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Good Ross, Bad Ross

Lauren Smiley | March 13, 2012 | Story Reporters Notebook Politics Profiles News and Features

ROSS MIRKARIMI STOOD OUTSIDE THE COURTROOM IN the Hall of Justice on the morning of March 12, surrounded by reporters, as he had been almost constantly over the previous two months. He was grayer than in his days as the Board of Supervisors’ reigning progressive hunk, his suit more conservative, his handsome features looking pale and haggard, as if he hadn’t been getting much sleep.

It had been a terrible few days for the 50-year-old sheriff. A former girlfriend’s excruciatingly embarrassing testimony about quarrels and underwear had made him the laughingstock of the local blogosphere. An appeals panel had ruled that a neighbor’s videotape would be allowed as evidence in his upcoming trial on charges that he abused his wife and endangered their toddler son. With jury selection ramping up, the spectacle was only going to get worse. The man who had spent years carefully honing his progressive-hero brand—cofounder of the California Green Party, scourge of plastic bags, king of community policing—was about to lose every shred of dignity that remained, and he was in real danger of losing his case and career as well. Time to pull the plug and strike a deal.

“This plea allows us to move forward,” Mirkarimi intoned, his trademark trombone-deep voice wavering. “I intend to return to the business of running one of the finest sheriff’s departments in this nation, of mending my family and raising my son, Theo, in a safe and happy home.” Never mind that the deal meant pleading guilty to one count of misdemeanor false imprisonment, an ironic charge for a sheriff to live down. Mirkarimi would be able to keep his gun and the job he was elected to in November, assuming Mayor Ed Lee and Mirkarimi’s former colleagues on the board didn’t try to push him out. At another brief press conference later in the day, a lawyer for his wife, Eliana López, read a statement expressing her client’s gratitude to Mirkarimi “for ending this case and doing what she believes at this point is in everyone’s best interest.” She added that López was also relieved that her husband still had a job to go back to, now that he was the family’s sole means of support.

Mirkarimi seemed to understand that he had a lot of apologizing to do: to his family, of course; to the city, for the “great turmoil and pain and disappointment” his case had caused; even to his neighbor Ivory Madison, whose decision to go to the police in early January had forced the scandal out in the open. “I realize what was reported to the police was meant to help my family,” he said. It was the first time he had publicly expressed anything close to remorse.

Back in January, his initial, disastrous response had been to call the episode a “private matter,” a quote that may well go down as his “I am not a crook” moment. Mirkarimi now says he was coached to make that statement. “I wanted immediately to correct the record, but was advised not to—that was a huge mistake in my opinion,” he wrote in a long email to San Francisco a few days before the plea deal was announced. While he was muzzled, the follow-up comments from his camp—blaming Madison, a shadowy law-enforcement conspiracy, political enemies, everyone, in other words, but Mirkarimi—dug the hole deeper. And the longer he stayed silent, the more titillating for the public and damaging for himself and his family the narrative became.

“His case is going to be the focus of many crisis communication courses for years to come,” says Sam Singer, the city’s go-to spokesman for big-name clients with high-profile problems. “The public would have sympathy for a man who stepped up to the plate and said, ‘I have a bad temper and did wrong by my wife and child.’ That’s the story he needed to tell.”

But Mirkarimi’s story is more complicated than that. It’s the story of how a boisterous supervisor charmed his constituents while privately alienating his ideological allies. Of how an ambitious politician was gaining power citywide while losing traction in city hall. Of how a reformer who spent his career trying to keep law enforcement in check gave police and prosecutors the legal means to take him down. The truth was, Mirkarimi had been bullying people behind the scenes for years before he quarreled with his wife this past New Year’s Eve. The difference this time was that he left a bruise.

IF YOU WERE TO DESIGN MIRKARIMI'S POLITICAL tombstone, it might look like the billboard that women’s advocates unveiled over 10th Street in mid-February: “Domestic Violence is NEVER a private matter.” Not so long ago, he would have seemed like the last male politician in San Francisco who could ever have merited such a stinging rebuke. Mirkarimi’s feminist streak—“underscored by my legislative and activist record,” he points out in the email—used to be among his political strengths. “I deeply regret that my commitment to women’s rights seems to be also on trial.”

Another of Mirkarimi’s appeals, of course, was his brawny attractiveness. In contrast to a pretty boy like Gavin Newsom, he was earthy, intellectual, fiery, fun—and he knew how to work it. He christened the new pool at a District Five community center by zipping down the waterslide wearing a dress shirt and a Kodak smile. At one of his stump speeches for sheriff, a woman asked if he’d don a uniform for the job. “Yeah,” he retorted. “I’ll look pretty sexy, I think, in one.”

