California Sheriffs have been chosen by popular election since the state became part of the Union on April 1, 1850.
California’s original Constitution of 1850 makes no mention of sheriffs, but when the State Constitution was revised in 1879 a new section was added to the document which mandated that every county would have an elected sheriff (Article 11, Section 5).
“California Constitution, Article 11, Section 1 (b): The Legislature shall provide for county powers, an elected county sheriff, an elected district attorney, an elected assessor and an elected governing body in each county….”
Between 1850 and 1891 the constitution and state laws provided very little guidance about how county and state-wide elections were to be conducted other than to require that “All elections by the people shall be by ballot” (1849 Constitution, Article II, Section 6).
“Each party printed its own ballots in whatever shape and color it wanted. So did nearly every candidate. Sometimes there would be dozens of sizes and designs. If a voter wanted to change his ballot, he could scratch out a name and write in a substitute, or paste over part of the ticket with a sticker supplied by some rival candidate.” (“Tapeworm Tickets and Shoulder Strikers”, Richard Reinhardt, The American West -- Fall 1966.)
From 1850 until 1911 the elected term of the San Francisco Sheriff was two years. In 1911 the term was changed to a four-year term. The office has always been highly sought after, particularly in the early years when the Sheriff was allowed to keep all of the fees that his office generated (less expenses). Which made the Sheriff one of the best paid public officials in the county.
Without exception, San Francisco elections are spirited affairs. Until 1910, the office of Sheriff was officially partisan-- candidates were identified on election ballots and in the newspapers by their party affiliation. It was not uncommon for a sheriff candidate to be swept into office whenever a particular party won most of the offices for a given election, and then swept back out of office whenever their party fell out of favor.
The story of the first election for San Francisco Sheriff from the April 3, 1850 edition of the Daily Alta California.
Although today most San Francisco political candidates still tend to identify with a particular party, officially all county offices are non-partisan.
While incumbency is a traditionally a powerful advantage in an election, for San Francisco sheriffs being previously elected did not automatically guarantee re-election.
Of San Francisco’s thirty-six sheriffs, fifteen were defeated in their bid for another term. One sheriff, Tom “Boss” Finn, managed to be defeated as an incumbent twice. He is the only San Francisco sheriff to serve nonconsecutive terms.
Finn was elected Sheriff from 1910-1912, but was defeated in his bid for re-election. After a four year wait, Finn was elected Sheriff again in 1915, following which he was reelected for two consecutive terms. But on his third try Tom Finn was defeated for re-election by attorney William Fitzgerald in 1927.
Two San Francisco sheriffs died while in office: Daniel Murphy in 1952 and Dan Gallagher in 1956.
Three sheriffs resigned from office before the end of their terms: John Coffee Hays (1853), John S. Ellis (1864) and Richard Hongisto (1977). Over the Department’s history there have been a number of acting/interim sheriffs appointed for a variety of reasons, some of whom later ran for the office.
As a result of resignations or deaths in office, four sheriffs attained office by appointment, rather than by election: Thomas Johnson (1853), Dan Gallagher (1952), Matthew Carberry (1956) and Eugene Brown (1978). (Immediately after John Ellis’ resignation a special election for sheriff was held to replace him rather than having someone appointed).
Of the 36 San Francisco Sheriffs, nine did not seek reelection after serving only one term and six chose to not seek reelection after serving more than one term. The Sheriff serving the shortest term in office was Thomas Johnson who served 79 days in 1853 after being appointed to the office and then voted out. Seventeen other Sheriffs served for 2 years or less.
The Sheriffs with the most elected terms of office were Michael Hennessey with eight, Daniel Murphy with five, Thomas Finn with four and Matt Carberry with three. These four Sheriff's combined to serve a total of over 83 years, accounting for just under half of the entire 170-year history of the Sheriff's Department.
The following chronology in three parts documents the dates of all San Francisco Sheriff elections, the candidates in each election, their party affiliation and their vote totals. Click on most graphics for larger view.
