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Sheriff Laurie?

[whitespace] Laurie Smith Tough Enough?: Laurie Smith's campaign for Santa Clara County sheriff has been undermined by stereotypes that were officially debunked 20 years ago.

Christopher Gardner



After 25 years spent busting bad guys, Laurie Smith could become the first woman in California to be elected sheriff--if she can prove to voters and her peers that a woman can be tough enough

By Will Harper

THE DIN INSIDE the bar at Manny's Cellar took on a decidedly macho tone. Members of the Deputy Sheriffs' Association, mostly men, packed the bar's stuffy quarters expecting a showdown. The few women deputies, then called matrons, had been demanding the same status and duties as their male counterparts--and the boys didn't like it.

The DSA had been providing legal support in the matrons' class-action lawsuit to win the same classification as male cops. The old guard wanted to yank DSA's legal support for the suit.

At the time, the matrons worked only in the women's jail. They earned 15 percent less than male deputies. Many felt that their uniforms were less than intimidating: green skirt, low-heeled dress pumps and a specially designed purse with a holster and a handcuff case built in.

As the meeting at Manny's progressed, the male bravado grew with each round of booze. One deputy perched himself atop a table and shouted, "Women can't be cops!"

Recalling that evening at Manny's, Laurie Smith says she and the other matrons stood side by side and watched the events unfold with consternation. "It was a very hostile environment," Smith says.

Nearly 25 years later, Laurie Smith still wears a skirt and dress pumps to the office. Only now it's her choice. Wearing civilian clothes is a luxury given to the department's top brass, of which she is a member.

The nameplate on her desk reads, "Assistant Sheriff Laurie Smith." Except for Sheriff Chuck Gillingham and two other assistant sheriffs, the men in the department now call her boss.

Not everyone in the department, however, wants to see this boss rise to the rank of sheriff. Since she announced her candidacy for the top spot in the department, she's had to deal with the resentment and gossip that often follow a successful woman attempting to make her mark in a man's field. Some critics in the department privately sneer that she got to where she is because of political pressure and something other than hard work.

Although allegations about candidates' sexual behavior have circulated behind the scenes in some previous sheriff's campaigns, rumors have been rampant in this year's race. Smith has been the target of her share.

Smith, however, already has earned a rank equal to or higher than her four male campaign opponents. She boasts a solid résumé: 25 years of law enforcement experience on the streets, in the jails and behind the desk (all in Santa Clara County); a master's degree in business management from Cal Poly, Pomona. For her entire career, Smith says, she has battled to win respect from her law enforcement peers. The question now is: Are voters ready to accept the idea that the sheriff wears gold-seashell earrings?

Although there are four women in the state now serving as appointed police chiefs, never has a woman in California been elected sheriff.

Smith wants to be the state's first.

Smear Campaign

THE 46-YEAR-OLD LANSING, Mich., native didn't grow up wanting to be a cop; few women of her era even considered it an option.

But she was, she says, something of a tomboy, always trying to outdo her older brother, Kirk. By her own account, she was a playground all-star, "the kind of person you'd want on your softball team."

A career in law enforcement didn't cross her mind until Kirk (now a deputy sheriff in Ingham County, Mich.) became a military policeman, which got little sister's competitive juices flowing.

She later graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in administration of justice and then went to work for the county sheriff's office, where she met her husband, Brannan.

In 1976, after her tour of duty as a matron in the county jails, Smith became one of the first women in the force to take a permanent assignment as an undercover vice cop. In her three years as an undercover cop, Smith posed as a prostitute, a vendor of stolen goods and a druggie.

Male investigators learned to appreciate having a woman on the force because, at the time, few criminals suspected a woman of being a cop. "They'd use me where they knew there was a house selling drugs," she boasts, "and I'd just go to the house and knock on the door. We didn't always make an arrest, but we were very effective."

Smith's ascent continued to the patrol division, then later she became a watch commander over the jails. After 17 years on the job, she was promoted to assistant sheriff by Sheriff Chuck Gillingham in 1990.

At the time, critics--and those passed over for promotion--complained privately that Smith didn't deserve the job. Cop sources say there were higher-ranking men who applied for the job. Smith was a sergeant back then; Gillingham changed the job description to make sergeants eligible.

Similar criticisms were levied against two other Gillingham appointees, Ruben Diaz and Tom Sing, both of whom are also running for sheriff.

After Smith won her new job title, there were cynical whispers inside the department that she must have slept with the boss to get her big promotion.

Smith rolls her eyes and shrugs off the sexist snipes. By now, she's familiar with the workings of the male-dominated rumor mill. It's just the kind of thing, she says, that a woman working in a man's field has to deal with.

"If two guys get in a car and go to lunch together, no one bats an eye. For me to get in a car and go to lunch with a captain, people take notice," Smith says. "I avoid those situations, and perhaps other people avoid those situations."

