Political Notebook: Gay man runs to be Sonoma County sheriff
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A gay man who is a deputy sheriff in San Francisco is running to become the next sheriff of Sonoma County, which includes the gay Russian River resort area.
Santa Rosa resident Jay Foxworthy, 46, publicly announced his candidacy from the main stage of Sonoma County Pride in early June. He held his first fundraising event with family and friends Friday, July 14, and also recently went live with his campaign website.
"I want to replicate some of the programs in San Francisco in Sonoma County. The jails here are ridiculously full with people in jail who don't need to be there," Foxworthy told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent phone interview from his home.
He is one of two gay men who have announced sheriff bids in California. David Myers, a commander with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, where he has worked for 32 years, is challenging his boss, Sheriff Bill Gore, who is seeking a third term, in the June primary.
Myers decided to enter the race because he believes his department "is in a state of stagnation due to a reactive and outdated policing culture."
It is believed that Myers and Foxworthy would be the first out elected sheriffs in California were they to win their races. In the 2011 sheriff's race in San Francisco, two gay men, then-police officer Michael Evans and former sheriff's deputy Jon Gray had pulled papers to run, but both opted not to officially enter the race on the city's November ballot that year.
There have only been a few out elected sheriffs in the country, one of the first being Margo Frasier, a lesbian elected in 1997 as sheriff of Travis County, which includes Austin, Texas. Another Texan, lesbian Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, won her fourth term last November.
In Arizona, former Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu won re-election in 2012 after being outed as gay by an ex-boyfriend. His term expired January 1 of this year.
One of Foxworthy's primary reasons for running is to diversify the Sonoma sheriff's department, which he said has no out gay men and only a few lesbian deputies among its 650 employees.
"One of my big goals is diversity and getting a department that reflects and looks like the community we serve. That means having out gay people, women, and more Latinos," said Foxworthy.
The race for sheriff will be the first contested election for the position the county has seen in 25 years, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas , who had announced earlier this year he would not seek a third term in 2018, plans to retire effective August 1. He cited health reasons for his decision, which was made public July 6.
The announcement brought to an end a recall campaign against the embattled sheriff, who has dealt with staffing shortages amid deep budget cuts. And as the local paper reported, the sheriff's department has faced a number of civil rights and excessive force cases, including a lawsuit brought by the family of Santa Rosa teen Andy Lopez, who was shot and killed by a deputy, and a criminal investigation of a former deputy accused of beating a man during a domestic violence call.
Assistant Sheriff Rob Giordano will serve as the acting sheriff until the county supervisors name a replacement to fill out the remainder of Freitas' term through early January 2019. Giordano is not among the six candidates who have filed to run in the June 2018 primary, where the top two vote-getters will advance to the November runoff.
"I think it's great news as long as the placeholder does not decide to jump into the race," Foxworthy told the B.A.R. in response to Freitas' decision to retire.
Two current department employees, Captain Mark Essick and Lieutenant Carlos Basurto , who is serving as the city of Windsor's police chief, are in the race. Freitas earlier this month endorsed Basurto to succeed him, while the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriffs' Association is backing Essick.
The other candidates include Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares, retired sheriff's Captain Dave Edmonds, and retired Los Angeles Police Captain John Mutz.
Foxworthy considers himself the most progressive person in the race and is hoping the two department insiders will split votes from more moderate to conservative voters, allowing him to advance to the November election. He was encouraged to run by other progressives in the county he has met working on past campaigns.
"They said we need a progressive in the race. The other candidates are pretty much the same old, same old. No one there is willing to change the department," he said. "There are a lot of things going on with this department I don't agree with and want to change. I also decided to run to make sure the other candidates don't get away with easy answers and answer things appropriately."
Born and raised in Windsor, about 10 miles north of Santa Rosa, Foxworthy has lived in Sonoma County his whole life, except for the three years he served in the Army. The middle child of five siblings, Foxworthy's oldest sister is a lesbian and his second youngest brother is gay.
His parents divorced when he was 6 years old, and his mom, who was a drug addict and had mental health issues, was in and out of jail during his childhood. Several times his family was homeless, and Foxworthy ended up in the foster care system.
After leaving the military, he worked as an unpaid reserve officer at the Santa Rosa Police Department while attending Santa Rosa Junior College, where he received his associate degree in criminal justice. He had applied with the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department but wasn't hired, he believes because he was out of the closet, and joined the San Francisco Sheriff's Department in 1994.
He and his husband, Bryan Leffew , met nearly 21 years ago, having first become friends in college. Leffew is a stay-at-home dad as the couple provides emergency foster care for the county. They have taken in babies just a few months old to teenagers.
They also are the parents of two children they fostered then adopted who have the same mother but different fathers. Their son, Daniel Martinez Leffew, 17, will be a senior this fall at Santa Rosa High, and their daughter, Selena Leffew , is 12.
In 2008 the family received national attention for its YouTube channel, called "Gay Family Values," it created in opposition to Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban voters adopted in November of that year that was later struck down by the courts. The family was also profiled in the 2012 documentary "The Right to Love: An American Family."
In 2013 the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee awarded the family its inaugural Jose Julio Sarria History Maker Award. The Pride board said it created the honor, named after the first out gay man to run for public office in California, specifically to recognize the family for its advocacy around marriage equality.
Their videos have had close to 1 million views. The family still uploads new ones, though less regularly due to the children losing some of their interest in making them, said Foxworthy.
"With the sheriff race I plan to make it more active so people can see what it is like to run for office," he said. "On the same page I will upload my experiences running for sheriff and use it as a way to talk about my views."
One area he would re-examine should he be elected sheriff is the department's relationship with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
"I would only release inmates to ICE when it is determined by the community and sheriff's department they are a risk to our community," said Foxworthy. "The most important thing about law enforcement for the county is it should be protecting the people who live here. Undocumented individuals should trust their law enforcement and not worry about them reporting them to ICE."
Foxworthy would also work to ensure transgender inmates in Sonoma County are treated with respect while in custody in the county jails. He said deputies should be using people's preferred pronouns and names as soon as they are in their custody.
"It is all about respecting the individual as soon as they come into custody," he said.
Three years away from retirement in San Francisco, Foxworthy has pledged to serve as Sonoma County sheriff for 12 years, three four-year terms, if he is elected, because the changes he would like to make "are not going to happen overnight."
To learn more about Foxworthy and his platform, visit his campaign website at http://www.FoxworthyForSheriff.com.
Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, will return Monday, July 31.
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