San Francisco Sheriff Elections Part 1: 1850 to 1899
The Chaotic Early Days
Just as San Francisco was beginning to establish itself as an emerging metropolis in the nation’s 31st State, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department was also attempting to develop into a professional law enforcement agency.
The chaos surrounding the City, from the Gold Rush to the vigilantes of the 1850s and the subsequent population expansion, all proved to create serious challenges to public safety.
The rapid turnover of leadership in the Sheriff’s Department due to two-year elective terms initially hampered the Department’s growth and the creation of consistent application of the law. During this 50-year period San Francisco had 20 different Sheriffs. Relative stability to the Department and to San Francisco was not to come until the opening years of the next century.
1. Elected April 1, 1850: John Coffee Hays
David Scannell successfully ran for Sheriff in 1855. He would later become San Francisco's first paid Fire Chief.
Deputy Sheriff Thomas Johnson was appointed to replace Sheriff Jack Hays when Hays resigned from office in 1853. Johnson then ran twice for the office and was defeated both times.
John Coffee Hays, Independent (931)
John Townes, Whig (581)
John P. Van Ness (148)
Hays was re-elected September 3, 1851.
John Coffee Hays, Democrat (3,755)
Charles M. Elleard, Whig Party (1,928)
Hays resigned from office on June 17, 1853.
2. Appointed June 17, 1853: Thomas P. Johnson
Johnson was appointed to replace Hays, and then was defeated in the election of September 1853 and the election of September 1855.
3. Elected September 4, 1853: William Gorham
William Gorham, Democrat (4,942)
Incumbent Thomas P. Johnson, Mechanic & Workingman (3,073)
George Hossefross, Independent Reform (2,857)
Nathaniel Blackstone, Democrat (24)
Gorham did not seek re-election in September 1855.
4. Elected September 5, 1855: David Scannell
David Scannell, Democrat (5,524)
Thomas Johnson, Know Nothing Party (4,614)
Alfred J. Ellis, Whig (695)
The position of Sheriff was on the ballot in November 1856, Charles Doane was elected, but the election was voided by the California Supreme Court. Scannell served out his term through 1857 and did not seek reelection.
5. Elected September 4, 1857: Charles Doane
Doane originally ran unopposed in November 4, 1856 and received 7,0447 votes. After the Sheriff’s election was voided by the Supreme Court, Doane was officially elected for the first time on September 4, 1857.
Charles Doane, People’s Party (6,205)
John Harrison, Democrat (4,045)
Incumbent Charles Doane, People’s Party (5,318)
R. Haley, Democrat (2,521)
P.C. Hyman, American Party (2,491)
Charles Doane retired on October 7, 1861.
6. Elected May 21, 1861: John S. Ellis
John S. Ellis, People’s Party (6,737)
Thomas J. Poulterer, Union Party (4,567)
Ellis took office October 7, 1861.
John Ellis was re-elected on May 19, 1863.
Incumbent John S. Ellis, People’s Party (6,747)
A.J. Bryant, Whig (4,555)
Ellis resigned on May 2, 1864.
7. Elected May 17, 1864: Henry Davis
This was a special election to fill Ellis’ vacancy.
Henry Davis, People’s Party (7,652)
C. L. Weller, Citizen Independent (3.204)
Davis was reelected on May 16, 1865.
Incumbent Henry Davis, People’s Party (7,880)
Isaac Bluxome, Jr., Union Party (5.344)
Davis was defeated in the election of September 1, 1867.
Patrick J. White, Democrat (10,221)
Incumbent Henry Davis, Union Party (6,875)
White was re-elected on September 1, 1869.
Patrick J. White, Democrat (11,348)
John A. McGlynn, Independent (10,186)
White did not seek re-election on September 4, 1871.
White later ran for Sheriff and was defeated in the election of September 3, 1873.
White ran again for Sheriff and was defeated in the election of November 4, 1890.
