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The Politics of Mirkarimi’s Charges

Prosecutor and sheriff have a long history of public animosity

People following Venezuela’s news website Noticias24 Tuesday were treated to a plot that might have been lifted from one of the popular Venezuelan soap operas featuring Eliana Lopez.

In a telephone interview with Noticias24, Lopez told her version of the drama that captivated her adopted hometown of San Francisco. On Jan. 13, her husband, Ross Mirkarimi, the newly elected sheriff, was charged with three misdemeanor counts of domestic physical battery, tampering with a witness and endangering the couple’s 2-year-old son. The charges were the result of an alleged incident on New Year’s eve.

“This is a case of political persecution, and we Venezuelans know what that is,” said Lopez, who denied that her husband had abused her. “Everybody believes that politics in the United States is very transparent. But it’s actually a bit cloudy.”

“Welcome to the U.S.A., everybody,” she said. “It’s very dirty, really, and there are many hidden interests at play.”

Mirkarimi faces two hearing this week and the trial must begin by March 5. But regardless of whether the charges against him are upheld, both his supporters and opponents might agree with Lopez on one thing: It is almost impossible to separate the political aspects of the case from the legal issues.

The district attorney, George Gascón, a former police chief, and Mirkarimi have an extended history of public animosity. Before Mirkarimi was elected sheriff of the city and county of San Francisco, he spent seven years as a county supervisor. For a couple of those years, the two battled over police patrols, intelligence units and immigration policy.

Gascón has emphatically rejected the idea that his decision to press charges was politically motivated.

If he had been politically motivated, Gascón said in a news conference, he would not have filed any charges at all against Mirkarimi. If he were acting as a typical politician, he suggested, he would have probably protected another politician.

The Police Department’s own manual on handling domestic abuse cases suggests that the police have prosecuted this case by the book. Minouche Kandel, a lawyer at Bay Area Legal Aid, which provides assistance to low-income clients, said the way the case unfolded had been routine.

But the clash between Gascón, 57, a conservative lawman, and Mirkarimi, 50, a lifelong progressive who helped start the local Green Party, and who is now a Democrat, has spawned a citywide game of speculation of whose political fortunes may benefit, or be ruined, by this showdown.

Art Agnos, a former mayor, said the political angle was obvious. “There’s a whole history between the two of them that is very recent,” Agnos said. “And it raises the question: Is there a political dimension?”

Gascón and Mirkarimi began hectoring each other almost as soon as Gascón arrived in San Francisco in August 2009 as the new police chief and a protégé of Gavin Newsom, who was then the mayor.

A lifelong Republican, Gascón rose to national prominence as the police chief of Mesa, Ariz., where he staged a very public battle with the Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio. When Gascón arrived to work as a police chief in the Bay Area, where Democratic voters vastly outnumber Republican voters, he quickly switched parties.

Two months into his new job, Gascón called for the resurrection of a dormant intelligence unit at the police department. Mirkarimi, one of the most liberal county supervisors, denounced the move, asserting that Gascón’s proposal was an example of a post-Sept. 11 trend of law-enforcement harassment against Arab-Americans. Mirkarimi’s father is Iranian.

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