All in the family

No winners in this fight
Ross Mirkarimi from happier times in 2008 (PHOTO: BRIAN KUSLER)

Say the name Ross Mirkarimi, and you are almost guaranteed to get strong and even visceral opinions from just about anyone in San Francisco. Through a combination of his own actions and obstinacy, as well as some heavily socially engineered legislation over the years, San Francisco Sheriff Mirkarimi will continue to be a lightning rod for a long time. In short, he won’t let the story die.

Everyone knows the background on this story. After a fight, Mirkarimi’s wife asked a neighbor to take video of her bruised arm, which the neighbor later turned over to police. Consequently, the newly elected sheriff was accused of spousal abuse. Mayor Ed Lee promptly suspended the sheriff, who, instead of slinking away to do a Nixonian reinvention, decided to keep himself and his family in the limelight and fight his removal from office.

It’s not a pretty story. When Susan Reynolds, Marina Times’ editor-in-chief, was a panelist on my Week to Week news-commentary program at The Commonwealth Club a couple months ago, she laid out the case against the former supervisor. Reynolds, never a fan of Mirkarimi, noted that the case is pitting many of Mirkarimi’s traditional leftwing supporters against domestic abuse activists, who share many of the same sympathies. How this will ultimately shake out if it comes down to a vote in the Board of Supervisors is anybody’s guess, because it’s not the usual moderates-vs-progressives split with which we’re all so familiar.

But I noticed another, possibly more widespread, split among a group that might surprise some people. At that same Week to Week program, audience members stepped up to the microphone and shared their thoughts on this controversy, and a number of people questioned whether it was necessary to make a court case out of a private family dispute.

All of the people who raised that question were women. And therein lies what I suspect would be the surprise. One woman even asked why this had to become a police matter if Mirkarimi’s wife didn’t want it to. The answer is that legislators and police departments, who know from years of experience that battered wives are often reluctant to report abuse, have in many places around the country taken the matter out of the women’s hands. If the police are called, it gets reported and, if appropriate, prosecuted.

So here we are. A messy case that is a private family matter that is no longer private. Regardless of the final resolution – Mirkarimi leaves to focus on his family, or he retains his office, or he reinvents himself as a defender of women’s rights, or we witness a titanic and painful struggle among the supervisors – the lives of Mirkarimi and his entire family have been seriously affected by this.

What is clear is that Mirkarimi is not going to give up easily. A number of his supporters (past and present) have noted that that characteristic of his is part of why they have liked him. They agree with his politics, and they know he will be forceful in supporting those issues on the political stage.

Even some people who don’t sympathize with him are waiting to see him make a case. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders, a conservative, has been in the unusual position of defending the liberal Mirkarimi – not because she defends his actions in his altercation with his wife. Rather, she questions whether this really rises to the level of official misconduct that can produce an ejection from elected office. What she needs, she has said, is to hear an honest explanation from Mirkarimi about what happened that fateful day with his wife.

We shall see what Mayor Lee will do as the case unfolds. He has been pretty aggressive so far in taking his actions to suspend the sheriff, and he doesn’t sound like he’s looking for an easy way out.

Another panelist on that Week to Week program, Dr. Larry Gerston of San Jose State University, has noted that Americans can be very forgiving and willing to give a second chance to someone who admits wrong and reforms himself. I think he’s correct, but we’re still awaiting the reformation.

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