9. Elected September 4, 1871: James Adams
James Adams, Taxpayer Union (14,177)
George W. Green, Democrat (10,795)
Maj. John Stratman (100)
Adams did not seek re-election in 1873.
10. Elected September 3, 1873: William McKibbin
William McKibbin, Republican, Citizen Independent and Taxpayer’s Union Parties (15,094)
Patrick J. White, Democrat (10,965)
McKibbin was defeated in the election of September 9, 1875
11. Elected September 5, 1875: Matthew Nunan
Matthew Nunan, Democrat (11,009)
Colin M. Boyd, People’s Party and Independent Party (6,917)
Nunan was re-elected on September 5, 1877.
Incumbent Matthew Nunan, Democrat (1,282)
Robert C. Rogers, Taxpayers Convention Party (1,102)
T.G. Cockrill, People’s Independent Party ( )
Nunan did not seek re-election in September 1879.
12. Elected September 3, 1879: Thomas Desmond
Thomas Desmond, Workingman’s Party (19,608)
Julius C. Green, Republican (18,158)
Robert Howe, Democrat (3,696)
Desmond was defeated in a re-election bid on September 7, 1881
13. Elected September 7, 1881: John Sedgwick
Incumbent Thomas Desmond, Workingman’s and Democrat Parties (14,664)
John Sedgwick, Republican (18,073)
Thomas Donohue, unknown (125)
M.J. McBride, Greenback Party (28)
14. Elected November 7, 1882: Patrick Connolly
Patrick Connolly, Democrat (19,317)
Incumbent John Sedgwick, Republican (17,004)
Connolly was defeated in a re-election bid in November 1884.
15. Elected November 4, 1884: Peter Hopkins
Peter Hopkins, Democrat (16,725)
William L. Patterson, Republican (16,960)
Incumbent Patrick Connolly, Independent (9,435)
Hopkins did not seek re-election in November 1886.
16. Elected November 6, 1886: William McMann
William McMann, Democrat (17,892)
H. H. Pearson, Republican (16,983)
Richard I. Whelan, Citizen’s Party (8,982)
W. W. Dodge, Independent Republican (1,691)
Dennis Kearney, Independent, Workingman’s Party (333)
McMann did not seek re-election in November 1888.
17. Elected November 6, 1888: Charles Laumeister
Charles Laumeister, Republican (27,497)
James R. Kelly, Democrat (25,581)
W. W. Dodge, Non-partisan (1,696)
Laumeister was re-elected November 4, 1890.
Incumbent Charles Laumeister, Republican (26,886)
P. J. White, Reform Democrat (2,368)
Tim I. O’Brien, Democrat (25,911)
William Dolliver (143)
San Francisco's Democratic Party slate for the September 5, 1877 municipal election included Matthew Nunan for Sheriff (click to enlarge).
18. Elected November 6, 1892: John J. McDade
John J. McDade, Democrat (20,166)
William J. Blattner, Republican (16,806)
Henry Chester, Prohibition Party (390)
D. L. Howard, People’s Party (1,968)
H. H. Scott, Non-partisan (17,704)
McDade did not seek re-election in November 1894.
19. Elected November 6, 1894: Richard J. Whelan
Richard J. Whelan, Democrat (21,871)
Prescott L. Archibald, People’s Party (1,988)
James McNab, Citizen’s Party, Non-partisan (20,307)
Nicholas Morcom, Prohibition Party (223)
William J. Raddick, Republican & Union Labor Parties (14,182)
In 1898 San Francisco voted in a new City Charter, changing San Francisco’s elected terms of office back to two years.
Whelan did not seek re-election in November 1898.
20. Elected November 8, 1898: Henry S. Martin
Henry S. Martin, Republican (28,134)
Theodore F. Bonnet, Democrat (23,491)
J. H. Hall, Socialist Labor Party (1,566)
Martin served one year after the new City Charter called for new elections.
