked together in the past and I know we will be great colleagues in the future."
As for Corpus, she's taking a moment to let her stunning victory sink in.
But she's just taking a moment.
Because what's next on her mind is tackling her new job, which starts in six months.
There's a lot she wants to get accomplished.
"We did the unthinkable," Corpus said. "We unseated incumbents that were part of the status quo that had a large war chest of money… There’s a lot of work to be done but I’m ready for the challenge."
KTVU's Amber Lee and Christina Rendon contributed to this report.