SAN FRANCISCO -- The setting seemed picture perfect. Nearly 150 women stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the steps of City Hall waving signs supporting suspended Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and chanting "Reinstate! Reinstate!"
Mirkarimi's wife, Venezuelan soap star Eliana Lopez, and their 3-year-old son, Theo, leaned in close to him. For a man whose career hangs in the balance nine months after an argument with his wife led to her bruised arm, a domestic violence guilty plea, a San Francisco-sized political scandal and a long estrangement from his family, this was a golden moment.
With a volunteer photographer ready to immortalize this mix of family forgiveness and political second chances, the broad-shouldered Mirkarimi swooped down to kiss his petite wife. Distracted by the crowd, she looked away. The kiss missed, landing awkwardly on her eye instead.
Mirkarimi has struggled with a series of misses as he tries to restore his public image. With the San Francisco Board of Supervisors soon to decide his fate, he invited a reporter and photographer from this newspaper to spend a day with his family in another attempt to make the case that he is worthy of redemption.
"What's there to lose after all the dehumanizing portrayals?" asked Mirkarimi, 51, a former San Francisco supervisor, championed by the city's progressives after his days as a Green Party leader.
Lopez, 36, wants the community, disenchanted like she once was, to give him another
"We need to show he's not a monster," said Lopez, who was separated from her husband by court order for seven months. "He is a father. We have a toddler. We are normal people and we love each other."
In San Francisco, however, there are plenty of people who still have doubts, including Mayor Ed Lee, advocates for domestic violence victims and four of the city's five Election Commissioners, whose report recommending Mirkarimi's ouster is headed to the board of supervisors.
The soap star and the politician
The family started the day with Mirkarimi's "Reinstate" rally at City Hall, then stopped for lunch with supporters at Max's Opera Cafe, before winding through a street fair in their Western Addition neighborhood. Seven hours later, they were on the couch of their cramped Victorian apartment. With Theo napping, the couple recounted what they had lost and hoped to regain in the aftermath of domestic violence charges and Mirkarimi's suspension as sheriff. Both broke down in tears and clutched each other's hands -- one of several scenes of affection and reconciliation on display for the reporter and photographer that day.
It has been four years since the telenovela star who has been mobbed like Madonna by adoring fans in Caracas met the San Francisco politician who was speaking at an environmental conference in Brazil.
"I fell in love with him immediately," said Lopez, who remembers telling her family with certainty that she'd met the man who would be the father of her child.
She was pregnant when she moved to San Francisco and they married. Romance gave way to the reality of leaving her family, glamorous career and spacious apartment for a one-bedroom flat barely half the size.
On the morning of Dec. 31, the couple was anything but happy.
A bruise, a betrayal
He had just been elected sheriff after a strenuous campaign that often left his wife home alone raising their young son. She missed her family in Venezuela and wanted to return with Theo for another visit. Mirkarimi, an only child whose father left when he was 5, didn't understand why she needed to go for the second time in six months. With the recent strains on their marriage, he feared she might not come back.
They argued fiercely in the family's red minivan. Theo, strapped in his car seat, bawled in the back seat. As the couple tells it, when Lopez got out to unbuckle Theo, Mirkarimi grabbed her arm, bruising it.
The day after the fight, she went to her friend and neighbor Ivory Madison and together made a 55-second tearful video documenting the argument and her bruise. It was meant as an insurance policy, Lopez now says, to be used only in case their marriage failed and Mirkarimi tried to take her son away.
As an immigrant and wife of the sheriff, she feared she had few rights. But the neighbor called police and with a search warrant in hand, they seized the videotape. It became the prime evidence against Mirkarimi.
Lopez insists she was betrayed, not by her husband, but by Madison. "I was never afraid of Ross," she said. In one of his first public relations missteps, Mirkarimi infamously called the argument a "private, family matter" (a comment he now says he didn't mean), outraging domestic violence support groups.
Lessons in humility
One of Mirkarimi's biggest regrets, he now says, is that in the midst of a monumental public relations crisis that threatened his career and his marriage, "I didn't speak up earlier."
He's making up for it now.
For the past several weeks, the man who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of false imprisonment last March and was suspended without pay by Mayor Lee, has stepped up his campaign to regain the support of those who elected him as sheriff last November.