Martin did not seek re-election in November 1899.
San Francisco Sheriff Elections Part 2: 1900 to 1971
A Department in Transition
This evolutionary 72-year period in the history of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department was dominated by three Irish Americans-- Sheriffs Thomas Finn, Daniel Murphy and Matthew Carberry. These experienced law and order politicians combined to serve an amazing 45 years (62%) of that time as San Francisco Sheriffs.
But it was two other Irish Americans who may have played an even larger role in the Department’s and the City’s history during this period.
Sheriff Tom O’Neil’s leadership during the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, and Sheriff William Fitzgerald’s mission to construct San Francisco’s first modern jail pushed the Department’s political influence and vision farther than it had been since the vigilante days of 1856.
21. Elected November 8, 1899: John Lackmann
John Lackmann, Republican (28,839)
Jeremiah Deasy, Democrat (20,812)
Leo Gasser, Socialist Labor Party (882)
George Flammer, Social Democratic Party (204)
Lackmann was re-elected on November 5, 1901.
Incumbent John Lackmann, Republican (16,589)
Robert Loughery, Union Labor Party (10,556)
Justus Wardell, Democrat (3,928)
Lackmann dd not seek re-election in November 1903.
22. Elected November 2, 1903: Peter J. Curtis
Peter J. Curtis, Democrat and & Union Labor Party (33,549)
Henry Lynch, Republican (23,213)
Louis Salinger, Socialist (1,521)
Curtis was defeated in a re-elect bid on November 7, 1905.
23. Elected November 7, 1905: Thomas F. O’Neil
Thomas F. O’Neil, Union Labor Party (37,739)
Incumbent Peter Curtis, Fusion Party (30,613)
E. N. Benton, Socialist Party (1,198)
24. Elected November 5, 1907: Lawrence J. Dolan
Incumbent Thomas F. O’Neil, Union Labor Party (17,238)
Lawrence J. Dolan, Democrat (29,169)
John J. Deane, Republican (7,234)
Charles B. Kiler Socialist Party (1,583)
Dolan was defeated for re-election in November 1909.
25. Elected November 2, 1909: Thomas F. Finn
This was the first Sheriff’s election with a primary, which was held two and a half months prior to the November General Election.
In this version of a primary each political party fielded candidates under their banner and the candidate with the highest party vote total went on the General Election. There were 11 total candidates running for sheriff in the primary.
The only San Francisco election years in which Sheriff candidates had a primary were 1909, 1911 and 1915.
August 17, 1909 Primary candidates:
George Adams (1,790)
E.J. Callan (3,970)
John J. Deane (4,835)
Frederick Eggers (6,812)
George Sheldon McComb (888)
Mark E. Noon (1,241)
Siegmund L. Simon (1,781)
Lawrence J. Dolan (5,541)
Edward M. Greene (1,520)
Union Labor Party
Thomas F. Finn (5,514)
Selig Schulberg (416)
November 2, 1909 General Election candidates:
Incumbent Lawrence J. Dolan, Democrat (19,972)
Frederick Eggers, Republican (19,797)
Selig Schulberg, Socialist Party (1,469)
Finn was defeated in a re-election bid in November 1911.
26. Elected November 7, 1911: Frederick Eggers
September 26, 1911 Primary Candidates:
Incumbent Thomas F. Finn, Union Labor Party (27,404)
Frederick Eggers, Republican (29,278)
Former Sheriff Lawrence Dolan, Democrat (16,213)
Thomas Joseph Mooney, Socialist Party (2,764)
John F. Holland, unknown (1,346)
E. Schoenitzer, unknown (319)
November 7, 1911 General Election candidates:
Incumbent Thomas F. Finn, Union Labor Party (33,726)
Frederick Eggers, Republican (35,152)
Eggers was defeated in a re-election bid in September 1915.
Finn was elected outright in the September 28, 1915 Primary election.
