The most destructive wildfires in California history forged a new leader in Sonoma County, raising the profile of a man who became sheriff on a promise that he would serve as a caretaker and later surrender his post.
Just two months into the job, Rob Giordano’s plain-spoken command presence has propelled him from virtual anonymity to the face of Sonoma County before a national audience.
It’s also set him apart from his predecessor who was criticized for remaining tight-lipped and less visible in tumultuous times.
Giordano’s upfront and forthright response to the disaster has ranged from multiple daily press briefings and untold interviews to an extraordinary verbal sparring match with the head of the federal immigration enforcement agency.
His approach to the job, especially amid the unprecedented wildfire crisis, has drawn accolades from elected officials, residents and rank and file deputies.
Now, many are urging the 49-year-old lawman to reconsider his pledge, made when he was appointed in August to succeed Steve Freitas, who retired a year and a half before the end of his second term in office. Giordano said at the time that he would not run in the 2018 election to decide the next sheriff.
The county’s senior supervisor, Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, is among those calling on Giordano to change his mind and run for the post to maintain continuity as the county embarks on a multiyear recovery.
“Post-fire, all bets are off because our world as a county has changed,” Zane said.
In an interview Friday, Giordano stuck to his word, saying the department has depth in leadership without him and that it’s not the time to discuss an election “while we’re still looking for bodies.”
But he acknowledged mounting pressure from supporters inside and outside the department who want him to run for the office.
“There are a lot of calls on our Facebook page, a lot of calls in public for him to run,” said Sgt. Spencer Crum, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman. Some deputies “are talking to him about it. It’s going to be a hard sell.”
Two high‑ranking department commanders — Capt. Mark Essick and Lt. Carlos Basurto — are seeking the job, as well as Santa Rosa Councilman Ernesto Olivares and retired Los Angeles Police Capt. John Mutz, marking the first contested election for sheriff in more than 25 years.
But in the hallways at headquarters, Giordano said, when offered a handshake or thanks, employees sometimes slip in a request that he join the field. A T-shirt created by a group of Santa Rosa friends and now on a sale as part of a fundraiser to benefit fire victims carries his visage above the slogan, “There’s only one Rob for the job.”
Even out of uniform, Giordano said people recognize him and he’s getting strong support for his role in the crisis.
“Hey, it’s the sheriff,” he said, recounting interactions that are now common, some followed by a request for a selfie. “I can’t go anywhere without handshakes, hugs, pictures, thanks,” he said.
The public attention and higher profile are part of his job in the current crisis, he said, and something he’s prepared for in the past several years as a ranking sheriff’s official.
But Giordano’s regular‑guy personality comes through in his comments and interactions with people, defying stiff officer stereotypes.
“When he talks to people he talks in a very simple way that people can understand,” said former county supervisor and retired Petaluma police sergeant Mike Kerns who came into the public eye as spokesman during the 1993 Polly Klaas kidnap and murder. “There’s not a lot of police speak there. His demeanor is one like just a normal guy in a difficult situation, doing a tough job but doing it well.”
This week, on the 11th day of the wildfire disaster, Giordano flashed another side of his leadership style. He took on the acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who issued a statement accusing the Sheriff’s Office of going easy on an arson suspect who is an undocumented immigrant. The statement took aim at the county’s so-called sanctuary policy, which limits cooperation with federal immigration agents, and suggested that policy exposed the community to “avoidable dangers.”
Giordano assailed the federal agency in his sharp public rebuttal, saying there was no indication the suspect, a homeless man, was linked in any way with the destructive wildfires. Jesus Fabian Gonzalez was arrested Sunday — seven days after the initial firestorm — in connection with a warming fire in an urban Sonoma Valley park.
ICE’s misleading statement, Giordano said Thursday, “stirs fear in some of our community members who already are exhausted and scared.”
“ICE attacked the Sheriff’s Office in the midst of the largest natural disaster this county has ever experienced. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, many people have lost their homes and 23 people have died from this firestorm.”
Giordano on Friday said “the last thing I wanted to do is take on a federal agency” but that he had no other option given the inflammatory war of words they started. “It was embarrassing to see our government do that,” he said.
Deputies respected his stand. “Guys like that about Rob. He is clearly taking a stand when he needs to take a stand. Whether you agree or disagree,” said Crum. “We like the strong leadership.”
Crum said employees in the nearly 700-member officer are rallying behind him: “He’s our true leader. It’s Rob’s time. He’s the face of this disaster.”
Giordano’s widespread support in the department stands in marked contrast to Freitas, the former sheriff, whose low-key leadership and sideline style in some critical moments frustrated deputies and other public officials during his bumpy seven years in office.
“Thank God we finally have a good sheriff,” said one ranking deputy, who asked that his name be withheld in assessing Freitas’ tenure. “We’re fortunate to have (Giordano’s) leadership ability. It’s something he does naturally. He doesn’t have to try. He truly cares.”
Deputies say they enjoy Giordano’s easygoing, approachable demeanor. About half the staff call him “Gio,” the sheriff said.
A fast talker, he laughs often and doesn’t mind when the joke is on him. He’s getting a kick out of a caption contest underway in the department briefing room featuring three of his portraits hung on a wall. Deputies set them up as a way to lighten the difficult and exhausting current situation.
He laughed out loud Friday reading several of the comments.
“That’s so funny,” he said.
For Zane, Giordano’s humanity has been one of his strengths in the disaster.
“I think he’s been incredibly grounded and yet compassionate,” she said. “I feel like his heart is showing through in spite of being so strong and grounded.”
He’s also shown he values clear communication and is willing to take constructive criticism, Zane said.
“I think continuity in leadership is important right now. If you put his name on the ballot with the other contenders right now, he would win.”