Some of his appeal could be traced to his upbringing as the only son of a single mother in Jamestown, Rhode Island. Just 19 years old when Mirkarimi was born, Nancy Kolman supported her son with various jobs while working her way through college and grad school. Her mother and sisters filled in the gap left by Mirkarimi’s father, an Iranian immigrant who was mostly absent. Kolman was also her son’s first political mentor, taking him to protests against the Vietnam War and in favor of women’s rights. As a kid, Mirkarimi writes, he was “awkward” and “dorky,” with a serious speech impediment and vision problems that forced him to wear a black patch over one eye. “It was not easy growing up for a number of reasons, especially because we barely had any money.... I tried very hard to overcome my impediments, and by doing so, I discovered that doing good for people helped me feel good about myself.”

Mirkarimi moved to California in the 1980s to study Russian at the naval language school in Monterey, then gravitated to San Francisco and its progressive politics. Not surprisingly, the man raised by strong women was attracted to the same. Mirkarimi “didn’t pick mediocre people,” a friend says. “He picked outstanding ones.”

His companions included Evelyn Nieves, the striking onetime San Francisco bureau chief for the New York Times, who met Mirkarimi while reporting on district attorney Terence Hallinan’s 1999 reelection campaign, which Mirkarimi was helping to run. For the next eight years, they were an under-the-radar power couple with compatibly frenetic careers: Mirkarimi clocked long hours in civil service and politicking; Nieves traveled constantly as she skipped from the Times to the Washington Post to freelancing. “Someone with a more regular job might resent all the hours we each spent away,” she wrote San Francisco in an email.

By all accounts, Nieves is a brilliant and engaging woman who held her own with the intense, ambitious progressive star in the making. If anything, she says, she was the more vociferous arguer: “Politically, Ross liked the fight. But personally, he hated to argue. Hated it.… [He] would rather walk away than lose [his cool].” As for reports about his short temper on the job, Nieves adds, “[H]aving covered politicians as a journalist, [I] saw nothing unusual in that.”

Nieves asserts that the romance “died of attrition” in the summer of 2007, and after an autumn spent traveling, she moved out. A friend of Mirkarimi’s, however, claims the final rift came when Nieves found another woman’s underwear at their place (Nieves won’t comment, and Mirkarimi says the couple had already split: “No underwear caused any end to the relationship”).

Yet at some point, panties were left by a new girlfriend, Christina Marie Flores, a blond knockout in her 40s who met Mirkarimi at the Haight Ashbury Street Fair in June 2007, emailing him the next day, “[If] coffee with a 3rd generation native that does comedy, improv and remodeling sounds interesting to you…let me know. You seem very interesting to me.” The daughter of an SFPD police officer and the ex-wife of a domestic violence inspector, Flores was an actress who interviewed city personalities on her public access show, SFLiveTV. Once she attended a Board of Supervisors meeting in a Princess Leia costume, Darth Vader by her side (she was there to support a Mirkarimi resolution on funding of public access TV).

She and Mirkarimi entered into what he would characterize as an “on-again, off-again relationship,” one he evidently didn’t advertise, that continued through mid-2008, when Mirkarimi went to a conference in Brazil and met López, a gorgeous Venezuelan actress 14 years his junior. She soon became pregnant, a startling development for Mirkarimi, who had entered his late 40s, he writes, “unsure if I’d ever become a parent. But when faced with the reality, I embraced fatherhood unlike anything before.”

He also had to ease Flores out of the picture. She did not take it well. She pelted Mirkarimi with emails: “I sorely miss Southpark with you, salads with you, Safeway with you, and even, believe it or not, you falling asleep with your head on my lap.... And that magical connection.” His responses—at least those snippets released by his lawyer—were gentle “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” brush-offs; Flores reacted by sending come-hither nude photos of herself and finally, on January 2, 2009, a rhyming revenge poem that nodded less to Shakespeare than to Fatal Attraction:

I have never had the distinct displeasure
Of meeting such an idiot of such great measure
That freely let me know of things
That could unwind plans of what his political future brings…
What to do with the ball in my court…
Let us see what happens.

What eventually happened: Two weeks after the reports of his domestic abuse case hit the papers this January, Flores accused her ex-lover of doing something very similar to her—grabbing her during a quarrel so hard that he left a bruise. The trigger, Flores claimed, was her finding yet another woman’s panties at his house. She also testified that Mirkarimi had told her he planned to bring López to the United States and set her up in her own “baby mama” apartment (he called Venezuela a “third-world country” and “filthy,” Flores claimed). “He wanted to be like Willie Brown,” she testified. (Mirkarimi calls this “bizarre fiction.”)

