When the curtain closed on the political theater over San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi's future, shock set in for domestic violence activists across the Bay Area: Suddenly, they fear the surprising decision to return the convicted spouse abuser to his job will set back decades of efforts to show domestic violence is a serious crime.
Mirkarimi returned to work Wednesday, seeking to mend fences after a divisive battle in one of the world's most progressive cities on women's issues. Most thought Mirkarimi would lose his job Tuesday night, but Mayor Ed Lee's crusade to oust him failed to muster the nine of 11 votes needed from the board of supervisors.
Now, many domestic violence experts are worried San Francisco is sending a message that it doesn't take domestic violence seriously, and that could have a chilling effect on victims and embolden abusers far beyond the city limits.
"It's going to make it harder for victims to report because they'll say, 'Look what happened in San Francisco,' " said Rodney Clark, who heads SAVE, Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments, in Fremont. "He got a slap on the wrist. If that can happen there, and I live in Fremont or Hayward or Stockton or Oakley and they're not as progressive, then I'm not going to expect much good treatment in my case."
In response to domestic violence activists' anger, Mirkarimi said in an interview with this newspaper Wednesday, "They're entitled to that reaction, but
Referring to him as a convicted abuser, he said, doesn't help anyone move forward.
"That's a branding we shouldn't fall prey to and that is what continues to create this level of animosity and discord when we should be mending fences," he said.
Across the state, Tuesday's night decision is galvanizing those in the domestic violence community, who are trying to figure out what action to take next. They point out the irony that Mirkarimi retained his job during domestic violence awareness month. Mirkarimi had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor false imprisonment in March after an argument with his wife turned physical.
"I would love to tell you we have protests planned and are putting up more billboards, but we haven't had the time to say how we're going to respond," said Stacy Castle, the chief operating officer of San Jose's YWCA who runs domestic violence emergency services and a shelter. "Just from last night, we're coming together and saying this is wrong."
Earlier in the day in a radio interview with KQED's Michael Krasny, Mirkarimi said he returns to work "a very humbled person." But still he criticized domestic violence agencies, police and prosecutors for failing to reach out and get the story from his wife, Eliana Lopez, who has forgiven her husband for what she has told this newspaper was "personal misconduct," not "official misconduct," which is the standard to oust a public official.
"The narrative that Eliana has not fallen into is what's bothered them," he said, "which is why I think they've intensified their attacks."
One domestic violence expert in particular, however, says that Mirkarimi fits into the abuser narrative: "denying, not taking responsibility, saying it was just a grab, not a big deal," said Nancy K.D. Lemon, a UC Berkeley lecturer in domestic violence and an expert witness on the case for the prosecution. It is also typical for victims of domestic violence to minimize the actions of their abusers.
"There's mixed messages coming down," Lemon said Wednesday. "One of the messages is you can do this and get away with it. That's dangerous. The second is saying the sheriff is held to a lower standard than his own deputies."
San Francisco supervisor David Campos, one of the four to vote against Mirkarimi's firing, insists the supervisors are not minimizing domestic violence.
"There is simply no justification for anyone grabbing another human being's arm and bruising that arm," he said during the hearing, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
"But that egregious misconduct does not fall within the definition of official misconduct."
The politically charged case made international headlines when Mirkarimi, newly elected but not yet sworn in, was arrested after a Dec. 31 argument with his Venezuelan soap star wife. He grabbed and bruised her arm during an argument in their minivan.
Lopez says the story would have never gone public if she had not made a tearful video that she intended as an insurance policy for a custody dispute in case the couple split. Instead, her neighbor turned the video over to police.
Lopez, who became her husband's staunchest supporter, has said she is a smart, strong-minded woman who can make her own decisions about her marriage. She maintained that she was not the victim that people in the domestic violence community have made her out to be.
In a recent interview with this newspaper, Lopez said "I was never afraid of Ross."
By court order, Mirkarimi was not allowed to have any communication with his wife for seven months. His gun was taken away and he remains in counseling and on probation for another 2½ years.
As sheriff, Mirkarimi not only oversees the jails where domestic violence offenders are locked up, she said, but scores of domestic violence reform programs as well.
In San Jose, Kathleen Krenek, executive director of Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence, made the trip to San Francisco on Tuesday to show her opposition to Mirkarimi. Reinstating a convicted abuser as sheriff, she said, sets back decades of progress in domestic violence awareness. As recently as the 1970s and '80s, she said, "it was legal to beat your wife or partner in the United States. Officers were trained to mitigate and separate."
It took years of education, legislation and law enforcement training to change the laws and the culture.
"There was enormous resistance and there continues to be enormous resistance and vestiges of the sense that women and children are the husband's property, that it's a private matter," Krenek said. "From the community's response in San Francisco, it says we have an enormous amount of work to do."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.