Incumbent Frederick Eggers, Republican (19,356)
Thomas F. Finn, Union Labor Party (63,907)
Ralph McLeran, Democrat (26,287)
Rollar Allen, unknown (2,697)
Charles Wesley Johnson, unknown (936)
Edward Greene, unknown (638)
Finn was re-elected on November 4, 1919
Incumbent Thomas F. Finn, Union Labor & Republican Party (71,444)
Frank L. McClellan (vote total not published but was listed as “10,000+”)
John H. Cranford (vote total not published but was listed as “10,000+”)
The primary election concept was abandoned starting with this election and “preferential voting” was implemented.
Finn was re-elected on November 6, 1923.
Incumbent Thomas F. Finn, Union Labor & Republican Party (76,051)
Supervisor Frank Robb (38,472)
Assemblyman Walter J. Rock (8.767)
28. Elected November 8, 1927: William J. Fitzgerald
Incumbent Thomas F. Finn, Union Labor Party, Republican Party (91,135)
William J. Fitzgerald, Democrat (62,474)
Fitzgerald was re-elected on November 3, 1931.
Incumbent William J. Fitzgerald, Democrat (63,918)
Supervisor Jack Spaulding, Republican (50,223)
Assemblyman James Quigley, Union Labor (22,287)
Charles Bakst, Communist Party (unkn)
Fitzgerald was defeated in a re-election bid in November 1935.
Incumbent William Fitzgerald, Democrat (59,541)
Daniel Murphy, Union Labor Party (98,426)
Ray Conley, independent (4,304)
Ben Legere, Sinclair Democrat (11,126)
Murphy was re-elected on November 7, 1939.
Incumbent Daniel Murphy, Union Labor Party (187,478)
James L. Sutherland (28,093)
Ray Conley (19,351)
Clarence O’Brien (12,833)
Incumbent Daniel Murphy, Union Labor Party (98,730)
Peter R. Maloney (63,987)
Leo Bunner (21,880)
Ray Conley (6,969)
Murphy was re-elected on November 4, 1947.
Incumbent Daniel Murphy, Union Labor Party (155,529)
John Lockhart, tavern owner (40,429)
Jim Britt, inspector of motor vehicles (23,648)
Harry Ryberg, chiropractor (13,406)
Larry Heapy, WWII combat vet (unkn)
Incumbent Daniel Murphy, Union Labor Party (145,529)
John Lockhart (37,779)
Paul O’Leary (36,625)
Murphy died in office on March 18, 1952.
30. Appointed March 23, 1952: Daniel Gallagher
Board of Supervisors member Gallagher was appointed to complete Murphy’s term.
Elected November 8, 1955: Daniel Gallagher
Incumbent Daniel Gallagher (172,385)
Gallagher died in office on May 6, 1956.
31. Appointed May 10, 1956: Matthew C. Carberry
Board of Supervisors member Carberry was appointed to complete Gallagher’s term.
Elected November 3, 1959: Matthew C. Carberry
Incumbent Matthew C. Carberry (170,423)
William Kinnear (30,844)
Incumbent Matthew C. Carberry (162,369)
A.V. (Lee) McDonough (36,322)
Carberry was re-elected on November 7, 1967.
Incumbent Matthew C. Carberry (123,807)
David Johnson (23,284)
Louis Vasquez (24,701)
Carberry was defeated in a re-election bid on November 2, 1971.
San Francisco Sheriff Elections Part 3: 1972-2020
The Progressive Years
The election of Sheriff Richard Hongisto in 1972 marked a turning point in the history of the Sheriff’s Department. His tenure as sheriff ushered in more than 40 years of professional law enforcement and progressive reform for the Sheriff’s Department and the city of San Francisco.
Sheriff Michael Hennessey, the longest tenured sheriff in Department history at 32 years, followed Hongisto by implementing an exponential expansion of the Department including the construction of three new modern jail facilities, innovative prisoner education programs, and expanded jail alternative projects.