The huge changes in Mirkarimi’s personal life in 2008–2009 came at a particularly fraught time for him professionally. Behind the scenes, he was losing his bid to become president of the Board of Supervisors, a bitter disappointment that cast his political future in doubt. At the board meeting where the vote happened, he seemed buffeted by conflicting emotions. “I know I have a bit of a reputation of being a workaholic and really being somewhat manic about trying to accomplish as much as I possibly can,” he said. He then used this public forum to introduce López and their child-to-be to San Francisco. “We don’t know the sex, but we do know it’s going to be a constituent,” Mirkarimi joked, his eyes on the glowing woman in the gallery wearing a sophisticated black maternity dress. The packed chamber erupted in applause.

From the outside, the relationship seemed happy. López called Mirkarimi her “copilot” on her Spanish-language mommy blog, Maminatural, and posted photos of him assisting in Theo’s home birth. “I worship the ground that [Theo] and his mother walk on,” Mirkarimi writes. Over the next three years, López carved out a spot in her new city, traveling occasionally for acting work. She did yoga and taught a Saturday movement class for toddlers at the African American Art & Culture Complex in the Fillmore. She befriended Hayes Valley neighbors such as Madison, the founder of Red Room, a social networking website for authors, and invited Madison’s child to join her class. More recently, she started coproducing a segment for Hecho en California, on Spanish-language radio.

“It seemed when she was around, it kind of calmed him,” one former Mirkarimi supporter says. López is diminutive in stature, but she has a big personality. “I am not the little poor ignorant immigrant,” she lectured the judge who approved the restraining order against her husband. “Eliana is in charge of the family,” says Mirkarimi’s aunt, Patricia Forsyth, who lives in Piedmont. “She makes the decisions. Socially, in a lot of ways, she is the leader on everything.”

Still, she had given up a lot to come to San Francisco (her pad in Venezuela was far more spacious and comfortable than her home here, she told the judge). She found the ever-busy Mirkarimi, serving not just on the Board of Supervisors but various committees and commissions, to be a less than reliable caretaker for their son (she complained in an email to Madison that she came back from a day of traveling to find her son all wet, as if his diaper hadn’t been changed in a while). She also discovered Mirkarimi’s temper, telling a neighbor about a fight the couple had last March. But whatever their problems, López put on a good political-wife face. When Mirkarimi announced his race for sheriff last May, she was there, holding Theo and smiling.

MANY SAN FRANCISCANS HAD THOUGHT MIRKARIMI would be running for mayor, not sheriff. He was already being mentioned as a potential candidate soon after winning his bid to represent District Five—a superhip slice of the city that included Hayes Valley, the Haight, and the Inner Sunset—in 2004. Over the next few years, Mirkarimi did all the right things to endear himself to his constituents and the larger electorate. He lobbied for bike lanes and farmers’ markets and against the shuttering of local schools. He made a point of showing up at Western Addition homicide scenes, and after one murder at the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, he helped clean blood off the gym floor. He won reelection in 2008 with 77 percent of the vote, more than any other supervisor that year.

On the board, Mirkarimi was dependably progressive, though he could be pragmatic to get his own initiatives passed. He was a legislative dynamo, successfully sponsoring more than 125 ordinances and cosponsoring another 150 or so, as well as some 300 resolutions and 15 charter amendments, in seven years in office. He took pride in being, he says, “the most prolific author [among the supervisors] of good, creative legislation during my time of service.”

But in achieving that record, he made himself one of the more unpopular politicians in city hall. There he was known, in the words of his own former attorney, as “a bit of a tyrant”; others use descriptors like “egomaniac,” “insecure,” “bombastic,” “self-centered,” “self-promoting,” and “Jekyll and Hyde.” “I remember hearing him [yell at his] staff that he didn’t like the progress he was getting on a piece of legislation and scream, ‘That’s unacceptable!’” says a former city hall staffer, who could sometimes hear the profanity through the walls and down the hall. Recalls another insider, “If he asked you to jump 10 feet, you’d jump 10 feet, then [he’d] ask why you didn’t jump 12.... There was never anything that was enough.”

The problem wasn’t so much Mirkarimi’s temper—narcissistic, impossible-to-please rageaholics are a dime a dozen in city politics—as it was the disconnect between his public and private personas. “He’d portray himself as the supervisor of the people, and you’d go into his office and it was like you were having an audience with the king,” one former city hall reporter says. Over the years, as his image became brighter, the verbal whippings seemed to get worse, a former supporter adds: “There’s more at stake, and he’s under more pressure to succeed.”