He amassed a cadre of supporters to attend Ethics Commission hearings earlier this summer. He marched in picket lines with sympathetic union members and handed out fliers on city streets and signs that say "Stand with Ross and Eliana." He helped coordinate the women's rally on the City Hall steps last Sunday, spoke at public forums and reached out to a public relations firm to set up media interviews.
"It is likely he is too little too late to overcome the significant damage to his reputation and win back any credibility," said Sam Singer, a San Francisco public relations crisis manager. "We are all watching his career morph into a black hole with a flash of light just before he disappears."
But Peter Keane, a Golden Gate University law professor who has followed the case closely, says Mirkarimi has little choice but to make his case publicly if he hopes to influence the pending vote of the Board of Supervisors, five of whom are up for re-election in November. The board has 30 days to make a decision after receiving the Ethics Commission report, which is expected to happen Tuesday. Nine of the 11 commissioners' votes are needed to oust him.
"The supervisors are total political animals. Like all politicians, their first rule of life is survival," Keane said. "They are first going to look at how what I do in the Mirkarimi vote is going to affect me at the polls or in terms of my political career. If Mirkarimi were able to show he has a fair amount of supporters, he could stand a good likelihood of turning votes his way."
'You're getting a raw deal'
On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, the couple -- reunited in mid-August for the first time since January -- were in full "Reinstate Ross" mode. There were smiles and hugs as they took turns pushing Theo's stroller down crowded Fillmore Street. A street fair was under way. Bands played. Dance troupes performed.
Heads turned to watch them as the beautiful family walked by -- Lopez with her long dark hair and sleeveless blue dress, Mirkarimi in a snappy gray blazer and Theo wearing a Venezuelan soccer jersey and carrying a little plastic horse.
Many stared at them curiously. Most wished them well.
"Hey Ross, man," said one passer-by. "I'm sorry you had to go through this. I hope things work out. I think you're getting a raw deal."
Mirkarimi shook his hand, then handed him a flier and introduced his wife.
"I'm happy to be back," she said with a big smile, "and together."
Theo, big for his age, regularly jumped out of his stroller and danced on the edge of a performing group. Mirkarimi ran after him, at one point lying on the asphalt, lifting his son in the air.
"What is this?" Lopez asked, rolling her eyes when she turned and saw her husband flat on his back.
Quickly, he was on his feet, answering questions from a local blogger with a video camera. "Now that we're united, we're as strong as we can be," he said, then encouraged his viewers to visit friendsofross.com, a website filled with legal briefs and requests for supporters to sign a petition and write letters to newspapers and their county supervisors. His Facebook page, "Stand with Ross" is filled with images of a seemingly happy family.
'Think they know me'
Scenes of domestic bliss in the aftermath of abuse aren't always what they seem, victims' advocates say. Victims often remain in relationships for their children, their finances, their religious beliefs and other reasons, said Kathy Black, executive director of San Francisco's La Casa de las Madres, a support group that criticized Mirkarimi's "private matter" comment.
But Lopez insists she isn't a victim.
"A lot of women and men think they know better than me," Lopez said, back at the family's small apartment on a single level of an old Victorian.
A rocking horse, a child's painting easel, toys and books filled the cramped space.
With Theo down for a nap in the bedroom, the couple sat on the couch in the front room with the fireplace that doubles as Theo's bedroom.
Their last month together hasn't been easy. "It's not fair to call it a honeymoon, that's for sure," Mirkarimi said. "But I've never been happier."
He chokes up when asked about the past months separated by the court from his family, having no contact with his wife and limited time with his son.
"It was crushing," he said, his voice breaking and tears flowing. "They should never have done that. They should never have done that."
Lopez grabbed his hand and teared up too. But she said she believes everything happens for a reason.
"I feel we are stronger than ever before," she said.
They have had many heart-to-heart talks about the struggles that led to their troubled marriage, they said.
"I was neglectful," Mirkarimi says. "I will never let that happen again."
"That's why I love him more now," Eliana chimed in.
"Really? You mean that's all I had to do?" he asked in mock surprise.
"You've been doing great, dear," she said, and slapped him on the knee.
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.