If life went according to script, we could write our own endings.
But no one knows better than Chris Cunnie that the plot rarely follows suit. If so, we wouldn’t have a scenario where the old sheriff is about to tell an aspiring sheriff there’s actually a new sheriff in town.
Six weeks ago, Cunnie was certain he would remain in private life, content to stay away from the high-profile jobs that had occupied him most of the past three decades. Today, he is a candidate for San Francisco sheriff, a job that would have been his for the taking a year ago if fate had not intervened.
By his own admission, the 57-year-old city native is late to the race that was all but ceded to left-leaning Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. Yet now Cunnie has all the momentum — it would be hard to describe the level of support he enjoys in all circles based on his years of service in San Francisco.
I started getting calls and emails last week from judges, lawyers, police officers and others around town all but cheering the fact that Cunnie was going to run, as much for him as for the department. For Cunnie — who was a patrolman for 17 years, head of the Police Officers Association for eight, served as the chief investigator for the District Attorney’s Office and was picked as undersheriff last year — has more than just pedigree on his side.
When Cunnie’s youngest son, Patrick, died in a fall in Hawaii last year, the shock was so great that The City’s body politic almost didn’t know how to react. Cunnie quietly left as the Sheriff’s Department’s No. 2 man and dropped from sight to deal with his grief, and others moved to fill the gap in his absence.
Now he’s filling the void he created, even though he still can’t talk about its genesis.
“I can talk to a priest about it, but that’s about all,” he said. “I needed to spend time with my other sons, and they are fully supporting what I’m doing. But I can say that I’m grateful to all those people who gave me my space.”
He said there was a recent “shift” that compelled him to return, and now he’s in a sprint to grab remaining endorsements, raise money and put his name back in the mix with Mirkarimi and Deputy Sheriff Paul Miyamoto, who got some of the support that Cunnie would have received had he been in the race from the start.
But if street cred counts in politics, don’t expect a third-place finish. Cunnie has San Francisco all but tattooed on his forearms. He grew up in the Mission district, moved to Eureka Valley and went to Most Holy Redeemer and Riordan High School before he was part of the last lottery during the Vietnam War and got drafted into the Air Force.
After he was discharged, he worked as a firefighter in the Presidio, an occurrence sparked by family ties — his father and both his brothers were San Francisco firefighters. From there, he went to the Police Department, where he worked at the Mission, Northern and Central stations before becoming the head of the department’s powerful labor union.
“I know that some forces on the left will try to box me in as the big white cop, but it’s not going to work,” Cunnie told me.
That’s because in addition to all his other city jobs, he also has deep roots in San Francisco’s social justice and nonprofit network, having worked as the executive board vice president of Walden House, San Francisco’s acclaimed substance abuse treatment center.
Cunnie also worked on fixing the state’s prison system under former Gov. Gray Davis, a role that would serve him well as sheriff since the state’s problem is about to become the counties’ problem with the court-mandated release of inmates back to local jails.
“It’s not a conservative versus liberal issue,” Cunnie said. “But thankfully I’ve already worked with all those law enforcement groups.”
Nobody else in the race can make that claim, or compare track records. Until this week, the other candidates for sheriff didn’t know they were about to engage in a sprint.