Poll results show tight race between Martinez, Hemmerling to be next San Diego County sheriff

John Hemmerling and Kelly Martinez
John Hemmerling and Kelly Martinez
(Courtesy photos)

Kelly Martinez ahead 37 percent over John Hemmerling’s 31 percent. A third of respondents said they were undecided


With election day about two weeks away, new polling released Tuesday, Oct. 25, showed a tight race between Kelly Martinez and John Hemmerling to become the next San Diego County sheriff. But a third of respondents said they were undecided.

Of the likely voters polled, 37 percent said they would vote for Martinez, who is the undersheriff, and 31 percent said they would back Hemmerling, a retired chief prosecutor with the San Diego City Attorney’s Office. The two candidates are close enough — within the 6.6 percentage-point “credibility interval” — to be considered in a statistical dead heat.

About 33 percent of the respondents said they had not yet made a decision between the two.

SurveyUSA conducted the online poll for KGTV 10News and The San Diego Union Tribune. It polled 668 registered voters between Thursday and Monday.

The election is Nov. 8, but early voting is under way. Of the registered voters surveyed, pollsters determined 529 respondents were likely to vote or had already returned their ballots. Slightly more than half who had already voted checked the box for Martinez.

Hemmerling leads by 6 points among men; Martinez leads by 17 points among women. If elected, Martinez would be the county’s first female sheriff, but not the first woman to lead a law enforcement agency in the county. San Diego and Chula Vista police have already placed a woman at the helm.

The race is nonpartisan, but support for the two sheriff candidates skews along party lines. Slightly more than half — 51 percent — of the respondents who are Republican backed Hemmerling, who has been endorsed by the party. Nearly half — 46 percent — of the Democrats polled support Martinez, who also has that party’s endorsement.

Martinez is up by 7 points among independents. She also leads among Latino voters by 22 points, with 40 percent still undecided. White voters are split, with a little more than a third backing each candidate and nearly a third undecided, the polling found.

Martinez has been with the department for 37 years — working in the jails, on patrol and handling investigations — and was tapped as undersheriff by then-Sheriff Bill Gore, who encouraged her run for his seat.

Hemmerling spent 20 years with City Attorney’s Office, leading the criminal investigations division for the last six. He also spent nine years as a San Diego police officer and 30 years as a Marine (both active duty and reserves), retiring as a colonel.

The two candidates bested a field of seven in the June primary.

Respondents to the 10News/Union-Tribune poll were also asked their thoughts on the most pressing issue the next sheriff faces.

Twenty-one percent said the most important issue is how to handle calls involving mental health crises.

That was followed by 16 percent who said transparency is the top issue and 16 percent who pointed to police reform as the next sheriff’s biggest concern.

Martinez has the advantage among people who selected one of those three issues as the leading concern. She leads Hemmerling by 9 points among respondents who selected mental health calls as biggest concern. She leads by 13 points among those concerned about transparency, and leads by 16 points among those who cited police reform.

She is also up by 23 points among people who said the next sheriff’s biggest issue is incarcerated people dying in jail.

The Sheriff’s Department runs the county seven jails, which have been plagued with a record number of people dying while in custody — 18 people have died in custody this year, and one died hours after his compassionate release following a long illness.

A state audit released in February found that between 2006 and 2020, San Diego County jails were the deadliest among California’s largest counties and called for legislation to ensure changes in the jails. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom rejected a bill inspired by that audit, citing as problematic its requirement to add two more seats to a 13-person board that sets standards for detention facilities.

Martinez has said she embraces the auditors’ recommendations and is working in implement them. Hemmerling has said he wants to go further, citing improved technology to track medically vulnerable inmates, and said effective change will only come with new leadership.

Hemmerling had an 8-point edge over Martinez among those concerned about keeping deputies from leaving the department, an issue cited by 14 percent of the respondents as the leading issue for the next sheriff.

Earlier this year, the Union-Tribune reported that San Diego’s largest law enforcement agencies — the Sheriff’s Department and the San Diego Police Department — were losing officers and deputies faster than they could hire them. Data from Sheriff’s Department showed that 70 more deputies left the department than were hired in fiscal year 2020. And last fiscal year, 28 more deputies left than were hired.

The Sheriff’s Department has more than 4,600 staffers and an annual budget of $1.1 billion. It handles law enforcement in nine cities, from Imperial Beach to Vista, as well as the county’s unincorporated areas. In addition to running the county jails, it provides security in the state courts.