Mirkarimi seemed to believe his behavior was justified to further his progressive agenda. “I’ve always operated with these guiding principles,” he said in his email: “1) I want my office to be aggressive on behalf of the people we serve. 2) We’re only serving in office for a limited time and I want that time used to make government work better for the people.” He conceded, “My passion and manner of speaking about critical issues may be misunderstood. I am sorry if that happens...but I’m not me without the passion.”

But “the passion” often struck his colleagues on the board as arrogance, whininess, and a lack of self-control. “He needed a lot of care and attention and feeding,” says a fellow supe on the same side of the ideological spectrum. “It wore on people. He was needy. He did good legislative work, but he was seen as being obsessed with getting the credit. He was not good at collaborating, and many of [us] who work collaboratively found that to be off-putting and annoying.” Complains another insider, “He always wanted to be the man.”

Proof of his colleagues’ disaffection came when the board was choosing a new president in 2009 to replace the termed-out Aaron Peskin. Mirkarimi and his supporters felt “it was Ross’s turn,” in the words of his aunt, Forsyth. But others on the board, progressives included, “strongly believed a Mirkarimi presidency would be problematic,” one well-connected city hall reporter wrote at the time. After much behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Mirkarimi was beaten out by newcomer David Chiu. “My problem was that I ever kissed ass or nurtured collegial relationships and I resisted cliques,” Mirkarimi writes. That much was certainly clear. It was also clear that the no-confidence vote had suddenly made a mayoral win a very, very long shot.

IN RETROSPECT, IT'S POSSSIBLE THAT THE POLITICAL stresses on Mirkarimi, and especially those caused by the sheriff’s race, played a role in the lead-up to the fateful quarrel with his wife. The sheriff’s job had been held by progressives since the 1970s, when Richard Hongisto wore a badge engraved with a peace sign. Mirkarimi’s predecessor, onetime prisoner rights activist Michael Hennessey, had a lock on the office for 32 years. He’d been grooming a former policeman named Chris Cunnie to succeed him when he finally retired in 2011, but those plans were cut short when Cunnie’s son died in a freak accident in Hawaii and Cunnie stepped aside to mourn.

After Mirkarimi’s disappointments at city hall, the sheriff job must have seemed to him like a perfect next move. He didn’t just pass the progressive litmus test; he also had the required peace-officer bona fides: He’d attended the San Francisco police academy in 1996—and had even been elected president of his class. The position came with a key advantage: no term limits, which offered a measure of job security rare in local electoral politics—assuming he didn’t screw up. “One of Ross’s major considerations [in running] was needing to support his family in the long term,” says his friend Alix Rosenthal, a Democratic politico.

But it was a hard race from the beginning, one in which Mirkarimi’s popularity with progressive voters didn’t count for nearly as much as he might have hoped. The law enforcement community was unfriendly, to say the least; the reasons ranged from his close association with Hallinan, who was loathed by cops for too many reasons to count, to Mirkarimi’s contentious tenure as a member of the Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety Committee. There he displayed a “paternalistic, Ross-knows-best attitude—just enough knowledge to be dangerous,” says a longtime antagonist, Nathan Ballard, who served as Newsom’s spokesman for much of that period and is now a Democratic strategist. Nothing rankled cops more than Mirkarimi’s community policing initiative, an Officer Friendly concept that mandated foot patrols in high-crime areas. “He had a murder rate [in the Western Addition] that was off the charts,” says his friend Peskin. “He was ripping his hair out, searching for a solution. That got him no shortage of flak from police, who didn’t want to be told by a lowly supervisor, much less a progressive supervisor, [what
to do].”

Even his longtime ally Matt Gonzalez declined to endorse him, instead supporting Captain Paul Miyamoto, who had worked his way up the sheriff’s department ranks and seemed like a reliable progressive besides. Gonzalez says he was worried that Mayor Ed Lee would appoint a moderate to fill Mirkarimi’s unfinished term on the board, potentially losing progressives the once-safe District Five seat for years to come.

