Undersheriff Kelly Martinez, backed by retired Sheriff Bill Gore, was clear leader in early returns.

Results early Wednesday in the race for San Diego County sheriff showed Undersheriff Kelly Martinez (at 38.5%) steamrolling Republican John Hemmerling and Democrat Dave Myers — behind at 20.2% and 18% respectively.

Seven candidates were vying to replace longtime Sheriff Bill Gore, who retired in February. The top two advance to a November runoff.

“Quietly” watching results with family members at her home downtown, Martinez was modest about her commanding lead.

“I don’t know if I’ve won yet,” she said about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. “But I’m really grateful for the early lead, for sure.”

Not surprised by her triumph was a “really, really happy” Michael Schwartz, executive director of San Diego County Gun Owners PAC, which endorsed Martinez, especially because of her support for speedier access to CCWs — permits to carry concealed firearms.

(In a San Diego Rostra column, Schwartz wrote: “As a result of her changes, the wait time for a CCW is now down to a few months [from two years] and continuing to improve, and the process is much smoother.”)

Holding a narrow lead for second was John Hemmerling. He spoke Tuesday night at the U.S. Grant Hotel. Photo by Chris Stone

“I know we had a big part” of her victory, he said of his Second Amendment activist group. He said it was “so obvious” to voters that Martinez was best for the job. “We’re just happy to be able to get that message out to people. They made the right decision tonight.”

Schwartz was asked if a low-turnout election that typically leads to older and more conservative voters helped her win.

“Kelly Martinez helped Kelly Martinez win,” he told Times of San Diego in a phone interview. “Whether you’re young, old, conservative, not — it’s just so obvious how well-qualified and good she is for this position.”

Schwartz said he was “honestly” hoping Myers would come in second — “because Hemmerling is such a horrible embarrassment as a candidate. They really need to put him to bed — and never talk about him again.” 

He added: “The Republican Party is really going to embarrass themselves with this endorsement [of Hemmerling]. That’s just going to drag onto November. And they’re going to have to wear this thing around their necks for even longer. It’s really too bad.”

Schwartz said his group met with Martinez at least twice in its endorsement process, and studied her public comments and viability, including finances. She also spoke on the phone with him and exchanged email. 

(He couldn’t say how much money his group put into the Martinez campaign, but said: “We have a ton of boots on the ground and a communication network that we set up with channels …. We do more than just spend money. “)

Asked about the Gun Owners PAC role in her win, Martinez responded: “What I really credit … is just my message that experience and qualifications matter…. Public safety is important to everyone right now, and I think someone who knows the Sheriff’s Department (and) knows the county as well as I do has resonated with the voters.”

She expressed no preference for a November rival.

“I think everyone’s run a good race and I’m just appreciative of the voters really understanding who the candidates are, and all of us have really been getting our message out, so I look forward to whoever it is,” she said. 

But would she tailor her campaign to the eventual runoff opponent?

“I don’t think it’ll differ at all,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m not going to be any different” as she runs the day-to-day operations of the department.

She said she’ll stay “very laser-focused on our priorities and keeping our communities safe. And that’s not going to change.”

Hemmerling wasn’t immediately available for comment, but Myers said: “It’s too early to know the outcome, but I’m grateful for the support of thousands of San Diegans who want to improve the quality and effectiveness of law enforcement in our county, stop jail deaths and ensure equal treatment for all San Diego residents.”

The election comes as the department battles with staffing issues and continued scrutiny over inmate deaths at its jail facilities.

A state Auditor’s Office report indicated the death rate at San Diego County jails was far higher than other large California counties and that the situation “raises concerns about underlying systemic issues with the Sheriff’s Department’s policies and practices.”

Since Gore’s retirement, Assistant Sheriff Anthony Ray has served in an interim role, but he wasn’t running in the primary election.

Undersheriff Martinez, a Democrat, is looking to be the department’s first female sheriff, following her appointment last year as the department’s first female second-in-command.

Martinez, who has served within the sheriff’s department since 1985, has Gore’s endorsement, as well as the backing of county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, among others.

She has touted recent work in the county to implement non-law enforcement staffed teams to respond to people experiencing mental health crises. Martinez also says she will invest in hiring additional medical staff and mental health professionals for the county’s jails, and will continue what she says is a culture of transparency regarding in-custody deaths and body-worn camera footage releases.

Myers, a retired sheriff’s commander, said he was running to rebuild community trust in the department. Among his stated priorities are a restorative justice process aimed at preventing individuals from entering a life of crime, addressing misconduct among the department’s deputies, and focusing on mental health, transparency and re-evaluating jail policies in order to prevent more deaths among inmates.

Myers has the endorsements of several local Democratic organizations, Congress members Mike Levin and Sara Jacobs, Assembly member Akilah Weber, and five members of the San Diego City Council.

Hemmerling was most recently a prosecutor at the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, and also previously served as a San Diego police officer and U.S. Marine.

Though Hemmerling told several media outlets that his retirement last month from the City Attorney’s Office was long in the works and intended to allow him to focus on his campaign, he recently came under fire for comments he made at a candidate forum in Ramona, which many viewed as anti-transgender.

Hemmerling insisted his comments were directed at a county ordinance, and were not meant to criticize anyone based on their sex or gender identity.

Hemmerling says that if elected, he will focus on behavioral health services for those incarcerated in county jails and diversion opportunities to keep others out of custody. He says he will also focus on transparency within the department in order to boost public trust.

Hemmerling is endorsed by the state and county’s Republican Party, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and retired San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.

Charles “Chuck” Battle — with 2.4% of the vote — is a retired sheriff’s sergeant who also works as a private investigator. Battle says his extensive law enforcement experience affords him a unique view into what affects employee morale and retention, and that equitable treatment of all sheriff’s candidates will help the department acquire and hold onto additional deputies.

Regarding jail deaths, Battle questions the comparisons drawn between San Diego County and other California counties, but says he would call for a re-evaluation of each facility by jail staff.

Juan Carlos “Charlie” Mercado, a combat infantry veteran with 7.4% of the returns, says his agenda includes the construction and operation of a modern mental health facility, improving diversity within the department’s ranks, and an open door policy as sheriff.

Jonathan Peck — with 5.9% of the vote — is a California Highway Patrol officer who has worked in law enforcement in both San Diego and Los Angeles counties. Peck refers to himself as a constitutional candidate and has criticized restrictions implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He says that if elected, he will “swear obedience and fidelity to the United States Constitution and the Constitution of this state” and not “a governor, or a mayor, or a Board of Supervisors or an unelected health department bureaucrat or any donors to my campaign.”

John “Gundo” Gunderson —with 7.4% of the vote — has had a long career in law enforcement, including roles within the San Diego Police Department and San Diego County District Attorney’s Office. Among his listed priorities are establishing transient tent housing for the homeless and partnering with the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board to ensure the department operates with transparency and community input.

Updated at 12:01 a.m. June 8, 2022

Çity News Service contributed to this report