Professionally, the Sheriff’s Department under Hennessey also dramatically increased supervisor and deputy training and at the same time took on an array of new law enforcement and security responsibilities. This era would culminate in the election of the first woman and the first Asian American as San Francisco Sheriffs.
32. Elected November 2, 1971: Richard Hongisto
Incumbent Matthew Carberry (59,848)
Richard Hongisto (81,403)
Matthew O’Connor (49,802)
William Bigarani (33,015)
Hongisto was re-elected on November 5, 1975.
Incumbent Richard D. Hongisto (96,009)
Michael D. Nevin (30,861)
Eugene Pratt (27,126)
William C. Bigarani (23,436)
Walter L. Rabenorth (8,343)
Bob Geary (7,723)
Hongisto resigned from office on December 1977.
33. Appointed February 11, 1978: Eugene Brown
Community activist Brown was appointed to complete Hongisto’s term, and then was defeated in the election of November 1979.
34. Elected December 11, 1979: Michael Hennessey
In 1979 San Francisco changed the election format by creating a run-off election if no candidate got 50%+1 of the votes.
The General Election was held on November 6, 1979.
Incumbent Eugene Brown (47,512)
Michael Hennessey (78,215)
Ernie Raabe (21,727)
Bob Geary (16,208)
Carl Curry (5,767)
Jim Lewis (4,220)
Arnold Baker (3,026)
A run-off election was held on December 11, 1979.
Michael Hennessey (136,490)
Incumbent Eugene Brown (48,365)
Hennessey was re-elected on November 8, 1983.
Incumbent Michael Hennessey (121,076)
Evelyn Lantz (11,232)
Hennessey was re-elected on November 3, 1987.
Incumbent Michael Hennessey (138,385)
Larry Littlejohn (11,145)
Jess Grant (9,807)
Hennessey ran unopposed and was re-elected on November 7, 1991.
Incumbent Michael Hennessey (135,160)
Hennessey was re-elected on November 7, 1995.
Incumbent Michael Hennessey (140,698)
Art Conger (26,982)
Bob Heimbaugh (8,250)
Hennessey ran unopposed and was re-elected on November 2, 1999.
Incumbent Michael Hennessey (131,105)
Hennessey was re-elected on November 4, 2003.
Incumbent Michael Hennessey (145,583)
Tony Carrasco (31,446)
Hennessey was re-elected on November 6, 2007.
Incumbent Michael Hennessey (95,933)
David Wong (34,018)
Hennessey did not seek re-election in 2011.
35. Elected November 8, 2011: Ross Mirkarimi
Ross Mirkarimi (86,592)
Paul Miyamoto (75,137)
Chris Cunnie (51,602)
David Wong (11,360)
Note: This is the second version of “ranked choice voting” in an election for Sheriff.
> Ross Mirkarimi received 38.45% of the votes on the first ballot (70,457);
> Paul Miyamoto received 27.19% (49,814);
> Chris Cunnie received 28.16% (51,602);
> David Wong received 6.20% (11,360).
As the votes were redistributed per ranked choice, Ross Mirkarimi ended up with 53.54% (86,592), and Paul Miyamoto received 46.46% (75,137)
Mirkarimi was defeated in a re-election bid in November 2015.
36. Elected November 3, 2015: Vicki Hennessy
Hennessy received 60.84% of the vote (113,111), so no “ranked choice” vote distribution was needed.
Incumbent Ross Mirkarimi received 32.95% (61,249)
John Robinson received 5.88% (10,928)
Vicki Hennessy did not seek re-election.
37. Elected November 2019: Paul Miyamoto
Miyamoto ran unopposed.
Paul Miyamoto (146,611)
Credits: To the California State Library for use of their San Francisco ballot tickets/slate card files. Thanks always to the San Francisco History Room at the SF Main Library and their always helpful and generous staff. The SFPL's newspaper database and the Library's San Francisco newspaper microfilm collection, and the private collection of Michael Hennessey.