Longtime incumbent Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern heads to a November runoff against sheriff’s division commander Yesenia Sanchez, voters decided in Tuesday’s primary elections.

With all precincts reporting, unofficial results from the Alameda County Registrar of Voters show Sanchez leads with 47% of the vote and Ahern trails with 36%. San Francisco police officer JoAnn Walker pulled in 17%.

If no candidate reaches more than 50% in the primary election, the top two contenders face each other in a November runoff. 

Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern. (Photo courtesy Alameda County Sheriff’s Office)

The sheriff’s office received criticism for its handling of conditions at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. Ahern and the sheriff’s office were also sued in April by protesters who took part in 2020 demonstrations against police misconduct, for what they say was indiscriminate use of force.

Ahern has served in the dual role of sheriff and coroner since 2007. But, Sanchez mounted a campaign from within the sheriff’s office, where she has served since 1997. She started as a sheriff’s technician and moved regularly up the ranks to the position of division commander, where she has served as the manager of Santa Rita Jail since 2020.

Mary Lim-Lampe, executive director of the faith-based group Genesis, called the result “extraordinary.” She applauded the tight race, and said when any candidate runs unopposed, the community loses. She said the mere fact there was an election this time around, was a sign of greater scrutiny of the position.

“There will be greater accountability for that individual that has escaped accountability for so long,” she said. 

Lim-Lampe stressed that Genesis, which is a member of the Justice Reinvestment Coalition, does not endorse candidates in any race.

Inmates at the jail filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2019 describing inhumane conditions at Santa Rita, including lack of mental health services and prolonged isolation, among other deficiencies. A consent decree was finalized this year that will have the U.S. Justice Department oversee the jail for the next six years and force county leaders to address the healthcare inadequacies.

Ahern was backed by multiple law enforcement groups, dozens of police chiefs and other sheriffs around the state. He secured endorsements from both the Alameda County Republican Party and former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

Sanchez’s messaging pivoted to the left on several issues. One recent tweet, on June 3, accused Ahern of being an “ICE-collaborator” and a previous tweet on June 2 pledged to not ignore the rise in gender-identity related hate crimes and urged support for the LGBTQIA+ community.

Sanchez was born in Hayward and is a lifelong Californian, according to her campaign website. She ran on a platform of increased rehabilitation and job training at Santa Rita Jail, racial justice in law enforcement, community engagement and accountability.