The cynical whispers have become off-the-record comments since Smith launched her campaign, but while some sources in the county are quick to speculate--one even called Smith a "tramp"--nobody can produce any evidence that Smith used anything other than her professional skills to get where she is today.

Since becoming assistant sheriff, Smith herself has been accused of gender discrimination. A male deputy filed an internal complaint against her in 1992 after being transferred out of the narcotics unit while a female deputy with less seniority was allowed to remain. Smith says that she didn't even make the decision authorizing his transfer. The same deputy later filed a sexual harassment complaint against her, but Smith was cleared of all wrongdoing.

Tough Enough

IN HER BID to become this state's first elected female sheriff, Smith will have to overcome more than sly whispers between political insiders. She's also going to have to overcome voters' preconceptions of what makes a sheriff, says San Francisco-based political consultant Mary Hughes. The question that many voters will be asking themselves about Smith is "Is she tough enough?"

"There's a presumption that there's a certain toughness required to be sheriff, which probably derives from our notions of Wyatt Earp," says Hughes, who is running Lynn Schenk's statewide campaign for attorney general. "With law enforcement and executive offices, voters overtly or covertly want a woman candidate to demonstrate that she's tough."

(In that vein, Smith's campaign slogan is "Tough, Smart, Fair.")

Los Altos Police Chief Lucy Carlton, a 30-year member of the force, argues that any woman who has risen through the ranks in a male-dominated line of work and endured as long as Smith has to be tough. "We started at a time when, if you didn't have broad shoulders and tough skin, you wouldn't make it as a police officer," Carlton says.

Smith's campaign seems to be walking a fine line between appealing to women voters and not overplaying the gender card. In her kickoff announcement in the Capital Club earlier this month, she said combating domestic violence would be a top priority but mentioned nothing about whether she'd recruit more women into the department.

Local women politicians certainly haven't rushed to endorse her, likely because she's a Republican (albeit a pro-choice Reep) in a Democratic stronghold. Yet even prominent Republican women have withheld their endorsements: Karin Dowdy and ex-Cupertino Mayor Barbara Koppel have both endorsed candidate Jose Salcido.

Not that Smith's one to pander to women's groups. She came to the defense of her old boss, Sheriff Bob Winter, 12 years ago when feminists professed outrage at an ad featuring Winter standing next to a sexy model in a slinky dress and handcuffs. "I don't think it was malicious on his part," she says.

The Palo Alto resident prefers that voters not think of her as the "woman candidate," but rather as the best-qualified candidate--who happens to resemble Angie Dickinson.

Local political consultants generally agree that--at least in this county--if a woman is qualified for the job, voters won't have any qualms about making her sheriff. Santa Clara County is known for its progressivism in gender issues. San Jose was the first major city in the nation to elect a female mayor, Janet Gray Hayes.

One San Jose consultant not working for any of the campaigns goes so far as to say that being a woman gives Smith a decided advantage over her opponents.

"As a woman she has a base of support there that none of the others have," argues Greg Sellers of Strategy Source. "I think she has a great chance of getting past the [June] primary and making it to runoff."

Though the "toughness" issue is certain to follow Smith during the campaign, in truth, the job hardly requires a Rambo Robocop. Despite the Wyatt Earp image of the "typical" sheriff, the sheriff's job is largely administrative--supervising 1,400 cops and jail guards and a $118 million budget which includes the county jails. Today's sheriff, Smith points out, stands a better chance of suffering a paper cut than a gunshot wound.

Other analysts wonder if the department's rank and file will be ready to take their marching orders from a woman. Smith thinks so. True, there are a few "old school" deputies who don't think women should be cops, she says. But new recruits, Smith explains, grew up with women being cops and are simply used to the idea.

Some rank-and-file sheriff's deputies are sure to be irked by Smith's embracing of the jail guards' union, one of only two law-enforcement groups that have endorsed her so far.

The jail guards and the Deputy Sheriffs' Association are bitter enemies, a fight going back more than a decade, when the county removed the jails from the sheriff's control. (Last year the county restored the sheriff's authority over the jails following a court ruling.)

Smith proudly supports a bill in the state Legislature that would reclassify the county's jail guards as peace officers, giving them the same status as regular cops. In the past, DSA leaders have opposed this kind of legislation because jail guards don't go through the rigorous training process that peace officers do.

To voters, the fight over the jails and peace officer status may seem as remote and incomprehensible as a religious war in the Middle East, but among many deputies the battle is a matter of honor.

Smith doesn't seem worried about ticking off the DSA. The union was going to support its favorite son and former vice president Jose Salcido no matter what, she acknowledges. For now, she's focusing on the business of getting elected.

She knows it's going be a tough race, but she assures her opponents that she's a tough lady.

"At one point, someone working for one of the other candidates told someone, 'She can't stand the heat, she'll get out.' Well, I won't get out. I can stand the heat."

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From the March 26-April 1, 1998 issue of Metro.

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