John Hemmerling, sheriff candidate, at Ramona forum

“Would you support open carry in San Diego in spite of California law?”

“If a bureaucrat decrees that certain people must have a vaccine or wear a mask or any of these other ridiculous things, and people refuse to do it, will you as sheriff enforce those rules?”

“What would you do if an unconstitutional mandate is given by the governor or president — unconstitutional in your perspective?”

Why did you withdraw your Families First Pledge?

Sheriff’s candidate John Hemmerling, queried by the moderator and audience members, took heavy flak Saturday at a Ramona candidates forum that he might have expected to be friendly.

Sponsored by the conservative American Liberty Forum of Ramona, the event hosted candidates for Congress, state Legislature, Superior Court judge and even the Palomar Healthcare board — all Republicans.

But Hemmerling spent most of his 33 minutes at Ramona Mainstage getting hammered over his gun stances and perceived softness in challenging COVID mandates.

The GOP-endorsed Hemmerling, arriving more than two hours late after a Kearny Mesa event, stood his ground.

He repeatedly said he would prioritize public safety and put communities and crime victims first.

“I need to set a new standard; you set a higher standard,” said Hemmerling who took second to Undersheriff Kelly Martinez (37.5% to 20.4%) in the June primary. “I’m going to do that by getting the word out to elect the sheriff and that’s me.”

Speaking to an audience of less than half the original 80 — a low turnout chalked up to the Miramar Air Show, Aztecs football game and mid-90s heat — Hemmerling parried what event moderator Dan Summers called “tough questions.”

Larry Shriver of Julian challenged Hemmerling as sheriff to “protect the people from … unconstitutional law.”

Cindy Paris of Ramona noted Hemmerling’s boast that on eight occasions he’s taken an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.

She told the former Marine colonel and chief deputy city attorney: “You should be able to tell if a law that is passed by the California Legislature or the Congress of the United States is actually constitutional — and if it’s not you should come out and say that … it will not be enforced in the county of San Diego.”

Deborah Flook of Ramona asked his view on “interposition with citizens and the government.”

Hemmerling replied: “I don’t think I know what that is.”

Flook: “I didn’t think you did,” explaining that “you place your sheriffs between the citizens and the government so that you protect us first.”

(“Interposition,” by one definition, is the claimed right of U.S. states to oppose actions of the federal government that states deem unconstitutional.)

Moderator Summers at one point said he’d quit referring to the left-wing party by their name because “they’re not Democrats anymore. They’re Marxists, masquerading as Democrats. …We have a one-party state run by Marxists. That’s why California is in the toilet.”

He read some audience questions, including: “Which law is supreme — the United States Constitution or California law?”

Said Hemmerling: “They work in conjunction with each other. … California law is going to follow the U.S. Constitution.”

Audience members yelled: “No, it doesn’t.”

Hemmerling was asked about laws enacted by the county and at least six cities (including San Diego) against targeted residential picketing — such as against sexually violent predators released to rural communities.

“There’s an elderly judge who’s making most of these decisions from the bench,” said Hemmerling, apparently referring to 87-year-old Judge David Gill. “And he always seems to favor the sex offender over the residents where he is sending these people.”

Hemmerling opposes such placements and said “peaceful First Amendment protest is a right that every American has,” but he wouldn’t commit to ignoring no-protest laws.

“If the law is on the books, and it’s against the law, we want the sheriff to enforce the laws,” he said.

As he’s said many times, Hemmerling vowed a transparent, fair and efficient process for issuing permits to carry concealed firearms. But to the annoyance of some audience members, he said such permits would be issued according to “basic statutory requirements,” including background checks and a certain number of hours of training.

San Diego County Gun Owners PAC opposes Hemmerling, calling him a “gun-grabber” for supporting gun-violence restraining orders that allow the seizing of weapons and for other “Second Amendment infractions.”

The former San Diego police officer didn’t address the issue of openly carrying loaded firearms — generally outlawed in California.

Hemmerling was asked why he pulled out of the Families First Pledge circulated by the Salt & Light Council of Solana Beach, which includes a plank opposing abortion “from conception” and a vow to vote to “defend the natural family and natural marriage.”

“How do we know that you will not change one of your positions if you take office?” he was asked. “This is a character issue. … We want to know what we are voting for.”

Said Hemmerling: “You’ve got 3 1/2 million people [in the county], a couple of million voters, and of course, we’re not going to ever agree on every single issue. … Public safety, though, is absolutely … one thing that’s in common with everybody.”

Hemmerling spokesman Michael Giorgino, a one-time candidate for Congress, brushed off the Ramona critics, saying “this is not a Republican group” and Hemmerling is “not from that fringe.”

“What they’re looking for is .. a sheriff that will say: Nathan Fletcher, what you’re doing is unconstitutional,” Giorgino said, calling his boss “a mainstream Republican” who can cross party lines.

In fact, emcee Summers partly agreed with Giorgino.

“We are a pro-Constitution group, not part of the GOP,” he said. “But candidates who are pro-Constitution are predominantly Republicans.” (County GOP chair Paula Whitsell made introductory remarks Saturday.)

Summers said Democratic-endorsed sheriff candidate Martinez declined two invitations to attend American Liberty Forum events, including Saturday’s.

The forum chairman said GOP Rep. Darrell Issa — a no-show at his May event — was not invited (although Issa’s 50th District includes Ramona.)

“Everyone that is here we extended invitations to,” he said, including Congress candidates Stan Caplan, Tyler Geffeney and Corey Gustafson; state Sen. Brian Jones; and Assembly candidate Corbin Sabol.

After Hemmerling spoke, Summers thanked the audience for “a lot of great questions. Some tough questions to your credit.”

He concluded: “And now he’s going back, having answered your questions to the best of his ability. It is now up to you to determine whether or not you’re going to vote for John Hemmerling for sheriff.”

Mainstage staffers then began preparing for the next event that night: extreme midget wrestling.

Click on images to hear audio from forum.

Paula Whitsell is chair of the Republican Party of San Diego County. Photo by Ken Stone
Republican Corey Gustafson is challenging Rep. Scott Peters in the 50th Congressional District. Photo by Ken Stone
State Sen. Brian Jones is facing Joseph C. Rocha in the new 40th District. Photo by Ken Stone
Republican and pastor Tyler Geffeney is challenging Rep. Juan Vargas in the 52nd Congressional District. Photo by Ken Stone
Republican Stan Caplan is challenging Rep. Sara Jacobs in the 51st Congressional District. Photo by Ken Stone
Republican Corbin Sabol is challenging Akilah Weber in the 79th Assembly District. Photo by Ken Stone
Republican Mike Murphy is a candidate for Superior Court judge Office 35. Photo by Ken Stone
Republican Robin Joy Maxson is running for the Palomar Health District board in Division 1. Photo by Ken Stone