In the past, Mirkarimi’s foul temper had often worsened during the stress of campaigns. “What it takes to be elected is sacrificing everything else in your life,” a former aide says. The sheriff’s race, though, was stress on steroids. After a key campaign aide quit, Mirkarimi essentially functioned as his own campaign manager for a portion of the race—while also working as candidate, supervisor, and, of course, family man. “He was trying to do everything,” Forsyth says. When López came back to help her husband’s run after two months in Venezuela filming a movie, the only way to see him was to visit his office, she told a judge. Forsyth ended up volunteering six days a week on the campaign, witnessing what she calls Mirkarimi’s “executive style.” “[It’s a] style based on effectiveness and getting things done—he does not like to waste time. He is a high-energy person. He is a type A.” His aunt says his “incredible, booming, Zeus-like voice”—the speech impediment of his childhood long since vanquished—can up the ante. “If he feels confident about something, it could come across, if they’re thin-skinned, that they’re being yelled at.”

In the end, Mirkarimi owed his victory largely to name recognition and ranked-choice balloting—he won just 38 percent of first-round votes. But even as he was trying to savor that triumph, he was experiencing defeat on other fronts. At his second-to-last board meeting in December, his fellow supervisors effectively killed his tax break for businesses that hired ex-cons. Meanwhile, Supervisor Jane Kim was joined by all but a few progressive supes to delay a final vote on Mirkarimi’s plastic bag ban expansion until after he left the board. Kim said she wanted more outreach to minority-owned businesses. Others saw it as one final, humiliating snub: “They [held over the bill] as a slap in the face to him,” says Chamber of Commerce honcho Jim Lazarus, who watched it all go down.

AS 2011 DREW TO A CLOSE, MIRKARIMI WAS STILL IN overdrive, serving out his last weeks as supervisor, meeting with the sheriff’s department about his transition, and trying to get some downtime before the real deluge began. He had to prove himself quickly to a workforce that had overwhelmingly wanted a leader from their own ranks. “His hours were very long,” Forsyth says. “You don’t just push back in your chair and say, ‘I’m sheriff, I’ll turn up on day one.’”

Meanwhile, Mirkarimi had booked a family trip to Monterey for a couple of nights before his swearing in. But before they could enjoy their long-overdue vacation, everything fell apart. While the family was driving to lunch on New Year’s Eve, López told him that she was thinking of visiting Venezuela after the inauguration, apparently with Theo in tow. It’s easy to imagine Mirkarimi’s reaction—he was overwrought and exhausted, with a rough few months ahead; he depended on López and Theo for stability and comfort; and López had already been gone for a couple of months the previous year. Maybe he was genuinely afraid that his wife was planning to leave him for good, returning to her native country permanently with their son; surely the man who had been abandoned by his own father, who had come late to fatherhood himself, who would write in his email, “My child is everything,” would find this unbearable to contemplate.

If we are to believe the story relayed by Ivory Madison from López to the police, Mirkarimi lost it, spewing expletives and accusing his wife of trying to take Theo away from him, then turned the car around.

Back at the house on Webster Street, the fight allegedly turned physical. Mirkarimi was “pushing, pulling, and grabbing,” according to Madison’s statements to police. López ran out of the house, threatening to call the cops. Faced with such an embarrassing spectacle, the yelling wife and crying kid, Mirkarimi caved, pleading for López to come back inside. But the next day, while Mirkarimi was in the shower, she walked over to Madison’s house and agreed to make a tape in case there should someday be a custody battle. Out came the Panasonic to record the tearful testimonial as López exposed her bruised arm.

Though no one in city hall had seen Mirkarimi get violent before, no one seemed surprised by his outburst. So why didn’t word of his temper become public sooner? “He’s the guy who wanted to change the world,” says one former supporter, adding that Mirkarimi may have been a jerk, but “he’s our jerk.” There’s also the political code of silence: Aides don’t want to be known as someone who will betray their boss. Along with the schadenfreude and genuine sadness for Mirkarimi’s family (and whispers about whether his bitter history with law enforcement had come back to haunt him), some feel vindication—even relief. “It’s going to force him into therapy,” says an ex-supporter, “something he refused to do.”

Indeed, as part of his plea bargain, Mirkarimi was facing a year of anger-management counseling and parenting classes, as well as community service and fines. Beyond the court’s sanctions are the ones Mirkarimi will surely impose on himself. In his email, he finally started to admit his flaws. “At times I know that my insistence rubbed people the wrong way. I get it now,” he wrote. It’s hard to believe he will ever again raise his voice at a colleague or argue with his wife without feeling that the whole city is watching. "I will spend the rest of my life trying to become a better man, husband and father," he wrote. His political future, and personal happiness, depend on it.

Additional related story: The Sheriff Speaks

Lauren Smiley is a former staff writer at SF Weekly. She First met Ross Mirkarimi at the Haight Ashbury Street Fair in 2008.


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